June 19th, 2012

Literary leftists: Will Durant

[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.

26 Responses to “Literary leftists: Will Durant”

  1. Mac Says:

    Neo, I guess you’re aware that The New Criterion and PJ Media have instituted a Duranty prize for mendacious journalism?

  2. neo-neocon Says:

    Mac: yes, I’ve linked to it in the post.

  3. George Pal Says:

    Certainly those who would be fooled did so not for an occasion to play the fool but to play for time.

    The difference between Durant and Duranty is the difference between desire and faith. Durant, and others like him, had a desire for a system that would deliver what it promised; Duranty, and others like him, a faith in an inevitable determinism of the sort prevalent among all Gnostic cults.

    The disposition of the Gnostic, of which Duranty may himself been a weak example, but nevertheless, a strong advocate (useful idiot), is such that he would: accept all the disordered, chaotic, contradictory and conflicting precepts of Communism; suspend reason; and rely solely on the preponderant influence of an obdurate ‘faith’ in Communism’s radical exceptionalism and inevitability.

    Why one should be so, and another the other, is a mystery; or perhaps yet another proof that some people can make peace with reality, and others would rather make a deal with the devil in the certainty he will keep his end of the bargain. But that just leads to another question doesn’t it? In an endless struggle best to stay aware and keep the powder dry.

  4. Artfldgr Says:

    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.

    it was doomed in that the Warless and classless society was all about class, and with trotskys philosophy of permanent war, was never warless.

    the only society that actually was most warless was the US and it was already a classless society.

    so in hegelian fashion, they are eradicating what they want to make what they have….

    if they do it to themselves, they have no one to vent on – except the scapegoats (And moriarty)

    sadder still was that he could see there is no such thing as equality in any form in reality
    so its obtaining is not possible… EVER… even if we are all clones… a clone will be made before the clone that comes later.

    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

    but did it? did it reconcile? or REORGANIZE and press on in perpetual war?

    he could not go the whole way towards conservatism, because abandoning the dream was too much for him.

    actually not true… the problem is as i stated before… he questions, but then only quesitons the part he is focusing on
    the other parts which that part should BRING into question, he leans on like a crutch.

    ie. was his definitino of conservativism the thing that hayek and those wrote, or the things he learned while loving communism?

    ie. was his definition of conservativms from the ideology that he was rejecting but not realizing had to be rejected in other areas too?

  5. Artfldgr Says:

    the printing of these discourses in book form would further alienate the literary fraternity, and especially the reviewers, who were sympathetic with Russia…

    and all that resulted in the erasing of the horrors and stories and methods and so on
    ie. communization of america without them realizing it, becasue they didnt put costumes on first to openly declare to idiots that they are under attack

    we are still waiting for declarations, costumes, and all that to come BEFORE never realizing they come AFTER…
    before, its a civil war and us against us… not costumes, parades, etc

    this is why the left rails against hitler. it was ok to hate hitler, the literary people following russia, loved to do that
    but its why the jewish deaths in the soviet union we forgot are forgotten for the most part
    or that stalin took over hitlers camps and used them…

    but alas… the logic there was that you cant just kill jews like hitler
    so, like searches in america, its ok to kill jews if you throw a bunch of others in the pile so your not racist

    he still manages to convey the idea of the reporter as a self-aggrandizing sociopath.

    EXACTLY…. the designations of true believer, and so on… are for variations lower down
    the ones complicit and so after knowing, are sociopaths who see a huge benefit for them and their behaviors and so on

    the oppression that is ending is the oppression of the sociopathic predatory underclass…
    (who narcissistically believe that they are supermen for not having the feelings of other human beings.
    havent you wonded how they can admire a man who killed 50 million people with malice and lots of forethought?

    for the same reason our culture loves socopaths on tv

    they are free beyond normal freedom…
    they are free to enjoy forbidden fruit like pedophilism, murder, torture, and mass actions that kill millions
    they have the guts that the typical sociopath who looks down and has to deal with everyone doesnt have.

    this is why, THAT CLASS never converts… the other side has nothing to offer them
    but the dirty side? has all manner of goodies for them as rewards…

    this is why lenin and the left tend to release prisoners from jail and normalize sociopathy
    (intents over outcomes which negates your protection)

    ANYONE remember what the term USED to be called or used for that?
    Moral Imbicilty

    but since they worked to rehabilitate such and move that people naturally some way, are not to be prosecuted
    (which ultimatelyh would lead to serial killers being left alone as they are naturally what they are, while the lumpen are programmed)

    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?

