Such Is Our Challenge

Against the Current, No. 204, January/February 2020

Richard Wright

MY BODY WAS born in America, my heart in Russia, and today I am quite ashamed of my two homelands. The American State of Mississippi gave me my body; the Russian October Revolution gave me my heart. But today these two giant nations — symbols of the nationalistic scourge of our times — rival each other in their efforts to establish projects for the debasement of the human spirit.

They are guilty of degrading humanity, guilty of debasing the culture of our times, guilty of replacing the value of quality by the value of quantity, guilty of creating a universe which, little by little, is revealed as the gas chamber of humanity.

These two nations, the American and the Russian, pretend to be the official representatives of human liberty and, between these two official pretensions, between the threats they hurl at each other, the human spirit finds itself crucified.

Men are afraid. They are unable to choose. They cannot plan. They cannot think of the next day. They tremble in the night from fear and dismay. The imperatives of military and industrial life have so obscured and enfeebled the instincts of men that they no longer even know that they are lost.

You know that is true. I know it. Then, why not admit it? Why not grant it as a point of departure which determines our words and actions?

Certainly, as conscious men, we ought to know that the crisis before us is more weighty in substance than the combat between America and Russia.

The truth is that those two nations make war on your spirit and my spirit, that contemporary spirit which books, culture and history have given us; that Dante, Shakespeare, Racine and Goethe have given us. Each step that America takes and each step that Russia takes brings us nearer to the point where free thought, free spirit and free action are not possible. We live in this vise.

America says that she alone is the champion of liberty; and Russia also says this. In fact, those two nations advocate ideals in which they really don’t believe, which they even hate and despise. America is suspicious of you intellectuals; she has invented a whole terminology to express her disdain for the products of the human spirit: men who think, she scornfully calls Long Hairs, Pedants, Dreamers, Makers of Theory, Intellectual Bastards, Visionaries, etc.

And in Russia, what do they call you there? Monkeys, Hyenas, Chimpanzees, such are the names they hurled at T.S. Eliot, at Andre Gide, and at the best living writers, at the recent cultural congress held in Poland.

The Conquerors’ War

Listen, writers and artists: the men who today lead the world have declared war on you! They have no need of you, they don’t want you in the society they are trying to build. They think you are dangerous. They said it at Hollywood and they said it at Prague!

Whoever is the conqueror, you lose; you shall be reduced to servile dependence, to slavery to discs of a phonograph repeating the official doctrine. I ask you, you men of spirit: what is there for you to choose? Are you able to say yes, with all your heart, to those things that America symbolizes?

If you are able to say yes to one or the other of these points of view, that signifies something that has already died in you, that the battle which the Americans and the Russians wage for the conquest of your spirit is already won. If you are able to choose between them, that signifies that humanity is lost, that 2000 years of the history of man is ended, that the conception of man that we have is buried.

I cannot answer the question that I raise and I don’t apologize. There are times in history when words alone cannot give an answer. There are times when action alone is able to answer. Such are our times. Acts, that is what you, intellectuals, must accomplish, acts with words, acts which express your needs, your wishes, your dreams.

Do you believe that I exaggerate the gravity of the problem? Listen and remember. There are two nations in the world today, where feeling has become politically suspect, where speaking of the subjective qualities of man is a crime, where the mere act of speaking about freedom is smeared and spied upon, where servility is made noble, falsehood worshiped, double-dealing sanctified, false testimony binding, spying patriotic, and where the scientific laboratory is guarded by bayonets.

These are not isolated cases which affect some dishonorable individuals. No, these are the official beliefs of governments that lead hundreds of millions of men. To oppose this flood of opinion is to risk a brutal death or to endanger your means of earning a living.

The war against man is declared and, if you don’t know it, if you are not conscious of it, you will be unable to set an example for those who are caught in the situation, but who still don’t know that it is almost too late.

What is Freedom?

Freedom of speech is not enough. Free­dom of religion is not enough. Freedom from hunger and fear, they are not enough. A nation which is not able to give its citizens the right and freedom to exercise their natural and acquired abilities is founded on fraud. Man ought to have the freedom to remain a man.

Freedom is not negative, it ought to be not only the possibility “of” something, but to go freely “towards” something. It ought to let man create new values for life, otherwise it was not created for man.

America and Russia are full of machines which strangle living more than they protect. America and Russia are full of educational institutions for whom the goal is not the formation of independent individuals, but of standardized human types who are loyal to the State.

The intolerant, harsh nationalism of America and Russia deprive the millions of men who live in these countries of having normal human sentiments and they are forced to become propaganda projectors.

In America and Russia, the right to an individual destiny is sacrificed in the name of a compulsory national ideal. The hysterical political atmosphere, in America and in Russia, already has removed from man the means of objectively and reasonably resolving the problems of food and shelter.

The present nationalism, in America and in Russia, forces a man to abandon his human heritage. America and Russia pretend that their action is in defense of the lives of their people; but in truth, it kills the life of man on earth.

In rejecting all this, what can we do? Fortunately, the situation is not completely desperate. I believe that we still have a chance. It is not a question of our fighting these national giants on their own ground.

Our weapons are not their weapons. For us there still exists room for liberty, and that room is your spirit and mine, your ability to speak and write the words which hold attention and make men stop, look and listen.

For some time yet, we shall have this liberty; for how long? We don’t know.

But that tiny space of liberty is surrounded by threats, ersatz culture (fed to the masses, and impoverishing the spirit), false values, governments of gangsters, books which confuse more than they clarify, crime which speaks the language of the revolution, and revolution which speaks the language of crime.

Nevertheless, we can make ourselves heard. And that ought to be enough for us. We have only a few allies. For centuries men like us have worked for the bosses, the lords, the masters. But that is ended. Today the masters are afraid of you; they no longer want you. From now on, you are alone and you are your own masters.

You must find a way of making your words a good to incite men to decide for themselves. You must find words and images which make men feel life in the most direct, most immediate, keenest way. Your words must drive man by powerful blows from passive existence to real life.

Your words must instill faith into men, but faith which is not based upon superstition. The strength of your words must empower men to escape their daily impersonal, big city routine and fill a new need of expressing themselves, of believing in themselves, of fulfilling themselves. Your words must stir up in man the desire to be a man.

Your words must be a prayer addressed to man for man. They must arouse a desire in man to remain human. I speak not of heaven or hell, but purely and simply of our sad and sweet earth, with its men who suffer and have their moment of bitter human triumph.

The great danger is that the threads of history, which we hold so feebly in our hands, may break asunder in our lifetime; that the past which has nourished us and the future which we seek should escape us and leave us in a barren present denuded of all human significance.

In order that our universe not escape us, a single man must speak with the tongues of ten, each of your acts must equal that of a thousand. Such is our challenge. If we fail, not only shall we lose our puny individual lives, but we shall lose all that is human in the world, all that history, however imperfect she is, has bequeathed us.

The world is greater than America or Russia. Humanity is greater than America or Russia. That is a fact. If we believe it, we shall conquer.

January-February 2020, ATC 204

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