Springhead to Springhead

A Westminster Letter:
Springhead to Springhead

National Review – February 31, 1958
By Whittaker Chambers

Photo by Walker Evans from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

The independent farmer, says one of their number, is doomed to lose his fight against bureaucracy; but it was worth making and will not be forgotten.

After winter’s long, cold enemy occupation, spring is back; no longer halting and promissory, but true, irreversible spring. Now the springheads, dried up in last summer’s fierce drought and long silent, burst out again, refilled by this spring’s plentiful moisture, and rush on their way to the sea with a chance of drowning babble in babble as they pour past Washington (we are in the Potomac watershed). Now the voices of the fertilizer and lime purveyor and the farm implement hucksters are heard louder than the voice of the turtle in the land. “Make five blades of corn grow where one grew before,” they coo. “Let 140 bushels an acre (with fertilizers) swell farm surpluses which 40 bushels (without fertilizer) could never swell so prosperously. Let one man do (with machines) the work that three could scarcely do (without). So disemployment thrives.” Of course, they do not really say these things; this is only the logic of what they say.

And, as throughout nature in the spring voice answers voice, their voices are answered by others. These are the voices of the Agriculture Department‘s employees, and other official and semi-official farmers’ helpmeets. There are enough of these turtles in the land so that, if there were time at this season to count noses, I suspect that the bureaucratic nose count in almost any farm county would fill you with wonder at how they manage without colliding. In part, they manage by a division of labor. While some (bringing, often, a good deal of expert knowledge and patient solicitude to jobs, in general, poorly paid) are helping you multiply yields — others (the land-bankers and that ilk) are exhorting you to decrease yields. They will pay you for it, too; and so painlessly that some scarcely notice that the hand which reaches for the payment is thereafter meshed in the controls. Since few seem to mind this, or to notice the gaping paradox — the coos of increase cancelling the coos of decrease — perhaps it hardly matters. Yet history, glancing back, may be struck by another paradox and wonder if, in America, it was not in the countryside that socialism first took firm root and stooled.

The Bureaucrat Tactic

It has been a carefully nurtured growth. The earlier controls (Roosevelt and Wallace consulibus 1) were rather flirtatious things. Bureaucracy was chiefly feeling out the land to see how many inches it could take before reaching for a mile. On this farm, we were always careful to plant less than the official wheat allotment. But the great tactic (it is almost a reflex) of the bureaucrat mind is to keep things unsettled, to keep you off balance, to make you feel unsure. So I was not surprised when, one day years ago, a small character knocked at the door to say that he was the wheat inspector, that he had been looking over our fields (of course, without asking),and that we were overplanted. His thin, sidewise smile tried to hint at least hanging at sunrise. It disturbed my wife. But I knew that we were not overplanted, and I thought I knew what silver cord connects bureaucracy and politics. “Elections are coming up,” I said to her. “You can be absolutely sure that nothing more will be heard of this.” Nothing was, of course.

But, shortly afterwards, I happened in on a neighbor who is made of sterner stuff. It was hog-feeding time, and he approached with a pail of slop in each hand. I asked: “Did that fellow look over your fields?” My neighbor set down each pail, somewhat with the air of a President laying a State of the Union message on a lectern; and eyed me for a moment of dense silence. Then he said: “You know he’s a black-hearted skunk,” adding with immense relish: “I run ‘im.” I thought I heard the fifes of ‘76.

You will not hear them now, or, I think, again. Those days, around Pearl Harbor, were a simpler, sweeter time. Besides, the Second World War, with mass armies and half a world to feed, made nonsense of controls. It remained for this Administration to weld them on. I have never known on just what remote, snow-capped Olympus the wheat allotments were alloted. Official notice of how much (or how little) wheat you could henceforth lawfully plant just arrived, one day, in the mail. But, if you had been alloted less than fifteen acres (most of us were), you could not afterwards vote about continuing or discontinuing this control. Voting about that was henceforth the privilege of the bigger planters. Those under fifteen acres were henceforth stripped of a vote in this rather relevant matter. Moreover, if you planted above your official allotment, even if the yield of the overplant was not for sale, was used wholly to feed your own stock or poultry, you still had to pay a penalty for growing it. Moreover, government surveyors could come into your fields at any time, to measure your wheat acreage and determine what penalty you must pay. This, you will see, went considerably beyond controls in the earlier sense, which most farmers had been content to abide by if only, by doing so, they would be let alone; while some, in the vain hope that the surest way to be let alone was not to take even the subsidies to which controls entitled them, refused these.

So it happened, now, that a few such farmers, who held that their land was inviolable, and that the day of the kolkhoz had not yet arrived made known their temperatures by running up, at the entrance to their farms, signs which read: “Government agents, keep out!” There was a tiny farm revolt hereabouts, with some strong feelings and words between embattled farmers and officials. And these farmers were certainly mistaken; at least about what hour of history it is. The years of bureaucratic feeling-out were over. The day of submission-or-else had come. The Administration moved swiftly against the resisters in a legal action known(ironically enough, it seemed to some) as: The People v. Morelock.

