Easily Duped?

(This post might best be regarded as a companion piece to the post on Totalitarianism that recently appeared.)

During the early years of the twentieth century Communism was exported around the world as part of the Bolsheviks’ attempts to initiate a world-wide revolution and guarantee that their way of life would be adopted (one way or another) by all countries. As a political and economic program it had many attractions — especially for the disenfranchised and, surprisingly, for intellectuals as well.

In this country many intellectuals and artists who taught at universities, wrote poetry or novels, or acted on the stage or screen were duped into thinking that Communism was the answer to the world’s problems. After all, it resembles Christianity in many ways  — while Christianity had become inoperative for a great many people. It proposes a society in which the greedy capitalist pig is ground under foot; no one goes without; everyone is equal and free and all participate in their own futures. Or at least that was what thinkers like Karl Marx and Lenin promised. The reality was that millions of lives were sacrificed for the cause, even innocent lives, at the hands of the Cheka established by Lenin who acted with no restraints whatever. The lives of the innocent were said to be, with no regrets, “an example.” However, the messages coming out of Russia suggested to the unwary that Marx’s dream was being realized: the people were being set free and were in the process of determining their own futures. And the reason the blissful message was coming across the ocean and around the world was because the Bolsheviks had discovered the power of propaganda.

One of the intellectuals to be taken in by the blatant falsehoods coming out of Russia was Lionel Trilling, the brilliant essayist and teacher at Columbia University. He flirted with Communism, as did so many of his liberal colleagues (including George Orwell and my advisor at Northwestern as it happens) and eventually after he became aware of the huge gap between theory and practice in Russia he wrote a novel that reflected his own experience. In that novel, The Middle of The journey, one of the main characters is a powerful figure in the Communist party in America who has seen the light and wants to disengage himself from the Party and the atrocities that have been committed in its name. But he fears for his life, because such is the reality of the Bolshevik mentality: you are either with us or you are against us.

We struggle to understand how so many brilliant minds could have been easily duped into thinking that a political program would deliver on its promises and create heaven on earth. As suggested above, it was because of the fact that the Bolsheviks controlled the media in Russia and they didn’t allow journalists from other countries into theirs without a guarantee that they would control what was said and/or written. The only newspaper to refuse those conditions was the London Times. The rest of the world accepted the lies because they wanted to believe them. Moreover, it gave them hope. They could not accept the fact that what was told them was carefully selected and colored to present the best possible picture.

In his study of the Russian Revolution, Richard Pipes gives us an insight into just how effective this propaganda machine was (one which the Nazis later copied almost exactly):

“Communist propaganda strove, and to a surprising extent succeeded, in creating a fictitious world side by side with that of everyday experience and in stark contrast to it, in which the Soviet citizens were required to believe or pretend to believe. To this end the Communist Party asserted a monopoly over every source of information and opinion and, in time, severed all contacts of its subjects with the outside world. The effort was undertaken on such a vast scale, with such ingenuity and determination, that the imaginary universe it projected eclipsed for many Soviet citizens the living reality, inflicting on them something akin to intellectual schizophrenia.”

Now, this was how propaganda worked within Russia. It was not this successful when transported to other countries. But for those, like Trilling, who cared about their fellow human beings who were starving on long lines waiting for a cup of soup, especially during the depressions that were not uncommon within numerous capitalist countries, what they heard about Communism sounded like the answer to their prayers. Karl Marx was, after all, an ethicist more than an economist. His message in Capital, for example, was about the exploitation of the workers by greedy, selfish owners who cared only about profits. The intellectuals in this country and In Spain and England, especially, saw this going on around them. There was enough truth in the messages they were allowed to read and hear from Russia to cause many of them to join the Party that promised to deliver the franchise to the chronically  disenfranchised. Or at least, they would have a piece of the pie they were themselves making.

We now live in different times, but there are powerful political forces in this country, and others as well, who would silence a free press, dismiss unpleasant truths as “false news,”  and control the information we receive, colored and flavored to their taste. There are those who would silence opposing points of view. There are those who lie as a matter of course in order to convince the faithful that they have all the answers. There are those who have convinced themselves and a coterie of followers that the end justifies the means, any means. Thus is a free press more important now than ever before, as is an alert and even a suspicious citizenry.

While we are not in Russia during the 20s and 30s, we are in a country where the freedom we prize and which so much defines us is under threat by some who would make us prisoners of their minds — not unlike Lenin and, later, Stalin. We must avoid exaggeration and paranoia, but we would be well advised to be on our guard.

Who Is He?

Can you guess who this man is?

