Peace and Bread: 1. A Speculation on Bread-Labor and War-Slogans, December 31, 1921


Peace and Bread


I. A Speculation on Bread-Labor and War-Slogans*

YEARS of uncertainty, of conflicting reports and of disillusionment, which have followed the Russian revolution of March, 1917, make it difficult to recall our first impressions of the most astounding phenomenon in this astounding world as the two thousand miles of Russian soldiers along the Eastern Front in the days following the abdication of the czar talked endlessly to their "enemy brothers" in the opposing trenches. Perhaps it was because this peasant revolution reminded me of [Bondarev's] book on Bread Labor, a sincere statement of the aspirations of the Russian peasants, that the events during the first weeks of the revolution seemed to afford a sharp contrast between the simple realities of life and the unreal slogans with which the war was being stimulated.

During their long conversations the Russian peasant soldiers were telling the East Prussian peasant soldiers what [Bondarev] and other peasant leaders had told them: that the great task of this generation of Russians is to "free the land" as a former generation had already freed the serfs and slaves; that the future of the Russian peasant depends not upon garrisons and tax gatherers but upon his willingness to perform "bread labor" on his recovered soil, and upon his ability to extend goodwill and just dealing to all men. With their natural inference that there was no longer any need to carry on the czar's war was an overwhelming eagerness to get back to the land which they believed was at last to be given those who actually tilled it. They doubtless said that the peasants had long been holding themselves in readiness for the great revolution which would set men free from brutal oppression. They believed that this revolution must, before all, repair "the great crime," which, in their minds, was always the monopolization of the land by a few thousand men with the resulting enslavement of millions of others. The revolution must begin in Russia because no people are so conscious of this iniquity as the Russian people. Their absorption in the revolution and their inveterate land hunger caused many Russian peasants to regard the World War itself as a mere interruption to the fulfilment of their supreme obligation.

It was certainly the wisdom of the humble, the very counsel of imperfection, which was exemplified by this army of tattered men, walking so naively in the dawning light. But they may have been "the unhindered and adventuring sons of God," as they renounced warfare in favor of their old right to labor in the ground. Some of them in the earliest days of the revolution made a pilgrimage to Tolstoy's grave in the forest of Kadaz and wrote these words upon a piece of paper which they buried in the leaf mold lying loosely above him: "Love to neighbors, nay the greatest love of all, love to enemies, is now being accomplished."

In the Russian peasant's dread of war there has always been a passive resistance to the reduction of the food supply, because he well knows that when a man is fighting he ceases to produce food, and that he and his family, with all the rest of the world, will at length be in danger of starvation. Next to the masses of India and China, the Russian peasants feel the pinch of poverty more keenly and frequently than any other people on earth. Russia is the land of modern famines. This winter's famine was preceded by those of 1891, 1906 and 1911. The last of these, still vivid in the memory of men at the front in 1917, affected thirty million people, and reduced eight million people to actual starvation. The Russian peasant saw three and a half years of the Great War, during which time, according to his own accounting, seven million of his people perished, and the Russian soldiers, never adequately equipped with ammunition, food and clothing, were reduced to the last extremity. To go back to his village, to claim his share of food, to till the ground as quickly as possible, was to follow an imperative and unerring instinct. In his village, if anywhere, he would find bread. Prince Kropotkin in his Conquest of Bread -- written nearly twenty years ago -- predicted that so soon as the revolution came the peasant would keep enough bread for himself and his children, but that the towns and cities would experience such a dearth of grain that "the farmers in America would hardly be able to cover it." But he added: "There will be an increase of production as soon as the peasant realizes that he is no longer forced to support the idle rich by his toil. New tracts of land will be cleared and improved machines set a going. ...Never was the land so energetically cultivated as by the French peasants in 1792."

In line with these peasant traditions, the first appeal issued by the All Russian Peasant Union to the soldier still at the front read in this wise:

"Remember, brothers, that the Russian army is a peasant army, comprising now the best men of the [page 2] whole peasantry; that the Russian land is the peasant's land; that the peasant is the principal toiler on this land -- he is its master; therefore, without the master, it is impossible to solve properly the land question."

