Tuesday, September 19, 2017

2707. New York Trotskyism in the 1930s

By Geoffrey Hellman, The New Yorker, December 16, 1939

The political group familiarly known either as the Trotskyists of the Trotskyites is officially called the Socialist Workers Party. A lot of its members feel this name is confusing since the Party has just about as little patience with the Socialists as it has with the Stalinists, the Lovestonites, President Roosevelt, and Father Coughlin, all of whom the Trotskyists would like to blow up. It regards itself as the orthodox Marxist Party and it looks upon the regular Communist Party as at best a rather contemptible reformist group. During the eleven years of its existence, it has consistently maintained direct contact with Trotsky and an uncompromising policy of world revolution against all existing forms of government, every one of which it considers too far to the right. Despite the amount of noise which its members make and the frequency with which they come up in conversation, there are only some two thousand Trotskyists in the country, of whom around six hundred are in New York.
The Trotskyists, who prefer this term to “Trotskyites,” came into being on October 27, 1928, when three members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in New York — James P. Cannon, Martin Abern, and Max Shachtman — were expelled for spreading Trotsky’s doctrines instead of Stalin’s. Trotsky was advocating worldwide revolution while Stalin was insisting on confining the revolution to Russia for the time being. Trotsky had been banished to Turkestan the year before for holding the views he did and was subsequently expelled from the Party. In July, 1928, when the Sixth World Congress of the Communist Party was held in Moscow, Trotsky, still in Turkestan, prepared a detailed criticism of Stalin’s national political program. Translated into the various languages of the delegates attending the Congress, copies of this were distributed by the Party to the twenty-odd members of the Congress’s Program Commission, one of whom was Cannon. Although his copy was plainly marked “confidential” and was to be returned to the convention officials, Cannon was so impressed by it that he not only failed to give it back, a gross breach of Party etiquette but smuggled it into this country and showed it to his friends, including Abern and Shachtman. These men also concluded that Trotsky’s plumping for universal revolution was a sounder idea than Stalin’s plan of concentrating on Russia itself, and they sought to bring other American Party members around to their point of view. Expelled, after a trial, by Jay Lovestone, then head of the Communist Party in America, the three rebels formed a Trotskyist group, known first as the Communist League of America. Lovestone himself was expelled from the Party six months later, for objecting to Russia’s domination of Communist policies in other countries, and founded the Independent Labor League of America, which opposes both Trotsky and Stalin. As the Cannon-Abern-Shachtman offshoot grew in size and began to win over many Stalinists, the hostility of the mother Communist Party toward it became increasingly bitter. In 1934, the League, by then an affair of several hundred members, changed its name to the Workers Party of the US. In 1936 and 1937 it enjoyed an extended flirtation with the left wing of Norman Thomas’s Socialists. It joined the Socialist Party, took over the left-wing Socialist magazine, the Appeal, and called itself the Appeal Group of the Socialist Party. At the end of 1937, the Socialists kicked out the group because they considered it too radical. With it went a good many regular Socialists. The group then adopted its present name, the Socialist Workers Party [SWP].
The Trotskyists and the Stalinists have been calling each other reptiles, jackals, and general no-goods for so many years in their papers, magazines, and speeches that when the Soviet-Nazi [Molotov-Ribbentrop] pact was signed a couple of months ago I supposed the Socialist Workers, pleased at the discomfiture of the American communists, would be going around with broad grins and a great I-told-you-so air. To check up on this and find out about the party in general, I got in touch with a college classmate of mine who is now a leading Socialist Worker intellectual and a regular contributor to the Socialist Appeal and the New International, respectively the Socialist Workers’ semi-weekly newspaper and monthly magazine. To help me gain the proper perspective, he took me to the party’s headquarters at Thirteenth Street and University Place, the street entrance to which is marked by a discreet sign reading, “Labor bookshop. Books of all publishers. Second floor.” We walked up a rickety flight of wooden stairs and entered a room containing a couple of bare wooden tables, two or three chairs, and seven or eight young men, one of them a Negro, who were arguing violently whether Russia should be regarded as a communist or a fascist country.
My companion disappeared into an adjoining office to arrange for me to meet Mr. Shachtman, and I studied various printed slogans hanging on the walls of the room, among them “The time to apply our action program is now!”, “Every class struggle fighter a two-a-week subscriber!”, “Open the doors to Nazi victims,” and “There is work to be done!” In one corner of the room hung an oil painting showing Trotsky, Lenin, and several other people, with the phrase “Workers of the world, unite!” lettered on the top. While I was looking around, the loud conversation in the room ceased and everyone began to stare at me. A clean-cut young man in a brown tweed suit came up and asked me whom I was looking for, but before I could reply, my guide came out with Shachtman, a shortish, snub-nosed man of thirty-five with a tiny mustache and an air of great jollity. I was struck by his resemblance to one of the figures in the painting, and he informed me that it did indeed represent him and that the picture was the work of Diego Rivera, who had given it to the Party in 1933, when he came here to do the Rockefeller Center mural that was subsequently destroyed. In addition to Trotsky, Lenin, and himself, Shachtman pointed out likenesses of Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, James P. Cannon, and two or three other people whose names I didn’t catch. I gathered that these persons hadn’t posed together and that the picture was a symbolic one.