    THAT is not the hard question…

    following something in ignorance of the reeality and belief of the ad copy propaganda is easy…
    its maintaining that belief when you see the cracks and your reality is completely forged in tersm of that lie

    but what got him into socialism in the first place… was the same desire that got him out
    ie. wanting to do good for their fellow man, an almost universal desire of non sociopathic people

    what most miss is the problem is not in the person, but in the ideology using biology against the person!
    if your a sociopath and have no guilt, you know that guilt is a great way to control others…
    intents is a good way to act wihtout punishment…

    and of course the biggest reason:
    ALL parasites rely on the others biology to be functional

    so when you ask these questions, you are ignoring the reasons..

    why does one catch malaria?
    because a parasite subversivly gets around your immune system
    why does one join such a group?
    because a parasite subversivly gets around your immune system

    wising up is not a change in you… its the waking up of your immune system

    Durant was in it to help man and find purpose…
    Duranty was in it to live the ME of ME and get what he wanted and could care less of the outcome after he died!!!

  6. Occam's Beard Says:

    Almost every organism differs from every other

    Leftist encounters and grasps the notion of biological diversity. Wow. And they think they’re the smart ones.

    Welcome to high school biology, pal!

  7. Mac Says:

    Oh, yeah, I see. Read too hastily, obviously.

  8. Ray Says:

    Malcolm Muggeridge also went to the USSR and reported frrom there. He later wrote that “Durante was the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in 50 years of journalism.”

  9. Parker Says:

    “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.”

    Gee whiz does that sound familiar, except today its not strictly about communism-socialism, its about the smartest, coolest president whose very words cause tingles.

  10. kolnai Says:

    neo –

    Did you happen to read Tim Tzouliadis’s “The Forsaken”? It’s probably the best history book I’ve read in the past, say, five years, and Duranty has a bit part in the story.

    I bring it up, though, because Tzouliadis also told the story of the first US ambassador to the USSR (1933-36), William C. Bullitt. Practically no one escapes Tzouliadis’s barely concealed moral outrage in “The Forsaken,” and the only figure who seems to get some sympathy is Bullitt, a changer if there ever was one.

    Here’s a good summary of his career:


    Short version:

    An early peacenik who worked with William Jennings Bryan, admired by Walter Lippmann, assistant Secretary of State in the Wilson administration, sympathizer with the Bolsheviks and advocate of US recognition of the Soviet regime – as the article above says, and Tzouliadis amply demonstrates, “Bullitt was among he first Americans and Westerners to be hoodwinked by Soviet leaders.”

    He practically drooled over Lenin and his Party.

    Even more, his second wife was the widow of Mr. “Reds,” Jack Reed.

    He then worked closely with FDR in his first term, badly misjudged the strength of Hitler’s Nazi movement, and at last got FDR to agree to recognize the Soviet regime in 1933.

    When he got to Russia that year, he initially played kissy-face with Stalin and basked in the perks the regime extended to foreign diplomats and correspondents (like Duranty). But ere long, blips began to occur. He and his daughter got arrested “for improperly crossing the street.” He realized early in 1935 that the Soviets were going to sign a pact with the Nazis. He could not avert his eyes from the Terror, the Kirov assassination, the breaking of the terms of the recognition agreement…

    And he was off the reservation.

    The scales completely fell from his eyes. He did not just moderate his opinion; he did a complete 180. By 1936, he was writing,

    “We should not cherish for a moment the illusion that it is possible to establish really friendly relations with the Soviet government or with any communist party or communist individuals.”

    Though I haven’t read it yet, I heard Paul Kengor talked a bit about Bullitt in “Dupes.”

    Anyway, I’ve been fascinated by him ever since learning his story, but I’ve not found the time to go into any depth.

  11. Occam's Beard Says:

    I have time for Bullitt; he was a fan of the Reds before the true horror of communism/ socialism was fully apparent, and once it became apparent, he recanted. Fair enough.

    He stands in contrast with the leftist idiots of today, who have no such excuse.

  12. Militant Bibliophile Says:

    I’ve got Durant’s series on an infinite loop on my iPod, and he remains one of my favorite historians. I knew he was at the very least left of center, but was unaware of the extent of his political views. I was able to surmise, purely from his writing, that his views changed over the years, as you can actually see the change from book one out to book eleven, but just how much I never knew. I think socialism took the place of his childhood Catholicism (for which he retained a fondness, by his own admission) and he was reluctant to abandon yet another religion and admit that he had been wrong all those years. Regardless, he remains remarkably impartial politically, and it is to him I credit my utter intolerance for advocacy historiography. His works transcend his politics, something I wish more people (ESPECIALLY historians) would work towards.

  13. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Love Durant’s writing.
    According to his references on Duranty, one difference between the two is that Duranty was getting paid for his work.
    Says something about being practical and about the institutions which would pay for his work, and not Durant’s.
    Hard to say the institutions were being fooled by Duranty. Even that they loved being fooled. I expect they figured it was their duty as superior types to lie the proles into prole paradise, a few scrambled eggs short of the manifest, but still arriving.

