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The New Criterion

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- Harry Mount, the London Telegraph

Features

May 1999

How did Dostoevsky know?

by Gary Saul Morson

On totalitarianism, evil & intellectuals

If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be [routinely] practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings; that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (“the secret brand”); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible of circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to an insane asylum.
—Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

At this point, it is safe to say that the twentieth century is the bloodiest on record. By the most conservative estimates, at least one hundred million people were killed by Communist regimes. The largest number of deaths were, of course, Chinese and Soviet—to the point where the million or so executed by the Khmer Rouge are well within the margin of error for the total. And of course these figures do not include the Nazi murders and other tragedies of stupefying proportions. If the twenty-first century is to be any better, it might pay to examine why our age has so outstripped the achievements of Nero, Ivan the Terrible, and the Spanish Inquisition.

The question arises: why has the horror of our times not provoked more intelligent reflection? In fact, why are some campaigns that took millions of lives almost totally unknown except to a few specialists? I can think of no more urgent questions to ask as the century draws to a close.

At the end of their celebrated dramatization of The Diary of Anne Frank, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett have the voice of Anne pronounce what they take to be the moral of the story: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” In his study of the play, Lawrence Graver observes,

In her diary, Anne Frank followed that sentence with an apocalyptic vision of “the ever approaching thunder,” destruction, and “the suffering of millions.” But in the play one is left as the curtain falls with the sanguine, reassuring observation about human goodness—a repeated utterance so mindfully placed and so resonant that it soon became a tag line summing up the message of the Diary for countless people around the world. Indeed, so famous is the closing scene of the play that many people—including the editors of the Oxford Companion to the American Theater (1992) and the Cambridge Guide to American Theater (1993)—mistakenly believe the line affirming human goodness is actually the last line of Anne’s own diary.

In the play, the famous line has real finality, but when Anne wrote it in her diary, it displayed the experimental quality one might expect of a sensitive teenager testing possible responses to horror. She wonders what to make of it all and advances incompatible ideas to see if any might be persuasive. This “little bundle of contradictions,” as she calls herself, is always testing ideas and feelings, “searching” and “trying it out.”

We appreciate youthful idealism in all its attractiveness and limitation, but we also sense that she entertains very different thoughts as well. Anne reflects that even with countless Jews being taken away to concentration camps, those in hiding still occupy themselves with petty quarrels and trivial vanity. “I keep asking myself, whether one would have trouble in the long run, whoever one shared a house with. Or did we strike it extra unlucky? Are most people so selfish and stingy then? I think it’s all to the good to have learned a bit about human beings, but now I think I’ve learned enough.” Anne’s thoughts about the human essence reel from extreme to extreme, because, as she knows, she is still learning, indulging a passionate curiosity open to revision.

Anne states that the horrors of the war and mass murder cannot be blamed only on the politicians, but must also be attributed to evil in human nature itself.

I don’t believe that the big men, the politicians and the capitalists alone, are guilty of the war. Oh no, the little man is just as guilty, otherwise the peoples of the world would have risen in revolt long ago! There’s in people simply an urge to destroy, an urge to kill, to murder and rage, and until all mankind, without exception, undergoes a great change, wars will be waged, everything that has been built up, cultivated, and grown will be destroyed and disfigured, after which mankind will have to begin all over again.

But since despair only makes things worse, Anne continues, she will try to regard her life as a “great adventure” and to “treat all the privations as amusing.”

Experience tells us that human nature is capable of great evil, but Anne’s sheer vitality, the beautiful natural world she can see through darkened windows, and her own love of high ideals, all make her want to assert goodness she cannot really believe in. In the entry for July 15, 1944, she refers to the “half-completed task” of knowing who she is and what to think. “Older people have formed their opinions about everything” and are impervious to evidence, but the young are still open.

[A]fter a long time, we think we’ve found a solution, but the solution doesn’t seem able to resist the facts which reduce it to nothing again. That’s the difficulty in these times: ideals, dreams, and cherished hopes rise within us, only to meet the horrible truth and be shattered.

It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return to earth.

I hope it is clear that to tear the famous affirmation out of context is to distort it. Anne sees how all the facts refute ideals, destroy dreams, show the evil of people: but she still tries to cling to ideals because otherwise life would be impossible.

