Summer Rerun: Lewis vs Haldane

(Seems appropriate for a rerun, giving the present growth of positive feelings about Socialism in this country)

J B S Haldane was an eminent British scientist (population genetics) and a Marxist. C S Lewis was…well, you probably already know who C S Lewis was.

In 1946, Haldane published an article critiquing a series of novels by Lewis known as the Ransom Trilogy, and particularly the last book of the series, That Hideous Strength. Lewis responded in a letter which remained unpublished for many of years. All this may sound ancient and estoteric, but I believe the Lewis/Haldane controversy is very relevant to our current political and philosophical landscape.

To briefly summarize That Hideous Strength, which is the only book of the trilogy that I’ve read: Mark, a young sociologist, is hired by a government agency called NICE–the National Institute for Coordinated Experimentation–having as its stated mission the application of science to social problems. (Unbelievably, today the real-life British agency which establishes rationing policies for healthcare is also called NICE.) In the novel, NICE turns out to be a conspiracy devoted to very diabolical purposes, as Mark gradually discovers. It also turns out that the main reason NICE wanted to hire Mark is to get control of his wife, Jane (maiden name: Tudor) who has clairvoyant powers. The NICE officials want to use Jane’s abilities to get in touch with the magician Merlin and to effect a junction between modern scientific power and the ancient powers of magic, thereby bringing about the enslavement of mankind and worse. Jane, though, becomes involved with a group which represents the polar opposite of NICE, led by a philology professor named Ransom, who is clearly intended as a Christ-figure. The conflict between NICE and the Ransom group will determine the future of humanity.

A brilliantly written and thought-provoking book, which I highly recommend, even if, like me, you’re not generally a fan of fantasy novels.  I reviewed it here.

With context established, here are some of the highlights of the Lewis/Haldane controversy:

1)Money and Power. In his article, Haldane attacks Lewis for the latter’s refusal to absolutely condemn usury, and celebrates the fact that “Mammon has been cleared off a sixth of our planet’s surface”…clearly referring to the Soviet Union. Here’s part of Lewis’s response:

The difference between us is that the Professor sees the ‘World’ purely in terms of those threats and those allurements which depend on
money. I do not. The most ‘worldly’ society I have ever lived in is
that of schoolboys: most worldly in the cruelty and arrogance of
the strong, the toadyism and mutual treachery of the weak, and
the unqualified snobbery of both. Nothing was so base that most
members of the school proletariat would not do it, or suffer it, to
win the favour of the school aristocracy: hardly any injustice too
bad for the aristocracy to practise. But the class system did not in
the least depend on the amount of pocket money. Who needs to
care about money if most of the things he wants will be offered by
cringing servility and the remainder can be taken by force? This
lesson has remained with me all my life. That is one of the reasons
why I cannot share Professor Haldane’s exaltation at the banishment
of Mammon from ‘a sixth of our planet’s surface’. I have
already lived in a world from which Mammon was banished: it
was the most wicked and miserable I have yet known. If
Mammon were the only devil, it would be another matter. But
where Mammon vacates the throne, how if Moloch takes his
place? As Aristotle said, ‘Men do not become tyrants in order to
keep warm’. All men, of course, desire pleasure and safety. But all
men also desire power and all men desire the mere sense of being ‘in
the know’ or the ‘inner ring’, of not being ‘outsiders’: a passion
insufficiently studied and the chief theme of my story. When the
state of society is such that money is the passport to all these
prizes, then of course money will be the prime temptation. But
when the passport changes, the desires will remain.


2)Centralized scientific planning. Haldane: “Mr. Lewis’s idea is clear enough. The application of science to human affairs can only lead to hell.” While denying that this is a correct statement of his views, Lewis goes on to say:

Every tyrant must begin by claiming to have what his victims respect and to give what they want. The majority in most modern countries respect science and want to be planned. And, therefore, almost by definition, if any man or group wishes to enslave us it will of course describe itself as ‘scientific planned democracy’.


