In 30s of the last century a great many liberals, including folk song icon Pete Seeger, flirted seriously with Communism.  Indeed, Seeger was a member of the Communist Party, as were a great many liberal thinkers at the time. For one thing, the ideals of Communism resembled in a great many ways the ideals of Christianity with which many in the West were familiar– if not enamored. It espoused strong communities, the eradication of exploitation of the poor by the wealthy, and the equal distribution of all property, including wealth. It also embraced the notion that we should all care about our fellow humans. In any event, as I noted, a great many liberals embraced the ideals of Communism though most of them later became disenchanted when the reality of Communism began to stare them in the face. At the time it seemed an obvious alternative to hated Fascism and some, like George Orwell went so far as to join the anarchists on the side of Communism in Spain fighting against Franco and Fascism. The term “anarchist” denotes the confusion on the Spanish left as it included both socialists and Communists all in the name of “Nationalism.” But they were united in their hatred of Fascism.

Orwell, author of the recently best-selling 1984 (thanks to the election Donald Trump in America) wrote a journal describing the gradual awakening to the horrors of Communism that took place on the part of a young, idealistic reporter who went to Spain to write about the war and ended up joining the anarchists. His journal is titled Homage To Catalonia and it describes in painful detail the story of a young idealist waking up to the harsh reality that those in power, even those one admires and who seemingly embrace the same ideals as oneself, succumb to the temptations of power and wealth and behave just as badly as those against whom you are risking your life — perhaps worse, since they join hypocrisy to their other flaws.. Orwell was seriously wounded in battle against Fascism and nearly lost his life. He spent the rest of his days fighting a verbal game against the totalitarianism he saw up close.

Lionel Trilling wrote a paper in 1952 extolling the virtues of a virtuous man, as he considered Orwell. Not a great man, but a virtuous man, one who embraced the Victorian notion of “my station and its duties.” This was a man who walked the walk and who had no patience whatever with closet liberals who talk the talk but become lost in abstractions and find themselves lame when it comes to standing up to the sort of reality he saw up close. He was, above all else, honest to a fault. He was an advocate of democratic socialism though he saw clearly that democracy is also flawed; it has

“. . .told us that genius is available to anyone, that the grace of ultimate prestige may be had by anyone, that we may all be princes and potentates, or saints and visionaries and holy martyrs, of the heart and mind. “

In a word, it tends toward mediocrity, a leveling down of human aspirations to the gathering of wealth and the having of as much as our neighbor, the refusal to allow that there is greatness in the world, that some are actually better persons than others, that failure can be an important lesson learned. So says, Lionel Trilling. But he echoes the convictions of George Orwell who embraced democracy for all its faults — perhaps because, as Winston Churchill said, it is the worst form of government except for all the others. Heaven knows, Orwell saw the “others” up close — at least in their twentieth century guise. And he saw that the best government is the one that empowers the greatest number of people and in socialism he saw that restrictions were necessary to prevent the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of the few who have no idea how to manage the power it delivers to them. These things Orwell saw up close and in person. It almost cost him his life, but he lived to warn us all to be suspicious and not fall for the empty promises of ideologues and the pretty speeches of politicians whose only interest is their own welfare. And above all else, he urged us to become engaged in the world in order to preserve our precious human freedom.

Homage to Catalonia is well worth reading if only to see how painful it was for this one man to have his eyes opened to the realities of a world gone mad, a world in which even those who seemingly embrace the highest ideals also easily succumb to the temptations of power and the desire for great wealth. He worried above all else that we would be lulled to sleep by mindless diversions and political apathy

“…sleeping the deep, deep sleep . . ., from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake until we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”


20 thoughts on “Disillusioned

  1. Cuba is another example of how the best intentions are upended once people achieve power. Castro and Guevara led a violent albeit justified Communist revolution against a repressive, right-wing government. Guevara ultimately began ordering indiscriminate executions, and Castro turned into one of the world’s most repressive dictators.

    Gandhi and King had it right, both “virtuous men” who walked the walk (literally). With Trump and the current right-wing cabal, we should all be taking to the streets, but I fear too many of us have been “lulled to sleep” by diversions and apathy (“Hey, look at my selfie, everyone!”).

