SOFT FICHTEANISM – i. Stalin’s Propagandist, The World’s Teacher
Joseph Stalin had been General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party for six years in 1928, when John Dewey, in popular iconography “the father of progressive education,” toured Russia with a group of educators. Later that year, The New Republic published Dewey’s “Impressions of Soviet Russia and the Revolutionary World.”[i] This series of essays stands as a remarkable testament to progressivism’s disdain for mankind, reason, and truth. It is also Dewey’s most honest and concise primer on the basic principles and purposes of progressive schooling. Anyone prepared to continue defending the idea of modern public education after reading this document is perhaps unreachable with rational argument.
It must be noted that no second-hand summary could capture the essence of what Dewey is attempting to do in this work. The summarizer would immediately be dismissed with a skeptical harrumph or an indignant pshaw; this level of mendacity simply fails to accord with our universal conception of a “major thinker.” We are therefore compelled, in what follows, to let Dewey speak for himself to a large extent, in the name of believability.
Dewey’s general assessment of the Stalinist Russia he claims to have encountered is unabashedly positive, not to say romantic. Here is a very typical example:
But since the clamor of economic emphasis, coming…from both defenders and enemies of the Bolshevik scheme, may have confused others as it certainly confused me, I can hardly do better than record the impression, as overwhelming as it was unexpected, that the outstanding fact in Russia is a revolution, involving the release of human powers on such an unprecedented scale that it is of incalculable significance not only for that country, but for the world.[ii]
Note the peculiar effect of combining the most understated, non-judgmental language to describe a murderous dictatorship (“the Bolshevik scheme”) with the most unobjective hyperbole (“overwhelming,” “unprecedented,” “incalculable”) to describe something as abstract and speculative as “the release of human powers” under communism. This passage, and indeed the entire document, written by a sixty-nine-year-old eminent intellectual, reads like the silly postcard effusions of a ten-year-old girl on her first trip to Disneyland.
Furthermore, notice Dewey’s expression of surprise at the disparity between the Russia he claims to have encountered and the one he supposedly expected to find. Knowing that he is writing for American readers inclined to disapprove of the Soviet dictatorship, Dewey carefully peppers his reminiscences with expressions of shock. The pretense that he never expected to find Russia so wonderfully transformed by communism is this lifelong leftist’s cynical reversal of Socratic irony—his feigned wide-eyed innocence is intended to entrap the unsuspecting reader in naïve acquiescence to irrationalism. The technique is used frequently to punctuate his most outrageous declarations of admiration for tyranny. One more of many possible examples:
I am only too conscious, as I write, how strangely fantastic the idea of hope and creation in connection with Bolshevist Russia must appear to those whose beliefs about it were fixed, not to be changed, some seven or eight years ago. I certainly was not prepared for what I saw; it came as a shock.[iii]
Is it possible to be shocked by one’s own abstract interpretation? Did one of the West’s leading socialists really go to Russia, in 1928, unprepared for what he saw? Or is his shock really just part of a predictable leftist apology for the brutality of Soviet communism, a sympathetic assessment that was never in doubt? You be the judge of passages such as this one:
We all know a certain legend appropriate to the lips and pen of the European visitor to America: here is a land inhabited by a strangely young folk, with the buoyancy, energy, naïveté and immaturity of youth and inexperience. That is the way Moscow impressed me, and very much more so than my own country. There, indeed, was a life full of hope, confidence, almost hyperactive…. Freed from the load of subjection to the past, it seems charged with the ardor of creating a new world.[iv] (Emphasis added.)
This charming notion of youthful “ardor,” “hope,” and “confidence,” mere “legend” when applied to America, is, according to Dewey, “very much more” truly said of Stalin’s Russia. Notice, moreover, the obvious echoes of Fichte’s seminal declaration of the essential meaning of progressivism. (“If [mankind] is not to remain in nothingness,” said Fichte, “it must henceforward make itself all that it is yet to become. The destiny of the human race on earth…is in freedom to make itself what it really is originally.”)
