Lewis vs Haldane: Another Look

In 1946, there was an interesting interchange between JBS Haldane and CS Lewis. I’ve excerpted it here in the past…given the current revived interest in socialism and even Marxism these days, this argument is very relevant and I thought the interchange would be worth republishing and rediscussing.

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.

Haldane’s published a critique which was directed at the 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  Lewis responded in a letter which remained unpublished for many years.

To briefly summarize That Hideous Strength: 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 the 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 omni-competent 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 intoxication.

This false certainty comes out in Professor Haldane’s 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.

Previous version of this post here.

The Demons Return

This is Barclay’s Bank, St Johns Wood, after overnight attack by ‘Pro-Palestine’ activists:


“Palestine Action” has openly bragged about this and other attacks on Barclays.

Don’t think this is only a UK thing.  In Washington, DC, ‘protestors’ vandalized monuments on Federal property and threw bottles at a park ranger.

Link with video

It gets worse.  At UCLA, the Chabad Rabbi was assaulted live on camera, with students calling him a “Zionist pedophile Rabbi,” telling him to “go back to Poland.”  Link with video. Also at UCLA: More ‘protestor’ violence.

In NYC, Palestinians and/or their supporters protested outside a theater, attempting to intimidate Jews and their supporters who were inside the theater screening a movie about October 7.  Video.

The response to the events at UCLA from the UCLA Faulty Association was to complain about the university’s (highly insufficient) attempts to contain the ‘protestor’ violence.  “Campuses are not police states. @UCLA stop militarizing our workplace, cease and desist from using police violence against students and employees.”  

It is worth noting that virtually ALL of the recent ‘pro-Palestinian’ (anti-Israel–anti-Semitic–anti-American–and anti-civilization) violence and intimidation has been centered on America’s institutions of higher education.

The title of this post is taken from a chapter heading in Peter Drucker’s 1939 book The End of Economic Man, which is about the rise of European totalitarianism.


Book Review: Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford (rerun)

Quillette has a piece on George Orwell and the fact that he never got past being a socialist.  Reminded me of this book and my review.

The idea of centralized economic planning is a very seductive one.  It just seems to make sense that such planning would lead to more efficiency…less waste…and certainly less unnecessary human suffering than an environment in which millions of decision-makers, many of them in competition with one another, are making their own separate and uncoordinated decisions, resulting in pointless product redundancy, economic cycles driving unemployment, and lots of other bad things.

Red Plenty…part novel, part nonfiction…is about the Soviet Union’s economic planning efforts as seen from the inside.  The characters include factory managers, economic planners, mathematicians, computer scientists, and “fixers.”  Published in 2010, Red Plenty is now quite timely in view of the current vogue for socialism in American political discussion.

Marx drew a nightmare picture of capitalism, when everything was produced only to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded.  The alternative? A dance to the music of use, where every step fulfilled some real need, did some tangible good, and no matter how fast the dancers spun, they moved easily, because they moved to a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all.

How might this actually be accomplished? Stalin mocked the idea that planning an economy required much in the way of intellectual depth or effort.  Get the chain of command right, Stalin seemed to be saying, build it on the right ideological principles, and all that was left was a few technical details, a little bit of drudgery to be carried out by the comrades at Gosplan with the adding machines.  But it turned out to be a little more complicated than that.

Maksim Maksimovich Mokhov is one of the lords of the Gosplan file room, in which there are hundreds of folders, each tracking the balances and plans for a particular commodity. A good man, who takes his job seriously, Maksim has risen as high as you could go at Gosplan before the posts become purely political appointments..his was the level at which competence was known to reach its ceiling…Not just a mechanical planner, he realizes that the file folders  cast only the loosest and most imperfect net over the prodigious output of the economy as the whole, and has worked to understand the stress points, the secret path dependencies of the plan.  His specific responsibility is the chemical and rubber sector, and he is particularly concerned, at the time when he enters the story, about problems in the viscose subsector.

Arkhipov, Kosoy, and Mitrenko run one of the most important plants in the viscose supply chain, and they are three worried men.  The plan goals aren’t being met, and they know that the path to career death is separated by only a few percentage points of plan fulfillment from the other one, the upward path, the road to glory and local fame. (A couple of decades earlier, it wouldn’t have been just career death on the table.) This plant makes two viscose-derived products, yarn and tire cord.  The yarn line works fine, the tire cord line, not so much…but no problems with the machine can be found.  There is no prospect of getting a replacement machine in any relevant timeframe.

Arkhipov and his associates come up with a plan to solve their problem…read the book to see what it is and how it turns out.