We love Anne for trying out her idealistic thought, even if we sense the full pathos of its falsity in light of what she has herself described, in spite of her entertaining the opposite thought, and in spite of her eventual fate, necessarily unknown to her. After all, this is a real diary, not a work of fiction; nothing has been placed here to exploit the irony of a girl who is to die at Bergen-Belsen still imagining her future after the war and still clinging to hope, not only personal but also metaphysical. The diary’s ironies belong not to the author, but to history, and much of the power of this book comes from its utter authenticity, from the fact that its very existence as a book happened by sheer chance. Anne had good reason to think that the Nazis would arrest her but almost no reason to anticipate that they would unaccountably leave her diary behind, that her Dutch protectors would save it, and that her father would publish it.

Everything changes in the play. The authors of the script, the director Garson Kanin, the producer Kermit Bloomgarden, and Lillian Hellman, who was active in all aspects of the production and who guided the Hacketts (Goodrich and Hackett were married) through eight drafts, have left a heavy imprint of their vision on the whole, a vision at great variance from Anne’s. Anne searches, but they know the truth, and they have often fabricated words for “Anne” not only to utter it, but also to utter it with a finality completely foreign to her. Anne becomes a spokesman for a truism, which, given her deep quest for authenticity and her own identity, constitutes a loathsome irony. She’s been used.

The audience is led to believe that the drama merely places the diary on stage, that this is Anne as she presents herself. The play insists on its authenticity. Brooks Atkinson’s introduction to its published text affirms that the Hacketts have met the “heavy obligation to represent her truthfully,” and the stage directions constantly mention real specific places and events as if to show that, even if machine gun fire in the background would be a cheap melodramatic effect in a work of fiction, this is no fiction! Audiences do not see this Anne the way they see, let us say, Macbeth, who may or may not resemble the real Macbeth. In this, they are systematically misled. There is a real dishonesty here, all the more obscene because it abuses for propagandistic purposes a real person who cannot protest—along with the millions she is supposed to represent, who become mere ideological cannon fodder.

It is clear that some of those involved knew just what they were doing. The creation of the play was shaped by the desire for financial profit and by ideology. Truthfulness was beside the point, even though claims to be telling the truth were repeatedly made, since truth, or the impression of it, is also marketable. Years later, when her various books of memoirs were attacked as thoroughly inaccurate, Hellman was to say, in an anticipation of current literary theory: “in the three books of memoirs I wrote I tried very hard for truth… . But the truth as I saw it, of course, doesn’t have much to do with the truth.” “Nothing is true altogether,” she wrote, “nor does it matter.” Mary McCarthy famously commented on the Dick Cavett Show that Hellman was a “dishonest writer” whose “every word is a lie including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

The Hacketts had made their career in Hollywood before being tapped by Hellman and Bloomgarden to do the dramatization. Their most famous script was—I am not making this up—It’s a Wonderful Life. It is as if they, alone or with Hellman’s help, imagined the same title for the staged diary. The play’s director (to whom the published version is also dedicated) compared Anne to—I am not making this up either—Peter Pan and the Mona Lisa. Anne, he said, “remains forever adolescent… . Anne lives on. She remains forever a shining star, a radiant presence who, during her time of terror and humiliation and imprisonment, was able to find it within herself to write in her immortal diary, ‘in spite of everything I still believe that people are good at heart.’” And ever she be chaste, and he be fair: it’s a sort of ode to the Nazi urn. Hannah Arendt was appalled by what she called “the cheap sentimentality” of the way in which Anne Frank was understood, and Bruno Bettelheim, himself imprisoned by the Nazis in Dachau and Buchenwald, remarked that the play’s famous line makes it easy to forget real horror. “If all men are good,” he concluded, “there was never an Auschwitz.”

In discussions of the play, much has been made of Hellman’s Stalinism. Hellman defended the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 and, while that pact was in force, opposed the immigration of Jews to the United States. The journal she kept during a trip to Russia in 1944 dismissed persecution of Jews as the fantasy of “Jewish shopkeepers during a pogrom rumor,” a remarkable comment: Jewish shopkeepers? Even after Nikita Khrushchev’s speech on “The Crimes of the Stalin Era,” Hellman defended Stalin as “the watchdog of Party orthodoxy.” Later she justified Stalin’s purges as “the necessity of a tight reign after any revolution,” although the Great Purge did not begin until 1936. The late Forties and early Fifties were the period of Stalin’s intense campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans,” that is, Jews. The campaign culminated first in the summoning of all prominent Yiddish writers to Moscow, where they were shot en masse, and then in the Doctor’s Plot, in which Jewish Kremlin doctors were accused of deliberately mistreating high officials. Plans were prepared for mass pogroms and for the exile of all (remaining) Jews to Siberia. Stalin’s sudden death in 1953 aborted the plans.

