People who read these reflections may wonder how I arrived at the understanding that socialism has failed. I am describing the whole experience in another book, but here a brief glance at the intellectual road I traveled may be helpful. It has not been so winding a road as some may think.
I stated the aim of my political activities in two articles in the Masses in 1916: not to reform men, or even primarily reform the world, but to “make all men as free to live and realize the world as it is possible for them to be.” In this, the years have brought no change.
In those same articles I dismissed Marx’s philosophic system, his idea that socialism is historically necessary, as “a rationalization of his wish,” and declared: “We must alter and remodel what he wrote, and make of it and of what else our recent science offers, a doctrine that shall clearly have the nature of hypothesis.”
It was juvenile of me to imagine that humanity as a whole, especially by splitting itself into two halves, could turn a whole period of history into a scientific experiment.The hypothesis, as I conceived it, was that by intensifying the working class struggle, and pursuing it to victory either at the polls or in a revolution, we could “socialize the means of production,” and thus extend democracy from politics into economics. That, I thought, would give every man a chance to build a life in his own chosen way. It would “liberate the proletariat and therewith all society,” to use a Marxian formula that I liked to quote.
To me, in short, socialism was not a philosophy of history, or of life—much less a religion—but a large-scale social-scientific experiment. I came to it by a process of thought rather than feeling. I had no personal envies or resentments; I was happily circumstanced and wisely brought up; I thought of myself as free. I wanted to extend that freedom to all men; I wanted to see a society without distinctions of caste, class, race, money-power—without exploitation, without the “wage system.” I knew this could not be brought about by preaching; I had observed the effects of preaching. I was captivated by the idea that it might be brought about by a self-interested struggle on the part of those most deprived under the present system. Thus the class struggle as a method was the very center of my socialist belief. The articles quoted above were titled “Towards Liberty, The Method of Progress,” and they were meant to be the first chapters of a book.
It was juvenile of me to imagine that humanity as a whole, especially by splitting itself into two halves, could turn a whole period of history into a scientific experiment. Science requires a scientist, or at least an engineer, and the engineer, in this case, would have to have dictatorial power. But that thought, if it entered my mind, I managed to elude. I worked out a socialism of my own which enabled me to take an independent position on many concrete questions: feminism, population control, peace, and war. Both the doctrine of class morals and the propaganda of class hate I rejected. I could think freely on such questions because my socialism was not a mystical cure-all, but merely a plan which I considered practical for solving the one specific problem of making freedom more general and democracy more democratic.
Although I was a member of the Socialist Party, the magazines I edited from 1912 to 1922, the Masses and the Liberator, were arrantly independent, and I was pretty regularly flayed alive by the party officials for some heresy or other. It was usually a revolutionary heresy. I was decidedly at the red end of the party spectrum. Still, it wasn’t always the reformists as against the revolutionists that I attacked. As often it was the dogmatism of both. Naturally, in my attempt to make Marxism over into an experimental science, I waged a continual war on the bigotry, the cant, the know-it-allism, of the party priesthood. This I think distinguished the policy of the old Masses and the Liberator as much as their militant insistence on the class struggle. I was always close friends with the I.W.W., and on good terms even with the anarchists, although I lectured them on their childish innocence of the concept of method. I was not afraid, either, of the word liberal with a small l, although I had my own definition of it. “A liberal mind,” I wrote in the Masses for September 1917, “is a mind that is able to imagine itself believing anything. It is the only mind that is capable of judging beliefs, or that can hold strongly without bigotry to a belief of its own.”
When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in October 1917, shocking the whole world of progressive and even moderate socialist opinion, I backed them to the limit in the Liberator. I raised the money to send John Reed to Russia and published his articles that grew into the famous book, Ten Days That Shook the World. I was about the only “red” still out of jail in those violent days, and my magazine was for a time the sole source of unbewildered information about what was happening in Russia. Its circulation reached a peak of sixty thousand.
When Lenin’s pamphlet, called in English “The Soviets at Work,” was published—the same that won Whittaker Chambers to communism—I was enraptured. The monumental practicality, the resolute factualness, of Lenin’s mind, combined as almost never before with a glowing regard for poor and oppressed people, anxiety over their freedom, devotion to the idea of their entrance into power, swept me off my feet. I still think it one of the noblest—and now saddest—of political documents. It convinced me that Lenin’s mind was experimental. In every line he seemed to realize my ideal of a scientific revolutionist. I greeted him in two articles in the Liberator as “a Statesman of a New Order,” and dedicated myself with no doctrinal reservations to the defense of his principles of action and his Soviet regime.
Attacking those who accused him of dogmatism, I exclaimed: “I have never seen a sign in any speech or writing of Lenin that he regarded the Marxian theory as anything more than a scientific hypothesis in process of verification.”
There were few translations from Russian in those days. I had to go to Russia and learn the language before I found out that Lenin was a true believer in the Marxian mystique. He was, to be sure, more high-handed with its postulates than any other believer—much more so than Trotsky. He had the trick, as Karl Radek once remarked to me, of “deciding a question on the basis of the facts and then fixing it up with the theory afterward.” He also had Hegel’s notion of “dialectic logic” to help him with this trick. I did not know enough then to distinguish between the limited freedom dispensed to the faithful by this ingenious notion, and the complete freedom of a mind dealing only with facts, purposes,