The delight one takes in reading exceptional literature (dare I say “great” literature?) is in finding the occasional gem. They are always there and that is what makes them exceptional. In the case of Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey, to which I have referred before, they are there in abundance.
The novel was written soon after the Second World War at a time when many an American intellectual was flirting with Communism, which appeared to be the way to deliver the poor and downtrodden from under the foot of the greedy capitalist power-brokers. In the novel the leader of a small group of intellectuals from New York has had a sudden change of heart and has deserted the Communist Party to the dismay and even anger of his small group of devoted fellow-travelers.
The news has come out of Russia of the atrocities that have been committed for years in the name of Communism, the millions of dead and the promise of millions more — all in the name of a “better way of life for all.” The leader of the local group, Gifford Maxim, has risked his life to leave the Party to which he has devoted the majority of his adult life. He has had an epiphany of sorts as he has come to realize that the end does not justify the means when the means involve the death of so many of his fellow humans. He is no longer a member of a small community of like-minded zealots, “My community with men is that we are children of God.”
By way of reaching this conclusion, he has this to say to his former friends and devotees:
“And never has there been so much talk of liberty while the chains are being forged. Democracy and freedom. And in the most secret heart of every intellectual, where he scarcely knows of it himself, there lies hidden the real hope that these words hide. It is the hope of power, the desire to bring his ideas to reality by imposing them on his fellow-man. We are all of us, all of us, the little children of the Grand Inquisitor. The more we talk of welfare, the crueler we become. How can we possibly be guilty when we have in mind the welfare of others, and of so many others?”
In light of recent events in this country, when our feckless Leader loudly threatened to “totally destroy” an entire nation of people whose ideology differs from our own, a time when the air still rings with similar threats from the leader of the “other side” who refers to Our Fearless Leader as a “dotard” and labels him as “deranged” — neither of these men seeming to realize that countless human lives are at stake if these threats are carried out — it is a timely reminder that the hidden political agenda is to acquire and maintain power, to “impose” one ideology on everyone. There are no winners in this power game; there are only losers.
As Maxim reminds us, ours is the community of the “children of God.” We are all human with our many foibles, and the particular ideology we follow seems not to matter one bit. There are always those who will lord it over others, those who will take while insisting that they have the right to do so, those who simply want more of what they already have. It matters not whether we call it “Communism” or “Capitalism,” in any case, it is about power, and about who is to wield it and for how long.
Trilling is usually labelled a “Conservative,” though he regarded himself as a moderate; in any event, it is a simple matter to dismiss these sentiments as those of someone who thinks differently. We tend to do that sort of thing. But this would be a mistake, the very same mistake Gifford Maxim has made in following an ideology blindly, ignoring the atrocities for years out of the conviction that his is the only legitimate way to see the world. As Trilling himself has said, in another context entirely,
“Ideology is not the product of thought; it is the habit or the ritual of showing respect for certain formulas to which, for various reasons having to do with emotional safety, we have very strong ties and of whose meaning and consequences in actuality we have no clear understanding.”
Committing oneself blindly to an ideology, any ideology, is a denial of our fundamental humanity. Labelling the opposition instead of listening to what they have to say leads to frustration, ignorance, and eventually to violence. Whether or not we are in sympathy with what the author of this novel has to say — and he has a great deal to say — it is well worth hearing. And to my ear it rings true. We all seem to be quick to condemn those who disagree with us and to see our way of thinking as the only way while, in fact, there are many ways to think and to see — and ours may not be the best way.
In any event, the end certainly does not justify the means when it involves the death of so many others who disagree with us, many of whom are totally unaware that they do so.
I think you have just described the ‘anarchistic’ view that any political leaning, left or right, has virtually the same destructive result. But even ‘Anarchism’ is a political viewpoint that raises its own principles higher than those of other ‘belief’ systems. Like religion, politics is just a system of ‘grouping.’
‘We are here, and they are there,’ thinking is tribal and primitive. It is difficult to empathise with someone from a different belief system, so what are we to do?
Personally, I do not subscribe to any belief system. I find club membership, tedious, soul-destroying, and controlling. My freedom comes from my mind and I am not about to clutter it up with political or religious ideologies. I suspect you are feeling the same Hugh!
I would like to think I pick the ideas I commit myself to freely — and am free to exchange them for better ones when the occasion arises! Thanks for the comment, Colette.
Hugh, I love the paragraph on ideology. It speaks volumes about belief. Could people actually be able to define the differences between the various sects within all religions, for example?
In fact, most Americans, including the White House incumbent, can not tell you the difference between socialism and communism. Most Americans don’t realize we have a fettered capitalism economic system which has some socialism underpinnings – Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Unenployment benefits, Workers Compensation, Minimum wage, etc. Keith
Yes, I thought Trilling’s take on ideology was split on! Thanks for the comment.
That would be “spot on.” Of well…..
During the Gulf War era, Bruce Springsteen performed the 1960s anti-war rock music anthem “War.” In a recording of it, Springsteen introduced the song by saying “blind faith in anything will get you killed.”
Trilling and his wife Diana were an interesting pair. Both started out pretty liberal, but, indeed, after the horrors of the Stalin purges in the 1930s were revealed they, like others, swung far away from left-wing ideology. As you said, Hugh, Trilling was more a moderate than a conservative politically and the two often defined themselves as “anti-communist,” maybe more than left, right, centrist. Of course, calling themselves “anti-communist,” meant that right-leaning politicians and groups would — and still do — co-opt them for their purposes.
Thanks for the background, Dana. Trilling is an interesting fellow. My advisor at Northwestern flirted with Communism in his youth and later became an intellectual conservative. It happens.