'What Is to Be Done?'
The Human Prospect by Robert L. Heilbroner '40 Norton, 150 pp., $5.95
WHILE I was reading through Adam Ulam's new biography, Stalin, The Man and His Era, one small passage jumped off the pages of history into our own time. It is a quote from a revolutionary journal during the Russian Revolution of 1905-6. One M. Alexandrov wrote he couldn't believe only ten years earlier political apathy among University youth was so widespread that a speaker at a students' meeting could say, "If you are studying to be a doctor then your main duty is to try to become a good doctor, if engineer to be a good engineer."
It is an oversimplification, but I think a reasonable and permissible one, to say that the mood on campus today reflects the same retreat into political apathy Alexandrov remembered of Russia in the 1890s. His article in 1906 was particularly moving because it reminded me that the mood can shift once again. Perhaps demonstrations are no longer viable forms of political activism, and maybe the shift away from political apathy will not come in the form of revolution, but it can and must come out of personal commitments reaching much deeper than a search for some kind of personal security so characteristic of the present indifference toward active political and social change.
Sociologist Marshall W. Meyer, a professor at the University of California at Riverside, has conducted a survey studying changes in political attitudes and career plans of Harvard-Radcliffe students over the last 5 years. Although the facts have not yet been released from his most recent poll, Meyer reported very little change between 1969 and 1972 in student attitudes toward political and administrative authority. In fact, the survey indicated a slight move toward the left. Paradoxically, there has been a simultaneous "pre-professional push." Applications to major universities' schools of law and medicine increased almost 50 per cent over the last five years. And at Harvard Medical School the motives were far from altruistic: a recent study showed half the students were there to make money.
David Riesman, Ford Professor of Social Sciences and a member of Meyer's survey team, said recently in The Washington Post, "It is behavior rather than attitudes that have changed over the last five years or so. What you see in these students is quiescence rather than acquiescence." Riesman went on to say that a large group of students, some former activists, feel guilty about joining the system, "but they feel forced into it--by the tight job market, by the failure of student activism."
Yet, where does a "tight market system" come from except in the perpetuation--either through acquiesence or quiescence, the distinction is abstract--of unjust economic systems? How can student activism succeed--even if its successes will not be absolutely earth-shattering--if many students remain politically dormant? The rationalizations Riesman presents as prevailing student attitudes smack of circular, Catch-22 reasoning.
Of course, the situation in Vietnam is probably no better today than before the Vietnam Peace Treaty was signed a year and a half ago. But who is there now to make that clear to the American people? Who is willing to jeopardize his or her self-advancement ot work in the cause of political and social change, both here and abroad?
I have used for this essay an unoriginal title. Lenin wrote a pamphlet in 1902 called "What Is to be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement." Its purpose was to overcome the prevailing mood of uncertainty and doubt among Russian Marxists, to inspire a transformation from talk to action. And Lenin's inspirational booklet was not the first to use the title. It comes originally from a socialist novel written by Nikolai Chernyshevsky in 1862: What Is to Be Done? Stories about New People. One of the heroes in the novel, Rakhmetov, is portrayed as the ideal radical. Rakhmetov comes from a wealthy landowning family of ancient aristocratic lineage, but in the university he undergoes a conversion to the radical anti-Tsarist cause. He gives up his future, and for the rest of his life Rakhmetov dedicates himself to the cause of equality, reading constantly, building his strength through exercise, and maintaining an ascetic lifestyle which excludes alcohol and women. His complete self-denial is, admittedly, hard to believe. Still, somehow it is inspiring to think that we are capable, if need be, of similar sacrifices. Rakhmetov is not the first such idealistic hero in literature, nor the last. But the title, "What Is to Be Done?" invokes the very vision of his timeless, idealistic qualities and Lenin's urgent cry for immediate, organized action that too many college students, myself included, have ignored.
IF ROBERT L. HEILBRONER's predictions for the future are anywhere near correct, it isn't only a matter of ideology, but of practicality, that we consider very carefully, "What is to be done?"--not only in our enviable positions as students with the most freedom to participate in concerted acts of social and political change, but as students who will not be coerced into the degrading decision between a "tight job-market" or nothing at all.