We went into another room, which was decorated with a second sign saying “There is work to be done!” and a painting by Rivera, depicting Lenin, Trotsky, and six or seven other people. Shachtman pointed to one of them and said, “That’s the man who took the Winter Palace in 1917.” I found out later that Rivera had, in 1933, been considerably more generous to the Lovestonites than to the Trotskyists, having presented them with twenty-one large murals, most of which portray the history of the United States in a way that would never help anyone pass an examination at Groton. These are located at the Lovestonite headquarters on West Fourteenth Street. Rivera must have been above small Leftist differences, for one of his paintings there shows, among others, Stalin, Trotsky, Lovestone, Cannon, and William Z. Foster. Foster, with Earl Browder, assumed the leadership of the American Communist Party after Lovestone was expelled.
Shachtman explained to me that the Socialist Workers Party holds a convention at least every two years and often annually, generally either in New York or Chicago. On these occasions, delegates adopt resolutions and elect a National Committee of twenty-five people. The National Committee, in turn, elects four party officers: the national secretary, the national labor secretary, the editor of the official party organ, the Appeal, and the editor of the New International, which deals more abstractly with theory and the like. Cannon is the national secretary and Shachtman is editor of the Appeal as well as co-editor of the New International, which is headed by James Burnham, a Princeton graduate in his early thirties who teaches at NYU. The Appeal, I was told, goes to seven or eight thousand homes and the New International normally has a circulation of over five thousand, but this has been cut drastically by the war, since nearly a third of the magazine’s readers live in belligerent countries, from which it is now banned.
The party also publishes a third paper, the semi-monthly Challenge of Youth, which is the organ of Trotskyists between sixteen and twenty-one. This group, which accounts for more than half of the Party’s New York membership, is known officially as the Young Peoples Socialist League (Fourth International) and unofficially as the Yipsils. The Yipsils, I was told, are trained to master dialectical materialism and are a wonderfully fanatical group. They hold street meetings all over Greater New York, usually operating in squads of ten or fifteen equipped with a collapsible speaker’s stand, an American flag, and a persuasive vocabulary. They distribute party propaganda and bring party papers and magazines to those newsstands which sell them. In addition, they indulge in a rigorous intra-party social life. They organize a great many picnics, dances, and informal parties among themselves, and there is a fair amount of Yipsil intermarriage. Last summer they rented a farmhouse near Peekskill, which they called Camp 3 Ls, a name which the Yipsils never explained to curious natives. It stands for Lenin, Liebknecht, and Luxemburg, three of the major Marxists of the past, and three intertwined letter Ls appear on pins which they wear. Camp 3 Ls was thrown into momentary confusion one day when three or four hitchhiking members were driven into camp by a gentleman who politely insisted on taking them right up to the door. They had asked him just to let them off near the entrance. He also insisted on walking inside and sat patiently through a meeting, already underway, at which preparations for going underground in case this country entered a war were being discussed. His new friends looked at him uneasily and when the meeting was over asked him who he was. “I’m a policeman and those were very interesting speeches,” he said and drove off.
Shachtman, who was born in Warsaw and brought here by his family at the age of eight months, started out as a sort of Yipsil, although in the Communist Party. He joined when he was sixteen and he has been a professional revolutionist ever since, never having held an outside job of any sort. Although his salary from the party, which fluctuates according to the condition of the treasury, has never been more than twenty-five dollars a week, he has managed to acquire one of the best private libraries of left-wing literature in the world. The salaries of party functionaries come from initiation fees, dues, and voluntary contributions from members and sympathizers. The initiation fee is a dollar and dues are fifty cents a month for employed members and ten cents a month for unemployed members. “Members have to make voluntary contributions,” Shachtman told me. I asked what walks of life the New York members came from, and there seemed to be a difference of opinion on this point, Shachtman said they were chiefly workers from the clothing, marine-transportation, and building trades and young unemployed — “part of the locked-out generation.” Another Party member whom I talked to later estimated that eighty percent of them were white-collar, middle-class people, including a lot of N.Y.U. and CCNY graduates and undergraduates. He said there were three or four Trotskyists at Harvard now, but none at Yale. I was told that about one-fourth of the Yipsils are girls and that this is an extremely high female percentage in a radical group. Among the adult members of the Party, only one in ten is a woman.
Shachtman explained to me that in addition to the Trotskyists, the Stalinists, the Lovestonites, and the Norman Thomas Socialists, the major left-wing parties around town include the Social Democratic Federation, which is strong in the garment unions and friendly to the New Deal, and the Socialist Labor, or Daniel De Leon, group, another comparatively moderate organization, which the Trotskyists consider stodgy. “Ninety percent of its members are octogenarians,” said Shachtman scornfully. Moreover, there are a number of minor, or “splinter,” left-wing parties, all of which have splintered off from the Trotskyists. Among these are the Oehler, Stamm, Mienov, Marlen, Joerger, Prometeo, and Field groups, which have anywhere from two or three to fifty members apiece. Shachtman tried to straighten out these factions for me, but I am not sure that he succeeded since they are in a constant and bewildering state of flux.