You can read about this particular Morelock in Witness, where I wrote of him and his family: “Names to be written rather high, I think, on the column which is headed: ‘And thy neighbor as thyself.'” In sum, the charge was interfering with government agents in pursuit of their duty. Mr. Morelock and his fellow defendants won that action, on a technicality, rather, I suspect, to the relief of the bureaucracy, which wanted no martyrs; and whose chief purpose, after all, was not to harass or penalize farmers. What was wanted was to seal on controls and cut surpluses, and this the resistance threatened over-all.

One Man’s Resistance

It was a silly, hot-headed, inconsequential resistance? It did not reflect the feelings of masses of farmers anywhere? There is a point of view — nowadays we tend to exalt it as “reasonable” — from which any spontaneous resistance on principle, and against odds, is seen always to be silly. And such struggles often appear inconsequential enough at the time. Those who make them are few in number if only because those who react fiercely on principle are, in the nature of men, likely to be few. Nor are they, in the nature of themselves, likely to be worldly-wise, to have thought out in crisp detail all the implications of their action. If they could do this, presumably they could not act. For their drive to act is organic and instinctive, not neatly cerebral. So their opponent finds it easy to dismiss them as crackpots and extremists; and, in general, his strength is defined by the degree to which he can afford to dismiss them with the derisive smile. The smile mantles power.

Perhaps I should make a point clear: I was not directly concerned by any of this. Some time before, when we saw that controls were coming to stay, we simply stopped planting wheat. But I could not bear to see my friends mauled. So I spoke privately to the wife of one embattled farmer. I went to the wife because I did not wish to sustain the man’s hurt or blazing anger at what I had to say. In effect I said: “Urge him to stop. He cannot win. He will only destroy himself, and for nothing. This cause was lost before it began.” These people are strong human types of a kind little known among the mystic circles of the intellectuals. They hate a quitter, and they do not make a quick distinction between a faint heart and the coldly measuring glance. I saw dawning in this woman’s eyes, first shock that I, of all people, should say this; then a tinge of just-repressed contempt. “That is not what you did in the Hiss Case,” she said. I said: “No. That is why I am saying this to you. Do not destroy your lives for nothing.”

Then I went away. I did not return until the action was over; all had simmered down, and reality had taught what words seldom can. For these people have a strong grasp of reality, a simple wisdom of the earth, where ten minutes of unseasonable hail will tear to ribbons a year’s corn — but you go on from there. By then, they knew (whether or not they would admit the fact in words) that they were the defeated. They were proud to have made the effort; and I think that this pride was about in ratio to their realization that they could only have been defeated; no other issue was possible. It was their pride to have acted, anyway. Into that pride they retreated. This was no retreat from principle. The retreat was into silent conformity to superior force, the force of the way things are, which compels compliance, but convinces no one. In ending their resistance, they yielded to that force, but from their silence they looked out at it with unyielding scorn.

I asked the woman to whom I had first spoken: “What now?” She answered that, when the Republican Party was first organized, her forebears (they had always lived on this same farm) had voted for Fremont. When, just before and during the War Between The States, Maryland was rent, they had twice voted for Lincoln. They were Black Republicans; in the whole history of the line, they had never voted anything but Republican. She said: “We will never vote for a Republican again.” I said: “What do you gain by that? Do you suppose those others [the Democrats] will not give you more and tighter controls?” She said: “Then we will never vote again at all.” Never is a long word. But, in so far as anything can be certain in an uncertain world, I think it is certain that these people — they are of the breed of those who built the nation from the unpeopled earth — will never vote again. They have silently seceded, not so much from the electorate (that is only the form the gesture takes), but from what they believe to be betrayal of basic principle, without which their world surrenders a part of its meaning. That principle is the inviolability of a man’s land from invasion even by the State, the right, of a man to grow for his own use (unpenalized by the State) a harvest which his labor and skill wrings from the earth, and which could not otherwise exist. Freedom was at stake, of which the inviolable land and its harvest were symbol and safeguard. The word “indivisible” is not one that these people commonly think or speak with. So they do not think or say: “Freedom is indivisible.” But that is what they sensed and that is why they acted. It was not controls, but coercion, they resisted.

Crisis of Abundance

Do not misunderstand me. I do not suppose that wheat allotments, or similar controls, are inherently wicked, or that government’s action in enforcing them was wrong – given our reality. I believe them to be inescapable, which is something different. The problem of farm surpluses is, of course, a symptom of a crisis of abundance. It is the gift of science and technology – improved machines, fertilizers, sprays, antibiotic drugs, and a general rising efficiency of know-how. The big farm, constantly swallowing its smaller neighbors, is “a logical resultant of those factors (big machines are fully efficient only on big acreages). Surpluses follow.” So does the price trend of farm real estate, steadily creeping pward for decades. So does the downtrend of the farm population (it has fallen by a million in about two decades).

