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An Excerpt from: First Love and Early Sorrows

By Daniel Bell

In 1932, at age thirteen, I joined the Young People's Socialist League, commonly known as the Yipsels, the youth division of the Socialist Party. I had grown up in the slums of New York. My mother had worked in a garment factory as long as I could remember; my father had died when I was an infant. All around me I saw the "Hoovervilles," the tin shacks near the docks of the East River where the unemployed lived in makeshift houses and rummaged through the garbage scows for food. Late at night I would go with a gang of other boys to the wholesale vegetable markets on the West Side, to swipe potatoes or to pick up bruised tomatoes in the street to bring to eat around the small fires we would make in the street with the broken boxes from the markets. I wanted to know, simply, why this had to be. It was inevitable that I would become a sociologist.

In The Ottendorfer branch of the New York library I would squat before the 3OO-nurt~ers section--the sociology books in the Dewey classification; system used at the time--thankful not only for the free library but for the open access to the stacks, which allowed me to browse at will, reading Albert Hunter on poverty or Herbert Spencer's Principles of Sociology. On The weekends, I would go to the Socialist Sunday school and study Fred Henderson Case for Socialism and Algernon Lee's The Essential Marx. Twice a week, in the evenings, I would go to the Rand School of Social Science on Fifteenth Street to attend a reading group

On Marx's Capital--the text, however, was an abridgement by a man named Borchardt (as I recall it), and had been edited by Max Eastman--and even to attend a course on "Dialectical Materialism." In that course I learned that ordinary materialism saw events in simple cause-and-effect terms, such as a stone falling from a ledge and hitting someone on the head, whereas dialectical materialism looked for the causes in the wider natural and social contexts, so that one should understand that the stone fell because there had been erosion of the soil and the soil was eroded because of the exploitation of the land. I was impressed. I was thirteen years old.

Like many of the active Yipsels at the time, I was tempted by the Communist movement. John Dos Passos at the time had remarked That joining the Socialist Party was like drinking 'near beer," the weak, almost nonalcoholic beer that was allowed at that time under Prohibition. (In later years, Dos Passos became a "reformed drunk," and sometimes acted like one.) The victory of Hitler, and the quick destruction of the powerful Social Democratic movement, gave one the sense that it was, indeed, the final conflict, and each must stand in his place. Many of my comrades did join the Young Cormunist League; a few, more sophisticated, became Trotskyites. I was torn between the two.

I spoke of this to some anarchist relatives, cousins of my mother, a Russian Jewish couple who lived in Mohegan Colony, a radical settlement 50 miles from New York, where I would spend a week or two in the summer after finishing my job in the garment district, where I used to push the heavy dress trucks through the streets and give out organizing leaflets for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. That I had become a Socialist they did not mind. That I should think of becoming a Communist or a Trotskyite horrified them. They took me to see Rudolf Rocker, the venerable Anarchist leader, an imposing and portly man with a large square head and imposing brush of gray hair, who then lived in the Colony. Rocker said simply that the Bolsheviks--I was struck at the time, and recall almost a half-century later, that he never called them Communists but Bolsheviks--had seized power in the name of the people, using Anarchist slogans such as land to the people; that the Soviets, the workers' and soldiers' councils, were spontaneous movements which proved the truth of the Anarchist judgments, but that the Bolsheviks had taken over and destroyed the Soviets. In parting, he gave me a number of Anarchist pamphlets, by Malatesta, by Kropotkin (on the Paris Commune), and in particular two pamphlets by Alexander Berkman, The Russian Tragedy and The Kronstadt Rebellion, pamphlets in English but "set up and printed for Der Syndikalist," Berlin 1922--pamphlets That I have before me as I write (one inscribed in a large round hand, "with fraternal greetings, A.B.. ")--and he suggested that I read Berkman's The Bolshevik Myth, the diary of his years in Russia, 1920-1922, a copy of which I soon found, and still have.

Every radical generation, it is said, has its Kronstadt. For some it was the Moscow Trials, for others the Nazi-Soviet Pact, for still others Hungary (The Raik Trial or 1956), Czechoslovakia (the defenestration of Masaryk in 1948 or the Prague Spring of 1968), the Gulag, Cambodia, Poland (and there will be more to come). My Kronstadt was Kronstadt.

Alexander Berkman was a Russian-born Anarchist who had served fourteen years in prison for shooting Henry Clay Frick, the manager of the Carnegie Steel works, during the bloody strike at Homestead in 1892, and had written the beautiful and eloquent book, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. In 1917, he and his companion, Emma Goldman, were arrested after the outbreak of the war, had served time in prison and, in 1919, were deported to Russia. Emma Goldman, in fact, had written a pamphlet, just before going to prison for two years, entitled The Truth About the Bolsheviki (sic!) in which she hailed the "libertarian plans" and the incorruptible integrity" of Lenin and Trotsky, "these great figures of the Revolution."

