Recalling Max Eastman

I often grab an old, forgotten book to take with me on overseas trips, and for my current trip I grabbed Max Eastman’s Reflections on the Failure of Socialism. Eastman is one of those mostly forgotten figures from the first half of the 20th century who left Communism and became a conservative of a kind. Eastman had been, for a time, the editor of The Masses, and later The Liberator—both Communist publications. Eastman helped raise the funds to send John Reed to Russia, the trip that resulted in Reed’s famous Ten Days That Shook the World.

Eastman spent nearly a year in the Soviet Union around 1923, and it planted the seeds of his complete defection that didn’t occur for another decade. He came home from the trip still more or less a committed believer. But one interesting early passage bears note today.

Only one thing seemed to me calamitously bad. That was the bigotry and Byzantine scholasticism which had grown up around the sacred scriptures of Marxism. Hegel, Marx, Engels, Plekhanov, Lenin—these men’s books contained for the Bolsheviks the last word of human knowledge. They were not science, they were revelation. Nothing remained for living thinkers to do but to apply them, gloss them, dispute about them, expiate on them, find in them the germs of every new thought or thing that came into the world. Instead of liberating the mind of man, the Bolshevik Revolution locked it into a state’s prison tighter than ever before. No flight of thought was conceivable, no poetic promenade even, no sneak through the doors or peep out of a window in this pre-Darwinian dungeon called Dialectic Materialism. No one in the western world has any idea of the degree to which Soviet minds are closed and sealed tight against any idea but the premises and conclusions of this antique system of wishful thinking. So far as concerns the advance of human understanding, the Soviet Union is a gigantic roadblock, armed, fortified, and defended by indoctrinated automatons made out of flesh, blood, and brains in the robot-factories they call schools.

Sounds just like an American university! (Especially the very last sentence.)

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