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No Vacation from Politics

Paul A. Baran (1909–1964) was an influential Marxian political economist and professor of economics at Stanford from 1951 until his death. An early and prolific contributor to MR, he was the author of The Political Economy of Growth (1957) and, with Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital (1966), both published by Monthly Review Press.

Translator’s note

In 1931 my father, Paul A. Baran, was a twenty-one-year-old graduate student at the University of Breslau, then part of Germany but now a city in Poland also known as Wrocław. Baran had been working as a research assistant to Dr. Friedrich Pollock at the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research from 1929 to 1930, collecting and preparing material for the second volume of a treatise on the Soviet economy. As part of that project, Pollock asked him to transfer to the Institute for Eastern Europe at the University of Breslau, which held the largest collection of relevant literature.
According to Baran’s biographical statement: “When…in the autumn of 1930 I went to Breslau, the threat of Hitlerism was looming large on the political horizon…. I was very active in the social-democratic student organization, frequently spoke in social-democratic and trade union meetings, wrote leaflets and articles for the social-democratic newspaper, and regularly spoke over the radio.” In my father’s files were a series of typewritten transcripts of these radio talks, written in German, which I have translated (and many of which are available online at the Paul A. Baran Papers Archive at Stanford University:
The talks were broadcast on the Silesian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio station, Schlesische Rundfunk, including this one, which aired on May 29, 1931, shortly before the usual summer vacation period (Ferien) in Germany. Baran titled the transcript of this broadcast “Ferien von der Politik,” or “Vacation from Politics,” but in fact, his message was to warn listeners that with the spectre of Hitler, this was no time to take a break from political engagement. Thus the MR editors have modified the title here appropriately.
—Nicholas Baran

Ladies and gentlemen!

Blessed were the times when a man’s decision about his fate lay in his own hands. Blessed were the times when he relied upon himself and was under no one’s direct command and formed his life through his direct relationship to nature. These were times of transparent clarity; these were times of child-like belief in God; these were times of inner peace. The environment [Umwelt] of the man of that time existed outside of his horizon; its events passed him by or broke into his life naturally, suddenly, overwhelmingly. Wars and starvation, epidemics and bad harvests stood on the same plane—they were to man equally strange, equally incomprehensible, equally remote.

This assault of his environment into his existence, these catastrophes which from time to time would bring his life into turmoil, man could not explain to himself. For they were of a different type than he was; for they were covered by a thick impenetrable shroud…. Faith replaced knowledge at that time; prayer replaced action, and fear replaced circumspection….

Because the life of the environment was not the life of the man; because man only noticed and felt this environment in moments of catastrophic incursions; because this environment was completely outside of man’s daily life—there was at that time no politics for people. Politics as life of the society well understood, politics as the existence of the environment properly grasped, was at that time only the concern of the very highest regions of society; was at that time a problem that only occupied the select few—the princes and their entourages.

The simple man knew at that time no politics, because his community had no need for politics, because his circle of activity was limited to his home and within the fence that bordered his land. When, however, politics became a reality for him; when the political throne and state actions directly intruded into his life, for example when being conscripted as a soldier into the war, then it was unavoidable fate, the luck of the draw. To try to grasp and pursue the reasons for these events, to ask “why?” was out of the question, was both heresy and sacrilege.

Of course, this belongs to old history. The reports about this sound like fantastic fairy tales, for the modern-day man has become something different. You will easily perceive this difference, ladies and gentlemen, by taking a quick glance at yourselves, by taking a quick overview of your own lives. The fundamental difference between your feeling for the world and that fleetingly described above will appear before your eyes in full clarity. The life of man has become different. The environment and its fate, and the human community with its events, can no longer be viewed separately. Human life and the life of the human society are now deeply intertwined, are now inseparably tied together—form a single indivisible whole. But this is what is essentially new: much earlier, back then, the environment had changed the life of the individual through its incursions. Even back then the individual had determined the form [Gestalt] of the environment by his way of life. What is really new in our time is far more the fact that man is now aware of his intimate relationship to the environment, is for the first time in all clarity conscious of this unbreakable relationship to society. We said this with full clarity. Because now we are not dealing with some vague feeling of connection—that too was always there. Rather, the deep understanding of the real environment, revealed by scientific analysis and enriched by research on all fronts, that is what is essentially new about modern life.

And if human life is recognized to be linked and tied together with the life of the environment, if the fate of the environment is conceived to be the determining factor in the fate of each individual, this generates the desire to shape the environment, the desire to actively influence the course of its progress, which desire becomes the center point of human existence. The world is thus transforming from a natural, secret power into more and more what it really is—into the world created by mankind, for mankind, into a history made and guided by mankind. Thus the belief in providence is replaced by scientific research of historical laws—thus the child-like man of faith is replaced by the man of modern times—the quintessential political man. As the inner life and external life of man blend together, as the environment and man’s personal life become more and more fastened together, as the life of the society and the life of the individual meld into one—politics stops being a profession of the chosen few, politics stops being an occasional diversion—politics becomes the life of man in general.