The usual interpretation of Hellman’s influence on the play has been that she transformed the diary by universalizing it. Anne herself is made to say, as she does not in her diary, that “We’re not the only people that’ve had to suffer. Sometimes one race … sometimes another.” This argument about Hellman seems persuasive, but another connection between her beliefs and the play has been mentioned much less frequently, probably because, in this respect, Hollywood sentimentality and Communist philosophy coincide.

According to Soviet literary doctrine, tragedy—the whole genre—is a lie. Only optimistic visions of the world can coincide with the promise of utopia. For the same reason, endings in Soviet literature had to be “positive,” or the writer would face one of the most fatal—I use the word advisedly —condemnations: pessimism. All problems have solutions, and each solution is known. History’s destined happy ending must be reflected in plots. Above all, humanity is essentially good, and there is nothing like original sin: evil results from the class structure, and will, in its entirety, disappear along with it.

In the play about Anne Frank, the famous affirmation in fact appears twice. In the next to last scene—the final one set while Anne is still alive—Anne contests Peter’s despairing refusal to believe in anything. This is when Anne says: “We’re not the only people that’ve had to suffer. There’ve always been people that’ve had to … sometimes one race … sometimes another.” Peter suggests that a history of racial prejudice only makes things worse, because if such suffering has always existed, then doubtless it always will. “Anne” replies: “I think the world may be going through a phase, the way I was with Mother. It’ll pass, maybe not for hundreds of years, but some day… . I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”

“Going through a phase, the way I was with Mother”: the debate over whether the Hacketts were right to invent words for Anne that made of the Holocaust just another chapter in the history of prejudice has been so intense that another important point has been overlooked. They make Anne say, as she does not in the diary, that the Nazi Holocaust is an adolescent trauma. Indeed, the whole growing-up theme, so important in the play, is thereby transformed into a historical allegory. Humanity will outgrow evil, as surely as an individual will pass through puberty. All human history has been a phase in the development of the universe, which, right after her affirmation, “Anne” evokes as a “great pattern” in which human lives are but “a little minute in the life [of nature]… . Look at the sky, isn’t it lovely?” When this phase ends, humanity will reveal its essential goodness.

Historical optimism has never displayed worse taste. If Voltaire were writing Candide, or Optimism in the mid-twentieth century, he might have directed it against silliness like this. The word “phase” allows all the contrary evidence of history to be dismissed. Its use here not only adds to the real diary, but contradicts it. The real Anne resents the grown-ups for their condescension: they fail to take her seriously when they dimiss her feelings as a “phase.”

Of course, one does not have to be a Communist to maintain a thoroughly optimistic anthropology. Primitivism, Rousseauism, anarchism, and kindred other theories are equally fatuous. As Hollywood has a habit of telling us: it’s a wonderful life! We are surrounded by what Graver has called “the kitsch of hope.” This play’s ending is worse than kitschy; it is a violation of an important truth that the Nazi experience illustrates as well as anything else in history. If Auschwitz stands for anything, it is the horrible things that people are capable of. From Dostoevsky to James Baldwin, writers have observed that sentimentality is often a mask for cruelty. Here one wonders: is the Hacketts’ Panglossian affirmation of goodness “in spite of everything” part of a refusal to learn from experience, as such assertions are in Voltaire? What if that refusal contributes to its repetition?

Neither the Hacketts nor Hellman was a particularly original thinker, and the very fact that the play was successfully calculated to appeal to a mass audience, and eventually won a Pulitzer Prize, indicates that we are not dealing with an idiosyncratic reaction. No, the play succeeds because it is so skillfully hackneyed, such a perfect example of what Nabokov called poshlost: pseudo-profound vulgarity. Evil exists, yes, and the heroine dies, but her words live on, she achieves immortality, goodness is affirmed, and we are its witnesses. George Stevens’s preface to the diary begins: “Of all the most remarkable things about Anne Frank, I believe the most important is her survival.” No: she died along with countless others in Bergen-Belsen. Apart from Stevens’s almost sick deification of words as opposed to real life, what about the words of all those people who left no diaries? Or who did not have them published by Doubleday and staged on Broadway? Contrast this comment with Solzhenitsyn’s inscription to The Gulag Archipelago: “I dedicate this to all who did not live to tell it. And may they please forgive me for not having seen it all nor remembered it all, for not having divined it all.”

