I want to introduce you to a fascinating woman : Anna Louise Strong. She was a journalist and witness to much of the revolutionary history of the 20th century. I just read her autobiographical account of the Seattle general strike (novel research!) and Soviet Russia in the 1920’s, called I Change Worlds. I’ve had this book out from the library since January, late fees be damned. It is an eyewitness view into history that I knew way too little about, written by someone who is inside it all enough to be enthusiastic about revolution and communism and uncynically critical of capitalism — no 21st century apathy here — and yet analytical and articulate enough to voice the complexities of what she sees unfolding. More than that, it is a view into an independent, articulate woman’s mind, as she explores class issues, the logistics of post-revolution Russia, the mechanisms of social change, and her own progressive American childhood.
This lady can sum things up.
But today I would like to give you a long quote of hers, which is her description of the origins of American psychology and our attempts to evade class dynamics. She nails it like she was in the heads of my ancestors.
Neither their fortune nor their brains had made them masters and they disdained to be slaves. They chose the wilderness to conquer, finding it easier than man. They left the complex problem of human society to the men who served oppressors and the men who were oppressed. They chose the simpler task: to conquer the earth and hold it. Thus they held each new bit of earth for a generation, till human society arose with its struggles around them and drove them into the wilderness again….
From this life came their virtues and their weaknesses. They were proud of physical strength, of daring optimism, of resourceful invention, of quick adaptability to new conditions. They rejoiced in the power to survive in isolation which they called “independence,” and in agility to flee and change, which they called “freedom.” They were “practical men” with little use for “theory”; for they shrank from analyzing those social and economic forces by which other men from a distance controlled them, cast them into the wilderness and entangled them again. Having neither the shrewdness which serves oppressors, nor the guile that lawlessly outwits them, nor the solidarity that in the end destroys them, they lived by faith – and evasion. As they gave up old lands to tyrants, they dreamed always of new lands without slaves or masters. From the German tribes that overran imperial rotting Rome for the stronger, more imperial papacy, to the settlers who won the west for Jill Hill’s railroads, they were daring and free and equal – and easily deceived. For they substituted energy for thinking, and optimism for analysis. Cast forth by great struggles of classes, they refused to believe in classes, but had faith that somewhere “beyond the ranges” men might be free and equal still. But they never clearly analyzed how this might happen.
Thus came into being Americans – of all men strongest in subduing nature, most inventive in the use of machinery, most determined to optimism, most naïve and credulous in social relations….
I know this way of being. I was raised in it. That was what was behind my childhood full of Laura Ingalls Wilder, my teenage wilderness survival daydreams, my endless college conversations about utopias and collective farms. That’s why I like to live near Canada, which in my head is basically a big wilderness. That’s why I am an entrepreneur.
She comes back to that idea towards the end of the book, when she is visiting with Diego Rivera. (That’s the other thing — she got to hobnob with about a zillion notables, from Trotsky and Stalin to names we think of as corporations, like Morgan.) He saw the wrongs of capitalism and the beauty of the future world of workers as I had seen it Seattle but he did not see a path. He admired peasants who withdrew into smaller and smaller lands yet maintained through art their independence of soul. Was that anything more than the old retreat if the independents before the triumphant march of the octopus? Was not his art a solace like that of religion, expressing dreams for which he saw no road of realization?
Reading that leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling of looking at hard truths. It feels so much easier to see the far away mountains than to know how to get to them, both as a society and in my own life.
No answers here, not tonight, but let’s keep mulling. And walking. Being both passionately engaged and articulately analytical. And learning from kick-ass people of history.