Larry Hannant: Norman Bethune: Past and Future
First Annual Robert S. Kenny Prize Lecture, April 30, 1999
It is a great honor to receive the first Robert S. Kenny Prize and to deliver this inaugural lecture.
I'm also pleased to see such an award established in support of Canada' beleaguered Left. Having emerged just yesterday from under a flurry of final exams and papers, I know what "beleaguered" means, if being on the Left these days is not sufficient.
It' true that the Left has declined in public prominence of late. Fewer people speak in terms that thirty years ago, were common--"the working class," "the capitalist class," "imperialism," "anti-imperialism." These were real-life identities that meant so much to people of the past, including to Norman Bethune in Canada sixty years ago.
Now the new Right is in ascendance, seizing the limelight in part by snapping up almost every newspaper or other medium and systematically skewing any discussion about matters such as social class, capitalism and imperialism. One would think that given its near-monopoly ideologically, the Right could safely ignore a figure like Norman Bethune. After all, as of November of this year, he' dead 60 years. Even in China, where millions knew his name and made some effort to honor and emulate his internationalism and self-sacrifice, Pai Chu-en has little currency in the present environment in which "to get rich is glorious."
But no, the Right does not ignore Bethune as a passé relic. For example, Conrad Black' National Post has recently weighed in to attack Bethune. On April 3, 1999, in a lengthy commentary under the headline "Bethune and the burden of guilt," Jeff White took an unseemly run at Bethune. I won' bother to go into the details of White' tirade. What is important is that the Right thinks that Bethune is an important enough figure in contemporary Canada to publish several thousand words attacking him.
Where Conrad Black leads, surely we must follow--at least a step or two. In fact, this seems like a good time to pay Bethune the courtesy of revisiting the issue of why he' important.
One reason why Bethune was important, is important and will remain important in the future is that he symbolizes change. Bethune' life is the story of change. Here was a man who until the age of 45 was either apolitical or, as some people described him, actually a political conservative. He certainly was an iconoclast, a maverick, but he was not a Leftist.
Yet at age 45, already well into middle age, he became a revolutionary, and in the remaining four years of his life he embraced communism more and more fervently.
What caused Bethune to change in this way?
Some feminists have observed that men and women become politically radical in different ways. Men are radical when they"re young, when their political and economic power is at its lowest. As they age they may grow in wealth and political influence (as well as in girth). If so, they turn more conservative, more concerned to maintain their wealth and status. According to this argument, women follow a different political course. They"re at the height of their power when they are young, based on the fact that society values their youth, their looks, their ability to reproduce. Women, then, become radical as they age and lose their potential power.
While this theory has its flaws--witness some of the women and men in this very room who were radical as youths and still are--it has some value in that it suggests that human behavior is influenced by material conditions. Similarly, material conditions help explain why Bethune made the remarkable transition he did in becoming a revolutionary late in life.
What were the conditions which sparked the iconoclast Bethune to become the revolutionary Bethune? In a word, it was the 1930s Depression. This was the crucible in which the new Bethune was forged.
Few of us here lived through the Depression which began almost 70 years ago. So it' hard to imagine that time and the tremendous social chaos it generated. But a simple figure might help. During the 1930s Depression, Canada' gross national product fell by about 40 percent. By contrast, in the economic downturn we"re familiar with, in the 1990s, the GNP fell by about 4 percent. We all have seen the social consequences of the recent economic distress--the homelessness, the food banks, the disintegration of downtown cores in important cities like Vancouver, the persistent unemployment rate, the continued stagnation of real household incomes despite the fact that now two wages are frequently contributing to each household.
To understand the 1930s and Bethune' world, multiply by ten the social problems we face today. Little wonder that thinking, passionate people became revolutionaries.
But of course such a catastrophic Depression won' occur again. Contemporary, post-industrial capitalism is big, international, well supported by multi-national state agencies which smooth out the economic bumps and shelter the system. So temporary or local economic disturbances can' spread to the whole system, right?
Don' bet on it. Remember that this view was exactly what the financial gurus argued in 1929, before the Wall Street crash ushered in the Great Depression.
Last year was the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto. While the Left used the occasion to assess the merits and flaws of Marx and Engels" sweeping declaration, so did the Right. And, curiously, some of them observed that although Marx and Engels were wrong in some respects, they were right in one: capitalism is a system of periodic crises. In short, the conditions which helped to transform Bethune are still with us.
Another reason why Bethune is important today and will be in the new millennium relates to a disease that was a major factor in Bethune' life and in his radicalization. This is tuberculosis.
Bethune didn' originate the expression but he frequently repeated the statement that "There is a rich man' tuberculosis and a poor man' tuberculosis. The rich man recovers and the poor man dies." In Bethune' day, tuberculosis was a fatal disease for many people. Bethune himself contracted it and faced death. But he was lucky (or, rather, rich in knowledge). Thanks to an experimental surgical procedure he read about, he recovered. After that, he devoted himself to overcoming the disease. But he saw the futility of doing that in a world so dramatically demarcated between rich and poor.
