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What America Can Learn from Kutusov

General de Caulaincourt’s memoirs, which have been published recently, give us a vivid sense of the strategy employed against Napoleon by Russia’s great deliverer, Prince Mikhail Illarionovich Kutusov-Golenishchev. It was much like the classical strategy of the Scythians, and even more like that which won for the Roman general, Fabius, the surname of Cunctator. The Russian policy was laid out on a grand scale. The French invaders were keen for battle, but “that devil Kutusov,” as Napoleon called him, persistently refused to accommodate them. Once in a while, to satisfy his subordinates, he went through the motions of taking a stand, as at Tarutino and Krasnoë, but always against his own judgment; and after Borodino, as Count Tolstoi remarks, “he alone did everything in his power to hold the Russian army back from useless fighting.” Technically, Napoleon won the battle of Borodino, and all Russia except Kutusov regarded it as a terrible defeat. He knew it was a great victory, and time proved that he was right. When Napoleon went forth to renew the battle next day, Kutusov was not there; nobody was there; the French found themselves standing in the middle of all outdoors with no one to tell them where Kutusov was, or even which way he had gone.

They pushed on past Mozhaisk to Moscow, and were disappointed again; no Kutusov, no army, nobody, a deserted city. Then the fire, then presently the Great Retreat, with Kutusov acting as a sort of escort or guard of honor, ushering Napoleon back over the border. There was little fighting, practically none except some occasional irregular warfare waged by roving bands of guerrillas and Cossacks; the armies never actually met. Some authorities have criticized Kutusov for dealing so gently with the erring, but the severest critic can hardly help noticing that not more than one per cent of the Grand Army lived to cross the frontier.

My purpose in citing Caulaincourt‘s book is, first, to suggest that the strategy which Kutusov applied to his peculiar military problems is also applicable by society in a broad general way to civil and social problems. Indeed, in many instances it is so manifestly the soundest and wisest strategy for society to employ, that any alternative is mere rank foolishness. Then in the second place, I wish to remark the curious fact that in spite of all this, society never does employ it, but on the contrary seems unable even to understand it, as the French were. A few illustrations will make these two points clear, and I will begin with one that is supplied by another book which we have all been looking into lately.

The thing about this book that perhaps most interests the reflective reader is Dr. Carrel’s analysis of the physical, moral, and mental effect of our sudden transition to what we call
an “arm-chair civilization.” Science has flattened out most of the obstacles which nature puts in the pathway to an effortless life; it has largely reduced the routine of existence to a matter of throwing switches and pushing buttons. It now appears that the balance of loss and gain ensuing on this change is by no means what it should be, and that something should be done to redress it.


For instance, Dr. Carrel cites figures showing that in New York State one person out of every 22, at some period of his life, does a turn in the lunatic asylum. In the country at large, new admissions to the asylums come to about 68,000 a year; and besides the insane, there are 500,000 feeble-minded, 400,000 children too unintelligent to follow the work of the elementary schools, and unregistered psycho-neurotics estimated in the hundred-thousands. Dr. Carrel observes that at the present rate, about 1,000,000 of the children and young people who are today attending schools and colleges will sooner or later be confined in asylums. Some corroboration of all this appears in the statement made recently before the American Association for the Advancement Science, by a psychiatrist on the staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital, that whereas insanity had never increased more than 10 percent in any decade hitherto, it has increased 20 percent in the decade now ending. Not long ago, also, a physician who keeps tab on such matters and presumably should know, told me that taking the entire hospital-population of the country in a lump “as is,” one patient out of every five is touched with dementia prœcox.

It does not take many such debit-items as these to bring down the general average intelligence to a pretty low level. No wonder, one says at once, that our politics, our journalism, literature, drama, our commercial amusements, our views of life, and our demands on life, are so extremely discreditable. No wonder that the vagaries of the New Deal swept the country, and that the Townsend Plan commands signatures by the million.  But that is beside the mark. The thing to be observed is that no one has any suggestion for meeting this state of things other than by frontal defense; by building more asylums, elaborating new systems of care and “re-education,” perfecting new methods of treatment, and so on. But clearly, even supposing that this strategy worked perfectly in all cases and beat the enemy every time, like Napoleon, it yet does not get society anywhere. The general morale steadily lowers, a progressive debility sets in as it did in the French army, and all the enemy need do is to watch and wait.