If farmers really meant to resist these trends, to be conservative, to conserve “a way of life” (as they often say), they would smash their tractors with sledges, and go back to the horse-drawn plow. Of course, they have no intention of doing anything so prankish, and, moreover, would not be let do it if they tried. Controls would, appear at that point, too. For the cities, which dominate this society, are dependent on machine-efficient yields. So the State would have to act to prevent the farmer from preserving “a way of life,” just as it has to act by controlling, in the field, an agriculture of anarchic abundance. Both are actions against anarchy. Controls of one kind or another are here to stay so long as science and technology are with us; or, until the ability of farmers to produce and the ability of the rest of us to consume their product is again in some rough balance, thus ending the problem. That balance will be restored, presumably, in the course of a survival of the fittest, in which efficiency determines survival. And efficiency is itself the result of a number of factors, one of which is almost certainly size of operation. In short, the farm unit tends to grow bigger and more efficient, as the farmers, growing more efficient, too, grow drastically fewer in necessary numbers.

This is the only solution of the farm problem; one that is obviously impersonal and rather inhuman (and in that it is exactly like any other comparable development in history, for example the development of the factory system). Short of that solution, no man or party can solve the farm problem. They can only contrive palliatives. All that men and parties can do is to try to mitigate and soften, in human terms, the plight of the farmer in, the course of heading toward that impersonal solution which science and technology impose. Hence controls and the incipient socialism of the countryside which controls imply and impose. This is the basic situation, however much incidental factors may disguise, blur, or even arrest it for longer or shorter terms. That is why the mass of farmers go along with controls which, almost without exception, they loathe. Who will say, that they are not right?

Yet neither do I believe my neighbors were wrong to resist. I believe they were right, too — and on a plane which lies beyond controls. In my heart, I believe that no resistance on principle, where freedom is the principle involved, is ever meaningless, or ever quite hopeless, even though history has fated it to fail. For it speaks, not to the present reality, but to the generations and the future. And, in so far as it speaks for freedom, it speaks for hope. Freedom and hope — they are the heart of our strength, and what we truly have to offer mankind in the larger conflict with Communism that we are also locked in.

It was not the initial resistance that I was urging my neighbors against in this case, but an unwise persistence in it. I thought that resistance, once enacted, was well done and full of meaning for us all. I thought that, thereafter, swift disengagement was simple common sense, since neither the battle nor the war could be won — not in this season of history. The fewness of the resisters, their summary defeat, the way in which their struggle passed largely unnoticed and was quickly forgotten, seemed to bear out this view.

A Great Continuity

It also chilled me. It seemed to me that, with the defeat of these farmers, a retaining wall had fallen out. And this not only in the sense that hereby the enveloping State had made a new envelopment, and that, to that extent, the whole outwork of individual freedom and its safeguards was weakened. The real portent was the complacent consensus that it scarcely mattered. No one was stirred. No one really cared. No one rose to say that when, at any point, the steadily advancing State retrenches the rights and freedom of any group, however small, however justified the retrenchment is in terms of impersonal reality, every man’s security is breached. That, tells us what hour of day it is.

That is why, I think, it is not wholly cranky or idle to remember, with each returning spring, this episode. Not that I think it will be forgotten. The land has a long, long memory. Nothing is much more thought-provoking than to listen — in barns where men meet and talk on days too wet to work, in farm kitchens on winter nights — and hear the names of men and women long dead (names which, in life, were scarcely known beyond a radius of 30 miles) come to life in conversation. They live again in most precise detail — tricks of manner, speech, dress, foibles, follies, generosities, integrities, courage, defeats. Often such recollections are laced, in the telling, with much human malice. Yet even this, at its worst, has the effect of brushing the grass on many an otherwise neglected grave. And, by that touch, is restored a great continuity — the same from the beginning of the earth, through the mentioned dead, to those who mention them. A nation is also its dead. As if any of us lived otherwise than on the graves of those who gave us life, who, so long as we conserve them in memory, constitute that generative continuity. Among such memories, surely, will remain, like a germ in a seed, the little farmers’ resistance. Perhaps in some more fully socialized spring to come, someone, listening to that recollection, will pause over it long enough to ask himself: “What was the principle of freedom that these farmers stood for? Why was the world in which this happened heedless or wholly unconcerned? Why did they fail?”

Perhaps he will not be able, in that regimented time, to find or frame an answer. Perhaps he will not need to. For perhaps the memory of those men and women will surprise him simply as with an unfamiliar, but arresting sound — the sound of springheads, long dried up and silent in a fierce drought, suddenly burst out and rushing freely to the sea. It may remind him of a continuity that outlives all lives, fears, perplexities, contrivings, hopes, defeats; so that he is moved ,to reach down and touch again for strength, as if he were its first discoverer, the changeless thing — the undeluding, undenying earth.

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Notes:

  1. Latin: When Roosevelt and Wallace were “Roman consuls” (president and vice president), thus some time between 1941-1945
 

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