Nikita Khrushchev, in September 1959, told a crowd that “the dreams cherished for ages, dreams expressed in fairytales which seemed sheer fantasy, are being translated into reality by man’s own hands.”  Modern technology, combined with the benefits of a planned economy would make it possible.

Because the whole system of production and distribution in the USSR was owned by the state, because all Russia was (in Lenin’s words) ‘one office, one factory’, it could be directed, as capitalism could not, to the fastest, most lavish fulfillment, of human needs.  

The American exhibition in Moscow in mid-1959 (site of the “kitchen debate” between Khrushchev and Nixon) was attended by 3 million Soviets (including some of the characters in this book), and although many of them thought that the American claims of broad-based prosperity were exaggerated or worse, the experience surely helped feed the longing for a better life for the Soviet Union’s ordinary people.

Leonid Vitalevich Kantorovich pioneered the application of mathematics to the optimization of economic activities…these methods surfaced as a possible toolkit for the planning organizations circa 1960. Could these methods help achieve Khrushchev’s stated goal of broad-based prosperity?

For example, consider several factories, producing a common set of products but with different efficiency characteristics.  Which products should be made by which factories in order to optimize overall efficiency? A set of equations can be constructed representing the constraints that must be observed–labor, machine utlization, etc–and the relative weighting of the variables to be optimized.  Although these techniques have been used to a considerable degree in capitalist countries, they would seem tailor-made for a starring role in a planned economy.  Selling the new methods in the Soviet Union, though, could be tricky:  the linear-programming term “shadow prices”, for example, sounded like something that might have politically-dangerous overtones of capitalism!

One of the first applications involved potatoes, the distribution of same. The BESM (computer) is using Leonid Vitalevich’s shadow prices to do what a market in potatoes would do in a capitalist country–only better. When a market is matching supply with demand, it is the actual movement of the potatoes themselves from place to place, the actual sale of the potatoes at ever-shifting prices, which negotiates a solution, by trial and error.  In the computer, the effect of a possible solution can be assessed without the wasteful real-world to-ing and fro-ing, and because the computer works at the speed of flying electrons rather than the speed of a trundling vegetable truck, it can explore the whole of the mathematical space of possible solutions, and be sure to find the very best solution there is, instead of settling for the good-enough sollution that would be all there was time for, in a working day with potatoes to deliver.

And even in the planned Soviet economy, there is still a market in potatoes, right here in Moscow, the leftover scrap of capitalism represented by the capital’s collective-farm bazaars, where individual kolkhozniks sell the product from their private plots…The market’s clock speed is laughable.  It computes a the rate of a babushka in a headscare, laboriously breaking a two-rouble note for change and muttering the numbers under her breath…No wonder that Oscar Lange over in Warsaw gleefully calls the marketplace “a primitive pre-electronic calculator.”

So put the BESM to work minimizing distance that the potatoes have to travel..a proxy for efficiency and freshness:  price is not a consideration, since the state selling price of potatoes has been fixed for many years.  But BESM can only work with abstract potatoes: Not, of course, potatoes as they are in themselves, the actual tubers, so often frost-damaged or green with age or warty with sprouting tublices–but potatoes abstracted, potatoes considered as information, travelling into Moscow from 348 delivering units to 215 consuming organizations…The economists recognize the difficulty of getting a computer model to mirror the world truly.  They distinguish between working at zadachi, ‘from the problem’, and of fotografii, ‘from the photograph’…This calculation, alas, is from the photograph.  It deals with potato delivery as it has been reported to Leonid Vitalevich and his colleagues.  There has been no time to visit the cold-stores, interview the managers, ride on the delivery trucks. But the program should still work.

The author notes that “the idea that the computer had conclusively resolved the socialist calculation debate in socialism’s favour was very much a commonplace of the early sixties.”

But despite all the planning paperwork, despite the attempts at computerization, people like Chekuskin remain essential to keep the Soviet economy functioning at all.  He is a fixer, he works the system to ensure that his customers–factories, for the most part–can get the parts and materials they need in order to keep operating.  Before the revolution, he was a salesman: now, the economic problem is not selling, but buying.  Chekuskin explains what a real salesman was, back in the day:

You’re thinking of some fellow who works in a sales administration, sits by his phone all day long like a little king, licks his finger when he feels like it, and says, “You can have a little bit”…That’s not a salesman.  You see, the world used to be the other way up, and it used to be the buyers who sat around examining their fingernails, hard enough as that is to imagine.  A salesman was a poor hungry bastard with a suitcase, trying to shift something that people probably didn’t want, ’cause back in those days, people didn’t just get out the money and buy anything they could get their hands on.  They had to be talked into it.”