“[He] treats all politics as warfare. . . . Such a manner of thinking made him constitutionally incapable of compromise, except for tactical purposes. Once [he] and his followers came to power, this attitude automatically permeated their regime. [He] was also unable to tolerate dissent. Given that he viewed any group or individual who was not a member of his party as ipso facto an enemy, and hence a threat, it followed that such a person had to be silenced or suppressed. [He] was quite incapable of tolerating criticism; he simply did not hear it. He belonged to that category of men of whom the French writer a century earlier had said that they knew everything except what one tells them. One either agreed with him or fought him. Here lay the seeds of the whole totalitarian mentality.

“[His] absolute conviction of being in the right and his absence of moral qualms attracted [those] who yearned for certainty in an uncertain world. . . . .[He] had a streak of cruelty. . . . One either agreed with him or fought him; and disagreement always aroused in [him] destructive passions.”

 

If you guessed Vladimir Lenin who was largely responsible for an estimated 28,000 executions per month during the Red Terror in 1917-1922, you were right. If you guessed someone else closer to home you were mistaken, though your mistake is understandable!

(This passage was found in Richard Pipes’ A Concise History of the Russian Revolution.)

Those Demons Among Us

I have been re-reading Dostoevsky’s Demons, in the excellent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. As someone who shares with Stephan Trofimovich the sad condition of being past my prime, I was struck by a series of comments made by his long-time friend and supporter Vavara Petrovna. In the context of the novel, Varvara Petrovna has become close friends with the wife of the governor of the province and has joined her in befriending a group of young people who are among those Dostoevsky regards as “Demons,” a group of nihilists who are bent on destroying the status quo and revolutionizing Russia in the name of…..What? No one knows for sure. (One is put in mind of Steve Bannon who prides himself on his affinity for Lenin’s nihilism, though Bannon can hardly pass for a young man.)

In any event, Varvara Petrovna, despite her fondness for him, has come to the point where she feels as though Stepan Trofimovich has had his day, because his form of liberalism is too tame for the young. She will continue to support him, but she has become convinced that he is as stale as old toast. This conclusion stems from her recent intercourse with the rebels and their determination to introduce “new ideas” into the conversation, making the old ways passé. In attacking Stepan Trofimovich’s  self-esteem, not to mention his entire sense of self, Varvara Petrovna has this to say in trying to convince him that her way is the best way to present himself in reading a paper at an upcoming event which is sure to attract the best and brightest of the town’s most attractive residents — including, of course, the young people she is so enamored with:

“I’ve defended you with all my strength as far as I could. And why must you so necessarily show yourself as ridiculous and dull? On the contrary, come on the stage with a venerable smile, as the representative of a past age, and tell three anecdotes, with all your wittiness, as only you sometimes know how to do. So you’re an old man, so you belong to a bygone age, so you’ve fallen behind them, finally; but you can confess all that with a smile in your preface, and everyone will see that you are a dear, kind, witty relic. . . . In short, a man of the old stamp, and sufficiently advanced to be able to set a right value on all the scandalousness of certain notions you used to follow. Do give me that pleasure, I beg you.”

Stepan Trofimovich is devastated, and I along with him, because this notion that the old folks have had their say, and their day, is so hurtful — and  so commonplace, though Varvara Petrovna’s insensitive manner of speaking to her old friend is unnecessarily cruel.

We also know not what to do with our elders and are convinced that we have nothing to learn from them. The thought that they might have learned something along the way to old age is foreign to the younger generation who have always wanted to wash their hands of the elders and find their own way. To be sure, this goes back to the beginning of time, but it has become increasingly nasty in recent years — beginning with the notion, popular in the 1960s, that anyone older than 30 is irrelevant, and finding its fruition in our cult of the child in which we have made deities of our children and the pages of the AARP magazine are full of advice on how to remain young.

It’s one thing for the young to want to find their own way. As parents we see our children straining against the reins that we hold in our hands — or used to at any rate — and that is a good thing. The young need to learn how to grow old. But this seems no longer to be the case. The young want to remain young (and they do) and the old want to return to their youth (which they can’t). And we all listen carefully to the young, even the smallest child, expecting pearls of wisdom every time they open their mouths. No one seems to know how to grow old gracefully. Like Varvara Petrovna, the elders of our tribe in their worship of the young and their supposedly “new ideas” turn their backs on the lessons they themselves have learned and close their eyes and ears to the wisdom that might issue forth from grizzled faces and gray heads — their own among them.

We are convinced as a culture that newer is better and progress is always forward and never a danger. We also worship the young with undeserved adoration and look in the wrong places for guidance — just as we have disdain for history and regard it as “yesterday’s news” while we read the latest news bite on the internet to find out what is on the cutting edge and therefore true.

All I can say for certain is that I wish I knew forty years ago what I know today; even though I am still in the dark about a great many things I see a little ray of light every now and again and it keeps me going. I certainly do not expect profound insights from children. Humor, yes. Wisdom, almost never. Poor Stepan Trofimovich. I feel for him!