Helen M. Hacker Originally published 1948
To the Editor:
The media of popular culture often suggest hypotheses to amateur and professional students of cultures. Seeing the film To the Ends of the Earth last night stimulated me to some thoughts which may be of interest to the readers of the Journal. There have been numerous analyses of the codes of conduct of such subcultures as the underworld, the slum, the college campus, the middle class, penal institutions, the concentration camp, etc.; but one rich field of sociological research has remained relatively unexplored—the social norms of extra-legal, secret, international organizations, as exemplified in a narcotics smuggling ring, the Russian secret police (M.G.B.), and various nationalist organizations operating on a worldwide scale.
The difficulties in obtaining direct access to the files of such organizations are, of course, tremendous—with the possible exceptions of narcotics and white-slavery organizations. The “participant-observer” technique may appear a trifle dangerous for research in this area, but such risks would not be required in garnering empirical data on those international organizations which history has and may render defunct. The deficiency in authentic source material, however, is made up in part by the wealth of individual testimony and fictionalized accounts. Such works as Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, Humphrey Slater’s two novels, The Heretics and The Conspirators, Mark Aldanov’s The Fifth Seal, Ignazio Silone’s School for Dictators, Jan Valtin’s Out of the Night, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom, and countless others provide ample clues for scientific documentation.
From these latter sources several principles regulating the behavior of members of secret organizations seem tentatively to emerge. I have selected four such principles, which may serve as hypotheses for direct testing:
1. The only “morality” operative in such an organization is the perpetuation of the organization itself. In contrast to the classical literature of ethics which stresses the universality of ethical concepts, the standards of behavior sanctioned by the secret, international organization apply only to its own limited membership. With regard to its own internal rules of operation such an organization is properly termed “amoral.” In some cases observance of the code is confined to the top leadership and is neither made known to nor applied to the rank and file or the periphery. Lionel Trilling in his The Middle of the Journey portrays the “innocence” and later disillusionment of a fellow-traveler.
It goes without saying that such organizations have first and irrevocable claim on the loyalty of their personnel. All “other-group” roles are ruthlessly subordinated to the requirements of the primary role. An espionage agent must not hesitate to kill his wife (The Conspirators); likewise an engineer turned opium smuggler (To the Ends of the Earth).
2. Once a person has participated actively in such an organization, he may not leave, on penalty of death. Witness the son in Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, who was killed by the I.R.A. when he attempted to dissociate himself from the movement.
3. Any member who fails in a mission must either commit suicide or be put to death. In the film mentioned above three members of the narcotics gang kill themselves when their role in the organization is discovered by the federal agent. Berthold Brecht in his “didactic” poem Die Maẞnahme sings that a young comrade was shot and thrown into a lime pit for his failures in China. It was “for communism” that he was made to disappear totally.
4. Even if a member has not sought to desert or failed in a mission, he may be liquidated in the interests of the organization. In his novel The Heretics Humphrey Slater recounts the selling into slavery of the young friars along with the children whom they accompanied on the Children’s Crusade. Similarly, a character (Shannon) in To the Ends of the Earth is stabbed and cast into the sea to throw the federal agent off the scent of the larger activities of the gang.
It is frequently the case that perfervid loyalty may be rewarded with martyrdom. Internal scapegoats may be tagged with the responsibility for mistaken policies to absolve the top leadership. In The Heretics Colonel Cordova rightly suspects that his unsought promotion is a device to make him the whipping-boy for the failure of the assault on Madrid.
The above “principles” represent only a hasty and impressionistic sampling of the literature (and life). Many more generalizations can be uncovered and tested, and surely this is not an unimportant task for sociologists in an age when the political institutions of cabinets, parties, and parliaments are eclipsed by the monstrous forms of terror, the secret police, and the concentration camp.