My fears of such a tyranny will seem to the Professor either
insincere or pusillanimous. For him the danger is all in the
opposite direction, in the chaotic selfishness of individualism. I
must try to explain why I fear more the disciplined cruelty of
some ideological oligarchy. The Professor has his own explanation of
this; he thinks I am unconsciously motivated by the fact that I
‘stand to lose by social change’. And indeed it would be hard for
me to welcome a change which might well consign me to a
concentration camp. I might add that it would be likewise easy for
the Professor to welcome a change which might place him in the
highest rank of an omnicompetent oligarchy. That is why the
motive game is so uninteresting. Each side can go on playing _ad
nauseam_, but when all the mud has been flung every man’s views
still remain to be considered on their merits.

3)Democracy and conservatism. Haldane accuses Lewis of being anti-democracy, which accusation Lewis denies. He expands on his views:

I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of
men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over
others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more
dangerous I think it both to the rulers and to the subjects. Hence
Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a
tyrant a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s
cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point be sated;
and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly
repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of
power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely
because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience
and his better impulses appear to him as temptations. And since
Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches to
Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic, held by the rulers
with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the
inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents,
it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly
high, super-personal sanction to all the very ordinary human
passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be
actuated. In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt. A political
programme can never in reality be more than probably right. We
never know all the facts about the present and we can only guess
the future. To attach to a party programme -— whose highest real
claim is to reasonable prudence -— the sort of assent which we
should reserve for demonstrable theorems, is a kind of

This false certainty comes out in Professor Haldanes article.
He simply cannot believe that a man could really be in doubt
about usury. I have no objection to his thinking me wrong. What
shocks me is his instantaneous assumption that the question is so
simple that there could be no real hesitation about it. It is
breaking Aristotle’s canon—to demand in every enquiry that
degree of certainty which the subject matter allows. And not **on
your life** to pretend that you see further than you do.

Being a democrat, I am opposed to all very drastic and
sudden changes of society (in whatever direction) because they
never in fact take place except by a particular technique. That
technique involves the seizure of power by a small, highly
disciplined group of people; the terror and the secret police
follow, it would seem, automatically. I do not think any group
good enough to have such power. They are men of like passions
with ourselves. The secrecy and discipline of their organisation
will have already inflamed in them that passion for the inner ring
which I think at least as corrupting as avarice; and their high
ideological pretensions will have lent all their passions the
dangerous prestige of the Cause. Hence, in whatever direction the
change is made, it is for me damned by its _modus operandi_. The
worst of all public dangers is the committee of public safety. The
character in _That Hideous Strength_ whom the Professor never
mentions is Miss Hardcastle, the chief of the secret police. She is
the common factor in all revolutions; and, as she says, you won’t
get anyone to do her job well unless they get some kick out of it.

Professor Haldane’s article can be found here.

Lewis’s response appears in the essay collection Of Other Worlds;, edited by Walter Hooper; excerpts are on-line at this site. There’s also a Wikipedia article on Haldane.

21 thoughts on “Summer Rerun: Lewis vs Haldane”

  1. “Mammon has been cleared off a sixth of our planet’s surface”

    “Mammon” perhaps was, but things Mammon could buy – e.g., dachas and Zils for the apparatchiks – were not. It’s just that money did not change hands; the result was the same.

  2. In his article, Haldane … celebrates the fact that “Mammon has been cleared off a sixth of our planet’s surface”…clearly referring to the Soviet Union.

    That is a claim that didn’t wear very well,did it?
    The Wikipedia article on J. B. S. Haldane quotes a link which quotes Haldane on Stalin.

    He continued to admire Joseph Stalin, describing him in 1962 as “a very great man who did a very good job”.[18]

    Courtesy of Greg Cochran,whose West Hunter blog and book 10,000 Year Explosion is known to some here.
    Here is a more complete quote from Cochran:

    Also in 1948, Lysenko managed to have Mendelian genetics banned in the Soviet Union, something which even Haldane could not swallow (although he had managed to tolerate the death by starvation in the Gulag of his colleague Vavilov). This led him to leave the Communist Party in 1950 and stop his endless blathering about dialectical materialism – although as late as 1962, he still thought of Stalin as “a very great man who did a very good job.” You know, like Tamerlane.