But suppose society refused to meet the enemy his own terms, or on any terms, and simply backed up. Suppose it perceived that a mechanized, push-button existence is enervating and disheveling, perceived that the obstacles and resistances which nature puts up as a bar to easy living are indispensable aids and accompaniments to a collective physical, mental, and moral soundness. Suppose, then, that instead of continually struggling to adapt the race to the fixed requirements of a suspect civilization, it should resolutely back up in its tracks and adapt civilization to the fixed requirements of the race—suppose, that is, that it ruthlessly de-mechanized and de-push-buttonized human existence, and re-erected the hurdles that science has broken down.

This method of dealing with a social enemy is slow and uninteresting. It is so dead against every accepted idea of “progress” that probably not ten persons in a million could get it through their heads. At first sight it also seems wantonly destructive and costly. On all these counts, therefore, society would reject it as utterly fantastic and preposterous; one can imagine the cries of dismay and resentment that would go up from all quarters if it were ever seriously proposed. Nevertheless one may remember that when Kutusov was through with Napoleon, believe me, he was through with him. Moreover, when he was through, Napoleon also was through, through for good and all. Waterloo was only a coup de grâce.


Let us shift the discussion to another field. It seems that what we call Big Business has for some time been growing unwieldy. Not only its size and spread, but also the complexity
of its relations and the delicacy of adjustment which they entail, make it so sensitive and “kittle,” as the Scots say, that it puts a breaking strain on those who manage it. Recent happenings in business seem to suggest that this state of things is disadvantageous and that it ought to be improved; and so far, our efforts to improve it have not been so successful as we hoped they might be, chiefly because our strategy, as always, has been to meet the difficulty squarely with a frontal defense. At the very first skirmish, society encouraged the government to step in and offer a pitched battle, and it now seems certain that the last state of our campaign will be worse than the first. No social danger due to the original complications has been permanently disposed of, and the effect of the new complications has been merely to introduce new dangers which are far more serious than those which our strategy was designed to avert.

Suppose, however, that instead of trying to meet this situation face to face, society had deliberately backed up, and backed up far enough to be well in the clear of any debatable ground. Kutusov did not only back up on Moscow; he went straight through it and kept going for 70 miles. Suppose society made up its mind to shift its economic structure entirely away from the basis of big business and deliberately reverted to the local cracker-barrel stage of industry and commerce. We have all observed, I suppose, the extraordinary amount of pressure that the economic structure of France seems able to stand by comparison with ours. As I write, it shows signs of giving way under the terrific pressure of the last two years; yet it has shown these signs many times before and still managed to hold together. I have heard it said that this remarkable power of resistance is chiefly due to the fact that the French structure rests on a foundation of small business rather than on big business, as ours does; a foundation of 5,000,000 small-holding landed proprietors, and 800,000 small independent business enterprises. I do not know enough about such matters to be entitled to an opinion on the soundness of this theory, but it looks plausible.

Again, shifting the discussion to the field of politics, we have lately come face to face with some extremely disturbing realities. Our steady progress in centralization, begun in 1789, has brought us to a pass where every American finds himself virtually living for the State. The governmental machine absorbs so much of his earnings that he may now be said to be working mainly for the State; and its inquisitions, coercions, supervisions, regulations, leave him so small a margin of existence to dispose of as he pleases that his status is hardly distinguishable form involuntary servitude. The worst of it is, moreover, that with a century and a half of acceleration behind it, this progress is likely to go on until such vestiges of economic and political self determination as remain to the individual disappear bodily in a regime of collectivism.

In the face of this prospect, all the proposals for decentralization that I have so far heard of do not go beyond the old-established line of state sovereignty; they contemplate merely a repartition of power between the largest political unit and the next largest. This is a retreat, no doubt, but a very short one, too short to do any good. Suppose, however, that society should retreat the full distance and lodge the whole sovereign power (which includes the exclusive right to levy taxes) in the smallest political unit—the rural township and the urban ward—thus decomposing our present union of nominally sovereign states into a union of actually sovereign townships.

