Dead Men Left

Friday, August 12, 2005

Failing gods, tragedies and farces

Justin's sent me the link to an electronic version of Isaac Deutscher's review of The God that Failed, a selection of de la mode essays from Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender and other ex-Communists published back in 1949. Deutscher makes his notorious remark about retreating to the "watchtower" in the course of the review; apart from that, he notices, for all the alleged novelty and blistering revelations these turncoats hawk, they're following a familar path:

But, whatever the shades of individual attitudes, as a rule the intellectual ex­Communist ceases to oppose capitalism. Often he rallies to its defense, and he brings to this job the lack of scruple, the narrow-mindedness, the disregard for truth, and the in­tense hatred with which Stalinism has imbued him. He re­mains a sectarian. He is an inverted Stalinist. He continues to see the world in white and black, but now the colors are differently distributed. As a Communist he saw no difference between fascists and social democrats. As an anti-Communist he sees no difference between nazism and communism. Once, he accepted the party's claim to infallibility; now he be­lieves himself to be infallible. Having once been caught by the "greatest illusion," he is now obsessed by the greatest disillusionment of our time. His former illusion at least implied a positive ideal. His disillusionment is utterly negative. His role is therefore in­tellectually and politically barren. In this, too, he resembles the embittered ex-Jacobin of the Napoleonic era. Words­worth and Coleridge were fatally obsessed with the "Jacobin danger"; their fear dimmed even their poetic genius. It was Coleridge who denounced in the House of Commons a bill for the prevention of cruelty to animals as the "strongest instance of legislative Jacobinism." The ex-Jacobin became the prompter of the anti-Jacobin reaction in England. Directly or indirectly, his influence was behind the Bills Against Sedi­tious Writings and Traitorous Correspondence, the Treason­able Practices Bill, and Seditious Meetings Bill ( 1792-1794), the defeats of parliamentary reform, the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and the postponement of the emancipation of England's religious minorities for the life­time of a generation. Since the conflict with revolutionary France was "not a time to make hazardous experiments," the slave trade, too, obtained a lease on life--in the name of lib­erty.

In quite the same way our ex-Communist, for the best of reasons, does the most vicious things. He advances bravely in the front rank of every witch hunt. His blind hatred of his former ideal is leaven to contemporary conservatism. Not rarely he denounces even the mildest brand of the "welfare State" as "legislative Bolshevism." He contributes heavily to the moral climate in which a modern counterpart to the Eng­lish anti-Jacobin reaction is hatched.

Deutscher was quite wrong, back in 1950, to think that the decisive political choice, anywhere in the world, lay between Washington and Moscow: the events of 1956 and subsequent years at least put paid to the idea that either one failing god or another had to be slavishly obeyed. In creating this false opposition, Deutscher mirrored exactly the position adopted by the ex-Communists he excoriates. It is hard, however, to read of the "most vicious things" Deutscher's ex-Communists were willing to do without thinking that the historical wheel has turned again.