Or consider this lyrical description of a totalitarian police state:
The mass of the people is to learn the meaning of Communism not so much by induction into Marxian doctrines…but by what is done for the mass in freeing their life, in giving them a sense of security, safety, in opening to them access to recreation, leisure, new enjoyments and new cultivations of all sorts.[v]
The general judgment, then, is not only that Russians under Stalin are happier and more hopeful than they have ever been—than any people have ever been—but that the regime desires the people’s happiness, that conditions under Stalin indicate the regime’s devotion to the well-being of “the mass.” Dewey makes this point explicit, telling us that the new government “is one as interested in giving them access to sources of happiness as the only other government with which they have any acquaintance was to keep them in misery.”[vi]
Consider the dishonesty of recasting the Marxist-Leninist program of forcibly undoing the traditions and religion of a nation as the glorious achievement of a people “creating a new world” after having been “freed from the load of subjection to the past.” And lest anyone question Stalin’s destructive means of freeing a nation from its past, Dewey insists that this alleged destructiveness is part of the West’s false narrative about Stalinism.
All that has been said of the anti-clerical and atheistic tendencies of the Bolshevist is true enough. But the churches and their contents that were of artistic worth are not only intact, but taken care of with scrupulous and even scientific zeal. It is true that many have been converted into museums, but to all appearances there are still enough to meet the needs of would-be worshippers.[vii]
No, you are not reading a clever update of Swift’s Modest Proposal. This is the most influential American philosopher of the twentieth century, and at least the second most important man in the history of public education, whitewashing the Soviet crushing of religion as mere “atheistic tendencies,” and admiring the violent confiscation of churches and art works on the grounds that the buildings and “their contents of artistic worth” are “intact,” “taken care of,” and “converted into museums.” And take a moment to appreciate Dewey’s dismissive swipe at persecuted believers as “would-be worshippers.” He carries on, noting with stomach-turning delight that “The collections of ikons in museums in Leningrad and Moscow are an experience which repays the lover of art for a voyage to these cities.” How, we might ask, were the previous owners of these artifacts repaid for their involuntary contributions to Dewey’s cultural voyage?
Thus far we have established only that the sixty-nine-year-old Dewey still admired communism, and was prepared to say anything, no matter how vile or absurd, to defend the post-revolutionary Russia by which he so unconvincingly claims to have been delightfully surprised. But what of the primary purpose of his visit, namely the examination of Stalinist Russia’s educational establishment? Here, Dewey’s enthusiastic rhetoric carries him into rhapsodies of self-revelation that shed the light of frankness on his often disingenuous and manipulative philosophical writings.
One cannot miss the personal pride with which Dewey admires Soviet education. Far from being a disinterested observer, Dewey had a vested interest in providing a favorable review of both the methods and the results of the Soviet schools he observed, for they were fundamentally his methods, and the results, therefore, evidence for or against Deweyism. He is therefore predisposed to see noble intentions and great success in every use of public schools for purposes of social control, government indoctrination, and the propagandistic undermining of mankind’s moral, political, and rational heritage—purposes that he himself advocates. Thus we get flourishes such as these:
I have never seen anywhere in the world such a large proportion of intelligent, happy, and intelligently occupied children.[viii] [Incidentally, must all devotees of progressive paternalism talk such hyperbolic mush? Compare Horace Mann’s description of the teachers in the Prussian schools as “the finest collection of men I have ever seen, full of intelligence, dignity, benevolence, kindness, and bearing in their countenances and demeanor the impress of conscientiousness and fidelity to their trust.”[ix]]
For while a revival of interest in artistic production, literary, musical, plastic, is characteristic of progressive schools all over the world, there is no country, unless it be possibly Mexico, where the esthetic aim and quality so dominates all things educational as in Russia today.[x]
Much of his polemic rides on what he calls the aesthetic element of the post-revolutionary period, and regards as more important than Marxist economic theory. This aesthetic element has to do with the production of a new emotional sensibility which, in turn, will engender a “new mentality,” one suited to totalitarian collectivism—although Dewey is careful to avoid describing the social system so directly, preferring, for obvious reasons, to define it only negatively, as the antithesis of “the egoistic and private ideals and methods inculcated by the institution of private property, profit and acquisitive possession.” In other words, the primary function of Soviet education, of which Dewey thoroughly approves, is the undoing of the “mentality” of individual liberty, free will, and self-determination.
Essential to achieving this new mentality is omnipresent communist propaganda—which Dewey not only defends, but identifies as the heart of progressive education.
