I Change Worlds, By Anna Louise Strong. 422 pp. New York: Henry Holt & Co. $3.00.
The publishing world has been talking for some time about the imminent appearance of Anna Louise Strong’s autobiography, for it seemed as if she possessed all the prerequisites for the continuance in a new generation of Lincoln Steffens’ great quest. Her early life was typically American; a strong strain of idealism led her into social service work, which her Child Welfare exhibits revolutionized; she came to Seattle, where the defense of her work on the School Board plunged her into journalism; she was swept up by newspaper work and wrote for Hearst, the New York Times, and the Federated Press; like Vincent Sheean she traveled around the world on the trail of revolutions, and again like him, she had a great faculty for getting men placed high in the governments of the world to talk; she started an important English newspaper in Moscow for the thousands of skilled American workmen employed there during the Five Year Plan, and she tried honestly, as an idealist, to understand the materialist approach to society of the Communists; and finally, it was Lincoln Steffens himself who had said to her, “The most important thing you can do is to write your autobiography. You start where I left off. You never had my old illusion that putting honest men in office would save the world…. Yours is the next story that must be told in America.” Certainly this is a formula to produce an important autobiography.
But something seems to have gone wrong. For one thing, Miss strong lacks the forthrightness of a good autobiographer; she seems constantly to be implying that certain aspects of her life are not the reader’s businessâ€”a strange attitude on the part of one who has voluntarily undertaken to write about herself. She deals too much in generalities and conclusions, not enough in incidents. We never feel the real impact of her encounters with people and events, but only the ideas she derived from them. She is always a little out of breath about some idea or other, and the pages of her book present her pretty much as a bluestocking, although people who know her deny that. The stirring events she lived throughâ€”the Seattle General Strike, the devastation following the Civil War in Russia, the relief of the famine-stricken Volga region through the Quaker missions, revolutions in Canton, Hankow and Mexico, and the tremendous convulsion of the Five-Year-Planâ€”these events seem flat and dull compared to the way they are presented by Vincent Sheean.
But there is something else wrong, something more fundamental and deeper than her manner of writing, a paradox that lives like a cancer in her soul. Miss Strong thinks that she is a good Communist, and that she has earned that title by her work; but that she can never be.
Let me try, in brief space, to explain why. Miss Strong got her first glimpse of society as a social worker. She saw pain and suffering that she felt deeply should not exist. She began to look for causes, and discovered the capitalist exploitation of labor. She proceeded from social work to the political arena as an idealist. It was never her own fight she was waging, but that of some one elseâ€”the underdog. Her instincts and her humanitarian principles were her sole guides to action, even long after she was allowed a responsible position in Soviet Russia.
There is no evidence in her book to show that she ever caught the least glimmer of the materialist approach to the history of society upon which the vast edifice of Communist thought is predicated. As late as 1934, after she had been in Russia off and on for thirteen years, she was still of a cast of mind that worried more about the feeding of starving children than the proper cultivation of their parents’ farms. That may be laudable, but it is not Communist.
The avowed purpose of “I Change Worlds” is to tell the story of the spiritual voyage of a blue-blooded (Mayflower, in fact) American idealist to the healthy materialism, the new workers’ world of Soviet Russia. Miss Strong may have succeeded in transplanting her body, but not her soul. She has forgotten the mighty tradition of western civilization which lives within her, despite her will; she has counted for too little the opinion of generations of men which says that though material welfare may be necessarily advanced to first place for a brief time in moments of crisis, its exclusive and eternal pursuit can never become a beacon to mankind, nor a good way of life.
There is much valuable statistical material on the internal economy of Russia in this book, for many things were open to Miss Strong as a Russian journalist which might be closed to or at least overlooked by her American confreres. Her stories about Magnitogorsk, Stalingrad, Dnieper-stroy, Kharkov or Kuznetsk are epics of human accomplishment. But as an account of the adventures of a mind which “I Change Worlds” sets out to be, it is in many ways disappointing.
Benjamin Wolf Ehrenkranz, who died in 1883, wandered about Rumania and Southern Russia reciting his poems and singing his songs in cafes.