Reinhold Niebuhr Timeline: Attends European Seminar series

Reinhold Niebuhr Timeline: Attends European Seminar series

Correspondence with Sherwood Eddy


Private and Confidential
On the Black Sea
September 15, 1929

Dear Reinie:

My first letter from Russia dealt with its economic progress and the importance of the question of recognition. My second described the rapid socialization of agriculture. This third and final letter will endeavor to summarize my outstanding impressions of this baffling "land of contradictions." As I compare conditions today with those prevailing on our last visit of three years ago, three dominant impressions stand out: 1. Collective farming is so rapidly developing that within five years they expect over forty million people, or a third of their 120,000,000 peasant farmers to be united in the communes(?) and collectives of socialized and industrialized agriculture. 2. Defensive militarism is growing space to meet the attack or invasion that they feel sure will be the culmination of the long chain of events of non-recognition, continued hostility, seizure of railways, telegraphs, legations and officials that has marked the attitude of the great nations of the East and West toward them. All the evils of Russia are intensified by the present war psychology which had its counterpart in America in the hysteria of the post-war Palmer raids and deportations. 3. Religious persecution has, I regret to say, developed during the last year, to which I shall refer later.

The strange contradiction between their humanitarian ends and their often ruthless means can only be understood in the light of clear realization of their aim. This was the cessation of all exploitation of men by men, by means of the abolition of private property, and the substitution of the common ownership of all means of production, upon an equal basis of social justice. Their motive was not private profit but public service for social welfare. But it was their fundamental conviction that after nineteen hundred years of trial all efforts and combinations of Church and State had failed to achieve social justice by moral suasion, by any system of education, constitutional government, parliamentary democracy, or free evolutionary development. Therefore they felt they must turn as a last resort from evolution to revolution, from what they considered the prostitution of democracy by capitalism to the dictatorship of the workers – the only class which had not exploited or oppressed them.

Once they were committed to humanitarian aims by means of force let us see what endless contradictions were involved. For the vast majority of workers, for many millions the whole system ultimately means release, creative expression, self-realization in a new social order, in a new type of civilization, where they have all the liberty they want; but for the minority who oppose or do not agree with them, for a few millions, Russia has become one cast prison from which there is no escape. For there is no liberty and no toleration for the practice of a divergent view of life. On the one hand they are most scientific in practical, material and social relations, and probably the most daring experimenters in modern history. On the other hand, they are strangely dogmatic in economics, politics and religion, and most intolerant of any deviation within their own party or of any signs of vital religion, although they still tolerate what they regard as the harmless services of formalism and superstition for the older generation. They are courageous and fearless in confronting insurmountable obstacles and enemies, yet exhibit a strange fear psychosis, a fear of each other and of foreign foes, real or imagined.

Reinhold Niebuhr Papers: Library of Congress, Manuscript Reading Room

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Paul Elie

is senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.

Jean Bethke Elshtain

is an author and Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Robin Lovin

is Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and the author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism.