TF Johnson and his world – including relevant locations across Eurasia and South America represented in his memoir, International Tramps.
The Nansen organization thus was preoccupied with vast exiled populations’ well-being across this panoply of jurisdictions – and expanded the number of them still, with schemes to resettle refugees across the Middle East and South America – though just as often it worked on settling them in less far-flung parts of Europe. To Johnson’s mind, the means by which this was pursued set up the basis of much of the clash between Nansenites and the broader League. Many familiar with the League’s refugee work are aware of its legal protection efforts and issuance of “Nansen Passports” in lieu of national identification documents. But as Johnson saw it, the essence of the Nansen approach was to make refugees valuable as economic contributors. This would not only fuel their own sense of worth, Johnson believed, but speed their integration into host societies, resolving legal and livelihood problems alike. The title of Johnson’s memoir was therefore meant to be ironic – a tribute to the people whom one British diplomat had dismissed as mere “tramps” for their productive potential. Yet many humanitarians and refugees themselves had other plans.
Thomas Frank Johnson provided scant background on his early life, but the portrait he painted cast him as predisposed to the Nansen program. Born in 1887, he described himself as a “hard-bitten man of the world who was obliged to rub shoulders with the stern realities of life from the age of thirteen: who turned, with relief, to the League as a moral refuge after practicing the villainies of warfare on all the fronts of Europe, only to find it an impossible fraud as the result of an unholy alliance between academic visionaries and unscrupulous intriguers.” These feelings first arose when, dispatched as part of a British army delegation to aid far-flung ally Romania in 1917, he passed through Russia after its February Revolution, and witnessed what he viewed as the privilege and impractical dreams of the country’s intelligentsia.
“The intelligentsia” haunted Johnson once again in interwar Geneva. The League, to be sure, presented other “unrealities” and “farcical situations,” which he summarized as including “minorities, mandates, and the International Labour Office” – as well as what he saw as distasteful horse-trading between states that he (betraying just one of his flashes of Eurocentric chauvinism) compared to an “Oriental bazaar.” Likewise, he was appalled at the notion that many member states (especially the new “musical-comedy countries” of Eastern Europe) could be on an equal footing there with a country like Britain – an imbalance that he viewed as an “international danger.” His mockery of a Chinese delegate for being able to say little in English other than “I believe in international cooperation” was meant as an indictment of this equal standing, but also what he viewed as a certain vacuousness of “the unwholesome…atmosphere of Geneva, which is responsible for mental inbreeding among the League officials even far more demoralizing in its consequences than those of physical inbreeding.”
It was ultimately the League’s susceptibility to impractical dreams that Johnson believed had the capacity to hijack effective refugee assistance. The organization gave governments with no experience overseeing minorities or colonies sudden responsibilities for them. Representatives might only enjoy the support of their countries’ wildly rotating governments in theory. Against the ILO Johnson ranted that it
allowed the more fanatical labour leaders to interpret [its mandate] as their authority to launch vitriolic attacks on what they vacuously term ‘capitalism’…Not content with encouraging the world’s workers to become objects of charity, the International Labour Office seemed anxious to add to their indignity by exposing them, as well as itself, to universal ridicule, by embarking on all sorts of ambitious…reform programmes, no doubt excellent in Utopia, but sadly premature in this imperfect world.
Such an institution was naturally staffed by “officials whose only previous training has been that gleaned at one of the universities (for like most ultra-left institutions, the International Labour Office draws largely on the products of the universities for its lieutenants)” with too much of a soft spot for working conditions, especially in the colonies, given that “the conditions under which the Chinese coolie or the Hottentot work seem extremely unsatisfactory compared with the too recent background of Oxford or Cambridge.” Amid such figures, “it will scarcely come as a surprise to hear that, on one occasion when the world was going through one of its economic convulsions, the International Labour Office Conference had, as the chief question on its agenda, ‘Workers’ Playtime Hours’!”
Added to the difficulties that such reformers presented within the bureaucracies of the new international organizations, “those freaks, the Russian intelligentsia,” that Johnson had met before dominated the ranks of many of the refugees under his supervision as well, becoming what he called “one of my greatest bugbears.” These “long-whiskered, unkempt, and unsavoury-smelling individuals” Johnson “could find no place in my scheme of things." They, Johnson had learned in Russia
were ‘intellectuals’…I was almost exasperated when my friend remarked that they were students by profession…To them, this gleaning of academic knowledge, without the slightest intention of putting it to any practical use, is sacrosanct. One would have thought that the tragedy of the loss of their country, and the extreme hardships that the majority of the refugees have to suffer in consequence, would have brought them face to face with the stern realities of life, and would have shown them the proper place of learning in the scheme of things.