PEASANTS all over the world magnify and consider obligatory labor in the ground, but the Russian peasant adds to this urge for bread labor a religious motive revealed in his formal greeting to his fellow workman in the field: "To every man his measure of grain, and may every man in the world be a Christian." This mystic connection between piety and bread labor has, of course, been expressed in many forms; to quote from an English poet:

"And when I drove the clods apart
Christ would be plowing my heart."

Or from a French one:

"Au milieu du grand silence, le pays se recusille soucieusement, tandis que, pas à pas, priante, la Lucia laisse, un à un, tomber les grains qui luisent."

Or from a Norwegian:

"The sower walked bareheaded in Jesu's name. Every cast was made with care in a spirit of kindly resignation; so it is throughout all the world where corn is sown…little showers of grain flung at famine from the sower's hand."

Certainly, tilling the soil, living a life of mutual labor has been at the bottom of many religious orders and mystic social experiments. From this point of view, Tolstoy had rejoiced that groups of Russian peasants had never owned land, but had worked it always with the needs of the whole village in mind, thus keeping close to Christian teaching and to a life of piety.

That this instinct of bread labor, the very antithesis of war, is widespread may be easily demonstrated. I have on my desk a newspaper clipping, a dispatch under a March date from Bressa in Asia Minor, which reads as follows: "The country has been revived by rains with the awakening of spring, and peasants are seen working in the fields, kissing the earth and thanking Allah for the blessed rain and also praying for peace and the riddance from the lands of the soldiers marching across to war."

When we were in Austria-Hungary in 1915 we were constantly told stories of Russian soldiers who throughout the spring had easily been taken prisoners because they had heard that war prisoners in Austria were working upon the land. These Russian peasant soldiers had said to their captors now that spring had come they wanted to get back to work, and so they would like to be made prisoners at least long enough to put the seed into the ground. They wished to put seed into the ground irrespective of its national or individual ownership.

I recall an evening years ago when I sat in the garden at Yasnaya Polyana, that Tolstoy begged us to remember that the Russian peasant did not change his nature when he shed his blouse and put on the czar's coat. Tolstoy predicted that the Russian peasants in their permanent patience, their insatiable hunger for bread labor, may at last make war impossible to an entire agricultural people. It is hard to determine whether the Russian soldiers who, in 1917, refused to fight had merely become so discouraged by their three years of futile warfare and so cheered by the success of a bloodless revolution in Petrograd and Moscow that they dared to venture the same tactics in the very trenches; or whether these fighting men in Galicia yielded to an instinct to labor on the land, which is more primitive and more imperative than the desire for war.

During the early days of the Russian revolution it seemed to me that events bore out the assumption that the Russian peasants, with every aspect of failure, were applying the touchstone of reality to certain slogans evolved during the war, to unreal phrases which had apparently gripped the leading minds of the world. It was in fact the very desire on the part of the first revolutionists in the spring of 1917 to stand aside from political as well as from military organizations and to cling only to what they considered the tangible realities of existence which was most difficult for the outside world to understand. The speculation, as I recall it, evolved in my mind somewhat as follows:

THE many Allied nations in the midst of a desperate war were being held together by certain formulae of their war aims which had gradually emerged during long years of mutual effort. Such stirring formulae or statements could be common to all the diverse Allies, however, only if they took on the abstract characteristics of general principles. This use of the abstract statement, necessary in all political relationships, becomes greatly intensified in time of war, as if illustrating the contention that men die willingly only for a slogan. The question inevitably suggested itself: Had the slogans -- this is a war to end war and a war to safeguard the world for democracy -- become so necessary to united military action that the Allies resented the naïve attempt on the part of the Russian peasants to achieve democracy without war? They so firmly believed that the aims of the war could be accomplished only through a victory of the Allies that they would not brook this separation of the aim from the method. Apparently the fighting had become an integral part of the slogan itself.

