Jun 1, 1981

War and Social Change

“Veblen was guilty of an intense and partisan interest in the war, but that interest did not lead him to abandon his principles.”

David D. Danbom
North Dakota State University

“‘For the Period of the War:’ Thorstein Veblen, Wartime Exigency, and Social Change.” Mid-America: An Historical Review 62 (April-July 1980) 91–104.

Few of the participants in American history have been discredited more consistently than those people on the political left who supported American entry into the First World War and who served the government during that conflict. Though most historians concede that pro-war leftists supported the war and worked for the government because they thought the conflict would bring changes beneficial to society, this public reason masked a private lust for power, influence, and social approval.

Thorstein Veblen was one radical who supported American entry and pursued a position in the Statistical Division of the United States Food Administration. Veblen was enthusiastic about the Allied cause, and he did hope the war would result in major economic and social changes, but Prof. Danbom contends that Veblen did not surrender his principles or become seduced by the image of power. In fact, Veblen’s hopes that the war would lead to change never overwhelmed his basic belief that it would not. His support for the war and his government service entailed no violation of his fundamental principles, and he quickly resigned his Federal post when he recognized he was having no impact on policy.

Veblen’s actions can be explained by his early perception of the war’s importance. In Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution, published in 1915, Veblen expressed his belief in the importance of a German defeat in the war. He believed Germany was a particularly dangerous power, because its economic strength fed a state animated with dynastic ambitions of dominion. Germany had been able to retain a “retarded adherence to certain mediaeval or submediaeval habits of thought, including an extraordinary “fealty or subservience” of the people to the state, because it had adopted advanced industrial technology quickly and late. The dynastic state had survived because “modern technology has come to the Germans ready-made, without the cultural consequences which its gradual development and continued use had entailed among the people whose experience initiated it and determined the course of its development.

Despite Veblen’s fear of Germany, he did not abandon his skepticism regarding the Allies. Veblen was extremely cynical of the vested interests of power which controlled and determined a capitalist society. His hopes lay in the slight possibility that the war might result in the removal of the vested interests from power. That possibility hinged on the length and severity of the military struggle. If the war were long and severe, two things might occur which would weaken the vested interests. First, “military exigencies may over-rule the current demands of business traffic,” thus elitists would relinquish the seat of power (temporarily) to engineers and managers who could produce far more efficiently. Secondly, the citizen might come “to distrust the conduct of affairs by his betters, and trust his own class.”

Neither Veblen nor the others on the left who glimpsed a chance for change were necessarily deluding themselves. In Russia the vested interests were crumbling, in the Central Powers they seemed to be weakening, and even in England and France Veblen perceived the “individious distinctions of class, sex, wealth and privilege…giving way before the exigencies of a war that is to be fought to a finish.”

Veblen’s assignment for the Food Administration was to assess the situation of the grain farmers in the Mid-west, who were experiencing both a serious labor shortage from the draft and the accelerating rural-urban migration. Veblen contended early in his memorandum that fears of a labor shortage were justified, and that the situation would worsen as the harvest season approached. What made the labor situation particularly volatile was the fact that a large majority of migratory harvest workers were members of the Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, a component of the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, a revolutionary anarchosyndicalist labor organization. The A.W.I.U. had never been friendly to the farmers for whom its members worked, and the farmers returned the hostility. In addition, the Federal government had already stigmatized the Wobblies as unpatriotic and dangerous to the war effort. Veblen attempted to counteract this unfavorable image, contending the Wobblies were in a “prevailing loyal frame of mind and willing to work amicably with the farmers.” The problem as Veben believed, was not between the farmers and workers, but for the town-centered vested interests which opposed both. Most unfortunate, in Veben’s view, was the Federal government’s involvement in this quarrel on the side of the townsmen. Thus Veblen saw the situation in the wheat-producing states as a microcosm of the normal order of things throughout the world: the parasitic vested interests, supported by the state, oppressing the productive classes.

Veblen suggested that the government drop prosecutions and harassment directed at Wobblies, and make an alliance with them. Veblen’s proposal should be seen as a test of the willingness of government to impart legitimacy to a despised group in the interest of wartime efficiency rather than as a plan for social control. The government’s unwillingness to undertake any of Veblen’s policy changes revealed the determination of the elite to cling to its power regardless of the exigency of war to make necessary changes.

Veblen was guilty of an intense and partisan interest in the war, but that interest did not lead him to abandon his principles. Although attracted to power, he was unwilling to alter his principles in order to get or hold it. Veblen’s hopes had been high enough to tempt him to shed his characteristic diffidence and to enter government service, but he had always remained pessimistic about the probable results of the war. Veblen’s experience, however, should at least indicate to us that the popular historical model of the behavior of pro-war leftists does not apply in every case.