Many intelligentsia figures appointed themselves, Johnson reported, “without any authority, and without even consulting the mass of refugees…the representation of the whole Russian emigration.” A consequence was that refugee leaders, who also included former high officials, advocated for “charity” rather than permanent resettlement to aid in their preparation to return to govern Russia in the future after a Soviet government collapse – or advocated that they be given cushy desk jobs at the Geneva organizations themselves. Johnson parodied the simultaneous desperation of the refugees and their relative hauteur in passages like this one, phrased like an experience of interviewing a representative of the group:
What was your occupation in Russia? Court Chamberlain
Why did you leave? At the pressing invitation of the Cheka [a Bolshevik security organization]
What have you been doing in exile? Imitating human tennis ball; volleyed from one country to another
Where would you like to live? In Monte Carlo
What occupation would you like? The author of this questionnaire
What salary would you expect? Once again, that of the author of this questionnaire
Would you accept a lower salary, and if so how much? Yes, 95 per cent less, if need be.
Yet Johnson found that the approaches preferred by the intelligentsia, such as “indiscriminate feeding or doles…thoroughly demoralized the refugees” and that “indiscriminate charity…encouraged the Russians from exerting themselves to seek or accept employment elsewhere.” In addition, he wrote, doles led “refugees [to be] rapidly…transformed into human derelicts who would become a menace to society and to international order,” particularly Russians who could use the money to remain standing military threats to the Soviet government. Even exiled Russian dukes who threw “grand balls” to fundraise for fellow refugees enjoyed the “social limelight, but confer[red] little benefit on their struggling compatriots.”
Johnson enthused instead about how, washing up in Constantinople, refugees who had been “aristocrats…found work as newsvendors, hawkers, hamals (dock labourers), butlers, valets, chauffeurs, taxi-drivers, etc. etc…Special credit,” he continued, “is due to the women refugees who, to my mind, have given by far the best account of themselves. To maintain themselves and often their families, they willingly accepted the most menial employment, and there was scarcely a restaurant or café in Constantinople where Russian women, of the most exalted families, were not serving as waitresses, accepting their tips and often indignities with smiling faces but aching hearts.” Johnson also praised entrepreneurial Armenians in Syria for buying petrol cheap and undermining the prices offered on resale by local competitors. (One form of entrepreneurship among refugees that Johnson did not mention, but that League reports on their condition in Shanghai and elsewhere demonstrate an acute awareness of, was prostitution.)
Banking off the examples he did give, however, Johnson contrasted the intelligentsia’s preferred approaches with what he viewed as the most efficacious plans of the Nansen organization. Johnson did not view all the Nansen group’s efforts as equally useful; the League’s legal protection efforts alone, he showed, were hardly availing against states determined to deport refugees and confiscate their Nansen Passports. But beginning with a chapter titled “Nansen’s Fight for the World’s Flotsam and Jetsam,” Johnson testified as to how Nansen’s own background as a polar explorer demonstrated his fundamental commitment to work ethic: beginning an expedition on the east coast of Greenland, Nansen allegedly burned his ships to compel his crew to cross the ice caps to the towns on the other side. As a consequence, Johnson wrote,
[p]rominent among those services [of the Nansen organization] was that of encouraging the refugees to employ their initiative to become self-supporting. At first it was extremely difficult, as…our protègés had been encouraged to adopt the refugee mentality, and to ask and expect charity. Little by little they were converted to a more constructive mode of thinking, and began to bombard us with shoals of applications for loans, often to start the most fantastic enterprises. By dint of great patience, encouragement, and education, the schemes became more and more practical until it was possible to finance many thousands of them…Taking the records of one year at random, I find that refugees were set up in more than one hundred different occupations, of such varied kinds as those of dentists, canners, doll-makers, electricians, hairdressers, knee-pad manufacturers…manicurists, masseuses, rag merchants, and rabbit breeders.
In addition to being more cost-effective, such an approach, Johnson believed, allowed refugees to “retain or regain their self-respect by not having to regard themselves as objects of charity.” It “encouraged [refugees] to work for themselves and become independent citizens at the earliest possible moment.”