The necessity for holding fast to such phrases suggests one of those great historic myths which large bodies of men are prone to make for themselves when they unite in a common purpose requiring for its consummation the thorough and efficient output of moral energy. Man is so fertile in virtue and heroism, so prone to transcend his own powers, that the making and unmaking of these myths always accompany a period of great moral awakening. [page 3] Such myths are almost certain to outlast their social utility, and very often they outlive their originators, as the myth of The Second Coming evolved by the early Christians held for a thousand years.

Had this myth of our contemporaries that democracy is to be secured through war so obsessed the Allies that they were constrained to insist that the troops fight it out on the Eastern Front as elsewhere, in spite of the fact that fraternal intercourse, which the Russians were employing, is the very matrix of democracy? Had war so militarized and clericalized the leading nations of the world that it was difficult for them to believe that the Russian soldiers, having experienced that purification of the imagination and of the intellect which the Greeks believed to come through pity and terror, had merely been the first to challenge the myth, to envisage the situation afresh and reduce it to its human terms?

Vernon Lee contends that it is the essential characteristic of an historic myth that so long as it does not attempt to produce its own realization it begets unhesitating belief and wholesale action, and that as men go on expressing it with sufficient self-denying fervor they secure a great output of sanctity and heroism. The necessity for continuing this output, of unifying diverse nations, may account for the touch of fear easily detected on the part of the ardent advocates of war, when they were asked not to ignore the fact that at least on one front war was actually ending under conditions of disarmament and free trade. They did not admit that democracy could be established throughout one-sixth of the earth's surface if the Allies would only recognize the fact that the Russian soldiers had ceased to fight; Kerensky's group, or any other remaining in power, would at length have been obliged to acknowledge it, for no governmental group could have been upheld by the Russian people unless it had declared for peace and for free land.

DID the Allies fear to jar the abstraction which had become so dear to them? Did they realize instinctively that they would cripple the usefulness of a slogan by acknowledging its partial achievement?

It was perhaps to be expected that Russia should be the first nation to apply the touchstone of reality to a warring world so absorbed in abstractions. If Tolstoy may be considered in any sense the prototype of his countrymen, it may be permitted to cite his inveterate dislike of abstractions, whether stated in philosophic, patriotic or religious terms; his firm belief that such abstractions lay the foundation for blind fanaticism; his oft-repeated statement that certain forms of patriotism are inimical to a life of reason.

At that time the Allied nations were all learning to say that the end of this war would doubtless see profound political changes and democratic reconstruction, when the animalistic forces which are inevitably encouraged as a valuable asset in warfare should once more be relegated to a subordinate place. And yet when one of the greatest possible reconstructions was actually happening before their very eyes, the war-weary world insisted that the Russian soldier should not be permitted to return to the land but should continue to fight. This refusal on the part of the Allied governments suggests that they were so obsessed by the dogmatic morality of war, in which all humanly tangible distinctions between normal and abnormal disappear, that they were literally blind to the moral implications of the Russian attempt.

The Russian soldiers, suddenly turned into propagandists, inevitably exhibited a youthful self-consciousness which made their own emotional experience the center of the universe. Assuming that others could not be indifferent to their high aims, they placidly insisted upon expounding their newfound hopes. But all of this made the warring world, threatened with defeat if the German army on the Eastern Front were released, still more impatient.

POSSIBLY as a foolish pacifist, wishing to see what was not there, I gave myself over to idle speculations, and the spiritual realism as well as the Realpolitik was with the Allied statesmen who forced Kerensky to keep his men at war even at the price of throwing Russia into dire confusion.

These statesmen considered the outcome of the Russian revolution of little moment compared to the future of civilization which was then [imperiled] by the possibility of a German victory if the men on the Eastern Front were allowed to reinforce the West. But such an assumption, based on the very doctrines of war, was responsible for Brest-Litovsk; for "peace after a smashing victory"; for Trotsky's huge army; for much of the present confusion in the world. Did the Russians, for one golden moment, offer a way out? Or was the present outcome inevitable?

Three times in crucial moments in the world's history and with a simple dramatic gesture have representatives of Russia attempted to initiate the machinery which should secure permanent peace for all nations.