I wish it were possible to reprint in full the twelve pages of Berkman1s diary in Petrograd, from the end of February through mid-March 1921, for no bare summary can convey the immediacy, tension and drama as the sailors from the First and Second squadrons of the Baltic Fleet at Kronstadt, the men from the naval base at Petrograd who had catalyzed the October days in 1917, now appealed, following the spontaneous strikes of workers in Petrograd and Moscow, for the establishment of freedom of speech and press "for workers and peasants, for Anarchist and Left Socialist parties," for the liberation of "all political prisoners of Socialist parties," to "equalize The rations of all who work," etc.

For Trotsky, who was Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Soviet, This was mvatezh, or mutiny. He demanded That the sailors surrender or "I'll shoot you like<pheasants." The last three entries of Berkman's diaries tell of the. sorry end:

March 7. --Distant mumbling reaches my ears as I cross the Nevsky. It sounds again, stronger and nearer, as if rolling towards me. All at once I realize that artillery is being fired. It is 6 A.M. Kronstadt has been attacked! ....

March 17.--Kronstadt has fallen today.

Thousands of sailors and workers lie dead in its streets. Summary execution of prisoners and hostages continues.

March 18.7-The victors are celebrating the anniversary of the Commune of 1871. Trotsky and Zinoviev denounce Thiers and Gallifet for The slaughter of the Paris rebels.

I remained a Socialist and moved to the right-wing of the Party.

The emotional shock in reading about Kronstadt was reinforced by the factual details about the Communist cooperation with the Nazis in Berlin in 1932, the dreadful theory of "social fascism," in which The Comintern proclaimed that not the Nazis, but The Social Democrats, were the primary enemies of the connunists. Added to this were the appalling scenes in February 1934, when the Socialist Party held a huge meeting in Madison Square Garden in New York to demonstrate solidarity with the Austrian Socialists (who had. risen in armed conflict against the Heimwehr of Dollfus), only to have that meeting violently disrupted by the Communists, who were literally carrying out, in action, the theory of social fascism.

All this, and more, is history. But it is not the history of the "victors." And being the "victors" does not explain the recurrent appeal of Communism, long after The events of '1Kronstadt" were repeated again and again. The explanation--following the repeated disillusionments--has been given many times, and recently most vividly and convincingly by Jorge Semprun in The Autabicgraphy of Frederico Sanchez, the experiences of a Communist intellectual told in novelistic form. Semprun joined the Spanish Communist Party-in-exile in 1947. Had he not known of the shootmg of Anarchists in Barcelona, the violent attacks on the quasi-Trotskyist P.O.U.M., The murderous role of the French Communist leader Andre Marty in

ordering the execution of "oppositionists" within the International Brigade, the sinister role of the G.P.U.? No matter. "When all is said and done," Semprun writes about his alter ego, "the day-to-day aspects of politics have always bored you; politics has interested you only as risk and as total commitment." And when, in the autumn of 1952, Semprun read in L'Humanite that at the Slansky trial, Josef Frank, the assistant secretary-general of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, had confessed to having worked under Gestapo orders in Buchenwald, a "strange chill ran down his spine," for Frank had been his comrade in Buchenwald, living side by side with him for two years, and he knew "immediately...with that brutal physical certainty that tangible truths bring with them... that the accusation was false." Yet:

You said nothing, however. Nowhere did you proclaim Frank's innocence, or the falseness of the accusation brought against him. Had you proclaimed that innocence you would no doubt have ended up being expelled from the party. You decided to remain in the party. You preferred living the lie of the accusation against Frank within the party to living the truth of his innocence outside the party. Frank was sentenced to and met his death on the gallows.

While the Semprun memoir appeared in 1977, it was that story, already told by Koestler, Silone, Manes Sperber, and dozens of others a quarter-of-a century before, and my own living memory of Kronstadt, which made me so receptive. When I read it in 1947 to the final pages of Max Weber' 5 "Politics as a Vocation," (1918) the most poignant statement I know of the tensions of ethics and politics, and a stark description of the choices facing the individual who commits himself to politics.

I need not repeat Weber's discussion of the "ethic of responsibility" and the "ethic of ultimate ends," and the corruption inherent in each path if followed to its completion: the loss of principle through the constant compromise of "responsibility," and the zealotry of fanaticism when the ends are used to justify any morally abhorrent means. "One cannot prescribe to anyone," Weber wrote, "whether he should follow an ethic of absolute ends or an ethic of responsibility, or when the one and when the other." Weber understood, given the storms of his own life from 1910 to 1920, the ethical dilemmas and the ethical paradoxes of these choices. In his later years, when erotic impulses had broken through some deep repressions, Weber was drawn to the romantic currents of the time. Yet by upbringing, by social positions, and ultimately by temperament, he followed the ethic of responsibility. In the unspoken dialogue with Nietzsche that runs like a scarlet thread through his later work on religion and politics, Weber is saying: Yes, I, too, would like to go to the mountain top, like zarathustra, to stand on Pisgal, but if I go, who would there be "to mind the store," to take care of the humdrum, prosaic tasks of The mundane world?