For example, as far as I can make out, Oehler and Stamm splintered off from the Trotskyists in 1935 and formed the Revolutionary Workers League, which refused, unlike the Trotskyists at that time, to have any truck with the Norman Thomas Socialists. A year later the Mienovites splintered off from the RWL splinter and formed a sub-splinter known as the Marxist Workers League. In 1937 the Oehlerites also splintered off from the Revolutionary Workers League, leaving Stamm the leader of this veteran splinter. Later on one George Marlen and several followers left the Oehlerites to form the Marlen group, or Limnist League, which regards Trotsky as an agent of Stalinism and lumps the Oehler, Stamm, and Mienov groups together as “left Trotskyists.” The Joerger group splintered off from the Trotskyists in 1937 and formed the Revolutionary Marxist League. The Prometeo group, which is named after Prometheus, consists of three or four Italian Communists who are officially known as the Italian Left Fraction of Communism. “They are extremely rigid and doctrinaire,” explained Shachtman with a certain amount of admiration. He told me that the Field group, or League for a Revolutionary Workers Party of the US, was founded by B.J. Field, a former Trotskyist who was expelled from the Trotskyist Party for gross violation of discipline during the New York hotel strike of 1934. “Both Mr. and Mrs. Field have recently been expelled from the Field group,” Shachtman told me. He also informed me that at least one splinter group, the Weisbordites, is now defunct. It was founded in 1931 by Albert Weisbord, a former Trotskyist who felt that the Trotskyists were not being sufficiently active in promoting and leading strikes. He called his party the Communist League of Struggle and later changed the name to Friends of the Class Struggle, following a recent left-wing tendency to drop the word “Communist” from the titles of their organizations. Weisbord is now inactive politically, Shachtman said. He also told me that the various splinter groups differed from each other and from the Socialist Workers Party in subtle doctrinal ways that would in most cases be too complicated for me or almost anyone else to understand. They frequently engage in negotiations to unite with each other, but nothing ever comes of this. According to Shachtman, the existence of these splinters is a tribute, rather than a reproof, to the Trotskyists, since it results from a freedom of discussion that would never be countenanced by the Stalinists.
I asked for a statement on the Socialist Workers’ position in the contemporary American political scene and was referred to the September issue of the Appeal, which contains a photograph of Cordell Hull, captioned “Bankers’ Hatchet Man,” and the following platform:
  1. A job and a decent wage for every worker.
  2. Open the idle factories—operate them under workers’ control.
  3. A twenty-billion-dollar federal public works and housing program.
  4. Thirty-thirty! $30-weekly minimum wage — 30-hour weekly maximum for all workers on all jobs.
  5. Thirty-dollar weekly old-age and disability pension.
  6. Expropriate the sixty families.
  7. All war funds to the unemployed.
  8. A people’s referendum on any and all wars.
  9. No secret diplomacy.
  10. An independent labor party.
  11. Workers’ defense guards against vigilante and fascist attacks.
During the past few weeks a twelfth plank has been added to this platform: “Full social, political, and economic equality for the Negro people.” There are only a handful of Negro Trotskyists as yet, but the Party is making a drive to get more. In the recent municipal election, Shachtman ran for councilman in the Bronx, where he lives, on the Socialist Labor ticket and was defeated after a whirlwind campaign, in the course of which he made several extremely long speeches. “I attribute my defeat to the base tactics of my opponents and the general corruptness of the capitalist system,” he told me, smiling. “I am thinking of demanding a recount.” Considering that Shachtman, with 2,269 votes, was only 56,594 behind the low man among the successful Bronx candidates, his faith in the capitalist system was probably not too shaken.
Shachtman showed a greater inclination to discuss splinter groups and his campaign in the Bronx than the Soviet-Nazi pact, but he intimated that the Trotskyists were not as joyful over this as I had expected, because many of them, for all their hatred of Stalin, had until recently still thought of Russia as a workers’ state and now no longer could do so. ” We consider the Nazi pact a calamitous blow for the international labor situation,” he said. I found out later, by hanging around Party headquarters and listening to people wrangle in the corridors, that the pact has caused a terrific rift among the Trotskyists and that many of them disagree profoundly with the position which Trotsky, who is living in Mexico, has taken toward it. For the first couple of weeks after the pact was signed, Trotsky, who is known to his disciples as “the old man,” said nothing about it, although he is generally in constant correspondence with his New York adherents. Finally he came through with a long essay in which he stated that the Soviet-Nazi pact, while constituting additional proof of the degeneration of Soviet leadership, “does not provide any basis whatsoever for a reevaluation of the sociological appraisal of the USSR.” Trotsky went on to condemn the methods by which Russia had acquired part of Poland but announced that the resultant socializing of this territory was, by and large, a good thing and should be approved by the comrades. “Our general appraisal of the Kremlin and Comintern,” he wrote, using his own italics, “does not alter the particular fact that the statification of property in the occupied territories is in itself a progressive measure.” Trotsky has similarly condoned Russia’s invasion of Finland. Since many of his followers feel that this attempted conquest is even less defensible than the Polish affair, his latest position has intensified the rift in the Socialist Workers Party. Trotsky’s stand on the pact seemed to be opposed by most of the Trotskyists I heard discussing it. It has been the subject of interminable debates at Party meetings, where Shachtman and Burnham are the most articulate protagonists of the theory that the pact makes it impossible to regard Russia any longer as a socialist state, and where Cannon is Trotsky’s chief spokesman. The extreme section of the anti-Trotsky bloc thinks the whole Russian experiment should be written off as a bad job. The recent reversal of Stalinist policy in this country is also a topic of earnest discussion among the Trotskyists. Superficially, Browder’s present advocacy of a “rapid transition” in the United States would seem to place the Stalinists in the same camp as the Trotskyists, but the Socialist Workers with whom I talked explained that the current Communist stand had caused them to oppose the Stalinists more violently than ever, since they consider the new Communist Party line hypocritical and merely a sop to Hitler. They are now busy relaying this information to their rank and file. ” I wish you could attend one of the meetings where we thrash things out,” Shachtman said to me. I expressed a desire to do this, and he told me that only Party members could be present. I asked Shachtman what he could tell me about Cannon. “Cannon is the oldest revolutionary in the United States. He’s forty-eight or forty-nine,” Shachtman said.