First: the proposals of the Russian Czar, Alexander I, in 1815, at the peace conference following the Napoleonic Wars, for "An all-embracing reform of the political system of Europe which should guarantee universal peace," and the resulting Holy Alliance which, according to historians, did not succeed "owing to the extremely religious character in which it was conceived."

Second: the calling of the first Hague Conference by Nicholas II, in 1899. His broad outline of the work which such a conference ought to do was considered "too idealistic" by the other powers, who tried to limit the function of The Hague Conferences [page 4] to the reduction of armaments and to the control of the methods of warfare.

Third: the spontaneous effort of the first Russian revolutionists to break through the belief that any spiritual good can be established through the agency of large masses of men fighting other large masses and their naïve attempt to convert individual soldiers. The string of Russian soldiers talking to their recent enemies stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains. These simple men assumed that men wished to labor in the soil and did not wish to fight, while all the rest of the world remained [skeptical] and almost rejoiced over the failure of the experiment, before it had really been tried. Certainly the world, resounding with a call to arms, was in no mood just then to listen to "mere talk."

WITH our Anglo-Saxon crispness of expression we are prone to be amused at the Russian's inveterate habit of discussion and to quote with tolerant contempt the old saying, "Two Russians -- three opinions," without stopping to reflect that the method has in practice worked out excellently for the self-governing administration of village affairs throughout an enormous territory.

When the first detachment of Russian [Doukhobors] were settling in Western Canada they discussed for two and a half days and two nights the location of the three villages into which the detachment was divided. One possible site was very much more desirable than the other two and the Anglo-Saxon onlooker feared that this factor alone might indefinitely prolong the difficulty of decision. But not at all -- the discussion came to a natural end, the matter was settled and never again reopened, nor were the disparity and the desirability of the locations ever again referred to by any one concerned. The mater had been satisfactorily settled in the prolonged discussion by all the "souls" entitled to participate. It proved after all to have been a very good way.

We forget that to obtain the "inner consent" of a man who differs from us is always a slow process, that quite as it is quicker to punish an unruly child than to bring him to a reasonable state of mind, to imprison a criminal than to reform him, to coerce an ignorant man than to teach him the meaning of the law, so it is quicker to fight armies of men than to convince them one by one.

A curious and very spontaneous manifestation of goodwill toward Russia occurred in Chicago in the spring of 1918. A society was organized with the slogan: "Ten Million Pairs of Shoes for Russia," and ten thousand old shoes were actually collected and placed in a warehouse. The promoters contended that all of the Russian peasants knew how to work in leather and could make their own shoes if they but had the material with which to work. In response to the objection that, even if it were practicable to send the shoes they might easily fall into the hands of the Germans, the reply was always the same -- that although there might be a risk of Germany's seizing the goods sent into Russia, if the United States did nothing at all in Russia's period of greatest distress and need, we ran the risk that Germany would obtain the goodwill of all Russia and that America would suffer an alienation and misunderstanding from which we might never recover. Of course, Anglo-Saxon good sense prevailed in the end and the collected shoes were never sent, although there is no doubt that even such a homely expression of goodwill would have been most valuable for the future relations between the two countries. Throughout the discussion I sometimes remembered what a famous British statesman wrote to Charles Sumner in 1862 concerning the cotton spinners of Lancashire who were starving owing to the withdrawal of southern cotton, but who nevertheless held to their principle that slave-grown cotton was an infamy: "Our people will be kept alive by the contributions of this country, but I see that some one in the States had proposed to send something to our aid. If a few cargoes of flour could come, say fifty thousand barrels, as a gift from persons in your northern states to the Lancashire workmen, it would have a prodigious effect in your favor here."

No one will be able to say how much it might have affected the sentiment toward the United States if such a humble cargo of goodwill had early left our shores for Russia; how it might have become the harbinger of other cargoes so long delayed!

*The first of three [installments] from Miss Addams' forthcoming book, "Peace and Bread in Time of War," to be published by the Macmillan Company.