But with Communism, the things changed.  Back then, people didn’t want to buy.  Now, they don’t want to sell.  There’s always that resistance to get past.  But the trick of it stays the same:  make a connection, build a relationship.

Volodya, is a young propagandist recently assigned to the huge locomotive plant in Novocherkassk, a dismal town that also features a university.  Unfortunately, it was classified by the planners as a “college town”, in need of the calorific intake required to lift pencils and wipe blackboards, but there were forty thousand people living and working in the industrial zone out by the tracks now, and between the students and the loco workers, a locust would have been hard put to it to find a spare crumb. White bread was a distant memory, milk was dispensed only at the head of enormous queues.  Sausages were as rare a comets.  Pea soup and porridge powered the place, usually served on half-washed plates.

Eventually, people can’t stand it anymore–and decisions by two separate planning organizations have the result that on the very same day, food prices are increased and so are the production quotas at the locomotive factory.   There is a raucous mass protest, featuring signs like MEAT, BUTTER, AND PAY and CUT UP KHRUSHCHEV FOR SAUSAGES.  The loco plant manager, Korochkin, does not handle the situation well, and the rage grows.

The ensuing catastrophe is vividly described as it is observed by the horrified Volodya.  Troops open fire on the protestors:  26 people are killed and 87 wounded.  Death sentences and long prison terms are handed down.

This was a real event:  it happened in 1962.  News about the events did not appear in the state-controlled press for thirty years.

Read more

The Munzenberg Method, Then and Now

I’ve previously cited the advice given to writer Arthur Koestler (‘Darkness at Noon’) by Stalin’s master propagandist, Willi Munzenberg, in the days when Koestler was stil a Communist:

Don’t argue with them, Make them stink in the nose of the world. Make people curse and abominate them. Make them shudder with horror. That, Arturo, is propaganda!

See also this post about memes, in which I note that:

A very high proportion of political memes today would cause Munzenberg to nod in approval.

Searching to an unrelated post the other day, I ran across this 2007 post from CB author Helen:

Munzenberg was a German Communist, one of the few from a working class background. He was a deputy in the Reichstag and the owner of two newspapers and a publishing firm. He was also the most skilled propagandist the Soviet Union and its cause ever had. He did not write propaganda, he organized it, setting up hundreds of committees, using front organizations to run other front organizations, inspiring intellectuals to become fellow travelers and to manipulate other, innocent and ignorant intellectuals. In other words, he was the man who created the atmosphere in which it is considered to be normal to be on the left of the spectrum and intensely moral to support some of the worst tyrants in the world, as long as they seem to be a left-wing cause.

As Stephen Koch, author of Double Lives wrote in the New Criterion:

He wanted to instill the feeling, like a truth of nature, that seriously to criticize or challenge Soviet policy was the unfailing mark of a bad, bigoted, and probably stupid person, while support was equally infallible proof of a forward-looking mind committed to all that was best for humanity and marked by an uplifting refinement of sensibility.

Before 1933 he had been enormously successful in his organizational activity with his biggest achievement being the Sacco-Vanzetti case or, rather, the political activity around it. He took the case of two obscure Italian anarchists who had been accused of robbery and murder (of which Sacco was almost certainly guilty and Vanzetti possibly innocent) and turned it into a left-wing cause celebre, achieving two things.

The campaign pulled together disparate left-wing and well-meaning individuals and organizations under covert Communist control, in the process destroying the anarchist movement in the United States.

Secondly, it countered the potent myth of the Open Door and the American Dream for immigrants, a rival myth to that of the Soviet utopia, by creating an image of America of a murderous, xenophobic society that destroys innocent immigrants if they happen to have the wrong political view.

We can date the irrational anti-Americanism so prevalent in Britain, Europe and the American left from that campaign. Munzenberg’s work lives on.

Whether or not the above overstates the long-term influence of Munzenberg and the Sacco-Vanzetti case…after all, there were a lot of other influences and factors in play…Stephen Koch’s point is surely a good description of the climate that so much of the media and of academia have been working diligently to create and to impose.

Teach the Children Well

Here’s the union that represents ‘educators’ responsible for teaching 600,000 Los Angeles kids, celebrating May Day in collaboration with Students for Justice in Palestine and other Left-oriented groups.

Here’s a ‘Model Curriculum’ for second grade and below:


And here are Girl Scouts in St Louis, teaching kids to chant ‘Free Palestine’ like zombies.  Video.

Will it be any surprise if the kids who are subject to this kind of indoctrination turn out to behave like these ‘protestors’?

And/or this UPenn crowd reacting to raw footage of the Oct 7 massacre with cries of “liar liar colonizer”? Video