The bloody experience of the twentieth century reflects its most influential invention, more influential, I think, than any scientific or technological one: the totalitarian state. So often has the evil of our time been attributed to technology that it is worth mentioning how little was involved in most killing. In Nazi-occupied Russia, a very small number of SS soldiers were able to kill hundreds of thousands of Jews without any diabolical invention. One common method, for instance, was to force Jews to dig a ditch, tie them together in front of it, shoot a few of them—bullets were to be saved—and then watch them all fall in, after which the bodies were buried, dead or alive. This is technology that Peter the Great could have used. The same observation applies to the Cambodian killing fields and to Stalin’s Gulag. No computers or lasers were at hand. The social technology is what really allowed for unprecedented horror.

The Russian tsars were traditionally the most repressive rulers in Europe, but one only needs to meditate on what tsarist absolutism meant in practice to see the difference between it and totalitarianism. Tolstoy, struck with horror at tsarist political executions, once calculated that in the past hundred years some three thousand people had been executed for political reasons. If one makes a similar calculation for the Soviet period from 1917 to the death of Stalin in 1953, three thousand people lost their lives on average every two or three days. Stalin admired Ivan the Terrible, but by comparison his idol resembles Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

In the West, the most famous example of Stalinist mass murder is probably the “Great Purge” of 1936–38, in which some four million people died. Lenin may be considered the most effective social innovator of our times because he created, and Stalin then perfected, three interrelated novelties: the one-party state (a party used to mean, as its etymology indicates, a part); totalitarian controls; and the terrorized society. Unlike Germany, where most non-Jewish people who went about their business and supported the regime could be reasonably sure of not being arrested, in Russia literally no one but Stalin was safe. Terror was directed not only at opponents, class enemies, and unfavored ethnic groups, but also at the population in general, with arrests often entirely random.

A terrorized society and party were unlikely to challenge absolute power. The regime made Pavlik Morozov, who denounced his own parents, a national hero, and people turned in their neighbors out of conviction, spite, and a desire for their apartments. Tsarist Russia could not compare. In his memoirs, the Russian revolutionary Alexander Herzen reports on his sentence of exile to a Siberian town—not to a prison—where he was put to work for the local officialdom; one of his assignments was to write the reports on the local political exiles, including himself! As Solzhenitsyn reports in The Gulag Archipelago, the prison to which Dostoevsky was sent and which he novelized in The House of The Dead was regarded by Soviet camp inmates as a paradise.

As important as the Great Purge was, it is exceeded in brutality by the “war on the countryside” in the late 1920s and early 1930s. That war unfolded in three phases, which together took about fourteen million lives, that is, as many as all of World War I in Europe. In the first phase, the so-called “kulaks” were liquidated: in theory, a kulak was a peasant richer than others but in practice the definition also included anyone who might (not “did”) oppose collectivization. Collectivization was the third phase.

It was the second phase that provokes particular horror. It took place after all the kulaks had supposedly been eliminated, that is, when the population was theoretically loyal. It is known, for good reason, as the terror famine. A large region of the country, mostly in the bread-basket Ukraine, was sealed off and all food was confiscated. Mass starvation took place. Trains passing through the region had their windows sealed so that travelers could not throw food to the emaciated peasants, and well-fed Bolshevik officers were stationed to make sure no food got through.

By the most widely accepted estimates, some seven million people starved to death during the terror famine. I ask you to imagine the slow starvation of a whole family and what that would mean; it is not surprising that stories of cannibalism were reported. Drivers of death carts took the dying as well as the dead, and children crying for help were thrown on the piles of corpses. If Anne Frank could have witnessed those Bolshevik famine enforcers, would she still have affirmed the goodness of human nature? Would the Hacketts and Hellman?

Hellman, as I have pointed out, did justify Stalin’s purges. If one has an ideology, one can always find a reason. Solzhenitsyn asks why Macbeth could only kill a few people whereas Hitler and Stalin could kill millions, and he answers: ideology. When, during the East Bloc’s campaign against the Jews, several Czech Jewish Communists were put on show-trial, Jean-Paul Sartre was asked why, as the author of Anti-Semite and Jew, he did not condemn Communist anti-Semitism. He replied that he did not want to confuse the French working class by criticizing Communists. Notice the condescension here. The people are simple and must be instructed with a selective truth, while victims of horror will be mentioned only if they serve that truth. Some corpses are more equal than others.