The Nansen organization’s work resettling Greeks expelled from or “exchanged” with Turkey became an important testing ground for such measures, which Johnson believed “would prove that the whole problem could be solved by such means.” “While other sympathizers of Greek refugees were following the usual procedure…of turning them into objects of charity,” he enthused, “Nansen proposed nothing less than that the value of the million odd Greek refugees should be capitalized!” A further application, an “agricultural training colony” in France, allowed refugees to save up for their own plots through installment purchases which had the “merit of enabling the[m] to become self-supporting.” There, Johnson observed, elite but productive refugees had gotten over their pride, including “an ex-cavalry general and a priest pulling happily and successfully in harness together.” He exulted that Nansen’s organization teaching Russians to drive led to the latter taking control of 13% of Paris’ taxi industry.
To encourage such behavior further, Johnson proposed to Nansen a system that would seek reimbursement from refugees after their successful resettlement overseas. “[W]e should act as benevolent bankers to refugees and make them loans to set themselves up in productive employment, on the principle of helping them to help themselves,” he argued. “For a third of the sum spent on persecution of the single refugee, the Nansen Organization could have settled him as an owner-farmer, with his family, in South America!” He related the story of a Russian road construction contractor in Persia so industrious that his competitors had him expelled from the country by laying false charges. Johnson paid his fare to South America himself, after which, Johnson asserted, the Russian paid him back in full.
In South America, Johnson enthused, “under good and suitable climactic conditions for Europeans, within easy reach of railways and markets, families consisting of three adults and two children could be colonized for an advance of £130.” Beyond this, “one year’s capitalization would offer the recipient and his family a permanent home in the sunshine and an assured future – with cinemas. It would, at the same time, release the population of an incubus and transform him into a productive member of society and a potential customer!” Nansen agreed with the general premise of these arguments, at least. While receiving skepticism from the League Council, Johnson reported, “Nansen replied that, properly settled, the refugees who were regarded as an intolerable burden would comprise a rich asset!”
Despite interest from South American countries in such schemes, however – greater interest than was to greet similar proposals to admit refugees from fascist Germany on more humanitarian grounds – refugee colonization never took place on a large scale. This was not the least because of the resistance of the Russian intelligentsia; “Russian culture,” Johnson paraphrased them, “must not be wasted on the uncivilized air of the South American pampa or forest” – nor would such a movement make repatriation to a restored Russia easy. But Nansen was, Johnson claimed, also a victim of his own forthrightness: in not only crafting refugee schemes that put elites to work but criticizing the anemic League response to events such as Mussolini’s takeover of Corfu, he made enemies left and right. Russian exiles, Johnson alleged, consequently allied with other anti-Nansen forces in the League’s “Star Chamber.”
Hostility within the League necessitated teaming up with the ILO, whose head, Albert Thomas, was more adept at Geneva politics, but which, Johnson echoed his overall critique of the organization, “had the one great drawback of presupposing the existence of Utopia on this planet.” The ILO was the “quintessence of most of the unsound continental administrative methods.” As an example, he noted how
I have had to sit through [ILO] rapports [meetings], of an average duration of one hour, without one single question being discussed which concerned me directly, but with the knowledge that heart-rending appeals were piling up from refugees which were, for them, matters of life and death, and that I should probably be screamed at during a subsequent rapport for any delay thus caused in answering them.
Subsequent iterations of the Nansen organization, too, grew similarly bureaucratic. “Committees were appointed – and still more Committees. The waste of time was colossal,” Johnson wrote, noting that time spent went from 90% on relief work compared to 10% on administration under Nansen to 40% on the latter when working with the ILO to 75% even after the Nansen organization reclaimed refugee work on its own.
Johnson disliked the drift, and claimed that it was caused by the same shadowy constellations that had undermined Nansen and effectively forced Johnson himself out of office – the source of the paranoia with which he began his memoir. More and more Russian intelligentsia, for example, had succeeded in taking up offices in Geneva. Still, he was concerned about the new refugee crisis emerging from Germany and the threats to peace that appeared to be related to it. His argument by thus not to tear down the Geneva system. The League was ineffective at containing the crisis – a consequence of its overall utopian approach – and thus had to be “destroyed.” Still, “civilization demand[ed]” that something live up to its ideals.