Leaving Shachtman, I called on Mr. Cannon, a genial, red-faced, gray-haired man, whom I found in an office down the corridor. There were several maps on his wall and a small red pennant with “4th International” on it in white. Cannon was sitting at a desk, smoking a pipe and sipping milk from a cardboard container. “I was a coworker with Earl Browder in the Kansas City labor movement from 1914,” he said to me in a gentle, patient voice. “Our paths diverged in 1928. Now there’s a line of blood between us.” Cannon was born in Kansas City, where his father, a foundry worker, was a conscientious Socialist agitator. Cannon regards himself as a professional revolutionist, just like Shachtman, but confessed that he had occasionally taken a job as baker, railroad worker, newspaper reporter, etc., when he was hard up, and then with considerable regret. “These were just stopgaps,” he explained. “I worked simply as the average man is laid off.” Cannon told me that Stalin’s ideas of economic and social reform had developed along regrettable lines and that the Trotskyists were the orthodox Marxists and not, as many people supposed, a divergent sect. “Our specific weight is much more than twenty-five hundred,” he said, raising by five hundred the estimate of Party membership which other Trotskyists had given me. “We have the most militant, sacrificing, and confident youth movement of any radical group. The movement is a devourer. We aim to absorb the whole life of our members.” Cannon seemed delighted over the fact that the Party contained so many Yipsils, and he informed me with satisfaction that the average age of Socialist Workers’ delegates to Party conventions is only twenty-six or twenty-seven. He asked me to draw my own conclusions from the circumstance that whereas the Communist constitution forbids Stalinists to say as much as hello to a Trotskyist on pain of expulsion, the Trotskyist leaders advise their followers to fraternize with rank-and-file Stalinists as often as possible. I thought this might be an underhanded method of decimating the opposition Party, but he said it really wasn’t. “We educate our people to an irreconcilable hatred of Stalinism but encourage them to associate with the rank-and-filers in order to convert them,” he said. According to Cannon, this has worked out very nicely. “One of our girls married a Stalinist only the other day,” he told me. “The groom has since become a Communist fellow-traveler and it is only a question of time before he will become a Trotskyist.” Cannon said that in marriages of this sort the Stalinist is always the one who is converted. He also told me that the Party had no rich angels. (Another member whom I buttonholed later said the Party did have some rich angels, but he wouldn’t tell me who they were.)
I asked Cannon for an official view of the Russian-German pact, and he replied that it hadn’t changed the Socialist Workers’ belief that the Soviet is fundamentally on the right track. “We consider the Russian government a workers’ state fallen in control of traitors,” he said. “But we won’t change the state, just the personnel, whereas in this country we have to change the entire system.” He told me that if Russia were attacked by the United States, the party would be for Russia — an attitude which struck me as not being exactly cricket in view of the fact that a good many Trotskyists are on relief, and at the same time admirably high-minded in view of the fact that if Cannon were to go to Russia he would undoubtedly be shot.
Cannon said that while the Trotskyists frowned on the Soviet occupation of Poland because it violated principles of self-determination, which they believed in, as a fait accomfli they were for it. “We’re not in favor of the way it’s done, but once it’s socialized we’d defend it,” he said. “The political rascalities of Stalin don’t change our attitude. The determining thing is the economy of the state.” I asked Cannon whether it wasn’t true that many Party members now considered the Russian economy imperialistic rather than socialistic, and he replied that they were in the minority.
“Suppose a majority opposed Trotsky?” I asked. “It would be too bad for the old man,” said Cannon. He said that questions of this sort were put to a vote at Party conventions, one of which will probably be held next spring in Chicago, and that while one delegate’s vote was as good as another’s, the weight of Trotsky’s influence was enormous. Incidentally, from people who had visited him recently, I learned that Trotsky is now living in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City, in a house guarded on the outside by four unreliable-looking Mexican policemen and inside by four young American Trotskyists. Most of the time he sits at his desk reading, writing, and dictating into a dictaphone. He writes with a pen in Russian on pieces of paper which he pastes together until each sheet is two or three feet long. He generally wears loose blue pants, a sweater, and Russian slippers with ankle-high cuffs, and he uses a revolver as a paperweight. His hair and beard are almost white. He doesn’t drink or smoke, and eats sparingly, not being especially fond of Mexican food. He and his wife used to go on picnics a good deal and on these occasions Trotsky would instruct his guards to dig up cactuses for a cactus garden he has planted, but since the death of a son in Paris a couple of years ago, they rarely leave the house. Diego Rivera’s house, where Trotsky used to live, is only two blocks away, but the two men have had a row and don’t see each other any more.
After I had talked for some time with Cannon, people started poking their heads into the national secretary’s office, telling him he was late for a meeting, so presently I left. In the corridor I came across three Yipsils, a girl of about sixteen and two boys around the same age, arguing excitedly about what their attitude toward Russia ought to be. “Maybe Cannon will just accede to the majority at the convention,” the girl was saying. “The real issue is what you should call the Polish invasion.” “When you judge an act, you judge it according to its main features affecting the world revolution,” one of the boys said. ” The invasion of Poland is merely an incident in the war.” “Don’t mix up an incident with a geopolitical grab. There’s a difference, you’ll admit,” the girl answered sharply. “Stalin didn’t merely invade Poland as an incident in a progressive war, but as a policy of Stalinist imperialism.” Both boys objected to this, and one of them said, “I don’t think Shachtman and Burnham acted very well at the meeting.” It was around five in the afternoon by this time, and as I went down the stairs I passed six or seven Yipsils on the landing, all bawling each other out with a militancy and confidence that made me wish they would ask me to one of their picnics.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

