What is it about communist kitsch that erases the historical memory of communist atrocity? asks Nick Gillespie in this ReasonTV segment, replying to Steven Soderbergh's new Sundance-claphappy epic about Che Guevara. Behind every lightly worn Che image lies a thousand unmarked graves, not to mention concentration camps (a symbol still mercifully immune to cutesy pop rendering) and an orthodoxy of political and cultural thinking which no stone-throwing anti-globalization rebel would long endure if it meant the difference between shattering a Starbucks windows and facing a firing squad. And yet, we shall never lack for Che t-shirts, Che-themed bars and restaurants and Che hagiographies, either in print or in cinema. Nor will demand ever outpace the supply of hidebound leftists eager to bypass brute reality in favor of a mythopoetic conception of their heroic caballero. Do I exaggerate?
When Walters Salles' came out with The Motorycle Diaries, another congratulated affair based on Guevara's tours through Latin America as a medical student, Paul Berman reviewed it, throwing a bucket of cold water on amnesiacs and revisionists. His argument was that the portrait of the totalitarian as a young man, though beautifully shot, reaffirmed the very type of religious cult the film's subject, mired in leper colonies and sadisitic nuns, actively reprehended. Diaries put Che in the position of secular saint. If for no other reason than pointing this out, Berman's piece counted as art criticism, athough it was leavened with plenty of evidence as to why Salles' premise was both misguided and sinister. That of course made Berman a "philistine," as the New Left academic blogger Chris Bertram and that great historian of revolutionary socialism Matthew Yglesias put it, using a term of abuse long favored by disapproving ideologists of the very type of regime Berman took issue with. Bertram's response in particular was telling:
Lack of success and damaging facts should not necessarily be enough to deprive a hero of heroic status: Achilles was flawed, and Achilles was cruel, and Achilles failed, but we still respond to him.
That Achilles never existed also aids our response, one would think, as does the fact that a Trojan Truth and Reconciliation Commission has yet to be uncovered by classical scholars. No witnesses to Achaean barbarity still draw breath to make us hold ours. But as for literal examples of mythopoetics winning out among the unreconstructed left, Bertram's could not be bettered. He continued:
And then there’s the question of sympathetic identification with the cause. In his essay “How not to write about Lenin”, Alasdair Macintyre argues:For those who intend to write about Lenin there are at least two prerequisites. The first is a sense of scale. One dare not approach greatness of a certain dimension without a sense of one’s own limitations. A Liliputian who sets out to write Gulliver’s biography had best take care. Above all he dare not be patronizing…..The second prerequisite is a sense of tragedy which will enable the historian to feel both the greatness and the tragedy of the October Revolution. Those for whom the whole project of the revolutionary liberation of mankind from exploitation and alienation is an absurb fantasy disqualify themselves from writing about Communism in the same way that those who find the notion of the supernatural redemption of the world from sin disqualify themselves from writing ecclesiastical history.Guevara wasn’t Lenin, just as he wasn’t Alexander, but he did personify a historical moment and he did turn his back on a comfortable future as a communist bureaucrat to pursue the goal of the revolutionary liberation of humanity.
Macintyre's essay is indeed eminently consultable, but one notes that both its title and subject are devoted to a single historical figure. Macintyre is not, in other words, giving a generic prescription for how scholars should engage all the world's tyrants and mass murderers. Why is that?
Like Guevara, Lenin used the state apparatus he constructed for wanton killing of perceived counterrevolutionaries and class enemies, and he was motivated, as numerous eyewitnesses to his behavior and his own journals attest, by an all-encompassing hatred of that enemy. He killed more people than Guevara, too. However, he was also a man of ideas whom even his ideological opponents, a full century on, find worthy of quotation. One need only think of how "useful idiots" has entered the neoconservative's lexicon to appreciate that Lenin was not a bantamweight of political strategizing. There is also the fact that the social and economic conditions under which he lived--semi-feudal, imperialistic, violently anti-Semitic--were noticeably worse than those of coeval nations. (Batista's Cuba could always claim in 1959 that at least it was not the Soviet Union.) And Lenin was capable of a sensitivity and subtlety of thought directly at odds with the manner in which he governed, a paradox he shared with another Soviet architect for whom Macintyre's challenges of biography are, or should be, paramount: Trotsky, who subsequently became a romantic martyr to some of the earliest and most perspicacious foes of the Soviet Union.
There is another essay waiting to be written that contrasts 20th-century intellectuals who admired Lenin and Trotsky with those who found Stalin was more their guy. It is a distinction with a difference that, for anyone versed in radical polemics (they only seem as old as Homer), resists easy caricature about the gullibility of les clercs. Edmund Wilson and Dwight Macdonald were once in awe of a man they saw as nothing short of History pulling into the Finland Station, and yet both writers---Wilson a fellow traveler and Macdonald an bona fide socialist---gave up on Hegelian lyricism when confronted with Five Year Plans and the bloated bellies of the Ukraine. (Nabokov also helpfully chided Wilson for his warm depiction of Vladimir Ilyich: "this pail of milk of human kindness with a dead rat at the bottom.") Irving Howe was a self-described Trotsky acolyte all the way to the grave, having written a glowing biography of the Old Man and edited a collection of his essays. Still, the cold war could not have been fought as well as it was from our side without the founding editor of Dissent. The same holds true for Trotsky, who offered an insider's guide to the Stalinist school of falsification, and much else besides, even if his intentions were to rescue what he had begun. These are ironies that go some way in accounting for the halfbaked defenses of historical actors guilty of monstrous deeds.
Now consider the bloody-minded doctor who, befuddled at having a state to run after the Cuban revolution, once asked if there was an economist in the house (he was misheard, and every "Communist" in attendance raised his hand). Even the lifelong Red Eric Hobsbawm was inclined to admit in his memoirs that Guevara, whom he once met in the scraggly-bearded flesh, was thoroughly unimpressive. He made no contribution to the epistemology of revolution or to theoretical politics in general. Can you think of an apercu or epigram by him? What has Che, then, to fall back on besides his alleged "charisma" and the unintentionally funny commodification of his likeness? What I mean to say is, his left-wing cultists are slumming it.
It is a function of art--even some socialist realist art--to debase and lampoon the unjustly exaggerated, and to uncover the cloaca under which an edifice of cant, nonsense and apologetics has been erected. And it is an obligation of anyone pretending to be anything other than a pure fantasist to depict actual events and actual people as they actually existed, not as tributes to some world-historical idyll.
Would that Hollywood, ever eager to employ these techniques against Joe McCarthy and George W. Bush, turned its sights on a figure deserving of this treatment but recipient of the perennial whitewash instead.