To John Temple Graves [Letter 36]

Item Reference Code: 098_03C_013_001

Date(s) of creation

August 12, 1936


John Temple Graves


[Page 1]
The Murray
Sixty-six Park Avenue
New York

August 12, 1936

Dear Mr. Graves,

Thank you ever so much for your most interesting letter. I must confess that I have not answered it sooner because I wanted to read the book “Who Owns America”, which you mentioned in your letter. However, I have been so rushed with urgent business that I have not been able to do it yet, and I am writing with a promise that I shall read it in the very near future. It has been on my list for a long time, but I haven’t been able to catch up with the many books I intend to read.

I must thank you also for your column which you sent me, with the quotation from my letter. I am very glad that you found it interesting enough to quote.

I quite agree with you when you say that big business is crushing individualism and that some form of protection against it is necessary. However, the term “umpired individualism” frightens me a little. I admit that I do not know the exact meaning in which it is used. It comes down to the question of “umpired” by whom, how and to what extent? To my strictly layman and perhaps not very scientific viewpoint, it seems that the whole question of individualism or collectivism rests primarily on the choice between two basic principles: either we believe that the State exists to serve the individual or that the individual exists to serve the State. It may be an abstract, general principle, but generalities of this kind have a way of producing infinite consequences in practical reality. I believe more firmly than in any Ten Commandments that the State exists only and exclusively to serve the individual. I see no conceivable logical or ethical excuse for the opposite belief, nor any possible compromise between the two. If the role of the State as a servant, not a master, is taken as a basic, immutable sort of Constitution—then “umpiring” is safe and desirable; provided that the “umpiring” is done precisely to protect single individuals, not society as a whole or the state as a whole; provided that each act of the “umpires” is definitely motivated by and does not clash with the above sort of Constitution.

[Page 2]

The Murray
Sixty-six Park Avenue
New York

“Society” is such a dangerous abstraction. As a rule, what can pass for a benefit to “society” is actually a disaster to all and any single individuals composing it. As witness Soviet Russia. I cannot get away from the idea that “society” as such does not exist, apart from its members. It is not a separate, mystical entity. It is only a shorter way of saying “a million” or “a hundred million people”. Yet all collectivist schemes use the word State or Society as a complete, single entity and demand that all individual citizens sacrifice everything for it. If we have a society where everyone sacrifices—just exactly who profits and who is happy? A happy collective composed of miserable, frustrated members is an absurdity. Yet that is precisely what collectivist Russia claims to be. And any theory which substitutes carelessly the word “society” for the word “men” runs the same danger. You cannot claim that you have a healthy forest composed of rotting trees. I’m afraid that collectivists cannot see the trees for the forest.

I admit that I am not an economist, but I cannot get away from the feeling that pure, abstract economics, particularly the Marxist kind, forget the human element for the sake of the economic one. And again: do economics have to fit man as he is or does man have to be ground to a pulp to fit into a preconceived economic mould?

Do we agree now or not quite?[*]

In conclusion, I must thank you for sending me the very interesting material about yourself, to which you referred as your “circus posters”. I was very glad to get them because it made me feel as if I was better acquainted with your interesting work. With best wishes,

Sincerely yours,


*The only subsequent mail from Graves is an August 22, 1936, postcard thanking AR for her “fine letter.” No mention is made of their dispute.