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The God That Failed (1950)

Views: 721 Book Review from the June-July 1950 issue of The Western Socialist The God That Failed edited by Richard Crossman [Harper & Brother] Six (presumably) wise …

by World Socialist Party US



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Book Review from the June-July 1950 issue of The Western Socialist

The God That Failed edited by Richard Crossman [Harper & Brother]

Six (presumably) wise men, tending their intellects, looked to the East, and saw a “new star in Bethlehem.” Four of these savants actually journeyed to the Soviet Bethlehem, but instead of a new God, they found but another Pope. The remaining two gazed from afar, until after some meditation, they concluded the star to be a piece of cardboard, wrapped about with tinfoil.

Thus is The God That Failed, a collection of the sagas of six intellectuals who journeyed into “Communism,” and returned, a little wiser for their experiences. Three of these (Arthur Koestler, Richard Wright, and Ignazio Silone) were actually members of the German, American, and Italian Communist Parties, respectively, whereas the other three (Andre Gide, Louis Fischer, and Stephen Spender) were sympathizers and lauders of the Russian system.

The editor, Richard Crossman, Labor member of the British Parliament, terms the first group “The Initiates,” the second “Worshippers from Afar.” The title of this book originated from the play Oedipe by Gide, in which the author “is forced to the realization that man without God is doomed to defeat and despair, unless he substitutes some other idea for God. Oedipus at the end rejects God for man, and Gide looked toward Communism.” So writes Enid Starkie who edited Gide’s comments. The God That Failed, indeed! After reading this sextet of confessional breast-beating, this reviewer believes that a more proper title would have been, The Understanding That Failed. In reaching out for their God, their concept of “communism,” [1] these intellectuals showed very little understanding of exactly what kind of revolution occurred in Russia in November 1917, and exactly what type of society was instituted. Later on, when their star dimmed, blinked, and then went out, they began to grasp a little more of the truth about Soviet Russia. Especially was this so in the case of Arthur Koestler who, at the conclusion of his essay, mentioned that in another of his books (The Yogi and the Commissar) he tried to expose the “fallacy of the unshaken foundation that a state-capitalist economy (Russia) must of necessity lead to a socialist regime.”

The Pull to the East

Our assertion that these individuals showed very little understanding of the nature of communism and the Soviet economy can be underlined by examining the reasons they present for either joining the Communist Party or becoming fellow travelers and sympathizers.

Arthur Koestler — a writer, as are the other five intellectuals.— entered the Communist Party in Germany because he believed that the Stalinists had the answer to unemployment, insecurity and war. Ignazio Silone became a member of the Italian Socialist Party for basically the same reasons, and although he does not state so, he allegedly switched to the Italian Communist Party out of the same motivation.

One of the most outstanding Negro writers today, Richard Wright, attached himself to the John Reed Club in Chicago, first because of a desire to further his writing. Later he signed an application card in the Communist Party of the United States when he was told that he would have to do so in order to remain Secretary of the Club.

As for the worshippers from afar, with Andre Gide it was, as the title states, the search for a new God.

“It was not through Marx, but through the Gospels, that Gide had reached communism,” writes Enid Starkie. Gide himself put it in this wise, “My conversion is like a faith.”

Louis Fischer, the noted journalist and author, and Stephen Spender, the English poet, likewise viewed the Soviet Union as the “white hope of humanity,” in contrast to the demoralized aspect represented by the Western capitalist powers.

Despair in the West

Richard Crossman, the editor, perhaps sums it all up the most satisfactorily in his foreword to the book. He emphasizes that it was the failure of Western capitalism which accounted for men of such intellectual capacities hitching their wagons to the Red Star. In general, this is a correct evaluation. At the same time does this not also prove our previous claim, that fundamentally it was lack of understanding on the part of these writers that brought them to their sorry pass?

Whether these men viewed Soviet Russia as a new faith, a Utopia, or as an answer to capitalism’s inability to solve the problems of the working class, not one of them at any time displayed an awareness of the nature of socialism, and of Soviet society. Such an awareness would have spared them the snares and later disillusionments of Russian capitalism. A scientific socialist understanding would have taught them that the material conditions were not suitable for socialism in Russia in 1917, that what the Bolsheviks did, was merely to institute capitalism under control of the state because of the inability of any strong and cohesive capitalist class to organize private capitalism.

This understanding, further, would have convinced these intellectuals that the means employed by the Bolsheviks — assassinations, character and physical, slanders, deceit, and outright lying — are not inseparable from the ends sought, but exposed the real objective of the various Communist Parties, to establish a dictatorship over the proletariat, not of it, another class society, not a classless society.

Retrospect Is Easy

Let us not be too severe on these individuals. Our understanding permits us to see how in the past several decades the Soviet Union and the Stalinists could have been the drawing cards they were. In the World Socialist Party today and in the other companion parties of socialism are many who were likewise sucked into the Soviet circle. In the absence of large scientific socialist parties to spread the knowledge of a clear concept of socialism, Russian pseudo-communism could and did make tremendous gains among workers and intellectuals seeking a way out of capitalist wars and depressions. In the lack of the development of scientific socialist ideas among the workers which would have brought socialism closer to reality, Bolshevism represented a “we-are-doing-something-about-it” movement, and drew followers unto it on this emotional basis.

