Friday, February 26, 2010

Korzybski - Cold Warrior

While working on his “Author’s Note” for Selections from Science and Sanity in February 1948, Korzybski had time to read the galley proofs of an article, “Dialectical Materialism and General Semantics” by Anatol Rapoport, to be published in the upcoming Winter 1948 issue of ETC. (1) Rapoport had joined the American Communist Party in the late 1930s, although he had quit in the early 1940s at the start of World War Two. Rapoport discussed his party membership in his memoir years later. (2)

The ETC. article showed that Rapoport, though no longer a Communist party member, had remained a Soviet fellow-traveler; although at the beginning of 1948 he seemed to be having second thoughts. The import of the article was to show how “the general semanticist of today can trace his philosophical geneology both to the dialectical materialist, Engels, and to the ‘empiro-criticist’, Mach.” He wrote that,
"Stalin has shown a semantic awareness to a far greater extent than his colleagues. He has also definitely stated that in his opinion the East-West conflict is not inevitable.”
Rapoport protested the behavior of Western nations toward the Soviet Union, writing that
"The Soviet Union has sinned less than she has been sinned against.”
“One can always convince oneself of the visciousness of a dog by beating it.”
Although Rapoport appeared to have some criticism of Marxist orthodoxy, he also wrote as if it could somehow be reformed by an infusion of general semantics:
“…I invite our friends the dialectical materialists to make a more careful study of general semantics and recognize in it not a negation but a generalization of their venerable doctrine.”
Korzybski had to respond—given his ongoing distaste for dictatorships in general and more specifically his distaste for Communism, Lenin, Stalin, et al, and the Soviet system in general. Korzybski had just been reading about the persecution of Russian geneticists by Stalin's 'Tsar' for Soviet Biology, Lysenko. The persecution of biological science in the Soviet Union corroborated Korzybski's views about the incompatability of dictatorship with time-binding and its expression in science. He sent a letter to Rapoport on February 6 giving his honest opinion of the piece, in a detailed 9-page analysis, notable not so much for its frankness (not a surprise in a letter from Korzybski to anyone), but in its civility and gentleness—given his strong objections to much of Rapoport’s piece. (3) He had no problem getting linked with Mach, but otherwise he took strong exception to Rapoport’s geneology:
If I may be frank, since childhood I rebelled against the ‘facts’ of our civilization’ but I never had any use for DM [Dialectical Materialism], as I judge by ‘facts’. To link my work with DM is not only false to fact but genuinely harmful to my work; [p. 2]….All through the article you emphasize the worthlessness and even harm, through obstructionism, of DM. Your criticism is very fundamental; yet somehow you do not bother to take a stand in so many words. I frankly admit, and I congratulate you, that your criticism of DM is destructive to DM; but please do not link GS with DM; it has nothing to do with, and in fact is a protest against DM. [p. 4]
As for Stalin,
I wonder if you are not flattering our friend Stalin. Somehow through years of study and reading, my picture of Stalin is that he is an extremely ignorant man, a thoroughgoing opportunist, shrewd, ruthless, but extremely practical and in a way common-sense, quite willing to prostitute himself verbally if something is to be gained. Varga, a historian of Marxism and officially a Communist, and Litvinov, among others, were dismissed and officially disgraced (Varga very recently) just because they believed, and still believe, the the conflict between the East and West is not inevitable.
In early 1948, as historian, Eric F. Goldman noted in his book The Crucial Decade – And After: America, 1945-1960,
“…a communist coup sucked Czechoslovakia under the iron curtain…. throughout the [U.S] war fears ran rampant.” [p. 77-78]
The soon-to-be-implemented Marshall Plan, then getting debated in Congress, provided hope of bolstering the economies of war-torn countries in Europe and elsewhere and thus inoculating them against Soviet expansionism. Meanwhile, the U.S. government had already provided military aid to Greece and Turkey to counter just that eventuality. Concern had also begun to grow in the U.S. about homegrown Communists and their possible disloyalty and subversion.

Rapoport, who had kept quiet about his own prior affiliations with the American Communist Party, seemed concerned and, in his article, decried the
...“rigid either-or orientations” and “obsolete maps” of “people who make laws and pronouncements on morals, who write advertising copy and conduct investigations of un-American activities and secure bases in Turkey for the explicitly stated purpose of bombing Russian cities.
The lifelong ‘peace’ advocate, couldn’t have felt happy reading Korzybski’s response to this:
You certainly are right about polemics. What you have to say about American military bases is only partially true. Extensionally, when the Communists get the atomic bomb they will carry on a war of extermination because for them it will be a ‘holy war’, probably combined with a bacteriological war. As the problems stand today, a third world war is unavoidable, probably, and the only way to prevent it is to be armed to the teeth, with billions of dollars to us taxpayers. Still worse, from a strictly military point of view — and I speak as a soldier — to survive, we will have to attack; so we must have bases, not to bomb Russian cities but to prevent bombing of American cities. [p. 3]
The term “Cold War” had recently come into popular usage, and the policy of “containment” against the Soviet Union—including a build-up of U.S. and allied military strength—had begun to get formulated. In line with such policy, Korzybski—who had spoken out in the early 1930s against Nazism, would certainly qualify, from the evidence of this letter and other writings, as an anti-Communist “cold warrior" par excellence.

(1) Rapoport, Anatol. 1948. “Dialectical materialism and general semantics.” ETC.: A Review of General Semantics. Vol. V, No. 2 (Winter 1948), pp. 81–104. Presented before the University of Chicago Chapter of the Society for General Semantics, Dec. 3., 1947.

(2) Rapoport, Anatol. 2000. Certainties and doubts: A philosophy of life. Montreal: Black Rose Books.

(3) Letter, Alfred Korzybski to Anatol Rapoport, February 6, 1948. Institute of General Semantics Archives.

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