In the United States, the person who most shaped the intelligentsia’s views on the terror famine was Walter Duranty, for two decades The New York Times Moscow correspondent. The winner of a Pulitzer Prize for reporting, and long regarded as the “dean” of American journalists, the British-born Duranty was the one who popularized an apology for Stalinism: you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Duranty used it repeatedly in his reporting and, believe it or not, in a lyric poem about Russia. The saying rapidly became proverbial in the American leftist press. It is curious how intellectuals imagine themselves as the chefs and others as the raw food. Reporting on the show trials, Duranty insisted that the confessions of top Communists that they spied for the Japanese and Germans were sincere; and he justified the purges of millions as getting rid of a Fifth Column of foreign spies that, he asserted, genuinely existed.

If this were true, why had the Soviet state produced more foreign spies than are recorded in all the annals of history? In Duranty’s words, the Soviet experiment embodied a noble idea: “that human nature is plastic, that the life-ways of nations or individuals can be turned into fresh channels, that the new and unknown may successfully replace the old and familiar, in short, that environment is everything and heredity nothing.” History is a phase.

Duranty at first denied the famine, then minimized it and attributed it to disease and peasant sabotage. “The ‘famine’ is mostly bunk,” he wrote, and any talk of it is “sheer absurdity.” Some headlines given to his articles in the Times about collectivization tell the story: “Soviet Is Winning Faith of Peasants,” “Members Enriched in Soviet Commune,” “Abundance Found in North Caucasus.” And yet Duranty and others knew better. That implacable curmudgeon Malcolm Muggeridge, who came to the USSR with the intention of adopting Soviet citizenship, saw the famine and reported on it, but his wife’s aunt, the prominent socialist Beatrice Webb, referred to his articles as “a hysterical tirade” and he soon found it difficult to get work. Beatrice Webb also convinced another eyewitness, Andrew Cairns, not to write about what he had seen. Duranty himself knew that what he was reporting was untrue: in a secret report to the British embassy, he estimated casualties in the millions. But when another reporter, Gareth Jones, reported the man-made famine, Duranty met with several Moscow reporters, along with a Soviet official, who all agreed to call Jones a liar. Duranty took the lead in doing so.

A nice question arises. Duranty lied, but did Beatrice Webb actually disbelieve the famine reports? On what basis did she deny eyewitness accounts? Or was she pulling a Sartre, that is, deciding that the information, even if true, should not be read by common people lest they draw the wrong conclusions? Anyone who has trouble understanding Holocaust revisionists might consider Beatrice Webb, if that is easier, as a first step.

Duranty’s biographer, S. T. Taylor, paints a more or less sympathetic portrait of Duranty the man, but she points out that had Duranty reported the truth, he might not have been ignored, as Jones and Muggeridge were. “The Ukrainian Famine of 1932–33 remains the greatest man-made disaster ever recorded, exceeding in scale even the Jewish Holocaust of the next decade,” she reminds us. To be sure, the Bolsheviks did not perform medical experiments on the living or use their bodies as raw material, but dipping people in acid baths and making millions starve to death are certainly horrifying enough. Taylor observes that the total number of words in the French, British, Canadian, and American press devoted to the famine were outnumbered by famine deaths 140 to 1.

Duranty is long dead, and scholars have documented the facts. Why then are they so unknown to the American intelligentsia? I can tell you from experience that the mere mention of them provokes references to “red-baiting.” Why? These are people who properly react with revulsion to Holocaust revisionism and who regard all attempts at apology as post-facto complicity in the crime. How can they not see they are doing the same thing? Why is Holocaust revisionism unacceptable but what might be called Gulag revisionism acceptable? Duranty, like Anne Frank, is somehow a representative figure of our times.

