N. G. Chernyshevsky
Original publication: ru.wikisource.org
Translation: Roderic Day

Compromise and Sacrifice (1861)

In the 1860s capitalism’s increasing domination of the planet was triggering discussions everywhere. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859), for example, justified British gunboats forcing China to submit to a flood of opium on grounds of “interference with trade.” [1] Elsewhere, in America, the Civil War of 1861-65 between the planter South and the industrial North was about to break out. The Russian Empire, naturally, was holding its own internal debates on the question of development. Tsar Alexander II, for example, would issue the decree that abolished serfdom in Russia in 1861.

In this political context, the anti-“Free Trade” camp in Russia, in a bid to bolster its political positioning, translated from English to Russian some letters addressed to U.S. President James Buchanan by well-known American-Northerner economist H. C. Carey, where he opposed both laissez faire capitalism and slavery on economic grounds.

Pre-Marxist Russian socialist Nikolai Chernyshevsky took this opportunity, in the form of a review of said recently published translation, to explain that he sympathized with some of Carey’s goals, while at the same time criticizing what he saw as the misguided, narrowly economistic logic underpinning Carey’s arguments. The following excerpt is the final third of said review, and the title is an RS editorial decision.
 — R. D.

The root evil in the United States is slavery. The party seeking the abolition of chattel slavery has its stronghold in the states of New England. These states demand protective tariffs. It may very well be that they are mistaken about this, that they don’t in fact need protective tariffs — but what is to be done? You can, if you like, try to persuade New England out of this delusion; but as long as it holds on to it, you must accept this perhaps suboptimal, perhaps even harmful feature of its program, for the sake of its essential feature: hostility to slavery. This goal is just, it is righteous, and its importance to public life is millions of times greater than all other public considerations. Writers accustomed to the pursuit of “inconvenient truths,” who sacrifice the sacred truth that practical difficulties must also be reasoned through, are ready to exclaim with indignation: “Your principle, that one should sometimes accept the delusions of others as they are, and put financial calculation above scientific requirements, is ruinous and cowardly!” But sometimes it is necessary to analyze which social need demands which theoretical sacrifice, and whether the sacrifice is outweighed by its benefit to society — which is to say to science itself, because social success leads to scientific success. It is sometimes necessary to collaborate with someone advancing wrongheaded positions because their other positions are justified and incomparably more important.

There is no unconditional, comprehensive truth in any fact, party, or program. [2] You must identify which aspect of any program contains in itself the least untruth and the most justice — then, having chosen, you must cling to it with all your soul. This is the case in politics as in private life, where, unless you are a soul-less man, you love some people fervently despite their flaws. After all, what do you care about these flaws? You love them not for their flaws but for their virtues, and for the sake of the virtues of a person who has many flaws you might give anything, perhaps even your life. The willingness to sacrifice yourself for the person you love, however, can be qualified also: if you throw yourself into an abyss to fulfill the whims of the woman you love, it would be stupid and in fact even criminal, but it’s quite another thing if you sacrifice yourself for her happiness, or to save her life. We must, therefore, exercise discretion when evaluating the merits and demerits of any given program. We must follow our sense of right and wrong, but not to the point that the act becomes ridiculous and even negligent. Arguing “He does not want free trade, therefore I must not be his partisan, though without him I can do nothing against slavery” is akin to saying “He wants a penny contribution from me, therefore I will not be his companion, though companionship with him will enrich us both.” No, this is not how a genuinely intelligent man who is clear-sighted in his pursuit of his goal would argue: he would calculate as strictly as possible, and if the sum of a compromise would be outweighed by its benefits, he would go to any length to secure it. [3] There have been people who suffered great indignity, who staked out their entire reputation, whose names are now condemned in the mouths of the so-called noble folk, because the greater good demanded it. “What kind of person?” you may ask. Well, let me tell you what I saw yesterday.

There’s a young widow whose beauty is unlike that of any other. She loved her husband passionately, and she was consumed with sadness after his passing. Not a single person in society would hesitate to bow before her immaculate purity. This woman disappears. Where did she go? There she is: in the midst of a rowdy crowd of dissolute drunkards and lost women. She sits by the side of some gentleman, who, as it seems, is richer and appears more noble than the rest; she caresses him, and she draws him into her arms so successfully that he abandons his former mistress; she steals him from one of the lost women. The humble widow builds up quite a reputation for herself! She cannot deceive herself about the fact that it is not only honest people who look at her with contempt, but even the most wretched. She can see it in the eyes and hear it in the harsh but true words of the woman whose livelihood she has stolen: “My humiliation was imposed on me by fate, I was disgraced against my will,” says this girl to her rival. “You, meanwhile, volunteered to disgrace an honest life; you volunteered into debauchery — it pleases you. You are more despicable than I am.” Then comes an old man who knew our widow when she was an exemplar of immaculate purity to all. He sees her in the hands of a drunken, coarse rich man, on whom she lavishes affections. This old man, who had so much respect for her, and whose words she had always received with reverence, curses her: “It cannot be easy for her to bear this shame, but, indeed, she asked for it. She knew in advance that she would tarnish her honor, and yet she did not hesitate to tarnish it…”

“What nonsense is this?” you exclaim. “This is the plot of Judith. All of St. Petersburg saw Adelaide Ristori’s performance!” [4]

Of course. I just wanted to point out that Judith didn’t do a bad thing. [5] It is not often that terrible sacrifices of this scale are demanded from people who wish to be useful to society. However, if we look at civic life as a whole, it is a constant fact that historical circumstances force anyone pursuing higher goals, for the sake of society, to abandon some private aspirations. [6] The highroad of history is not a sidewalk of the Nevsky Prospect. It passes all the way through open fields, dusty and muddy; at times it cuts across marshes or forests. Those who are afraid of soiling their hands had better keep away from politics. [7] When you really think about the benefit to the people, it is a charitable occupation, but it doesn’t always immediately appear that way.