Johnson thus called for “an international partnership based on realities” instead. In part, this led to his advocacy that the US and Britain form both a secretariat and a more formal kind of Security Council or concert of Great Powers, given
that the only hope of achieving Wilson’s fourteen points lies in an entirely new League of Nations founded by Anglo-Saxon nations and governed by their ideals and their methods of procedure and administration. Other nations would be admitted to such a League only on furnishing guarantees of their fitness for membership, and would remain members just as long as, and no longer than, those guarantees were respected. In this way the Anglo-Saxon nations would, in fact, accept no further responsibilities than at present, when they have to act as the world’s peacemakers, policemen, and bankers, except that method would replace the present political Blind Man’s Bluff.
Yet being based on “realities” also meant the new system needed to take “account of the achievements…accomplished notwithstanding extraordinary difficulties” under the League so far, which would show “how much could be done for suffering humanity under a properly constituted and conducted League.” In effect, this meant basing more of a new League on the successes of the Nansen organization. “Examples of the immense services which could be achieved by an international institution inspired by the right ideals in the prosecution of World Peace are afforded by the activities of Dr. Nansen,” Johnson wrote. “And no more eloquent proof could be furnished of the absence from [current] League circles of that inspiration than the obstacles which they placed in his way.”
One reason Johnson believed that a reconstituted League needed to be built on examples that had worked well was so that it would appeal to any “impartial businessman.” Compared to the skepticism that greeted the League, the advantages and disadvantages of membership must be, he wrote, “so obvious and concrete as to be easily within the grasp of the ‘man in the street’ of all civilized countries. That implies,” Johnson continued, “an end to the well-meaning academic visionaries who have been the League’s most active propagandists, but have simply swamped it by nebulous intellectual phraseology of which the ordinary human being is profoundly distrustful.” Here, of course, the Nansen approach also shone in comparison to the intelligentsia. Refugee work should in fact lead any talk on a new League because it
dealt with situations [ordinary people] could easily understand and, indeed, in which each member of them might easily find himself. When such audiences have heard that the League has helped to place on their feet, with new hope and courage to face the future, families who, through no fault of their own, were confronted with death from starvation and persecution, their reaction was inevitably that a League which could accomplish such things was certainly worth while.
In doing so, a new League would, “in addition to capturing popular imagination by such an appeal, be able to make even stronger appeals to practical common sense and individual interests.” Doing so was essential given that, “[i]n spite of articulate intellectuals, who would have us believe that mind is rapidly gaining an ascendancy over matter, the vast majority of the people of this world have the advancement of their own material interests as their guiding star. It is, in fact, the essence of human nature.”
This argument led Johnson to an even broader understanding of how a reconstituted League could succeed. It should move beyond refugee assistance to facilitating freedom of movement, in the individual interests of all. “The new League,” he wrote,
must…open up an almost limitless horizon of liberty…The barriers against such freedom must be broken down so that the individual may feel that he is really an heir to the best things in the world. The chief of those barriers is that against freedom of intercourse which, in its turn, erects a barrier against one of the greatest of all agents of good international understanding – freedom of trade…The ultimate aim of the new League should, therefore, be to make human beings free citizens of the world. Each national of a member of the League should be able to visualize, ultimately, the same freedom of entry into the country of every other member of the League and the exercise of the full enjoyment of the privileges of that country on the same terms as its own nationals. Such facilities would dispel the sense of privation and inferiority which underlies present aggressive policies.
Johnson was aware that he may have lapsed into the dreamy vagaries he had previously criticized, perhaps realizing that some of this vision retread ground touched on by the likes of Kant and Montesquieu. He was also not the only voice within the League advocating that it promote free movement. Yet he argued that his “views are Utopian, perhaps, in appearance, but capable of a severely practical application.”
The program, he offered, could proceed in steps: “[t]he first…is to provide a means of universal understanding and exchange of ideas: moral disarmament as the League prefers to term it.” The new League would therefore promote Esperanto as a universal language, which Johnson noted had “modest followers, drawn mostly from the lower middle classes of many countries, whose union would have contributed so much to world peace.” Use of a common language, he also believed, could advance international cooperation more quickly. Another step would expand the beneficiaries of (and presumably, therefore, support for) the Nansen passport to provide a world passport for all, with no restrictions on movement.
The removal of trade restrictions and an international currency could follow, along with standard wage protections to prevent competition. Free trade alone, Johnson believed, would undermine many of the grievances of Germany, Japan, and Italy. The Anglo-Saxon countries would also realize the advantage of not needing to assume “growing international responsibilities,” and Americans could, thereby, “give answers to the sneers of the world…that [its] chief contributions to the post-War world have been limited to economic and financial anarchy inspired by worship of gangster films.” This was all a long way from refugee work, but it rested on that work’s bedrock, and its supposed intelligibility to the “common man.”