As Weber knew, after the charismatic eruption there is The dull day after, with the daily round of tasks anew. "Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards," he wrote. He distrusted most the "sterile excitation" (a phrase from Georg Simmel that he repeated twice in the final pages) of the intellectuals in the "carnival" that is "decorated" with the name of "revolution." It is a "romanticism of the intellectually interesting" an "emptiness devoid of all feeling of objective responsibility." And he detested the "Weltanschauungs-politicians . . .. windbags who do not fully realize what they take upon themselves but who intoxicate themselves with romantic sensations."

In my early book, Marxian Socialism in the United States (1952), I adopted Weber's framework in an effort to understand radical politics. Bolshevik, as chiliast or eschatologist, I wrote, is neither in nor of world, and therefore takes no moral responsibility for the actions of bourgeois society; he follows an ethic of ultimate ends. The trade-union movement, having to deal with the day-to-day, slow boring of the hard boards, necessarily is in and of the world, and follows an ethic of responsibility. The Socialist (and Norman Thomas was for me the exemplar) was in, but not of the world, and was trapped by his commitment to moral purity and political compromise.

Like Weber--as much for reasons of my own temperament as for the "early sorrows" of politics--I opted for the ethic of responsibility. In his youth, Weber had struggled with the ideas of the early 19th-century American Unitarian minister and pacifist, William Ellery Channing, who had influenced Weber's mother's thinking. As he came to reject any ethical absolutisms, he wrote, in a youthful letter: "The matter does not appear to me to be so desperate if one does not ask too exclusively; 'Who is morally right and who is morally wrong?' But if one asks rather:

'Given the existing conflict, how can I solve it with the least internal and external damage for all concerned?'" And this is the view I espoused.

Such a standpoint risks opportunism, yet the principle of compromise in politics is primary because, as Weber insisted, "the decisive means for politics is violence," and those who resort to violence in the belief that such actions are justified have to be prepared as well to accept the consequences, "the diabolic forces lurking in all violence…"

My early sorrows, fortuitous as these were, had come with the awareness of "Kronstadt." That knowledge, combined with my temperament, made me a lifelong Menshevik--the chooser, almost always, of the lesser evil.

Having lived through--as an observer, with Cod's grace, rather than as a victim--the Stalinist purges and the Nazi frenzies, the Holocaust and the Gulag, the calculated decimation of an educated class in Cambodia and the gleeful butchery of different tribes in Uganda, all of which has made this The most dreadful century in human history, I long ago came to fear the masses in politics and those who would whip up the passions of the mob "in the name of the people," as was once done in the name of God.

I have always thought myself a socialist in economics, in that I have argued the principle that the resources of the community, as a first lien, need to be used to satisfy the "basic needs" of all (and the concept of "basic needs" is not that ambiguous it is that which is below the "discretionary income of the middle-class purse). And because I cherish deeply the cords of continuity that a tradition can provide, as against the syncretism which indiscriminately jumbles all cultures, I am a conservative in culture. And as for politics: if there is any lesson to be learned from this dreadful century, it is that ideological politics, politics a outrance--the politics shouted in the name of the people which, as Groucho Marx once observed, seeks power for those who shout "power to the people"--destroys the people and often those who shout as well. The ethic of responsibility, the politics of civility, the fear of the zealot and the fanatic--and of the moral man willing to sacrifice his morality in the egoistic delusion of total despair--are the maxims that have ruled my intellectual life.

And yet as Hegel 'has said, history teaches nothing to Those who think they can change "its" course, ("Examples of virtue elevate the soul, and are applicable to the moral instruction of children.") The corrupt romanticism of "Revolution"--the moral equivalent of war.'--exerts its constant and renewed fascination. Against the grossness of bourgeois life, as in Germany, or the sloth of bureaucratic despond, as in Italy, the new young terrorists, like the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany or the Red Brigades in Italy, resort to bombings and executions to tear down the "repressive State.". And undoubtedly, when their letters are published and their diaries are read, we shall also have their anguished reflections about murder and amorality. The language is now hollow and stilted, a self-indulgence of the adolescent soul. Seventy years ago, among the young

Russian terrorists, each act was undertaken in fear and trembling, for the youthful idealist recognized that he was committing murder and more often than not sacrificed himself suicidally in the act. Today, in the widening gyre of terrorism, the individual sense has become anesthetized, and terror has become a catechism of the Calibans.

I am too weary to listen, too angry to hear. Still in my mind are the injunctions of Max Weber: "He who seeks the salvation of the soul, of his own and of others, should not seek it along the avenue of politics." It was this quotation with which I ended my monograph in 1952 on Marxian Socialism in the United States. Since the death of socialism is the most tragic--and unacknowledged~~4¾~tCJof the twentieth century, it is an injunction to be heeded now more than ever.

 

* Semprun did his penance in writing the screen-play of Artur London's L'Aveu (The confession), the story of the Prague trials, which Costas-Garvas made into a film. An earlier work, La Guerre est finie. dealt with his underground forays into Spain. Mr. Semprun was expelled from the Spanish Communist Party in 1964, together with Fernando Claudin, for "revisionist heresies.


 
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