  14. Ymarsakar Says:

    Occam; their excuse is that they are getting rich under Obama’s rule and to hell with the rest of the world.

  15. Gringo Says:

    Occam’s Beard:

    I have time for Bullitt; he was a fan of the Reds before the true horror of communism/ socialism was fully apparent, and once it became apparent, he recanted. Fair enough.

    Yesterday you commented on Juliet Poynz, whom the Reds killed in 1937 when she tried to leave the Party.

    Sorry, I can’t muster much – make that “any” – sympathy for someone who was killed by the evil she’d spent her life trying to inflict on others. In my book, she’s on the Ernst Roehm plan.

    Instead of saying something snarky or sarcastic, I will simply say that I am having trouble reconciling these two remarks.

  16. Occam's Beard Says:

    Gringo, the reconciliation depends on three points: degree of the transgression, repudiation of the transgression, and efforts at redemption.

    Bullitt was an admirer of Communism, but AFAIK did not actively work to impose it on us. He was entitled to his opinions, but when confronted with substantive evidence contradicting them, recanted his earlier views, and then worked against Communism. So his sin was venial, and he made adequate amends after repudiating it.

    Poyntz was IIRC a founder of the CPUSA, and a KGB agent, and consequently she most certainly did actively work to impose it on us. So her sin was mortal, and she did not live long enough either to recant her views or to make amends. It is not clear that she was murdered because she was going to defect; that is pure speculation at this juncture. She may have been murdered simply because of the possibility that she might defect, especially after her lover was himself murdered. Let’s face it, Stalin had lots of committed hard-core loyal Communists killed for less, so the mere fact that she was murdered, without more, does not necessarily imply that she was about to repudiate Communism, any more than Roehm’s murder implies he was about to repudiate Nazism.

    Thus in my book Poyntz died an unrepentant Communist operative, speculation to the contrary being just that. Her balance sheet is damning. Maybe she repented at the last minute. Let’s hope so.

    Sorry to go all Catholic here. Childhood catechism, and all that.

  17. waltj Says:

    Reading between the lines of Durant’s restrained mid-20th Century socially-acceptable prose, it sounds like Duranty’s main reason for writing fawing lies about the Soviets was that it got him a fair amount of nookie. Such are the morals of the famous “journalist”, who helped sell an unmitigated horror to an all too trusting world.

    Durant, on the other hand, seemed to have kept his eyes and his mind open regarding communism, and threw the b.s. flag when its lies and contradictions became apparent. No, he didn’t burn his bridges to the Left, but he did acknowledge its massive problems. That counts for something in my book.

  18. n.n Says:

    He recognized individual dignity. That coercing an equal outcome is antithetical to preserve that dignity. He even recognized principles of evolution, a subset of the natural (or God’s) order. That a society, and humanity, really, cannot embrace (i.e. normalize) behaviors which engender evolutionary dysfunction and hope to remain viable.

    As for the “dream” of socialism or another equalizing system, let’s recall that dreams of instant gratification (i.e. material, physical, ego) are a principle cause of progressive corruption of individuals, society, and humanity. The resources of this world, whether natural or human (i.e. individual), are finitely accessible and strictly finite, respectively.

    Not everyone can enjoy a beachfront property in Hawaii.

    The ideal system… The ideal compromise, may well be American conservatism, which is a philosophy effectively described as classical liberalism tempered by Christian principles.

    We do not need and cannot afford a race to the bottom.

  19. Beverly Says:

    Emma Goldman had a similar change of heart, after visiting her beloved-from-afar Soviet Union in 1923 and coming to hate the Bolshies:


    Note that this was before Stalin: Lenin wasn’t exactly a walk on the beach, either.

  20. n.n Says:

    Our system… A system which embraces optimal liberty as its premise requires individuals capable of self-moderating behavior. This is increasingly not true as individuals dream of instant gratification; whether it is physical relationships without accountability, stature without or false merit, or material compensation through redistributive and retributive change is immaterial. All of these dreams are corruptive. In effect, we are electing to exchange liberty for submission with benefits.

  21. Richard Saunders Says:

    Someone, maybe Artful, should dig out the Writer’s Guild magazine “Written By”‘s tribute to the Hollywood Ten from a few years ago. The astounding thing was that the “heroes” admitted they were Communists, some of them underground Party members, many of whom had joined during the ’50s, long after Stalin’s crimes were well-known.

    IIRC, and I may be wrong, not one of them said, “Boy did we make a mistake!” Nor was there one letter to the Guild suggesting that maybe they had been a little too harsh to Elia Kazan.