One reason that the terror famine is not widely known is the intelligentsia’s congenital leftism, its anti-anti-Communism. But there are other, more interesting reasons, including a complex of ideas of which the “Anne Frank thesis” forms a crucial part. Consider a remarkable paradox of modern thought. On the one hand, we live in the century that began with the rediscovery of Mendel’s experiments, at its midpoint mapped the double helix, and at its close has begun to develop new drugs by genetic engineering and has cloned animals. On the other hand, the governing orthodoxy in anthropology and in literary studies has long been that everything is cultural and nothing is innate or natural. “Human nature is plastic,” as Duranty wrote, and to say otherwise is to be guilty of the cardinal sin now known as “essentialism.” Margaret Mead, radical cultural relativism, the idea that everything is a “construct”—all these form an orthodoxy. If one suggests that nature and nurture must both be active and interactive, one risks a lot. To be sure, the abuse of pseudo-genetics by the Nazis and in American immigration policy explains part of this blindness, but anthropologists have not become creationists because Darwinism generated social Darwinism. Something else is involved.

Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, who offers a catalogue of horrifying child abuse cases, asks whether such evil “is a matter [just] of people’s bad qualities, or whether it is inherent in their nature.” How deep does the propensity for evil go? Is there original sin, as Augustine maintained, or are we capable of living a perfect life, as Augustine’s opponent Pelagius contended? All utopians, whether Communist, anarchist, or any other, are virtually by definition Pelagians of some sort, whereas those with a tragic vision are, in some way, Augustinians. Genetics resonates because it sounds like original sin stated in scientific terms, which is precisely why Lysenkoism, which denied modern genetics, was adopted in the Soviet Union. The current literary-critical superstition that everything is a construct constitutes a sophisticated Lysenkoism. Indeed, in separating humanity from the traces of evolution that affect all other creatures, it constitutes a sort of atheistic creationism.

Thus also the appeal of various forms of primitivism that suggest that evil is not inherent. Think, for instance, of the repeated attempts to idealize the Third World and to attribute whatever ills exist there to colonialism. Could not some of their brutality to each other be of their own making? In such discussions, you will hear no mention of Ethiopia, the only African country never successfully colonialized but which, under the Marxist regime of Mengistu, repeated the Soviet collectivization experiment at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. We are back to cultural sentimentality. From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the Hacketts’ Anne Frank and beyond, victims must be childlike and virtuous. As Michael André Bernstein observed of the Hollywoodization of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List, “only by being completely pure can they [the victims] function as appropriate objects of our sympathy… . [But] moral lessons need moral density.” Why cannot the oppressed be fully human, vicious as well as virtuous? There is a danger here, for at some point one is bound to discover that victims are not all good. Who is? Should they then lose their claim on our sympathy? Sentimentality leads to cruelty, and the wrong view of cultural diversity to intolerance.

Two complementary ideas have, more than anything, shaped the twentieth-century disasters. One is essential human goodness, along with its corollary, the infinite malleability of human nature and society if only the right people do the hammering. The second idea is that the right people are the intelligentsia, who possess the virtue and, above all, the right theory for transforming society. I call this idea “intelligentsialism,” and it, too, has a few interesting corollaries.

First, whereas the beliefs of other groups are held to be distorted by their social interests, the intelligentsia sees itself as standing above particular interests and therefore possessed of greater understanding. The classic formulation of this idea belongs to Karl Mannheim, who seems to have been unaware of the epilogue to War and Peace: Tolstoy insists that if we have theories claiming that history is made by great thinkers, but we have no theories saying it is made by shoemakers and craftsmen, this is only because shoemakers don’t publish theories. The ideas and values of intellectuals are shaped as much by their interests and way of life as are those of other people. But when have you ever heard anybody but a curmudgeon apply the concept of “false consciousness” to the governing ideas of the intelligentsia? In the fashionable approach called the sociology of knowledge (in literary studies, it goes by various names), one shows how the ideas of other times and groups were shaped by interests they did not acknowledge; but cannot this debunking be applied to the debunkers themselves? Why does the sociology of knowledge almost always mean the sociology of other people’s knowledge?

Implicit in the intelligentsia’s claim to greater understanding is the claim that they have achieved a high level of certainty in their ideas for improving society. That is why they so often prescribe radical and irreversible measures in their efforts to transform society. Historically, this idea goes back to the seventeenth-century dream that what Newton had achieved for knowledge of the physical world, someone else will for the social world: the dream of a social science that inspired Condorcet, Bentham, Marx, Bronislaw Malinowski, and countless others. Tolstoy called this dream a mere “superstition,” designed to flatter the intelligentsia itself. Dostoevsky and Orwell understood that power derives not from the actual possession of such a certain theory but from the claim to possess it.