    • Good example, and yes, Gandhi and King had it right. I do wonder how Gandhi would have behaved if he weren’t dealing with England but, rather, Germany?

      • I agree, that would have been some moral dilemma. Even in the jaws of a monster, I think Gandhi would have kept his ideals, though I can’t speak for him.

  2. Hugh, good post and comments. One of my favorite lines of Seeger’s is when he testified in front of Senator McCarthy and said something like so what of I am a communist, our constitution gives me the right to be. Communism is also imperfect, but was tainted as an evil sin, so much that we fought on the wrong side in the Vietnam war supporting a very corrupt government because of it. Defeating communism was the main reason American soldiers had to die.

    I am all for democracy, but it requires we do our part – like being as learned and participatory as possible. We have not been up to the task, so we have a so-called leader who is trying to diminish both through demonizing the real media, supporting propaganda and trying to squelch the vote. A key strategy for his election win was to get people who may have supported the Dem candidate not to vote.

    The other thing we need to think about is America is not just a capitalistic economy. We have some socialistic underpinnings, that are getting attacked – Medicaid, Food Stamps, Medicare, Social Security, insider trading rules, bankruptcy rules, etc. If it were not for bankruptcy court, the President would have run out of money for poor decision-making and market conditions a long time ago.

    Before we think of where we need to go, we need to know who we are. I don’t think enough people know that. Keith

    • Good comments. Indeed we are not a laissez-faire capitalistic society (thank goodness!) Thanks to FDR and others, there are a number of socialistic measures, though there are those who would trash many of them despite the fact that they do tend to help a great many people. Well said!

      • Thanks. In fact, Ronald Reagan recorded an album to protest the consideration of Medicare and Medicaid in the early 1960s. Where would people be today without these programs?

  3. Excellent post, Hugh. And Keith’s comments say it all, so I will only add that as long as greed and arrogance are a part of human nature, we can never have a perfect, or perhaps even a very good, system of government for long. It took me decades to realize this, probably because I really didn’t want it to be so. We strive toward equality for all, and must keep doing so (yes, I lean very much toward socialism), but we will never reach the goal. Thanks for this thought-provoking post!

  4. Good post, Hugh. Some say that Communism has failed. Lenin’s right-wing interpretation has certainly failed. I think that it hasn’t – because it has never really been implemented the way Marx and Engels envisioned it. All the features of communism that you identified are not present in 20th Century communist regimes. Instead, the people of those countries got right-wing totalitarian government that outlawed capitalism but did not spread the economic wealth evenly. Those regimes were dictatorial and oppressive. No self-respecting liberal thinker could support that brand of communism.

  5. Well I wrote a comment offline while in the kitchen with 8 others, and 3 or more were usually chattering at once. Now I am online, in a quiet space, and the comment has vaporized!!!! When that happens, I sometimes wonder if it’s because — perhaps === I should not be stating what I intended to state!

    It involved freedom of speech, or lack of freedom of speech and comparing a few examples from personal history as well as the current ‘gag’ on assange.. i’ve not checked in the past week to see if anything has changed there.

    Thank you for the review, and when I am in the USA I suspect that will be another book to tuck into my luggage!

      • When I open a book, I start with the opening pages, admire the page design, the credits, the title page, opening lines, — every single nuance, and I basically become ‘worthless’ until I finish the book! Books are my biggest ‘vice’ if one could call reading a vice, but I absolutely positively love books! thank you again, Hugh.

  6. I’m ashamed to say ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ is two-thirds-unread on my shelf. Today, as I take no joy in any of our local election results (local council seats, not members of Parliament) and have over the last few months begun to stop thinking about democracy, I shall go out and buy ‘Homage to Catalonia’ from my local independent bookshop.
    Thanks for this.
    (I hope my letter has arrived at your publisher, talking of buying books…)

      • It arrived yesterday- and I feel so guilty, the postage! But I’m looking forward to dipping in and out – it’s beside my bed. Congratulations, again. I hope the sales are picking up (and mostly coming from the USA, or the publisher will soon be out of pocket).

      • I’m happy the book arrived. It was spendy! But it’s important that it be in the hands of those who will appreciate it! Sad to say, sales are languishing….if they ever did much else! So it goes. Many thanks.

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