2706. How Civilization Started

By John Lanchester, The New Yorker, September 18, 2017
A life of hunting and gathering had advantages over one of farming and settlement. Art: Golden Cosmos.

In “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States,” James C. Scott, a professor of political science at Yale, presents a plausible contender for the most important piece of technology in the history of man. It is a technology so old that it predates Homo sapiens and instead should be credited to our ancestor Homo erectus. That technology is fire. We have used it in two crucial, defining ways. The first and the most obvious of these is cooking. As Richard Wrangham has argued in his book “Catching Fire,” our ability to cook allows us to extract more energy from the food we eat, and also to eat a far wider range of foods. Our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, has a colon three times as large as ours, because its diet of raw food is so much harder to digest. The extra caloric value we get from cooked food allowed us to develop our big brains, which absorb roughly a fifth of the energy we consume, as opposed to less than a tenth for most mammals’ brains. That difference is what has made us the dominant species on the planet.Science and technology: we tend to think of them as siblings, perhaps even as twins, as parts of stem (for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics”). When it comes to the shiniest wonders of the modern world—as the supercomputers in our pockets communicate with satellites—science and technology are indeed hand in glove. For much of human history, though, technology had nothing to do with science. Many of our most significant inventions are pure tools, with no scientific method behind them. Wheels and wells, cranks and mills and gears and ships’ masts, clocks and rudders and crop rotation: all have been crucial to human and economic development, and none historically had any connection with what we think of today as science. Some of the most important things we use every day were invented long before the adoption of the scientific method. I love my laptop and my iPhone and my Echo and my G.P.S., but the piece of technology I would be most reluctant to give up, the one that changed my life from the first day I used it, and that I’m still reliant on every waking hour—am reliant on right now, as I sit typing—dates from the thirteenth century: my glasses. Soap prevented more deaths than penicillin. That’s technology, not science.

The other reason fire was central to our history is less obvious to contemporary eyes: we used it to adapt the landscape around us to our purposes. Hunter-gatherers would set fires as they moved, to clear terrain and make it ready for fast-growing, prey-attracting new plants. They would also drive animals with fire. They used this technology so much that, Scott thinks, we should date the human-dominated phase of earth, the so-called Anthropocene, from the time our forebears mastered this new tool.

We don’t give the technology of fire enough credit, Scott suggests, because we don’t give our ancestors much credit for their ingenuity over the long period—ninety-five per cent of human history—during which most of our species were hunter-gatherers. “Why human fire as landscape architecture doesn’t register as it ought to in our historical accounts is perhaps that its effects were spread over hundreds of millennia and were accomplished by ‘precivilized’ peoples also known as ‘savages,’ ” Scott writes. To demonstrate the significance of fire, he points to what we’ve found in certain caves in southern Africa. The earliest, oldest strata of the caves contain whole skeletons of carnivores and many chewed-up bone fragments of the things they were eating, including us. Then comes the layer from when we discovered fire, and ownership of the caves switches: the human skeletons are whole, and the carnivores are bone fragments. Fire is the difference between eating lunch and being lunch.