  22. ErisGuy Says:

    I suppose Bullitt can’t be blamed. for deluding himself for years on the nature of socialism–oh, wait, yes, he can. He had to wait until Stalin until he realized socialism was evil?!? I would have thought a cursory examination of the writings of Marx and Lenin would have exposed socialism’s nature.

    Bullitt is fortunate he never acted (except for praise, influence peddling & etc.) on his willful blindness to the nature of his beliefs. He is one more reason why socialism afflicts the world today. He wished for it, he wanted it, he willed it, he aided it, he abetted it, and when it arrived, went “oops.” Not good enough.*

    I have this problem with Sakharov. I’m pleased he became an opponent of Communism, but his participation in the Soviet bomb project–supplying nuclear weapons to Stalin–outweighs any good he might have done.

    The evils of Bullitt, Poymz, and Sakharov live on. Their good, if any, not so much.

    *If he’d carried out a secret campaign of assassination against communist sympathizers and spies (he must have known some) in the State Department, then I might offer a crumb of forgiveness.

  23. Artfldgr Says:

    Prior to their hard won freedom, this was not possible. After we lose what we have, it nothing will be possible again.

    I guess now we are putting the parts together, i must do my proper duty. and put out the welcome mats to those who are seeing the puzzle come together before them.

    that they are a product of history whether they know it or not… and the history tells us where we are going and whence we came…

    Welcome To The Club everyone!!!

    Ella – Welcome To The Club
    Ella is a latvian pop-star & socialite.

    now you know
    The war is not over…

    Valters & Kaža – The war is not over

    The war is not over, everyone knows it
    It’s just a reason to make us believe
    That someone is loser, someone is winner
    To make us believe that’s the way it should be
    But I don’t wanna believe

    This fairy tail has gone to far…

    Welcome to the game..
    The purpose of your life is now…
    Batteries are NOT included…


    [i needed something to lighten things up… ]

  24. Gringo Says:

    Occam’s Beard:

    It is not clear that she was murdered because she was going to defect; that is pure speculation at this juncture. ..Stalin had lots of committed hard-core loyal Communists killed for less, so the mere fact that she was murdered, without more, does not necessarily imply that she was about to repudiate Communism

    I see your point. There does not appear to be enough evidence to judge if she was a Rohm/Bukharin/Zinoviev/loyal “victim” or if she was going to go the Chambers/defection route.

    There were many who got their knickers in a twist because in the late 1930s Stalin had killed many members of the Communist hierarchy. How could he kill loyal Communists? Many of these people blithly ignored the millions- shall we say tens of millions – of non-Communist Russians that Lenin and Stalin had previously killed.

    I read Martin Amis’s book Koba the Dread about 6 months before Neo posted on it. While numerous volumes have already been written on Koba, Amis’s book brings up some interesting points.

    Amis reported that Pipes suggested that during the ~1918-1922 Civil War, the secret police had killed more people than had been killed in battle. Not to mention the War Communism-caused famines, partially alleviated by Herbert-Hoover led aid from the West.

    Amis speculated that a reason for Koba’s killing off most the Communist hierarchy was the results of a secret ballot on the composition of the Central Committee at the Seventeenth Party Congress Party Congress in 1934- a.k.a. Congress of Victors, Congress of Vultures, Congress of Vampires. [The latter two were Amis’s suggestions.]

    A not insignificant proportion of the ~ 1200 ballots- variously reported as between 120 and 300[by Kruschchev]- had crossed out Stalin’s name. Amis suggests that Stalin killed off most of the Communist hierarchy to kill off potential “traitors” to Stalin and to strike fear into the minds of surviving potential “traitors.”

    A further “benefit” to Stalin was that by killing off the hierarchy he killed off institutional memory, resulting in fewer people to oppose his rewriting of Party history. For example- while Stalin was an insignificant player in the Civil War, Stalin rewrote history to show his being a significant participant in the Civil War. With fewer people alive to contradict this, the lie had a better chance of being accepted.

    While I didn’t have the direct exposure to American Communists that Neo did in her childhood- she told of an uncle- I found out later that someone I knew slightly from my childhood was a Red diaper baby. I didn’t know it when I was growing up, but when this acquaintance became a published author, the truth came out that many of his relativeS of his were Commies- one of whom was called to testify. All of this was hidden when I was a child. But as I said, I only knew him slightly.

  25. Artfldgr Says:

    I declined to adopt the view that what was imperatively necessary for the Nation could not be done by the President unless he could find some specific authorization to do it. My belief was that it was not only his right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the Nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws. Under this interpretation of executive power I did and caused to be done many things not previously done by the President and the heads of the departments. I did not usurp power, but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power. In other words, I acted for the public welfare, I acted for the common well-being of all our people, whenever and in whatever manner was necessary, unless prevented by direct constitutional or legislative prohibition.

    from a literary leftists biography…

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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