    Speaking of fellow travelers from the 1930s, I am currently reading 2 books by Eugene Lyons. Lyons was a fellow traveler who put his beliefs in Communism to the test when he spent 6 years as a reporter in the Soviet Union. He wrote Assignment in Utopia about his life before and during his time in the Soviet Union. As a measure of his disillusionment with Communism that resulted, he wrote The Red Decade The Stalinist Penetration of America,which came out around the time that Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. That didn’t help his sales.

    Lyons discusses the Roosevelt Administration as being infiltrated by Popular Front types, well before Alger Hiss became a household word.

    No one in his senses would suspect the prim and high-minded Madam Perkins, Secretary of Labor, of being a communist. The idea is ludicrous. Yet her awed respect for “liberal” opinion, her intimidated meekness as against the beetle-browed Lewis, her confused eagerness to do the Left thing, made her putty in Stalinist hands. They stocked her department with “dependable” comrades. The Dies Committee was able to list fifty-six League for Peace and Democracy transmission-belters in Madam Perkins’ bailiwick, many of them communist activists. The Harry Bridges crowd, as we have seen, boasted of its access to Labor Department files, and its influence sufficed to turn a deportation hearing into a farcical whitewash.

    Madam Secretary’s confidential filing clerk was a Woman who later married the notorious and self-confessed Soviet spy, Nick Dozenberg, recently released from Federal prison. One of the party’s most useful “decorations” in the national capital, Merle D. Vincent, became Director of Hearings in the department’s Wage and Hour Division. His high and delicate office did not deter him from sharing the platform with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and other ranking communist leaders—even after the Administration of which he was part was being brutally lambasted by the communists. One of Harry Bridges’ close friends, Dr. Louis Bloch, was appointed to the United State Maritime Labor Board, a position in which he had to make important decisions involving not only Bridges’ unions but also Joe Curran’s National Maritime Union. And those are only peak-points; the penetration became more extensive the deeper one went into the lower strata of the bureaucracy. A newspaperman has told how, during his visit to the Department of Interior building, he heard the elevator boy in cynical jest call the floors “Second Soviet,” “Third Soviet,” etc. On being questioned, the boy explained that there were so many communists on certain floors that the help around the building referred to them as Soviets.

    Lyons points out the infatuation that many interlekchuls of the 1930s had with the Soviet Union by referring to a number of Open Letters, which they would sign in support of the Motherland. Lyons details one Open Letter against the Dewey Commission’s investigation of the show trials in Moscow. One Open Letter howler condemning Nazi Germany came out about the same time that the Soviet Union and Germany signed the Non-Aggression Pact. Not very good timing, there.

  3. re Mammon, power is always transmutable into wealth: either monetary wealth, or direct material wealth in the form of goods and services. It doesn’t speak well for Haldane that he failed to grasp this point, but it speaks even less-well for his ideological descendents that…with several additional decades of historical knowledge of how these things work out in practice…they still don’t grasp it.

  4. Lyons points out the infatuation that many interlekchuls of the 1930s had with the Soviet Union

    I’d say that the number has not diminished, only increased–except that today’s intellectuals are perpetually in love with whatever the next communist regime will be.

  5. @David Foster

    re Mammon, power is always transmutable into wealth: either monetary wealth, or direct material wealth in the form of goods and services. It doesn’t speak well for Haldane that he failed to grasp this point.

    Yep. Still less does it speak well for Haldane that he failed to grasp that money is NOT wealth; money, like power, can be used to acquire wealth. Wealth is stuff that you can actually use.

    If you’re stranded on a desert island, a suitcase full of currency is worthless. A Swiss Army knife is invaluable.

  6. I’ll probably have to take your word that the books aren’t as silly as Haldane makes them sound. I expect that it will remain on the so very long list of books I haven’t read.

    The Mammon line is of a piece with Haldane’s other political pronouncements; exhibiting credulous idiocy at best and callous, malignant idiocy at worst. It’s also almost a throwaway last line.

    I find the notion that human affairs should be, let alone are, guided by some superior being useless as a practical matter. I’ll just continue to muddle along using my judgement as best I can. Lewis had an infinitely better grasp of the real world and was both brilliant and humane as a writer. I may have just used up my quota of angels for the time being.

