July 30, 1946
Mr. Burt MacBride
The Reader’s Digest
Pleasantville, New York
Dear Burt MacBride:
Thank you for your very interesting letter. One paragraph in it startled me as an instance that belongs in the “thought transference” or “funny coincidence” department. In case you have not kept a copy of your letter, I quote:
“What is needed is an abecedarian, primer-like question-and-answer pamphlet that is absolutely clear, straight to the point, and hard-hitting because it presents facts. Who is there who will write that sort of eye-opener for Joe Zilch and his wife?”
Well, you will find the answer enclosed. I suppose the moral of this should be: don’t ask rhetorical questions, somebody might answer them.
I am glad you liked ANTHEM, but I don’t agree with you when you say that it “cannot hope to influence many people.” It hopes to do so and will. Have you noticed what its big brother has done through the same method?
Yes, by all means, I think you should subscribe to “The Freeman”. It is the best publication of its kind. Its article will interest you personally, and you might find some worth reprinting. I shall ask Leonard E. Read to send you their earlier issues.
Now to your $64 question.
You write: “Answer me this one: Why in the name of all that’s holy do supposedly intelligent Americans espouse the Kremlin’s cause, when there’s such damning evidence of Communism’s completely vicious character as Kravchenko’s book?”
That’s a question right up my alley.
The answer is: because most people believe that Communism is a moral ideal. They do not call it Communism; they call it altruism. But the essence is the same; one is the logical consequence of the other.
Altruism preaches self–sacrifice; the idea that man must live for others and place others above self. Most people,
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including our conservatives, have now accepted this as their moral credo. But on such a basis a capitalistic free-enterprise society cannot continue to exist.
If self-sacrifice is a virtue, then every successful man and every happy man is evil by definition. Every rich man who remains rich and does not give his riches away must be considered immoral—so the poor see no reason why they shouldn’t rob and destroy him.
Don’t underestimate Joe Zilch and his wife. They’re much more consistent than we give them credit for. They know that man cannot exist without a moral code and that he must live up in practice to the moral precepts he has accepted in theory. When he is given so vicious, contradictory, immoral and impracticable a doctrine as altruism for his guidance, he tries his best to live up to it—and the result is what you see today.
If altruism is the ideal, if to be virtuous is to “live for others”—then Communism is the logical system to embody such a morality. Then everybody must live and work for everybody else, then there cannot be any private property nor private purpose nor private happiness; only public works and the “common good”.
But, you’ll say, Communism doesn’t work? It doesn’t achieve any common happiness, but only common misery? Well, Joe Zilch is justified in asking you: then why do you tell me it’s moral?
Man is a moral being. So long as he accepts an ideal as moral, he’ll break his neck (and those of others) to achieve it. It’s perfectly useless to tell him that his ideal is impractical, so long as you keep telling him in the same breath that it’s good, noble and desirable. He will only keep on trying to achieve it—at any cost.
Nor can you ever make men accept capitalism through the argument that capitalism achieves the “common good”, general prosperity, the highest standard of living for everybody. It’s a self-contradictory argument. Capitalism does achieve all that, but only as a secondary consequence (which, incidentally, is the only way any “social” good can be achieved), not as its primary goal. The primary goal of capitalism, the motive power which makes it work, is not social, collective or public; it is individual, non-altruistic and private; it is the personal, healthily and properly selfish profit motive. When that motive is declared to be immoral, the whole system becomes immoral—and the motor of the system stops dead.
It’s useless to lie to Joe Zilch about the capitalist’s real motive. It’s useless to assure him that the capitalist functions only for his, Zilch’s, “common good”. It’s useless
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to justify capitalism on altruistic grounds. The awful smell of hypocrisy that accompanies such justifications is so obvious and so strong that it does more to discredit capitalism than any communist propaganda. It has killed all respect for capitalism. It has—without any further analysis, simply at first glance and first whiff—made capitalism appear thoroughly phony.
Joe Zilch may not have a good head, but he sure has a good nose. (Personally, I think he has a good head, too.) He may not be able to untangle the philosophical contradiction of a capitalistic society trying to function on the moral basis of altruism—but he knows a phony when he smells it.
Now, why do Americans espouse the Kremlin’s cause in spite of books like Kravchenko’s?[*] Because it’s books like Kravchenko’s that make them do it. Kravchenko denounces Stalin—not Communism. Kravchenko still believes in Communism and still preaches it as a noble ideal. So does Barmine.[**] So do all the current denouncers of Soviet Russia. That is why their books have no effect—or rather, the only effect they do have is to make more converts for Communism.