Anatomically modern humans have been around for roughly two hundred thousand years. For most of that time, we lived as hunter-gatherers. Then, about twelve thousand years ago, came what is generally agreed to be the definitive before-and-after moment in our ascent to planetary dominance: the Neolithic Revolution. This was our adoption of, to use Scott’s word, a “package” of agricultural innovations, notably the domestication of animals such as the cow and the pig, and the transition from hunting and gathering to planting and cultivating crops. The most important of these crops have been the cereals—wheat, barley, rice, and maize—that remain the staples of humanity’s diet. Cereals allowed population growth and the birth of cities, and, hence, the development of states and the rise of complex societies.

The story told in “Against the Grain” heavily revises this widely held account. Scott’s specialty is not early human history. His work has focussed on a skeptical, peasant’s-eye view of state formation; the trajectory of his interests can be traced in the titles of his books, from “The Moral Economy of the Peasant” to “The Art of Not Being Governed.” His best-known book, “Seeing Like a State,” has become a touchstone for political scientists, and amounts to a blistering critique of central planning and “high modernism,” the idea that officials at the center of a state know better than the people they are governing. Scott argues that a state’s interests and the interests of subjects are often not just different but opposite. Stalin’s project of farm collectivization “served well enough as a means whereby the state could determine cropping patterns, fix real rural wages, appropriate a large share of whatever grain was produced, and politically emasculate the countryside”; it also killed many millions of peasants.

Scott’s new book extends these ideas into the deep past, and draws on existing research to argue that ours is not a story of linear progress, that the time line is much more complicated, and that the causal sequences of the standard version are wrong. He focusses his account on Mesopotamia—roughly speaking, modern-day Iraq—because it is “the heartland of the first ‘pristine’ states in the world,” the term “pristine” here meaning that these states bore no watermark from earlier settlements and were the first time any such social organizations had existed. They were the first states to have written records, and they became a template for other states in the Near East and in Egypt, making them doubly relevant to later history.

The big news to emerge from recent archeological research concerns the time lag between “sedentism,” or living in settled communities, and the adoption of agriculture. Previous scholarship held that the invention of agriculture made sedentism possible. The evidence shows that this isn’t true: there’s an enormous gap—four thousand years—separating the “two key domestications,” of animals and cereals, from the first agrarian economies based on them. Our ancestors evidently took a good, hard look at the possibility of agriculture before deciding to adopt this new way of life. They were able to think it over for so long because the life they lived was remarkably abundant. Like the early civilization of China in the Yellow River Valley, Mesopotamia was a wetland territory, as its name (“between the rivers”) suggests. In the Neolithic period, Mesopotamia was a delta wetland, where the sea came many miles inland from its current shore.

This was a generous landscape for humans, offering fish and the animals that preyed on them, fertile soil left behind by regular flooding, migratory birds, and migratory prey traveling near river routes. The first settled communities were established here because the land offered such a diverse web of food sources. If one year a food source failed, another would still be present. The archaeology shows, then, that the “Neolithic package” of domestication and agriculture did not lead to settled communities, the ancestors of our modern towns and cities and states. Those communities had been around for thousands of years, living in the bountiful conditions of the wetlands, before humanity committed to intensive agriculture. Reliance on a single, densely planted cereal crop was much riskier, and it’s no wonder people took a few millennia to make the change.

So why did our ancestors switch from this complex web of food supplies to the concentrated production of single crops? We don’t know, although Scott speculates that climatic stress may have been involved. Two things, however, are clear. The first is that, for thousands of years, the agricultural revolution was, for most of the people living through it, a disaster. The fossil record shows that life for agriculturalists was harder than it had been for hunter-gatherers. Their bones show evidence of dietary stress: they were shorter, they were sicker, their mortality rates were higher. Living in close proximity to domesticated animals led to diseases that crossed the species barrier, wreaking havoc in the densely settled communities. Scott calls them not towns but “late-Neolithic multispecies resettlement camps.” Who would choose to live in one of those? Jared Diamond called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in human history.” The startling thing about this claim is that, among historians of the era, it isn’t very controversial.

The other conclusion we can draw from the evidence, Scott says, is that there is a crucial, direct link between the cultivation of cereal crops and the birth of the first states. It’s not that cereal grains were humankind’s only staples; it’s just that they were the only ones that encouraged the formation of states. “History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit or sweet potato states,” he writes. What was so special about grains? The answer will make sense to anyone who has ever filled out a Form 1040: grain, unlike other crops, is easy to tax. Some crops (potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava) are buried and so can be hidden from the tax collector, and, even if discovered, they must be dug up individually and laboriously. Other crops (notably, legumes) ripen at different intervals, or yield harvests throughout a growing season rather than along a fixed trajectory of unripe to ripe—in other words, the taxman can’t come once and get his proper due. Only grains are, in Scott’s words, “visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable.’ ” Other crops have some of these advantages, but only cereal grains have them all, and so grain became “the main food starch, the unit of taxation in kind, and the basis for a hegemonic agrarian calendar.” The taxman can come, assess the fields, set a level of tax, then come back and make sure he’s got his share of the harvest.