Indeed, it has taken on such importance and social dignity that the word propaganda hardly carries…the correct meaning. For we instinctively associate propaganda with the accomplishing of some special ends, more or less private to a particular class or group, and correspondingly concealed from others. But in Russia the propaganda is in behalf of a burning public faith. One may believe that the leaders are wholly mistaken in the object of their faith, but their sincerity is beyond question.[xi]
Once again, Dewey demands that we acknowledge the noble intentions of the Communist Party, which he specifies as “the universal good of universal humanity.”[xii] And from this premise, the “sincere” faith in universal communism, John Dewey—the most influential theorist behind all public education throughout the civilized world today—draws the following conclusion:
In consequence, propaganda is education and education is propaganda. They are more than confounded; they are identified.[xiii]
The purpose of this propaganda/education is to inculcate a change in “the mental and moral disposition of a people,”[xiv] in favor of each individual identifying himself essentially with the collective, while regarding his own private interests as gratuitous and worthless. Frustratingly, however, the progressive educator’s efforts are persistently “undone by the educative—or miseducative—formation of disposition and mental habit proceeding from the environment,”[xv] which is to say by natural impulses and social circumstances contrary to the teachings of communist self-immolation. The greatest enemy of communist education—the condition that inculcates belief in private property, and promotes the natural impulses to self-preservation and self-reliance, which Marxists reductively call “profit”—is the private family. The elimination of the family, therefore, is the most necessary means to the propagandistic purity of the progressive school.
The identical point, you will recall, was made by Fichte, right down to the specific threat represented by the family’s influence, namely that it encourages the development of interests and mental habits which prevent the child from identifying himself utterly with the collective, and therefore from relinquishing his private, i.e., natural, needs and desires in favor of selfless devotion to the state. The main difference between Fichte’s solution to this problem and Dewey’s is stylistic, indicative of the general difference between these two fountainheads of progressive schooling, namely that Fichte, the more honest and serious of the two, proposes to do openly what Dewey instinctively prefers to do by stealth. Thus, whereas Fichte simply proposes to conduct childhood indoctrination in complete separation from the family, Dewey admires the Soviets’ more insidious method.
Hence the great task of the school is to counteract and transform those domestic and neighborhood tendencies that are still so strong, even in a nominally collectivistic regime. In order to accomplish this end, the teachers must in the first place know with great detail and accuracy just what the conditions are to which pupils are subject in the home, and thus be able to interpret the habits and acts of the pupil in the school in light of his environing conditions—and this, not just in some general way, but as definitely as a skilled physician diagnoses in the light of their causes the diseased conditions with which he is dealing.[xvi]
Here, Dewey defends the practice of having children spy on their parents, and report their parents’ “diseased” (i.e., individualistic) behavior and attitudes, so that the state may undermine them more effectively. He regards this “social behaviorism” as “much more promising intellectually” than physiological behaviorism, as it “will enable schools to react favorably upon the undesirable conditions discovered, and to reinforce such desirable agencies as exist.”[xvii] That is, families must be incorporated into the socialist indoctrination program where possible. When a family proves unhelpful in this regard, it is to be undermined and overwhelmed by the state’s psychological warriors, with the battlefield, needless to say, being the child’s soul.
He lingers over this all-important task of destroying the family—historically both the child’s natural path into society and nature’s buffer protecting the individual from complete absorption into the state—and thereby of bringing the child under the exclusive mental and moral control of the government. Nothing ever written, by the present author or others, to persuade parents of the folly of imagining they can undo the damage of public education at home, can make the point as clearly as Dewey himself, speaking as a general in the opposing army.
It is obvious to any observer that in every western country the increase of importance of public schools has been at least coincident with a relaxation of older family ties. What is going on in Russia appears to be a planned acceleration of this process. For example, the earliest section of the school system, dealing with children from three to seven, aims…to keep children under its charge six, eight and ten hours per day, and in ultimate ideal…this procedure is to be universal and compulsory. When it is carried out, the effect on family life is too evident to need to be dwelt upon.[xviii]
Unfortunately, it seems that once this universal and compulsory ideal has been achieved, its effect on family life ceases to be so evident to parents whose children are currently being hollowed out by it, scoop by scoop. In the earlier stages of the spiritual enslaving of man, the perpetrators knew exactly what and whom they had to defeat, and saw the task as formidable. Their intellectual heirs of today have merely to complete the final clean-up of Satan’s workshop—the hard work has already been done by Fichte, Dewey and other pioneers of compulsory public education.
Dewey, in identifying the hurdles on the path to complete social control, helps us to understand exactly what government educators are aiming at today, as they complete the progressive annihilation of mankind.