Joe Zilch is much more logical than these authors. Here’s what he tells himself while reading their books: “If it’s moral to sacrifice yourself, why isn’t it moral to sacrifice others for an ideal? What if Stalin did slaughter millions? It’s for the sake of humanity, of the poor, of the underdog—and everybody tells me that sacrifice is the first law of virtue. What if Stalin cheats and lies? It’s for the sake of the cause. What if the Communists have achieved nothing but misery so far? Their ideal is so noble that it’s not easy to achieve. It’s men’s selfishness that hampers them. Give them time—they’ll achieve it. What if they’ve sacrificed a whole nation of 170 millions? It’s for the sake of the happiness of many more millions in the future generations. If it’s good to sacrifice one man for the sake of ten others, why is it bad to sacrifice 170 million men for the sake of ten times that number of others in the future? What if Commissars live in luxury at the expense of terrorized slave labor? It’s their reward for their efforts, since they’re working for an unselfish cause, while the rich in our own country enjoy luxuries just for their own private selfish sake.”
That’s what Joe Zilch is thinking. And on the premise of an altruistic morality—Joe Zilch is right.
Once men have accepted the idea of self-sacrifice as good, they have accepted the idea of sacrificing others, too. They have accepted the idea of man’s immolation as proper—just as they accepted it in the days of the ancient human sacrifices to Moloch. Then they are impervious to the spectacle or recital of any horrors. They read Kravchenko, they shrug and say: “So what? The noble cause is worth it.”
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Facts per se are meaningless, unless we draw conclusions from them and learn something. A mere recital of facts is useless. What is Kravchenko’s book? A catalogue of facts about Soviet Russia. They are horrible facts—but the conclusion he draws from them and passes on to his reader is that Communism is good in principle. The reader will accept his facts, believe them to be true—and still remain a Communist sympathizer. The net result is only that the reader might dislike Soviet Russia, but will continue to advocate Communism for America, claiming that “our” brand of Communism will be different and better than the Russian brand; we’ll get it wholesale.
Besides, Americans are not shocked any longer by descriptions of a whole country in abject poverty. They all scramble for material prosperity here, but most of them do it guiltily, because they have been taught that a desire for wealth is immoral. So their struggle for material advantages ceases to be an honest endeavor and becomes a dirty racket. Notice the unconscionable greed of pressure groups for gain at public expense. This is always the result when men accept the idea that the honest, proper, capitalistic method of working for private profit is evil. Men are then still faced by the fact that they must make a living, that is, make money, but since it’s evil in any form, they feel that anything goes.
When man’s best virtues—ambition, energy, ingenuity, independence, and the enjoyment of their rewards—are declared to be sins, he has no choice but to turn to depravity.
The free-enterpriser works for what he gets. The modern American collectivist grabs what he can get away with. And the dirtier he becomes in his methods, the guiltier he feels; so he despises all wealth in his heart and thinks longingly of Communism, to ease his own conscience. He ceases to believe that material prosperity is good or desirable. Not prosperity, but self-sacrifice is noble—the altruists tell him; not enjoyment, but suffering. So he begins to despise the United States, precisely because it’s prosperous, and to admire Soviet Russia, precisely because it’s a land of filth, disease, misery, starvation—and sacrifice. If sacrifice is redemption, he reasons, then surely a country that has been brought down to such an unspeakable state and bears it, must be a virtuous country.
That is why true and factual books about the horrors of Soviet Russia are and will continue to be ineffectual. That is why they will not cure Americans of sympathy for the Kremlin, nor check the trend toward collectivism in America. Facts alone won’t do it. Only the proper philosophy derived from the facts, will. No, Joe Zilch is not stupid. He absorbs just exactly what he’s being taught. He understands
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his teachers well—too well. It’s his teachers who are committing a dreadful crime, and the responsibility for the present world tragedy is theirs, not his.
The crisis in the world today is a moral crisis. It’s the ultimate result of men’s philosophical error in accepting the morality of altruism. We will not stop Communism until we have knocked its moral props from under it. Men must learn to recognize altruism as the vicious, corrupt and depraved doctrine which it is. Men must stop preaching self-sacrifice, and accept as their proper moral code the precept that each man exists for his own sake, granting the same right to others, neither sacrificing himself for others, nor sacrificing them for himself. That would be the morality of Individualism.
Have I answered your question?
(Incidentally, I think I have here written you an article, without intending to. Care to have me rewrite this letter into an article? We could call it, “In Defense of Joe Zilch.”)
As to “Dramas in Everyday Life”, I will try to think of one for you, but I am not sure that I can succeed. Offhand, I cannot remember any that I’ve witnessed. “Everyday Life” is not my particular specialty.
With curious anticipation of your reaction to this letter.
I’m enclosing a printed letter about myself, by way of self-introduction. I have marked, on the last page, a paragraph that is a kind of indirect answer to you.
*Victor Kravchenko, I Chose Freedom: The Personal and Political Life of a Soviet Official (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1946).
**Alexander Barmine, One Who Survived: The Life Story of a Russian Under the Soviets (New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1945).
MacBride responded on August 15, 1946, that he agreed with another editor that Anthem “is too much above the level of the average reader” to be published in Reader’s Digest. And in her August 30, 1946 letter [Letter 254 in this exhibit], AR responds to MacBride’s comments about Russian communism.