It was the ability to tax and to extract a surplus from the produce of agriculture that, in Scott’s account, led to the birth of the state, and also to the creation of complex societies with hierarchies, division of labor, specialist jobs (soldier, priest, servant, administrator), and an élite presiding over them. Because the new states required huge amounts of manual work to irrigate the cereal crops, they also required forms of forced labor, including slavery; because the easiest way to find slaves was to capture them, the states had a new propensity for waging war. Some of the earliest images in human history, from the first Mesopotamian states, are of slaves being marched along in neck shackles. Add this to the frequent epidemics and the general ill health of early settled communities and it is not hard to see why the latest consensus is that the Neolithic Revolution was a disaster for most of the people who lived through it.

War, slavery, rule by élites—all were made easier by another new technology of control: writing. “It is virtually impossible to conceive of even the earliest states without a systematic technology of numerical record keeping,” Scott maintains. All the good things we associate with writing—its use for culture and entertainment and communication and collective memory—were some distance in the future. For half a thousand years after its invention, in Mesopotamia, writing was used exclusively for bookkeeping: “the massive effort through a system of notation to make a society, its manpower, and its production legible to its rulers and temple officials, and to extract grain and labor from it.” Early tablets consist of “lists, lists and lists,” Scott says, and the subjects of that record-keeping are, in order of frequency, “barley (as rations and taxes), war captives, male and female slaves.” Walter Benjamin, the great German Jewish cultural critic, who committed suicide while trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe, said that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He meant that every complicated and beautiful thing humanity ever made has, if you look at it long enough, a shadow, a history of oppression. As a matter of plain historical fact, that seems right. It was a long and traumatic journey from the invention of writing to your book club’s discussion of Jodi Picoult’s latest.

We need to rethink, accordingly, what we mean when we talk about ancient “dark ages.” Scott’s question is trenchant: “ ‘dark’ for whom and in what respects”? The historical record shows that early cities and states were prone to sudden implosion. “Over the roughly five millennia of sporadic sedentism before states (seven millennia if we include preagriculture sedentism in Japan and the Ukraine),” he writes, “archaeologists have recorded hundreds of locations that were settled, then abandoned, perhaps resettled, and then again abandoned.” These events are usually spoken of as “collapses,” but Scott invites us to scrutinize that term, too. When states collapse, fancy buildings stop being built, the élites no longer run things, written records stop being kept, and the mass of the population goes to live somewhere else. Is that a collapse, in terms of living standards, for most people? Human beings mainly lived outside the purview of states until—by Scott’s reckoning—about the year 1600 A.D. Until that date, marking the last two-tenths of one per cent of humanity’s political life, “much of the world’s population might never have met that hallmark of the state: a tax collector.”

The question of what it was like to live outside the settled culture of a state is therefore an important one for the over-all assessment of human history. If that life was, as Thomas Hobbes described it, “nasty, brutish, and short,” this is a vital piece of information for drawing up the account of how we got to be who we are. In essence, human history would become a straightforward story of progress: most of us were miserable most of the time, we developed civilization, everything got better. If most of us weren’t miserable most of the time, the arrival of civilization is a more ambiguous event. In one column of the ledger, we would have the development of a complex material culture permitting the glories of modern science and medicine and the accumulated wonders of art. In the other column, we would have the less good stuff, such as plague, war, slavery, social stratification, rule by mercilessly appropriating élites, and Simon Cowell.

To know what it is like to live as people lived for most of human history, you would have to find one of the places where traditional hunting-and-gathering practices are still alive. You would have to spend a lot of time there, to make sure that what you were seeing wasn’t just a snapshot, and that you had a real sense of the texture of lived experience; and, ideally, you would need a point of comparison, people with close similarities to your hunter-gatherers, but who lived differently, so that you would have a scientific “control” that allowed you to rule out local accidents of circumstance. Fortunately for us, the anthropologist James Suzman did exactly that: he spent more than two decades visiting, studying, and living among the Bushmen of the Kalahari, in southwest Africa. It’s a story he recounts in his new book, “Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen.

The Bushmen have long been of interest to anthropologists and scientists. About a hundred and fifty thousand years ago, fifty thousand years after the emergence of the first anatomically modern humans, one group of Homo sapiens was living in southern Africa. The Bushmen, or Khoisan, are still there: the oldest growth on the human family tree. (The term “Bushman,” once derogatory, is now used by the people themselves, and by N.G.O.s, “invoking as it does a set of positive if romantic stereotypes,” Suzman notes, though some Khoisan prefer to use the term “San.”) The genetic evidence suggests that, for much of that hundred and fifty thousand years, they were the largest population of biologically modern humans. Their languages use palatal clicks, such as a tsk, made by bringing the tongue back from the front teeth while gently sucking in air, and the “click” we make by pushing the tongue against the roof of the mouth, then bringing it suddenly downward. This raises the fascinating possibility that click languages are the oldest surviving variety of speech.

