[NOTE: This is another installment in my series on literary leftists.]
You may know Will and Ariel Durant as the authors of a series of books on world history called The Story of Civilization, which I read one long-ago summer when I was bored and found myself in my in-laws’ house, which had the entire set. If you know something about their lives, you may also know that they met and married under rather suspect circumstances, to say the least, (the Durants, not my in-laws) although they had a very long and apparently happy marriage (the Durants and my in-laws).
Will Durant was a political changer, or perhaps you might say a half-changer or a partial-changer. In the Durant’s dual autobiography, entitled (appropriately enough) A Dual Autobiography, Will writes about his change experience. Although he remained a liberal to the end of his days, he had started out as a rabid socialist. Here’s the reason he gives for his change, which occurred when he was in his late 20s to early 30s and a student at Columbia:
I think it was my studies at Columbia University, as well as my slowly rising income, that diluted the wild radicalism of my 1914 letter to the New York Call into the mild liberalism of my pro-Wilson stand in 1916. The biology courses did most to sober me—though they merely expanded what I might have learned from Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1905. They forced me to recognize the social and political implications of the inescapable, omnipresent struggle for existence. Now I saw that struggle not merely in plants and animals, but as well in the competition of man against man, of woman against woman, of class against class, of state against state, of religion against religion, of idea against idea; competition is the law of life. In this view the socialist call for a warless and classless society seemed doomed by the processes of nature and the resultant nature of man.
Moreover, the study of psychology indicated that variety and inequality are rooted in the needs and method of evolution as a survival of advantageous differences in the struggle for existence. Almost every organism differs from every other; two peas are never quite alike. All men are unequal, even at birth, in physical qualities and mental capacities; and congenital superiorities combine with environmental differences in developing acquired inequalities. In every society the majority of abilities lies in a minority of men; so, in every society some concentration of wealth is natural, and grows with the complexity of the economy and the unequal value, to the community, of diverse talents in its individuals. In light of these ABC’s, it became clear to my budding brain that the communist ideal of equal reward and a classless society is impossible, and that socialism would have to reconcile itself to a considerable inequality of possessions and power…
Durant rejected communism because it did not hold up to the light of scientific observation of human behavior. But he could not go the whole way towards conservatism, because abandoning the dream was too much for him. He compromised and adopted the “hope that the proximate aims of socialism might be realized sooner, and with less turmoil, if socialists should carry on their campaigns within the Democratic Party.”
In 1932 Will and his wife Ariel (whose Jewish emigrant parents had come from Russia, and whose original name was Ida Kaufman) visited Russia. They still hadn’t given up their hopes for the leftist cause and Russia itself, whose revolution Durant had greeted with joy and optimism, despite his hard-learned lessons at Columbia. But once again, reality won out:
We became increasingly uncomfortable during our twenty-four days in Moscow. The inhabitants were glum in the vise of the Man of Steel; voices were hushed in fear of omnipresent spies; all publications were censored, elections were fixed, every air wave proclaimed the virtues of the state…
So we, who had come to Russia singing hymns to the great experiment, were glad to leave the scene of shattered hopes and broken men…Miserable and happy, we fled from paradise.
Durant went on to write a book about his experience, and he has something interesting to say about that, too [emphasis mine]:
I had written…several articles about our trip. My literary agent, the genial and enterprising George Bye, tried to dispose of these to Harper’s Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly; both of these rejected them on the ground that they would alienate too many readers; for Russia, in our Depression years, seemed to millions of Americans the last best hope of men…The articles [I wrote] frankly called the Soviet system a dictatorship over the proletariat, and described without glamour or prejudice—but perhaps with insufficient knowledge and understanding—the achievements and failures of Communist Russia in economics, morals, manners, religion, and government. I was warned, by a well-informed editor at Simon and Schuster, that the printing of these discourses in book form would further alienate the literary fraternity, and especially the reviewers, who were sympathetic with Russia…
I will conclude with an anecdote Durant tells about his encounter with the NY Times writer Walter Duranty (after whom PJ’s Duranty Prize is named) during that same 1932 trip:
Walter Duranty was of no help; when I asked him why he was sending such optimistic reports to the New York Times about conditions in Russia, when they seemed so discouraging, he answered gaily, “You don’t take these matters seriously, do you?” He was handsome and knew Russian; half the girls in the hotel were wooing him, and he had no reason for pessimism.
Durant is way too kind to Duranty, but he still manages to convey the idea of the reporter as a self-aggrandizing sociopath.
What was it in Durant that, despite his socialism, forced him to confront the truth about his philosophy, at least every now and then when it was staring him in the face? I think it was a dose of humility, a respect for reality, an interest in the course of history, and a difficulty in closing his eyes to unpleasant facts. Not everyone had those characteristics; some were a great deal more inclined to fool themselves.
Duranty, though, seems to have been a different case. More than that final “y” differentiated him from Durant. From what I can tell, Duranty was never fooling himself; he knew he was writing lies. He wanted to fool others. And if what Will Durant wrote about the press in the 30s was correct—and I have absolutely no reason to doubt it—many of them wanted to be fooled.