A third corollary of intelligentsialism is the belief that absolute power is justified to create the perfect world and save the people, even if it means that the people themselves will suffer untold casualties. This idea has by no means been confined to Communist omelette chefs. It had special appeal to artists, who in effect wanted to make the world into a sublime art work. It is now a commonplace among Russian specialists that most of the artistic groups suppressed by Stalin were no less totalitarian than he was.

Le Corbusier described the situation the planner requires for the good of society: “Once his calculations are finished, he is in a position to say—and he does say: It shall be thus!” Is it any wonder that an ideology promising such power and prestige to an intelligentsia should so appeal to it? When it was discovered that Paul de Man had written pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic articles during the war, and while a similar controversy raged over Heidegger’s Nazism, Tzvetan Todorov observed that the Heideggerians of the Nazi period were not the only ones captivated by extremist ideas:

Both before and after the war, probably more intellectuals committed themselves, body and soul, to political Marxism in one form or another (Stalinism, Trotskyism, Maoism, Castroism). If we add to this list a number of isolated cases—such as Michel Foucault’s support, however ephemeral, for the Khomeini regime—and then calculate the sum total … we must acknowledge that it represents, not all intellectuals, of course, but a large proportion of them.

In the Western democracies, Todorov continues,

if … the franchise had been restricted to intellectuals, we would now be living under totalitarian regimes, and there would no longer be a franchise.

In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov entertains a variety of theories justifying the murder he commits, but the crucial one is his division of humanity into a few superior people, who are thinkers and theorists, and a mass of others, who are mere breeders, to be sacrificed for what the first type consider their good. Dostoevsky’s point is that the intelligentsia will surrender any belief before that one. Today, those outside academia often wonder how current orthodoxy can, on the one hand, maintain that everything including science is a mere social construct, and, on the other, be sure enough of their opinions to enforce restrictions on others. The answer is Raskolnikovism: the contradictory positions both presume the professoriate’s superiority. Absolutism allows one to judge others; total relativism, which is only applied to others, allows one to ignore their evidence and focus on their motives and interests.

If one reads the principal European thinkers of the nineteenth century, one is struck that only one imagined totalitarianism: Dostoevsky. In The Possessed, the novel’s revolutionaries anticipate that total rule will cost “a hundred million heads.” It’s almost as if they had read The Black Book of Communism a century in advance. Their leader, Pyotr Stepanovich, plans to introduce an unprecedented “system of spying”: “Every member of the society spies on every other one and is obliged to inform.” Reading this novel in the Stalin era, Russians asked: How did Dostoevsky know? In the world of the future, Pyotr Stepanovich proclaims, there will be “total loss of individuality” and absolute equality; as a result, “Cicero’s tongue will be cut out, Copernicus’s eyes will be gouged out, Shakespeare will be stoned.” How many American intellectuals remember that during the Chinese cultural revolution, when countless artworks of the past were systematically destroyed, the pianist who was a winner of the Chopin Competition had his hands broken? One revolutionary in The Possessed even suggests that education will become superfluous and dangerous: and we recall that when the Khmer Rouge wiped out a quarter of the Cambodian population, they made sure to kill anyone suspected of literacy. How did Dostoevsky know?

Dostoevsky guessed what would happen because he took seriously a social stratum that seems to have originated in the Russia of his times: the intelligentsia. We get the word intelligentsia from Russian, but it meant something very different in its Russian context. It emphatically did not mean educated people who thought for themselves. On the contrary, it designated people who adhered rigorously to an ideology; who were committed to a total revolution; who distrusted a skeptical cast of mind; who regarded both science and art as useful only to the extent they advanced revolutionary goals; and who identified themselves above all as intelligents (members of the intelligentsia). To cease to be an intelligent—let us say, by considering rather than denouncing the position of others —was about as unthinkable as for a Jew today to become a Nazi. That is why the great writers—Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky—were not regarded as intelligents. The men who eventually made the Revolution were classic intelligents. Educated people may be located on a spectrum from intelligents to intellectuals. In English we have only the word “intellectual” where we desperately need two words, one indicating a person who thinks for himself about ideas and the other a person who identifies above all with the intelligentsia. A true intellectual—like that highly independent socialist George Orwell—is not in hock to any group. As the Latin proverb says, “Plato is a friend, but the truth is a greater friend.” Like Dostoevsky and Anne Frank, let us have the courage to search for it.

Gary Saul Morson is Chair of Slavic Languages & Literature at Northwestern University.


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 May 1999, on page 21

Copyright © 2014 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

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