I do not see how any honest educational reformer in western countries can deny that the greatest practical obstacle in the way of introducing into schools that connection with social life which he regards as desirable is the great part played by personal competition and desire for private profit in our economic life.… The Russian educational situation is enough to convert one to the idea that only in a society based upon the cooperative principle can the ideals of educational reformers be adequately carried into operation.[xix]
In short, progressive schools, if they are to produce the desired psychological result, will do so most effectively within the broader societal context of communism. Hence:
While an American visitor may feel a certain patriotic pride in noting in how many respects an initial impulse came from some progressive school in our own country, he is at once humiliated and stimulated to new endeavor to see how much more organically that idea is incorporated in the Russian system than in our own.[xx]
To restate this point for the sake of emphasis, Dewey is saying that the theoretical foundation of all compulsory schooling in the modern world is most “organically” suited to implementation in a communist dictatorship. It follows that the new endeavor to which Dewey says the Western reformer must be stimulated by the Soviet example is the effort to undermine property-based political systems directly, in favor of a communistic arrangement with which progressive schooling makes a more natural fit.
Lest anyone—probably a graduate of teacher’s college or an advanced degree holder in education theory—object here that Dewey was an ardent democrat, and in no way inclined toward authoritarianism, I draw your attention to this:
Perhaps the most significant thing in Russia, after all, is not the effort at economic transformation, but the will to use an economic change as the means of developing a popular cultivation…such as the world has never known.… The main effort is nobly heroic, evincing a faith in human nature which is democratic beyond the ambitions of the democracies of the past.[xxi]
For John Dewey—your teacher, your children’s teacher, the world’s teacher—Stalinist Russia was history’s purest, noblest example of the democratic ideal. Remember this simple and revealing statement every time you hear Dewey extolled as a democrat, or read the word “democracy” in his own writings. He belongs to that school of Western apologists for whom communism was the truest democracy. That he, like most of Stalin’s other global propagandists, suddenly became a defender of Trotsky and critic of the Soviet regime when the dam of progressive lies burst, only reinforces his disingenuousness. Dewey lacked even the “honor among thieves” style of integrity represented by playwright Lillian Hellman, who continued to stand by the communist butcher for whom she, like Dewey, had lied, even after he had been fully exposed.[xxii] When he thought he could get away with it, however, Dewey’s public stand was that Soviet education, most organically suited to communist “democracy,” was the highest achievement in world schooling, and a great source of pride for him, as it was his own system, carried out more completely than social conditions in the West permitted at that time.
Times have changed. Dewey has won. Ethical individualism, defined as broadly as you please, is dead. Collectivist submission and Dewey’s superficial display of infantilized individuality are the social norm. Private property and family are on their last legs. The West has largely been “freed from the load of subjection to the past.” The aesthetic revolution of government education/propaganda has borne its deformed, inedible fruit.
The more brutally honest brand of progressives have always had faith that political subjugation would pave the way to educational revolution. Their subtler intellectual comrades have learned from history that the opposite nexus, pursued gradually, may result at last in a more firmly rooted universal authoritarianism.
We are almost there.
[i] Dewey, Impressions of Soviet Russia and the Revolutionary World: Mexico-China-Turkey (1928), in The Later Works, vol. 4, hereafter ISR.
[ii] ISR, 207.
[iii] ISR, 217.
[iv] ISR, 215-216.
[v] ISR, 222.
[vi] ISR, 226.
[vii] ISR, 217-218.
[viii] ISR, 212.
[ix] Horace Mann quoted in Mary Tyler Peabody Mann, The Life of Horace Mann (1895, reprint London: Forgotten Books, 2013), 201.
[x] ISR, 218.
[xi] ISR, 221-222.
[xii] ISR, 222.
[xiii] ISR, 222.
[xiv] ISR, 223.
[xv] ISR, 227.
[xvi] ISR, 228.
[xvii] ISR, 229.
[xviii] ISR, 230-231.
[xix] ISR, 233-234.
[xx] ISR, 241.
[xxi] ISR, 213.
[xxii] Cf. Sarah Churchwell, “The Scandalous Lillian Hellman,” in The Guardian (January 22, 2011), at
http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/jan/22/lillian-hellman-childrens-hour-sarah-churchwell. “Many of her contemporaries found her later seizure of the moral high ground in her dealings with the [House Committee on Un-American Activities] understandably enraging, given her unrepentant Stalinism: she publicly supported the Moscow purge trials and continued to insist that Stalin had created ‘the ideal democratic state.’”