Monday, June 22, 2015

Aleksander Wat

I take a somewhat absurd and small-minded, if not downright xenophobic, approach to the study of Russian history and literature. Aside from a few random books ingested on CD during my morning commute, I generally read Russian history and Russian literature and little else.  I tell myself that I need to avoid non-Russian materials to spend more time on a vast and growing subject.  However, my parochial reading list makes it appear as if Russia has always existed in a vacuum, cut off from the rest of the world.  Fortunately, from time to time I pick up a book by a non-Russian author, but only if I can randomly flip through the unread pages but still encounter a number of Russian names and places.  And so it was that Aleksander Wat's brilliant book, My Century, survived the Procrustean bed of my reading regimen.  For Russian connections and allusions and ideas litter almost every page of the long book.  And why shouldn't this be so?  For better or worse (and most Poles would say the answer is clearly, "for worse"), Poland's history is interwoven with Russia's, especially in the catastrophic twentieth century.

Wat's story, like Poland's itself, is in many ways a Russian story. Wat grew to intellectual maturity on a steady diet of lef-wing and Marxist readings.  Like so many other Polish intellectuals and proletarians, Wat, generally a fellow-traveller rather than an outright communist, was also thrilled by the adventure of the Bolshevik Revolution.  The Russian Revolution seemed to promise a brand new, and much improved world. Everything could and would be reinvented.  The Soviet Union was remaking economics, politics, art, culture, gender relations, and indeed everyday life. Eventually, Wat's romance with both the Soviet Union and communism in general came to an end, and Wat even came to reside in the Soviet Union's notorious Lubianka, and then later suffered under Poland's post-World War II communist dictatorship.  Wat's book, My Century, is largely a prolonged apology for his own part in Europe's great experiment with communism.  This informal series of interviews returns again and again to one of modernity's greatest crimes:  It's willingness to sacrifce human rights, and freedom itself, at the alter of an super-rationalist faith in the radical progress of humanity.

A few quotes from Wat's My Century:

"No one knew what communism would be like.  For the time we thought of it as a great nihilism."

"The dark sectarian layers, Russia inundated by sectarianism--all this was very attractive to us in our esthetic, literary revolution."

"Hempel was the first apparatchnik I had ever known."

"[Jansienski] had come as a young man from Russia, very full of himself yet at the same time terribly cynical, and that cannot be called communism.  In any case that's was communism, that was bolshevism, and it certainly wasn't Marxism."

"By analogy with what is happening in physics, just as the atom has ceased to be the simplest unit, subject to no further reduction, so has the event, the fact, become incredibly complex."

"We see a social system dominated by genuine idiots, capitalists.  That is the most fertile ground for laughter and for revolution."

"Doctors can't cure  me, but a good exorcist probably could.  Because my main demon is communism..."

"But from Rousseau on we again see history confused with autobiography.  And isn't that one of the signs of our illness?  The muddying of history with biography.  Isn't that a sin?"

"The Literary Monthly is the corpus delicti of my degradation, the history of my degradation in communism, by communism."

"Now they're turning spies into heroes, but I [Broniewsky] was in Lubyanka and nobody's making a hero out of me."

"Bourgeouis decadence.  And I was afraid of causing infection.  Just as they're afraid to send satellites to Mars so as not to cause any virtal infection there."

"As if it were still possible to write tragedies in the twentieth century..."

"There was only one alternative, only one global answer to negation."

"It was a very simple matter, a matter of mathematics.  There were too much of everything. Too many people, too many ideas, too many books, too many systems.  Too much of everything...absolutely awful multiplicity.  It has become so vast that a refined intellect was unable to deal with it."

"How pure and great must be the cause for which so much blood is spilled, innocent blood."

"Besides, experts in religion know that when great religions are dying, warped religions--sects--emerge."

"Kireevsky, a post-romantic and one of the Slovophiles, wrote that politics was such a crime and a disgrace that it was better for one person to take all that disgrace upon himself."

"It boils down to the Soviet astronaut who said that he had been in heaven and hadn't seen God.  Voila!  That's communism's rationalism in full flower."