What did it all add up to? The God That Fails helps furnish part of the answer. Defection and disenchantment, revulsion against a cause once held dear. Unacquainted with socialism, these six intellectuals could not have had the proper understanding to avoid the traps set by the Russian bear (a case of the hunted becoming the hunter!)

This can be overlooked. One learns by experience. One’s political views reflect one’s conception of the material world at any one time. But after these six men had gone through the hell and welter of the Russian maze, it is not too much for us to expect that they should have profited thereby.

But they haven’t except, in a negative sense, that they learned enough to be opposed to Stalinism (the term erroneously used by many to describe modern Russian state Capitalism) and all it represents. On the positive side, however, all of them, in one form or another, have returned to the support of capitalism, from which, unknowingly, they never departed when they affiliated themselves to the Russian Church. [2] Now they look upon “Western democracy” without understanding its economic base, any more than they understood the economic base of “Soviet democracy.” In spite of Louis Fischer’s theory of the “Double Rejector” — “rejecting the evils of dictatorship and of democracy,” that it is possible to steer a clear path between the rocks of Stalinism and the reefs of capitalism, events have proved there is no middle ground.

Looking at history opportunistically and from an immediate viewpoint, a middle ground may seem a likely attraction. The socialist, however, knows that in the end one must choose between capitalism and socialism — the latter, not as propagandized by Soviet state capitalism, but. as we conceive it, as the ownership of the means of production by the entire population, and democratically controlled by it.

It is a comfortable feeling between wars and depressions to rationalize that one is combatting the evils of Russian capitalism, at the same time not condoning the sins of capitalism elsewhere. But this is a luxury which perhaps only intellectuals have the mental bankroll to afford. When the drums roll and the swords are unsheathed for the third World War; when the factory gates swing shut for “lack of work,” and millions pound the pavements looking for non-existing jobs — where, then, the middle ground intellectuals?

Where they were when they joined “Stalinism,” where they were after deserting it — in search of a new “star in the East,” a new faith, a new God. Perhaps we shall be treated to a second, and even third edition of The God That Failed, with only a change in the time and the characters.

The Book Has Merits

The book has tremendous merits, in spite of our criticism of the protagonists. Through the eyes of Arthur Koestler the reader is taken through the turbulent pre-Hitlerian days in Germany and shown how the German Communist Party was used in the interests of the Soviet ruling class, not in the interests of the German workers. Later on, in his trip to the Soviet Union, Koestler reveals how foreign writers are paid royalties, not for their books (some of which are not even published), but for their support and flattery of Stalinism.

Ignazio Silone exposes how he was asked by the Executive Committee of the Communist International in Moscow to condemn a document by Trotsky without ever having read it.

For the reader in the United States, the essay by Richard Wright perhaps furnishes the most sustained interest, since it deals with the experiences of the author in the Communist Party in Chicago.

Andre Gide, who has written extensively of his trips to the Soviet Union, gives the reader a good insight into conditions in the Soviet Union. Although Gide did not see state capitalism in Russia, he was astute enough to point out that “the disappearance of capitalism has not brought freedom to the Soviet workers . . . It is true of course that they are no longer exploited by shareholding capitalists, but nevertheless they are exploited, and in so devious, subtle and twisted a manner that they do not know whom to blame . . .”

Louis Fischer furnishes more insight into the stifled situation within Russia, and explains how the Spanish Civil War, and the new Russian Constitution in 1936 gave Stalinism a new lease on life. Stephen Spender also deals with the Spanish Civil War, and has an interesting theory why distinguished scientists like Haldane, Bernal and Joliot-Curie become supporters of movements like Stalinism.

Conclusion to Confusion

Perhaps we cannot better conclude this review than by reciting the circumstances under which Stephen Spender joined the British Communist Party for a few weeks during the winter of 1936-7. After writing Forward from Liberalism, he was invited by Harry Pollitt, head of the British CP, to visit him. Pollit objected to Spender’s criticism of the Moscow Trials in his book. At the same time he suggested that since Spender was in agreement with the Party on the Spanish Civil War, he should join the Party. Spender was to write an article in the Daily Worker criticizing the Stalinists, at the same time he joined the Party! “I accepted this offer,” Spender relates. “I received a Party card, and my article appeared. The article infuriated the Communists in Scotland and the North of England, and my membership in the Party was quickly forgotten.”

Was it the God, or was it understanding, that failed in the case of these six men who spent a “Lost Weekend in Utopia?”

Socialists are not looking for a star, a God, but for their fellow workers to join them in a movement which is understood by all, controlled by all, and in the interests of all — Socialism.

Karl Frederick


[1] The Russian Revolution and the appearance of the Communist Parties and the Communist International have caused those who believe in common ownership under democratic control to be all the more careful to call themselves “socialists” in order not to be identified with the state capitalist regime in Russia and the dictatorial methods and objectives of the Stalinists everywhere. However, in terms of the nature of societies, no difference exists between communism and socialism, both being defined as in the previous sentence.

[2] This statement applies as well to Ignazio Silone. Although at the end of his essay he reaffirms his belief in socialism, his concept of the latter is that of Social Democracy, according to latest reports. Social Democracy not only supports capitalism, even strengthens it by reforms, but also sees state capitalism as “socialism.” It is not enough to say one is a “socialist” to be one. One must advocate the revolutionary abolition of capitalism and refuse to work for its reform, in order to wear the label of “socialist.”

Tags: American Communist Party, Book Review, Classic Archive, Fellow Travellers, Karl Frederick, Stalinism, The Western Socialist

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