In his recent book, The Human Prospect, economist Robert L. Heilbroner '40, author of the classic textbook, The Worldly Philosophers, sketches a bleak picture for the future. He addresses himself specifically to the hopelessly broad question: "Is there hope for man?" After what seems like an unjustifiably short amount of space for what could potentially fill volumes Heilbroner comes to the following conclusion:
If then by the question: "Is there hope for man?" we ask whether it is possible to meet the challenges of the future without the payment of a fearful price, the answer must be: There is no such hope.
The statement may seem a bit startling, but not in the context of the economist's arguments, not after he has presented one by one the enormous problems and the inadequate solutions the future will almost surely bring in our own lifetimes.
Heilbroner's approach is simple and straightforward, his style succinct and extremely readable. And his almost unconscionably brief treatment of such an overwhelming question is actually quite reasonable. The gravity of the human prospect, argues Heilbroner, is based not so much upon the ability to rationally predict the problems of the future, as in an appraisal of the capacity of all mankind to meet up to the challenges of the future; this self-evaluation is necessarily subjective. The Human Prospect introduces the reader to the more predictable challenges and solutions of the future, and leaves the doors leading into the more irrational processes of self-assessment only slightly ajar.
Heilbroner divides his work into five separate sections: the present mood of the times; the challenges of the future; socio-economic considerations; political problems; and finally, a summary reflection on the human prospect. It seems futile to talk about the present mood, because since we were kids we've seen it every night on television news and in the press: crime, riots, bombings, assassinations, hijackings, government intrigue. More than just the immediate assault of the media, Heilbroner also claims that America has undergone attitudinal changes--a loss of a sense of assurance and control and an awareness of the deterioration in the quality of our surroundings. As if this weren't enough, he adds a "civilizational malaise," the knowledge that "the values of an industrial civilization, which has for two centuries given us not only material advance but also a sense of clan and purpose, now seem to be losing their self-evident justification."
IF ONE CAN possibly grow indifferent to the problems confronting America today then the next portion of The Human Prospect will probably awaken those numb spirits. Here, Heilbroner charts the three major challenges of the not-too-distant future: overpopulation, impending nuclear holocaust, and environmental destruction. Perhaps none of these issues will scare anybody, but the supportive evidence should. Overpopultion in developing countries seems most assuredly to be heading toward a grim Malthusian reckoning: death from starvation and malnutrition will be the only checks on these peoples' birth rates. In those countries which are not outright dictatorships, only a kind of militaristic socialism will be able to enforce a strict birth-control.
Heilbroner also poses the following scenario: Major developing nations will get hold of nuclear bombs and use nuclear blackmail as a means of redistribution. He cleverly refers to the Arab oil embargo as a more peaceful manifestation of this phenomenon. But even without nuclear threat, and "wars of redistribution," limited wars are certainly assured to continue.
Then there is the danger to the environment. The growth in population notwithstanding, continued search for resources by the industries they feed adds to an aesthetic and real destruction to our surrounding environment. Heilbroner's main concern here is expressed in his belief that the atmosphere's limited ability to absorb the heat dissipated from rapidly growing industries will seriously affect the world's climate.
This brings us to the third section of The Human Prospect, and probably the most devastating--"Socio-Economic Systems." First, Heilbroner's definition of capitalism: It is an economic order "marked by the private ownership of the means of production vested in a minority class called 'capitalists' and by a market system that determines the incomes and distributes the outputs arising from its productive activity." It is a social order most obviously characterized by an extreme acquisitiveness. This is the economic and social order into which you and I are destined to descend. Certainly, it's only an "ideal type," as Heilbroner calls it--an oversimplified generalization that allows only for high levels of abstraction. Still, it is the force that makes competition as a way of life and allows about one fifth of this nation's population to enjoy roughly 40 per cent of its total income.
In Heilbroner's analysis of socio-economic systems, his treatment of socialism is also presented in extremely broad terms, as "the replacement of private ownership by public ownership, and the displacement of the market by planning." Socialism too is plagued by problems, especially the restriction of civil liberties. The economist's intention is to draw out the very basic underlying assumptions common to both socialism and capitalism and to try to predict how each will be able to deal with the three major challenges of the human prospect. At the very root, both systems rely on a "technological imperative," built into an industrial civilization that requires efficiency, a controlled artificial environment, and a necessary priority of production over the aesthetic aspects of life.