    Modern disputants can only dream of bringing 1% of the wit and erudition to modern arguments that either of these two had.

  7. MCS…”Modern disputants can only dream of bringing 1% of the wit and erudition to modern arguments that either of these two had.”

    Yep. An awfully high % of modern political communication consists of insulting the other side as irredeemable idiots, satanically evil people, etc. An interesting approach to marketing.

    Of course, Haldane does *some* of this when he asserts that Lewis is “unconsciously motivated by the fact that (he) stands to lose by social change’.” But there’s a lot more of this sort of thing, expressed a lot more coarsely, these days.

  8. Of course, Haldane does *some* of this when he asserts that Lewis is “unconsciously motivated by the fact that (he) stands to lose by social change’.”

    It’s interesting to note that both Marxists and adherents of Marxism Lite reflexively follow in their imam’s malodorous footsteps and attribute all behavior to economic motives. Someone who questions, e.g., the transubstantiation of carbon dioxide into a killer pollutant that is warming the planet is automatically accused of being in the pay of Big Oil, as if there were no other conceivable reason for such skepticism.

    Given this predilection, I’ve often wondered how leftists account for, e.g., kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers.

    For my part, I find the evidence for anthropogenic global warming/ climate change/ whatever they call it next to be risibly inadequate, but I’ve yet to receive my check from Big Oil, and I’m growing increasingly impatient about it, too.

  9. So I did, didn’t I?

    I’m afraid the difference is down to a larger, more varied vocabulary and far greater depth of ready classical allusion than to greater good will. I doubt many of us are up to finding the deadly insults in a dispute between two English academics from before about 1980.

    One thing that Haldane probably failed to grasp was that, come the revolution, he’d be up against the wall as soon as, if not sooner, than Lewis. I wonder how many “good” Bolsheviks are lying in graves with a bullet to the back of the head, convinced to the last second that they were vital to the revolution.

  10. Jay! don’t spend that check. It’s not coming. The big oil companies have both sides of the bet covered and own the bookie. They’ll make money no matter what happens, no need to bribe us plebs.

  11. MCS: You and the “players” are just a foolish optimists. In both 1930s Germany and in the Bolshevik Utopia, there were many who planned to be “winners” no matter which way the dice came up. Some actually survived in Germany after the big players “palmed” the dice and forced an outcome that wasn’t in the game book. So few that it is a silly risk.

    No one is indispensible and even a “tiny” cut of the pie will generate savage retribution as the pie gets smaller, as it must. The question is only “when”. There will be no escape from that end. Trotsky made it all the way to Mexico before he got the Stalin-Memorial ice pick “award”. Even a mutilated Socialist States of America will be able to force a “hit” anywhere in the world for the foreseeable future, probably by some smart “player” who figures to win, whatever the dice show. And since the “Progs” believe that no person is better than any other, there will be a line for the position after the original occupant has “retired”, as well as for his/her/xer replacement. Rather like Chicago with even fewer rules.

  12. I’ve re read That Hideous Strength many times and the first two books of the series occasionally. In some theoretical Afterlife Salon where I could have endless conversation and pints I’d put “Jack” Lewis at the head of the table. (sorry Mark Twain, JRR Tolkein, Bede, etc).

    The first two books feel more dated. The science is thinly cobbled together to set the stage for philosophical ruminations. But where Lewis shines, and where he has no equal, are in set piece conversations. Ransom and Weston standing in judgement before Oyarsa, the final combat with the UnMan in Perelandra.

    We lack voices in these latter and lesser days who have Lewis’ combination of eloquence, courage and deeply cutting wit.


  13. I wonder how many “good” Bolsheviks are lying in graves with a bullet to the back of the head, convinced to the last second that they were vital to the revolution.

    MCS, I’m reading Robert Conquest’s “The Great Purge” just now, which chronicles exactly that phenomenon.

    I share Conquest’s ambivalence toward the victims; they had no problem when terror was used against others, and said nary a peep about the Holodomor.