In the wake of the violence that roiled the U.S. Capitol in January, and debates about the social status of those who participated, the historian and legal scholar Samuel Moyn tweeted a reference to a pertinent old article: Arno Mayer’s 1975 work on “The Lower Middle Class as Historical Problem.” Mayer wrote that “the petite bourgeoisie has had a harder time commanding scholarly attention than either the power elite or the proletariat,” and that its role had been underemphasized, as well as its “separate culture, ethos, life-style, and world view.” He quoted the medievalist Henri Pirenne in observing that the ancestors of this lower middle class were “‘the poor men, the landless men, the nomadic folk who wandered about the country, working for hire at harvest time’…These indigent men,” Mayer continued, “were self-reliant. From ‘this floating scum’ came those ‘poor devils’ who made ‘their capital out of nothing.’”
Such “self-reliance” continued into the present, with Mayer characterizing the petit bourgoisie as
[n]ot unlike the virtuous peasant, the sober petit bourgeois is hailed for embodying those cardinal personal and social qualities that are being tarnished by capitalist industrial society: self-reliance, thriftiness, diligence, and moderation. The Kleinbürger is honored and flattered for being the principal standard-bearer of property, family, the ‘work instinct,’ religion, and patriotism.
Yet who possessed such qualities was a matter of debate. Lenin, Mayer wrote, conceived of
whoever was not a genuine and full-fledged proletarian…as a narrow-minded and fickle petit bourgeois; craftsmen, artisans, shopkeepers, small and middle peasants, low- and middle-level civil servants, and labor aristocrats all fell into this category. In other words [for Lenin] all except select sections of the intelligentsia were covered by it.
Mayer’s own definition was somewhat narrower. “[T]he lower middle class,” he wrote
can be said to be composed of individuals…who earn their living by work that is not preeminently manual labor requiring steady physical exertion and that demands a minimum of alphabetization… who are singularly self-conscious about being neither [upper] nor [lower class], but aspire upward…who are inclined to be highly individualistic in their pursuit of upward mobility…[and] who ultimately and particularly in situations of stress are more fearful of sinking down or back into dishonorable trades or manual labor than eager to rise into the absolute middle class.
Mayer concluded that on the basis of these fears, the lower middle class was a “critical mass and, in moments of crisis, a critical swing group” that had the power to shift alliances between other classes.
Johnson’s work is suffused with appeal to, and problems of, this class. His emphasis on the redeeming qualities of hard work and its prospects for achieving upward mobility for refugees – as well as his cognizance of the political importance of appealing to a common “man on the street” who believed in the virtues of both – demonstrate a commitment to a “petit bourgeois” path to world peace that he believed might sap the energies of nationalisms that appealed to the class. At the same time, Johnson ignored white collar elements of lower middle class identity that hewed closer to Mayer’s definition than Lenin’s. Johnson saw the intelligentsia as a tiny minority of refugees who led others astray. He was unable to acknowledge a broader reluctance to engage in the manual labor that differentiated many from the peasantry.
Much of Johnson’s writing could be written off as a product of his period or personal idiosyncrasies. His assumptions about the refugees he tried to aid and the “common man” more broadly may have been unfounded and he had a tendency toward remarks touching on subjects such as race and ethnicity that would be considered unacceptable today. Even his portrayal of the Nansen organization may have overrepresented its efforts at “self-reliance” as opposed to its achievements in legal protection – and overattributed its challenges to entitlement and conspiracy where funding and an attitude that refugees were a “temporary” problem may have been more significant.
Yet in the midst of reignited awareness of the political significance of the lower middle class, it may make some sense for advocates of still often embattled internationalisms to take one page from Johnson and at least consider ways to appeal, specifically, to petit-bourgeois sentiments. The idea that the petit bourgeoisie might rally to cross-border cooperation rather than insular authoritarianism was not unprecedented, as Johnson was aware in pointing to, for example, the “lower middle class” origins of Esperanto. Any modern lower middle class internationalism would surely have to navigate a different political climate than existed in the interwar period. But in thinking through ways in which it can appeal to the status anxieties of this critical swing group – be it through, for example, refugee resettlement in rust belt areas where population growth arrests the decline of lower middle class fortunes, or pointing to ways that curtailing free movement effectively makes it more of an out-of-reach luxury good for the wealthy with access to for-purchase citizenships – it may also provide advocates ingredients to build on.