But this transformation goes deeper and further. Not only what man does politically, but how he behaves politically, has dramatically changed in today’s world. All attempts to conceal the essence of political struggles are proving to be more and more fruitless. No longer as clever palace intrigues; no longer as secret diplomacy of experienced statesmen, politics today is recognized for what it always was, and particularly what it is today—namely the struggle of the different classes, the struggle of the rulers and the ruled, as the always enduring struggle for power. Politics is thus the eternal struggle for dominance, the eternal struggle of the society, of its state, its economy, and the yield of its labor.

That immediately explains why the different classes of society have such different views of politics. The ruling class generally has little interest in the politicization of the masses of the ruled. Such politicization does not bode well for the ruling class. For politicization means a growing awareness of the real structure of society, a growing understanding of the socio-economic laws of motion, a growing recognition of the need to transform the relations of social control—a transformation that is never amenable to the rulers. Therefore, the ruling class does little in the way of political education for the people; does hardly anything to enable the masses to grasp and comprehend the political laws of motion. Politics today has become knowledge; an understanding of the social order and of the full scope of social interactions requires a thorough study of society. The masses are denied this study. The opportunity to really school oneself politically, to immerse oneself in the study of various journals and books and thus to grasp the essence of the political and scientific processes, is reserved for the lucky few. And precisely those who are in most need of this kind of politicization, who experience most directly the twists and turns of politics, precisely the millions of workers and unemployed, have the very least access to political education.

But instead of furthering the politicization of the masses, instead of enlightening the people about the political relationships, in almost all instances the exact opposite is promoted. It’s not by chance that the big industrial enterprises establish gym and sport unions for their workers; not by chance that the big firms give out richly illustrated and extensive firm-newspapers; not by chance that the movie theatre screens are full of criminal and erotic trash. The people are to be shielded from politics; they are to view politics through the lens of their firm’s newspaper and the scandal sheets; they are to be occupied with the industry association propaganda, and in this way to avoid real politics.

And precisely now, when the political structure of our society has such profound consequences; precisely now, when a clear and calm understanding of the true relationships is most needed; precisely now is when political mawkish sentimentality is fiercely promoted, when ringing political slogans are being used to distract people from the real problems, to transform the masses into a herd which follows the loudest screamers. It is in times like this that every diversion from political thinking takes its toll. It is in times like this when one realizes what one has missed, when one has not been schooled politically, when one has not participated in the political process.

The politicization of the working people is dangerous for the rulers of this world, but it is the hope of our entire culture. Therefore one should not bother with the words of reactionaries of all shades; one should not listen to the words of those, who yearn for the “good old days,” who seek to strip the people of politics. One should not be swayed by those people, who seek to suffocate politicization by all means possible, who want to transform man back to what he was many centuries ago, when he was the compliant toy of unknown forces hovering over him.

And if the tribulations of the political humdrum and the disappointments of our last decade have caused many of you to desire some political tranquility, to desire a vacation from politics, you must repress this attack of weakness with all your might. This desertion from the political battleground is the greatest crime against humanity that one can commit, because the others, the reactionary backwards striving forces never quit, never allow themselves a vacation from politics. And if you, infuriated and embittered, now renounce the political struggle; if you sulkily stand off to the side with a dismissive wave of your hand; then you leave the politics to the others; then you subject yourself to their domination.

Politics today means decision. Decision about the penultimate issues, decision in questions of life or death. You cannot run away from this decision; a decision must definitely be made, and if you avoid this decision, you have also made a decision—in fact probably the worst decision one can make, namely to relinquish the self-determination of one’s life.

As we say this all to you today, as we today address you with our warning call, we are well aware how unfitting this talk is “in the wonderful month of May, where all the buds are in bloom.” We know very well that most of you right now have the least desire and inclination to spend your free time immersed in politics. Just now, when the blooming gardens beckon people into nature; just now, when the oppressive heat draws one to the banks of the Oder; just now, most people after their hard and exhausting workday, want as quickly as possible to hang their suit and pants in the closet, forget about all and everything, turn off the loudspeakers…and please no speeches like this, but rather light and refreshing music. And if in spite of this, we appealed to you with these serious words and have claimed your attention for what has been spoken, we did this in the knowledge of our duty, in the knowledge that we cannot afford the luxury of a vacation from politics.

For it is the inexhaustible interest in political events within the workforce, the enduring participation of the working man in the affairs of the state and of the economy, that is the only beacon of light in our present gloom. And this beacon of light may not be allowed to extinguish; it may not be allowed to disappear; people in this time must not despair, because otherwise the present and the future are lost.

Let the others, who have nothing more to gain in this world; let the others, for whom politics means protecting one’s already won position; let those others allow themselves a vacation from politics. We cannot afford this; we cannot allow ourselves such a vacation. For there is no vacation from this life, no vacation from this time of need, no vacation from our struggle.

Take no vacation from politics—the clock keeps on ticking!

Take no vacation from politics—otherwise you will lose years of your life!

Take no vacation from politics—otherwise the meaning of your existence will leave you!

Be political people—for today our fate is political!

Be steadily and consciously political—for politics is the struggle for our future!

2016, Volume 67, Issue 08 (January)
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