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Thursday, June 15, 2023

Lincoln Steffens: The Muckraking Journalist Who Exposed Corruption in US Cities—but Was Seduced by Lenin’s Bloody Revolution

Lincoln Steffens uncovered a multitude of sins when he delved into municipal corruption, but was convinced that Marxism was ‘the future’ even after visiting Lenin’s brutal terror state.

Image Credit: Library of Congress

A century ago, the American journalist Lincoln Steffens visited the land of Lenin (the Soviet Union) and famously pronounced upon his return, “I have been over into the future, and it works.”

Steffens was known in his day as a “muckraker.” In this instance, the muck he was peddling was exceptionally execrable. We know now—and unbiased, discerning people knew it even then—that the vicious killer Lenin was busy building one of history’s most brutal terror states. His 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia ushered in seven decades of violent, totalitarian oppression—no surprise to anyone who understands what concentrated power can do.

After a visit to the Soviet Union in 1919, the worst that Steffens could bring himself to say was that the country was in “a temporary condition of evil, which is made tolerable by hope and a plan.” The plan, the plan! It’s always the plan that matters to communists, socialists, and their fellow travelers. Visionaries with total power will somehow “plan” the rest of society into a blissful nirvana. Even if they must crack a few eggs along the way, the result will be an omelet that’s worth it (see Where Are the Omelets?).

Austrian economists such as Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek would later demolish such pretentious fairy tales. Hayek, for example, argued convincingly that “The more the state plans, the more difficult planning becomes for the individual” and “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they know about what they imagine they can design.”

In reviewing Peter Hartshorn’s 2011 biography, I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens, Kevin Baker noted that “like any sucker, Steffens could not let go of his delusions.” He was “hornswoggled by the biggest lie of all,” namely, that Lenin’s Bolshevism would somehow morph into a socialist utopia. Baker wrote in The New York Times,

He became one of the first of that sad little band of Western intellectuals who fell head over heels for the Soviet Union. Unlike most of them, he did not deny the stories of atrocities leaking out of the workers’ paradise. Even more chilling, he simply believed them necessary to bring about the great changes to come. He never wavered from his infamous first impression of the U.S.S.R., “I have seen the future, and it works.” 

The term “useful idiot” may have been invented to describe suckers just like Steffens. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Walter Duranty was even worse, covering up for Stalin’s personally-engineered famine that killed millions in Ukraine. Unlike Duranty, however, Steffens did some real and amazing journalism earlier in his career.

Born in California in 1866, Steffens began writing for important publications in New York City in the 1890s. His national fame arose primarily because of a five-year stint at the popular McClure’s Magazine from 1901 to 1906. Focusing on exposing corruption in major American cities, he practically invented the modern muckraking genre.

His 1904 book, The Shame of the Cities, zeroed in on St. Louis, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York. Every chapter details wretched, jaw-dropping venality by city government officials—bribery, patronage, racketeering and extortion; passing out favors to friends; lining their pockets at taxpayer expense; suppressing the vote; cooking the books; putting relatives on the payroll; rigging the contracting process, and lying all the while to a compliant media. More than a century later, it remains a compact but shocking read in barely one hundred pages.

In every city that Steffens covered, the politicians and bureaucrats often collaborated with enablers outside of government to get their dirty work done—businesses and unions included. Read between the lines and it’s very apparent that what made so much corruption possible was political power. Steffens reserved his strongest criticism for the public at large, whom he saw as indifferent at best and complicit at worst:

[N]o one class is at fault, nor any one breed, nor any particular interest or group of interests. The misgovernment of the American people is misgovernment by the American people.

Remember Tammany Hall? Legendary for its corruption in New York City, it preceded Steffens by a generation or more. One of its functionaries, George Washington Plunkitt, expressed its unofficial motto when he said, “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em!” The machine ripped off taxpayers and Plunkitt called it “honest graft.” By the time Steffens wrote The Shame of the Cities, shameful behavior in big city government had been around for a good while.

So how, any reader might reasonably ask, does a person traverse the spectrum from trenchant criticism of concentrated power to, a decade or so later, viewing one of history’s most painful examples of it (Lenin’s Soviet Union) as a future that “works”? Did Steffens undergo some profound intellectual metamorphosis along the way?

The tragedy of Lincoln Steffens is this: He could see the harm of concentrated power but, the typical “progressive” that he was, he naively believed that more of it was the antidote. This is a recurring blind spot shared by intellectuals of the Left. Even if big government is the problem, the solution to them is almost always an even bigger government. It’s like drinking a gallon of Clorox to wash down the quart of Clorox you just swallowed.

Upon his return from the Soviet Union, Steffens was still the same starry-eyed, one-foot-in-the-air progressive he always was. He never learned history’s most salient lesson, expressed so famously by Lord Acton: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

He recognized that evil was present in the early years of Lenin’s revolution but couldn’t connect the dots. Anyone schooled in Acton’s truism would have seen that evil, violent concentration of power doesn’t just “wither away” as Marx absurdly predicted. It breeds more of the same and those who wield it will do anything to hang onto it. Steffens retained a blind faith in “hope and a plan,” as he put it, even as the architects tortured and slaughtered their way to total power.

If I could go back in a time machine to 1919, I would arrange a meeting with Steffens and tell him about Maximilien Robespierre, Louis Antoine de St.-Just and Francois Noel-Babeuf. I would try to convince him that Lenin was of the same ilk and that the power he sought could never end well.

Lincoln Steffens uncovered a multitude of sins when he delved into municipal corruption. Moreover, there is evidence that very late in his life, he finally became disillusioned with the Soviet utopia. He wrote about power but ultimately didn’t truly understand its inherent dangers. Such are the sad delusions that so frequently define the Left.

For Additional Information, See:

Lenin’s New Economic Policy: When the Soviets Admitted Socialism Doesn’t Work by Lawrence W. Reed

A Revolution to Always Remember but Never to Celebrate by Lawrence W. Reed

The Epic Life of Lenin’s Personal Enemy and One of Tolstoy’s Favorite Authors by Mikolaj Pisarski

Six Ways Socialism is Anti-Social by Lawrence W. Reed

Socialism: Force or Fantasy? by Lawrence W. Reed

Of Meat and Myth by Lawrence W. Reed

My Response to Time Magazine’s Cover Story on Capitalism by Lawrence W. Reed

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is