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Grumblers in the USSR

The following is from a book review by Dewey published in the New Republic on the 15th of April 1931, reprinted in Later Works, vol. 6, page 263.  There are three books reviewed, by misters Eddy, Counts, and White.  Each author had described the Soviet system from personal experience.  Dewey titles his review:  “Surpassing America.”

“[Mr. Eddy] emphasizes the many contradictions of the system as it now exists:  the union of high humanitarian aims with ruthlessness of means employed in their realization;  of the goal of complete emancipation of individuals with drastic suppression of individuals when they come into conflict with the ‘cause’;  of doctrinaire rigidity with flexible opportunistic adaptation to changing conditions;  of the abolition of individual competition with adoption of ‘socialized’ competition, and of the theoretical condemnation of money with its free use in the way of prizes.  Of course, the Bolsheviks explain all these contradictions on the basis of the ‘transitional’ state of present economy. ...  There has never been on earth a government that was so much all things to all men, while keeping a single end in view.

“... the two things that impressed me most in Mr. Eddy’s account are the agricultural revolution and the cooperative development. ...  The rural character of Russian life, and the obstinately individualistic bias of the Russian peasant, have united to make it necessary for a government which rests upon the industrialized proletariat to attempt the most thoroughgoing alteration known to history of the habits, the technique, the morale, the general culture, of workers of the land.  The success or failure of the communistic attempt depends upon whether or not the agricultural revolution goes through. ...

“Mr. Eddy closes with an indictment of Communist policy on three counts:  first, the dictatorship (in dealing with which he shows how it automatically extends itself through the details of life);  second, the zeal for world revolution; and third, the bigotry of attitude toward religion.  His general point of view is that of the liberal, reforming socialist.  His general conclusion is that while the capitalist world moves gradually toward socialism, Russia should move toward Western democracy.

“Mr. Count’s book is on the whole more sympathetic with the Russian point of view.  His account, for example, of the indoctrination practiced in Russia is the most powerful exposition of its grounds that I have seen anywhere.  He does not fear the indefinite perpetuation of the dictatorship when conditions have changed, relying on the constant control exercised by minor groups and organizations upon Moscow.  He gives a fuller account of the ways in which this pressure is exerted than I have seen elsewhere.  But it is good Marxian doctrine that those who have power never surrender it save when compelled by violent revolution.  The outstanding trait and merit of his book is its concentration on the theme of planning.  Russia is a challenge to America, not because of this or that characteristic, but because we have no social machinery for controlling the technological machinery to which we have committed our fortunes, while Russia assumes that ‘social phenomena are capable of being controlled so that the development of human society can be made subject to the human will’  a striking commentary on the frequently expressed notion that Marxianism is fatalistic in its subjection of human ideas and effort to necessary economic laws of history.

“... I know of nothing more exciting than Dr. Counts’s report of the way in which schools and all agencies of education, theatre, cinema, clubs, trade-union activities, organizations of children and youth, etc., are made to contribute to the plan and its execution.  I would call especial attention to the statement of the definite responsibilities assumed by the Pioneers, as an illustration of the effective thoroughness with which all forces are made to contribute.  And it is only one example among very many cases related by Dr. Counts.

“... Mr. Counts’s book is an unsurpassed statement of the whole, and not merely of the economic, challenge of Russia to America.  It will be a long, long time, I think, before it is a serious industrial challenge.  In some respects, it is already a searching spiritual challenge, as it is an economic challenge to coordinate and to plan.

“Mr. White’s book differs from both of the others.  We find in it a vivid picture of the impact of the Communist theory and practice upon the lives of individuals. ...  Conversations with housewife, professor, student, merchant, engineer, worker, priest, typist, tutor, soldier, village doctor, shoemaker, miller, etc., are related in ways which give, as far as they go, a cross section of Russian life as it is affected by the working out of the Communist way of life. ...  [The reports] include all shades, the disaffected and ‘deprived,’ the would-be neutral, the one who vacillates, the sympathizer who is not a party member, the party member.  Only the farmer is lacking  perhaps because there are so many of him.  ...

“... [Mr. White’s book] makes vivid the great sacrifices entailed in industrializing Russia.  Naturally the personal reaction varies with the status of the individual.  The sacrifice entailed makes clearer the account given by Mr. Counts of the multiple and intense campaign of the rulers to keep up the morale of the people.  If the first two books complement each other, that of Mr. White supplements them both.  I think Mr. White would be among the first, however, to admit that the universal habit of grumbling is especially chronic among Russians, and that this fact must be borne in mind in assessing the final worth of the individual stories.”

Thus ends Dewey’s book review of 1931.  The agricultural revolution was a success.  The individualistic farmers were eliminated, by the millions, by design, during the next two years.

Dewey’s refers to the Pioneers, which may puzzle some readers.  Outside of school, the Soviet government required all children to join Soviet youth organizations.  For 8 to 10 year-olds there was the Octobrists (as in October 1917), for 10 to 16 the Pioneers, and for 19 to 23 the Komsomol (aka Young Communist League).  Children were taught outdoor exercise, “clean living,” and how to be good socialist/communists.  Dewey mentions all three groups in a book review the next year, as here without criticism and more than a hint of praise.  These groups, evidently, illustrate “effective thoroughness” and “flexible opportunistic adaptation to changing conditions.”