Of course, moral purity can be understood in different ways — some might, for example, consider that Judith never tarnished herself to begin with. However, we stray from the subject at hand. The point is to affirm that in the United States it is possible, without injury to one’s civil and scholarly reputation, to be an advocate of protective tariffs. Not only can one do so, perhaps one must. However, in order to have this right, one must look at the question of tariffs not from an abstract point of view, but rather in the context of other, more important social questions. Broaden the scope of your considerations and you will realize you have responsibilities on many private matters that are different from those that would follow if you posed those same questions in isolation. But that’s not what H. C. Carey does. He rejects free trade and preaches protectionism not on account of circumstances more important than the economic advantage of free trade: he pretends to derive his opinion from political-economic grounds, and these cannot be reconciled with protectionism. [8] It’s like asking about the war. There are circumstances in which Adam Smith and David Ricardo themselves would demand the energetic conduct of war — for example, if a foreign army wished to invade England. Still, it would not follow that war is consistent with the principles of political economy. [9]

We do not in any way begrudge Carey his belief that high tariffs are a necessity for the United States. We object only to the weakness of his logic; to the fact that he derives this necessity not from special circumstances (that have nothing to do with political-economic theory), but rather from economic theory itself. However, Carey’s bigger folly is his obsessive tendency to turn the question of tariffs into the pivot of all social life, the main mediator of all of its phenomena; this monomania was imposed on him by economists, who reorganized the whole of science in such a way that questions about economics became its central subject. Let economists, then, look at Carey’s letters to the President, and marvel at the faithful inverted reflection of their narrow-mindedness as if through a mirror: Tariffs, the alleged source of all of the “manifold ills” of the United States, presented as their universal cure. Remarkable!

[1] “[T]here are questions relating to interference with trade which are essentially questions of liberty; such as […] the prohibition of the importation of opium into China […]. These interferences are objectionable, not as infringements on the liberty of the producer or seller, but on that of the buyer.” — J. S. Mill, On Liberty (1859). [web] 

[2] Here and below, Chernyshevsky articulates principles that affirm the partisanship of truth, no matter what sphere — scientific, political, literary — it belongs to. Chernyshevsky’s understanding of partisanship in many ways prefigures Lenin’s principle of partisanship — in philosophy, literature, journalism, politics, and so on. 

[3] The difference between opportunism and strategy lies in 1) the clarity and correctness of this calculation, and 2) the proofs offered by its outcome. — R. D. 

[4] Judith — a tragedy by Paolo Giacometti, performed in St. Petersburg in early 1860 (published in Russian in 1861). The starring role was performed by the famous Italian actress Adelaide Ristori (1822-1906). The tragedy was a retelling of the biblical legend of the Jewish heroine Judith, of the besieged Hebrew town of Bethulia, who lured the Assyrian commander Holofernes to kill him, thus saving her town and her people. [web] 

[5] Plekhanov stated, about Chernyshevsky’s incredible impact in Russian society by way of literary reviews and his popular fiction novel What Is To Be Done?: “The society of his day had little interest in philosophy and a relatively strong interest in literature. This is why he devoted his early works mainly to literary questions, using his philosophical deductions to elucidate questions of this nature.” — R. D. 

[6] In 1894 Engels quoted Chernyshevsky to this effect: “The introduction of a better order of things is greatly hindered in Western Europe by the boundless extension of the rights of the individual […]. It is not easy to renounce even a negligible portion of what one is used to enjoying, and in the West the individual is used to unlimited private rights. The usefulness and necessity of mutual concessions can he learned only by bitter experience and prolonged thought. In the West, a better system of economic relations is bound up with sacrifices, and that is why it is difficult to establish.” [web] — R. D. 

[7] These statements of Chernyshevsky were some of Lenin’s favorite aphorisms. In The Social-Democrats and the Duma Elections he wrote: “Chernyshevsky said in his day: ‘Those who are afraid of soiling their hands had better keep away from politics.’” [web] In “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder he wrote: “‘Political activity is not like the pavement of Nevsky Prospekt’ (the well-kept, broad and level pavement of the perfectly straight principal thoroughfare of St. Petersburg), N. G. Chernyshevsky, the great Russian socialist of the pre-Marxist period, used to say. Since Chernyshevsky’s time, disregard or forgetfulness of this truth has cost Russian revolutionaries countless sacrifices.” [web] 

[8] “In general, the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive. […] In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favor of free trade.” — Karl Marx’s speech “On the Question of Free Trade” (1848). [web] — R. D. 

[9] There is an important alternative position to consider: one could demand that the theory be amended to account for the practice. See, for example, Losurdo’s “Marx Against Hegel?” (2010). [web] — R. D.