Suzman first visited the Bushmen in 1992, and went to stay with them two years later, as part of the research for his Ph.D. The group he knows best are the Ju/’hoansi, between eight and ten thousand of whom are alive today, occupying the borderlands between Namibia and Botswana. (The phonetic mark /’ represents a tsk.) The Ju/’hoansi are about ten per cent of the total Bushman population in southern Africa, and they are divided into a northern group, who retain significant control over their traditional lands, and who therefore still have the ability to practice hunting and gathering, and a southern group, who were deprived of their lands and “resettled” into modern ways of living.

To a remarkable extent, Suzman’s study of the Bushmen supports the ideas of “Against the Grain.” The encounter with modernity has been disastrous for the Bushmen: Suzman’s portrait of the dispossessed, alienated, suffering Ju/’hoansi in their miserable resettlement camps makes that clear. The two books even confirm each other’s account of that sinister new technology called writing. Suzman’s Bushman mentor, !A/ae, “noted that whenever he started work at any new farm, his name would be entered into an employment ledger, documents that over the decades had assumed great mystical power among Ju/’hoansi on the farms. The secrets held by these ledgers evidently had the power to give or withhold pay, issue rations, and determine an individual’s right to stay on any particular farm.”

It turns out that hunting and gathering is a good way to live. A study from 1966 found that it took a Ju/’hoansi only about seventeen hours a week, on average, to find an adequate supply of food; another nineteen hours were spent on domestic activities and chores. The average caloric intake of the hunter-gatherers was twenty-three hundred a day, close to the recommended amount. At the time these figures were first established, a comparable week in the United States involved forty hours of work and thirty-six of domestic labor. Ju/’hoansi do not accumulate surpluses; they get all the food they need and then stop. They exhibit what Suzman calls “an unyielding confidence” that their environment will provide for their needs.

The web of food sources that the hunting-and-gathering Ju/’hoansi use is, exactly as Scott argues for Neolithic people, a complex one, with a wide range of animal protein, including porcupines, kudu, wildebeests, and elephants, and a hundred and twenty-five edible plant species, with different seasonal cycles, ecological niches, and responses to weather fluctuations. Hunter-gatherers need not only an unwritten almanac of dietary knowledge but what Scott calls a “library of almanacs.” As he suggests, the step-down in complexity between hunting and gathering and domesticated agriculture is as big as the step-down between domesticated agriculture and routine assembly work on a production line.

The news here is that the lives of most of our progenitors were better than we think. We’re flattering ourselves by believing that their existence was so grim and that our modern, civilized one is, by comparison, so great. Still, we are where we are, and we live the way we live, and it’s possible to wonder whether any of this illuminating knowledge about our hunter-gatherer ancestors can be useful to us. Suzman wonders the same thing. He discusses John Maynard Keynes’s famous 1930 essay “The Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” Keynes speculated that if the world continued to get richer we would naturally end up enjoying a high standard of living while doing much less work. He thought that “the economic problem” of having enough to live on would be solved, and “the struggle for subsistence” would be over:

When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.

The world has indeed got richer, but any such shift in morals and values is hard to detect. Money and the value system around its acquisition are fully intact. Greed is still good.

The study of hunter-gatherers, who live for the day and do not accumulate surpluses, shows that humanity can live more or less as Keynes suggests. It’s just that we’re choosing not to. A key to that lost or forsworn ability, Suzman suggests, lies in the ferocious egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers. For example, the most valuable thing a hunter can do is come back with meat. Unlike gathered plants, whose proceeds are “not subject to any strict conventions on sharing,” hunted meat is very carefully distributed according to protocol, and the people who eat the meat that is given to them go to great trouble to be rude about it. This ritual is called “insulting the meat,” and it is designed to make sure the hunter doesn’t get above himself and start thinking that he’s better than anyone else. “When a young man kills much meat,” a Bushman told the anthropologist Richard B. Lee, “he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. . . . We can’t accept this.” The insults are designed to “cool his heart and make him gentle.” For these hunter-gatherers, Suzman writes, “the sum of individual self-interest and the jealousy that policed it was a fiercely egalitarian society where profitable exchange, hierarchy, and significant material inequality were not tolerated.”

This egalitarian impulse, Suzman suggests, is central to the hunter-gatherer’s ability to live a life that is, on its own terms, affluent, but without abundance, without excess, and without competitive acquisition. The secret ingredient seems to be the positive harnessing of the general human impulse to envy. As he says, “If this kind of egalitarianism is a precondition for us to embrace a post-labor world, then I suspect it may prove a very hard nut to crack.” There’s a lot that we could learn from the oldest extant branch of humanity, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to put the knowledge into effect. A socially positive use of envy—now, that would be a technology almost as useful as fire.