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Eli Sagan's Citizens and Cannibals

Eli Sagan's book, Citizens and Cannibals, is a fascinating theoretical treatise on the meaning of the French Revolution.  Favoring analysis over narrative, Sagan argues that the French Revolution reveals the fault lines of modernity.  According to Sagan, the French Revolution is representative of the anxiety modern men and women feel when they give us Early Modern sources of corporate identity. Following the logic of Marshall Berman's book, All That is Solid Melts Into Air, Sagan maintains that French revolutionaries turned to terror to compensate for the loss of the king, the Catholic church, guilds, and other sources of social and cultural identity. Sagan writes that most people in France accepted the principles of the French Revolution even before it occurred.  Nobles, clergymen, and even the king, all more or less gave up medieval assumptions and joined the bourgeoisie in believing in the rights of individuals and the bourgeois concept of freedom.

According to Sagan, the French Revolution had little or nothing to do with capitalism, which had made few inroads in France by the end of the 18th century, and everything to do with middle class values. The French Revolution was not made by industrialists or great merchants but rather by lawyers. The Revolution was ultimately an expression of a new ethos.  By 1789 most educated people accepted many or perhaps most modern ideas about politics.  Robespierre, for instance, believed in many of the things we believe in.  He hated slavery, favored the separation of church and state, supported progressive taxation, and championed free and universal education.  He believed in civil rights, as they are commonly understood.   Sagan goes so far as to call Robespierre a "moral genius" for his early and eloquent advocacy of so many of the causes we still champion today.  On the other hand, Robespierre, like so many of his contemporaries, hated factionalism.  This hatred was born of a fear that is representative of the widespread fear that accompanied all passages to modernity.

Why was the French Revolution so bloody?  Sagan makes a compelling case that Frenchmen embraced most aspects of modernity but rejected the concept of a loyal ambition.  They believed in individual rights, and Rousseau's famous "general will" of the nation.  What they simply could not abide were factions.  Sagan points out that this suspicion of factions is common even to America's founding fathers.  He also reminds us that France never fully resolved its disgust with factions until DeGaulle renounced the idea of becoming a dictator well over a century later.  With this hatred of factionalism, French revolutionaries were left with no other choice but to annihilate one another.  The stakes were huge:  Girondists knew that they would either kill members of the Mountain, or be killed. Of course, Sagan doesn't let matters wrest there.  He knows that many national histories involved widespread bloodshed, and bloodshed out of all proportion to the struggle for political power.  In France, revolutionaries didn't just kill potential political opponents, but rather killed powerless nobles and other groups.

In the twentieth century, ideological terrorists repeatedly created large groups of people for no reason at all.  The holocaust, for example, cannot be explained by any ordinary logic. The murder of a group of people who offered no resistance to the regime was, strictly speaking, irrational.  How to explain such hysteria?  Sagan offers the plausible argument that Germans, like so many others who encountered modernity, were both exhilarated and terrified by their isolation and freedom. Cannibalism is in a sense the flip side of citizenship.

The logic of modern terror makes sense in a Russian context.  On a narrow level, we see that the Bolsheviks never learned how to deal with factionalism except through radical violence.  On some level, Stalin understood that he would either kill or be killed by political opponents.  Bolsheviks never admitted to themselves that other Bolsheviks had a right to disagree about tactics or ideology in fundamental ways.  The unit of the party and therefore the nation could not be threatened, even if the alternative to disunity was violence.  But more than an explanation for bloody dictatorship, Sagan offers us an understanding of why the Soviet Union embraced violence on such an enormous scale. Sagan offers us an explanation for why there were so many Stalinists in 1930s Russia.  The Russians were hysterical about something.  They required sacrifices to feel better about the earth-shattering, if also exciting, changes they were experiencing.  This is the paradox of the Russian Revolution, a paradox that existed however as early as the French Revolution:  Russians were forging a radical version of equality, but also giving up many of their most familiar sources of social cohesion, including the tsar, the Orthodox Church, the aristocracy, and the peasant commune. How to deal with this level of uncertainty?  Surely violence was chicken soup for the terrified soul.