Absurd as this suggestion appears, or would appear if it were made seriously, there is great interest in remarking that every polity which calls itself republican must finally come to just this, or else give up the publican system as impracticable. As far back as the beginning of the 18th century, Montesquieu perceived that a republican system is
practicable only in a very small unit; and as we all know, Mr. Jefferson held to the same view—he says in a letter to John Taylor, written in 1816, that “such a government is evidently restrained to very narrow limits of space and population. I doubt if it would be practicable beyond the extent of a New England township.” Absurd as the idea of township sovereignty may seem, it is not nearly so absurd as the notion that a republican system can possibly be stretched over an area as large and populous as France, Spain, the United States, or even Delaware or Rhode Island. Our self-styled modern republics are not republics, they are nothing like republics. They are merely the sort of thing, as the great Guizot contemptuously said, that “begins with Plato, and necessarily ends with a policeman.”

This discussion can be extended indefinitely. For example, suppose society should weary of its fruitless efforts to educate the ineducable, and should back up all the way to the
severe and sensible selective system proposed by Mr. Jefferson in the plan that he drew up for public education in Virginia. It would mean the permanent closing of at least 90 percent of our schools, colleges, and universities, and no doubt this would be regarded as a calamity worse than the burning of Moscow. Yet clearly the only alternative is dragging out a hopeless conflict with the unbeatable forces of nature. Today our educational system is a butt for the wit of paragraphers and cartoonists, and deservedly so, for it is based on the assumption that everybody is educable, while the fact before our eyes is that there are not enough educable persons in all New England to half-fill Harvard University; not enough between Baton Rouge and Baltimore to make any profitable use of 10 percent of the facilities available in that area. Doggedly fighting it out on the line of this appalling anomaly “if it takes all summer,” can have but one end. Yet in such circumstances, this is all that society ever has any idea of doing. Society never retreats or retrenches except under compulsion, usually of a severe type, such as is furnished by war, pestilence, or famine. Like the French in Russia, it does not understand such tactics, does not know anything about them, and bitterly resents the thought of applying them, even when they are most obviously the only ones that can show any chance whatever of relieving the situation that society confronts.

Well then, since this is so, since society never does and apparently never can apply this strategy, what is the use of talking about it? If the discussion is academic, why waste
time over it? For no reason whatever, as far as the average person is concerned, and as far as society, which reflects the capacities of the average person, is concerned. Nothing
could be more futile than expounding this strategy to such hearers, and no one in his right mind would attempt it. But though nowadays the average person is glorified beyond all conscience, though he dominates our present civilization and shapes it to his own measure, he is still not quite all there is in the world. The exceptional person does exist—in a sort of Robin Hood existence, perhaps, more or less outlawed, but he exists—and the exceptional person may find that this discussion has some value for him, because he is able to do what society cannot do. He has the savoir se gêner, which the average person, and the composite-average which we call society, have not.  That is to say, he is capable of putting effective pressure on himself in a direction exactly opposite to his natural inclinations, for no reason in the world except a sense of the disciplinary value of so doing. He does it merely because he feels he cannot afford not to do it.

So possibly a discussion of Kutusov’s strategy may encourage the exceptional person to be still more careful about taking up with many things which our civilization urges on him, and which fall in with his natural inclinations and desires. It may help him to turn a fishy eye on them, to sift them and shake them down, and take plenty of time to decide whether or not it would be better for him in the long run to back up, all things considered. A rising stock market, for instance, or this-and-that attractive gadget of an
arm-chair existence, or the New Deal, or somebody’s fine plausible prospectus of the More Abundant Life—well, what about it? Inclination and desire urge him to go in for it
headlong, but this discussion may help him to take a long look forward and backward on all the offsets, physical, mental, moral, financial, and decide whether it is really worth
the price. Nine times out of ten, probably, he will find that it would be money in his pocket, figuratively speaking, to back up.

Albert Jay Nock (1870 – 1945) was an influential American libertarian author, educational theorist, and social critic of the early and middle 20th century.  This essay appeared in The American Mercury in 1936.

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