So far, many of Heilbroner's ideas outlined here sound like the mere prattlings of a paranoid glossed over with the verbiage of radical chic; all issues you've studied or read of before. But when they're brought together they take on a new seriousness. Population explosions will exert pressures on both socialist and capitalist nations alike, the inevitable competition for dwindling resources will cause wars of "preemptive seizure" that will eventually lead to an extreme dichotomy between rich and poor countries. Capitalism and socialism will both have to deal with a stagnant industrial production, and the latter will probably fare better, simply because capitalism will have to undergo a transition of income redistribution unacceptable to its long-standing commitment to the ethos of economic advancement. More importantly, neither a traditionally democratic capitalistic society, nor a democratic socialist society could cope with a growing body of science and technology, or burgeoning industrial growth--strict controls would have to be imposed. "In place of prodigalities of consumption," says Heilbroner, "must come new frugal attitudes." Of the utmost consequence, however, are the inevitable strictures on civil rights to which either form of socio-economic system will have to resort.
In his next to last chapter, "The Political Dimension," Heilbroner portrays two convenient facets of "human nature" that will accommodate the coercive states of the future. One is a willingness to accept authority and a capacity for national identity. "Survival," says Heilbroner "must reckon with the need for--perhaps the ultimate reliance on--welcomed heirarchies of power and strongly felt bonds of peoplehood." This argument is difficult to swallow; its basis is rooted in child psychology and I don't think one can draw such grandiose extensions into politics. One certainly can't claim that it is "more courageous and less pietistic," as Heilbroner does, to advocate the following:
...the tensions immanent in socio-economic trends must be worked out within and through political elements in "human nature." ...The plasticity of culture must adapt itself in some manner or other to the needs that spring from man's conditioning; and this does not permit us to assume that the political structure of society can accommodate itself to whatever image we have of what man should be.
In his fifth and final chapter, Heilbroner talks about the human prospect in three different phases. The immediate problems are uses and abuses of power, political history, and economic development, problems like Vietnam that directly affect the "quality of existence." In the next fifty years he sees the key to continued chances for survival as the "relative resilience and adaptability of the two great socio-economic systems." In the long run, he calls for "the reconstruction of the material basis of civilization itself," aided by a new politics of coercion through an appeal to "human nature."
All told, Heilbroner's outline for the future seems reasonably realistic social prophecy, given the delicacy of that kind of task. I'm a little surprised and much more disappointed then to see him condone the present course of events: the development of new technologies to find natural resources, including new sources of fuel; more new technology to control the dissipation of heat; and the input into "backward areas" of "that minimal infrastructure needed to support a modern system of health services, education, transportation, fertilizer production and the like," so as to prevent international disruption. The number of international incidents can be kept down, but it won't mean that many third world peoples aren't suffering while the larger world powers seek a mythical "post industrialism," about which one can only speculate. In the years to come, human suffering will increase around the globe--already spiralling international inflation is a portentious warning of economic stresses to come.
IN THE SIX Sahelian zone countries of Western Africa--Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Upper Volta, Niger and Chad--Western science and technology in an indiscriminate and "minimal" way, has actually increased the amount of devastation wrought by a 6-year old drought. A famine in the six countries last year left as many as 100,000 dead and 7 million others dependent on foreigners' food handouts. The famine continues and every day more West African nomads die under the hot desert sun. An FAO report on the Sahel says that the destructive farming and grazing practices now more frequent than ever in the Sahel are due to the cumulative effects of "over-population, deterioration of the climatic conditions, and above all, the impact of the Western economic and social system."
Heilbroner says, "At this late juncture I have no intention of sounding a call for moral awakening or for social action on some unrealistic scale."
In the six Sahelian countries, in Greece, Cyprus, Chile, Vietnam and countless other countries around the world people are dying while the United States pursues capitalistic ventures meant to buttress its high materialistic standards of living. And Heilbroner awaits the "negative factors" (the Malthusian reapers--war, malnutrition, epidemics) that will eventually correct the Western way of thinking.
Students too, in their quiesence, in their failure to act out the political attitudes they can only harbor as cynicism, and in their damning desire to squeeze into the "tight job market," are just as guilty as the nation's elders. It's a sad commentary guilty as the nation's elders. It's a sad commentary indeed, that so many college students today lack the courage of their supposed convictions.