'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.