    In the irony department, Trotsky wrote “The Defense of Terrorism” as necessary and defensible against opponents of the revolution. This was, of course, before he had his date with Ramon Mercader and his ice axe.

  14. Haldane was one of many Communist scientists who believed Marx’s nonsense about a science of history and Lenin’s nonsense about The Party being able to lead the Masses to utopian scientific socialism.

    The consequence of their devotion to Communism has been the disgrace of science. Scientists and science are held in less and less repute because fake scientists—Marxists, psychologists, sociologists—keep asserting they are like physicists and engineers.

    After the (still ongoing) murder of tens of millions of people for failing to conform to their idiotic (well, except to Haldane, Oppenheimer,….) theories is the worst damage socialism has done to the human race.

    And the Haldanic scientist did not die with Haldane. Most of the PhD physicists I have know have ranged from Bernie Bro Leftists to outright Communists who couldn’t wait until people like them (e.g., Stalin, Castro, Maduro) ruled. Reality—real history—means nothing to these people because they have contempt for non-Marxist, non-scientific history.

    The Enlightened murdered the Enlightenment.

  15. “Person of Interest” explores the tension between societies in which the principle value is that of the flawed human soul armed with a culture shaped by that value and one governed by a rational, omniscient state that promises order, rationalizing the cost of ridding itself of “bad code” – e.g., intense curiosity, disruptive questions – to lead (they assume) to an ordered world.

    We’ve been lucky that our culture instructs sensible, balanced people who loved the reason of the enlightenment but also our human spirit – who always remembered Ben Franklin and the wry wisdom his lifetime experience gave him: It’s good that many is a reasonable animal because then he can find reasons to do whatever he wants to do. But each generation seems less grounded by such common sense. (So, of course, communists – and how many “thinkers” – ignore the power implicit in money and argue they don’t carry about gaining money. With no sense of irony, our politicians collect both money & power and ignore their duties.

  16. I have been a Lewis fanatic in my day and always encourage others to read him or about him.

    One unusual book about him is by Peter Kreeft, a Calvinist who converted to Catholicism and has been a member of the philosophy dept at Boston College for decades: “Between Heaven and Hell.” JFK, CS Lewis, and Aldous Huxley died withing a few hours of each other on November 22, 1963. Kreeft imagines a conversation among them immediately after death, before each goes to whatever eternal fate is in store. They explore ideas, shift alliances with each other depending on topic, and try to answer the great questions of life and death. It is a short book, about 150 pages in paperback, but well worth it.

    Haldane, BTW, was later revealed as an actual Soviet spy, not merely a sympathiser.

  17. Not that you should have read or heard about, but it was a series for about 5 years on television – I didn’t see it until in syndication. Few watch as much television as I do – which I’ll admit is generally a time waster. Though things like the Hoover interviews kind of redeem the experience some. But mostly I veg out and I have a sense from the quality and quantity of your postings that isn’t something you do – your mind remains active and thoughtful.

    POS did deal (in between sieges with pretty large body counts done by pretty serious weapons – the hero with a darkened soul working his way towards redemption is taken down by I think an ICBM – little else makes him pause) with both our fears of an omniscient AI that sees & hears almost all (not especially crazy given China’s ambitions) and judges human actions, ruthlessly paring down the population to reach what appears to be the bad AI’s desire for a static, soulless and docile strong state (it destroys those with curiosity, for instance). I wouldn’t say the debates are profound, but redemption, free will, personal responsibility. are treated with some seriousness. So is our responsibility for the next generation and others in general. And the belief of the powerful (uncontrolled) AI that it is wiser because more rational than man reminds us of the belief, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that such an enforcer would make for a happy society. Of course it also reminds us of the worship of Reason by the French revolutionists (and some of our contemporaries). One character’s growth (redemption?) comes from a slow realization that men may make mistakes (may be “bad code”) but that simplifies the complex nature of man and is not an appropriate understanding of human nature or of the “good life.”

  18. yes, it was a very well constructed series, tackling some of the issues in the avengers films, with a bit more subtlety, Samaritan is zolas algorithm, amoral utterly ruthless, the machine is pragmatic, always helpful,

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