The Tragedy of Durant – How Will Durant lied About Soviet Russia (1933)

Will Durant (1885-1981) was a White, Christian, bourgeois American with slight leftist-leanings, whose historical academic output must be treated as idiosyncratic and the product of US hyper-individualism, imagination and anti-intellectualism.  More to the point, other than possessing a vague appreciation for the moral standpoint of French capitalism (in the sense that modern, Western society is unjust for many people having to exist within it), Will Durant remained a committed ‘capitalist’ and avid anti-Marxist, despite his liberal use of the terms ‘anarchy’ and ‘Socialism’ throughout his works. Philosophy for him was simply a matter of individual choice stemming from economic security, where ethereal thoughts and concepts are moved around the mind just as words and concepts are moved around paper. Will Durant published his ‘The Tragedy of Russia – Impressions from a Brief Visit’, in mid-1933, as a campaign was growing to prevent President Roosevelt from establishing formal, diplomatic relations between the US and USSR at a time when capitalism was in crisis (since the Wall Street Crash of 1929), and the American working class literally starving to death. Sixteen years of US – USSR estrangement came to an end on November 16th, 1933. 

Trotsky had been expelled from the USSR in 1929 for treason. Like Will Durant he was never a committed ‘Communist’ in the Marxist-Leninist sense, but dabble with old (Second International) notions for much of his life. Trotsky (like Durant) viewed Socialism not as an ideology that replaces the capitalism from which it emerges (I.e. Scientific Socialism) but rather as a set of liberal and left-leaning concessions made by existing capitalists in favour of the workers, whose dominance remains unchallenged. Although no photographic evidence exists of Will Durant’s visit to the USSR, it is ironic to consider that in an era (i.e. ‘the 1930s’) which also saw the African-American civil rights leader (and intellectual) – Paul Robeson – visit the USSR and praise what he saw and experience, the White American Durant chose to see only slavery!  

As the forces of US anti-intellectualism gathered both influence and pace after 1945 – forming the bedrock of the US fabricated ‘Cold War’ – the general demonization of the USSR generated by Trotsky and Durant became mainstream and has dominated historical discourse until today. However, at the time of its publishing, Will Durant’s book appeared very much out of place and decidedly ridiculous when compared to the scope and quality of his other historical works, and the fact that ‘The Tragedy of Russia – Impressions from a Brief Visit’ remains obscure and difficult to acquire. The rather ‘manic’ and ‘anti-intellectual’ feel of this book is summed up in the New York Times article dated 17.7.1933, which hysterically screams from its pages ta Durant warns that ‘Liberals’ will be the first to go if a Soviet is established in the US (as an answer to the poverty and suffering currently being experienced by the workers).  

Just why Will Durant put his name to this tissue of lies is an interesting question. I have made the case above that he is a typical bourgeois pursuing the interests of his class – and that should suffice – but there might be another explanation. It could be that Will Durant came under pressure from the US Government to deliver this piece of anti-Soviet propaganda. The narrative is well written emotional manipulation with pseudo-history as its driving force. Of course, it could just be that when one’s class privilege is under threat, the ‘true’ nature of a man is exposed, and that Will Durant – for all his popularity and apparent ‘man of the people’ reputation – was simply not a very nice or good person. The following is a list of extracts from Will Durant’s 1933 book entitled ‘The Tragedy of Russia – Impressions from a Brief Visit’ – the reader must bear in mind the ‘racist’ nature of these misapprehensions, and the ‘ahistorical’ context with which each is made. This situation is compounded by Will Durant not being able to read, write or speak Russian, and the fact that he could not have possibly met all the people he did in such a ‘brief’ visit, or gained accessed to their lives in the manner in which he claimed to have done. This is an important study in the US development of Cold War lies at a time (1933) which saw the rise of Hitler (which Durant has nothing to say about). The following are a number of extracts which might be correctly termed ‘fiction’ either written by Durant or written for him. This is reactionary and ahistorical tripe. What is said stems not from the true socio-economic or historical state of Russia prior to 1917 (where the population existed in the abject poverty of Czarism), nor from the tremendous development of modernity between 1917-1933 (a remarkable feat in and of itself), Durant is projecting the socio-economic condition (and ‘psyche’) of the US onto a Socialist Russia and it has no relevance whatsoever for the average Russian worker: 
 
P.3 “I was asked for my opinion of the Communist experiment in Russia. I answered, ‘I am afraid that Communism cannot succeed but I hope to God it does.’ I was sympathetic with Communism because I had seen in my own country the breakdown of the most successful individualist economy in history. But the seeds of disaster seemed fatally inherent in that (US) system. All the Western world was in chaos: dismembered with nationalism, congested with tariffs, overwhelmed with unemployment, threatened with war and decay. But in Russia, we had been told, these evils had been avoided, these problems had been solved.” 
 
P.30 “But as external enemies receded, internal discord grew. It was found that when the laziest and stupidest worker receives equal material reward with the ablest and cleverest, the ablest and cleverest will slack down to the productive level of the laziest and stupidest as soon as the heat of revolutionary fever subsides. It was found that when the workers in a shop could take time off at their own will for loquacious parliaments whose democratic decrees-based upon ignorance of every phase of the industry except that immediately at hand-were law to the managerial and technical staff, the rate of production would fall until every store would be empty of goods, and that condition would be reached under which alone equality is possible-there would be nothing to share. Now the peasants were in rebellion against the brutal plundering of their crops by proletarian armies.” 
 
P.73 “A mother in a factory complained that the new freedom was a triple slavery; freedom to take care of the home, to take care of the children and their father, and to work with the men in the shop. The employer (the State) pays the man only such wages as will suffice to support him rather than his family; the wife must go out and earn the other part herself. ‘The husband,’ as one wife put it, ‘is not the provider under our present-day conditions.'” 
 
P.150 “Through its doctrinaire persistence in an unworkable theory, the Soviet has allowed its people to starve by the thousands, and everything in Russia to deteriorate except some heavy.industries designed chiefly for the purposes of war.” 
 
P.157 As he was leaving, “We looked back with horror and pity upon the land of our dreams, and prayed that liberation might come soon to those 150 million prisoners whom we had left behind.” 

Do not be afraid of these types of narratives as they serve to remind us of what we are up against, and that is basically a lack of education. We must settle our minds and calmly expose these narratives fo the falsehoods they contain. A Russian colleague of mine says that no one in Russia remembers Will Durant or ever talking to him, and given that life was booming for the average Soviet citizen by 1933, and that very few Russians could speak English, it is highly unlikely that these conversations took place. In other words, as there was no material basis to make these accusations, Will Durant ‘lied’ and only the poorly educated and the feeble minded fell for it! 

English Language Reference: 

Will Durant: The Tragedy of Russia – Impressions from a Brief Visit, Simon Schuster, (1933) 

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