In the treatment of tuberculosis, we"ve come a long way since Bethune' day. The medical revolution that marked the century from 1875 to 1975 brought remarkable breakthroughs in tuberculosis treatment. Antibiotics almost wiped out the disease in the rich countries. In Canada in the 1970s this success prompted governments to close down tuberculosis treatment facilities where the likes of Norman Bethune and another Canadian Leftist, Herbert Norman, took tuberculosis therapy.
Today, tuberculosis is 99 percent curable and 90 percent preventable. Yet it has not been eradicated. Indeed, it has made a comeback. Some three million people die every year of a highly preventable disease.
Who are those victims? If he were alive today Bethune could say there' a rich woman' tuberculosis and a poor woman' tuberculosis, for the disease is primarily a woman' one. It still differentiates between rich and poor. People in the third world suffer most from it. But even here, in the rich countries, those in the poorest sections of our cities are most likely to contract and die of tuberculosis.
When Bethune visited the Soviet Union in 1935, one of the reasons he did so was to observe how that new society was dealing with tuberculosis. The progress he saw was one reason why Bethune joined the Communist Party of Canada shortly after he returned to this country.
Ironic it is, then, that in the former Soviet Union tuberculosis is re-emerging with a vengeance. In a country where the free market has descended with ferocity, where since 1990 the life span of people has fallen by a decade, a deadly new, drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis has appeared.
The heart of the problem in Russia is in the country' jails. There are some 1.1 million people in Russian prisons, being fed on 40 cents a day. In these appalling conditions, it is no surprise that 10 percent of the prisoners have tuberculosis. And what else do we know about these prisoners? Sixty percent of those who were arrested for theft had stolen less than $3.00 worth of goods. Their problem is poverty. The root cause of the problem is the inequalities between rich and poor which have been exacerbated by Russia' return to capitalism.
According to Hans Kluge of Médecines Sans Frontières, this new drug-resistant tuberculosis strain "will become the principal epidemic of the next century, not only for Russia but for the rest of the world ..."
That' why Bethune and his statement about the rich and the poor and their different tuberculosis will be worth remembering in the new millennium.
Looking into the future, what can we on the Left learn from Bethune' experience? To answer this we have to decide what was Bethune' greatest strength as a revolutionary. According to Mao Zedong, who wrote his essay "In Memory of Norman Bethune" shortly after Bethune' death in 1939, Bethune' main contributions were these: 1) his internationalism; 2) his technical skill in medicine and his constant drive to improve it; and 3) his great sense of responsibility and devotion to others, his selflessness.
Let' look at just the last of these. Was Bethune always and entirely selfless? No. In fact, among his associates in Canada there are some, perhaps many, who regarded him as selfish, egotistical and irresponsible. These traits were certainly evident in him.
But the point about Bethune was that he changed. And the change, especially in the final two years of his life, when he was in China, was beneficial. Under the conditions there, his spirit of selflessness flourished. Again, Bethune is an important figure because he shows that changing conditions can change personality.
I want to focus on a different characteristic that helped to make Bethune memorable. What was his greatest strength as a revolutionary? I think it was his impatience. Bethune was impetuous and he knew it. As he said: "I know I"m always in a hurry but I come by this trait honestly. My father was a Presbyterian minister who joined the Moody and Sankey evangelical movement. Their slogan was "the world for Christ in one generation," and this is my slogan, whether people like it or not."
Unlike his father, Bethune wasn' striving to win the world for Christ. His optimistic goal was socialism in one generation. In his determination to see this victory, Bethune threw himself into the revolutionary struggle and showed an unerring knack for locating the flashpoint of the battle. In going to Spain and China, he became one of the very few people in the world who made their way to two centers of popular struggle against right-wing militarism and imperialism in the 1930s.
Until he went to China, his restless energy was often his undoing. Finally, in China, he learned some patience. He recognized, for instance, that the anti-Japanese war would be protracted--at least five years, he thought. But he still expected a socialist new Jerusalem in one generation.
The generation of Chinese revolutionaries Bethune knew saw success. In 1945 they threw out the Japanese. In 1949, in Mao' words, China stood up and proclaimed itself free of all imperialism and ready to embark on a road towards social equity. With the benefit of hindsight we know that this success was merely temporary. In China, as elsewhere, socialism has suffered a setback. Many are the ways of capitalism. It certainly undid Bethune' confidence in quick victory.
Looking back on the past century, a century of some popular victories but many great failures, we on the Left could do well to draw on Bethune' experience with impatience. We need to take a dialectical view of impatience. One divides into two. Impatience drives us forward, demanding change and an end to existing inequities. In this pursuit, we can be bolstered by the confidence that the era of social revolution is not over. The impatience of the oppressed will yield fruit. But we can' let impatience blind us. We must also accept that while the next millennium will bring successes, there will also be setbacks. Achieving a society free of exploitation will be a long process.
With that understanding, I think we can benefit from returning to Norman Bethune and to his own words. That' why I expect my publisher will be issuing a new edition of The Politics of Passion--this one in a cheap paperback edition for popular consumption--sometime in the new millennium.