Selected chapters from Vladimir Bukovsky's book
From Utopia to Disaster
Robert Laffont, Paris, 1990.
Translated by Arthur Beard and Alissa Ordabai-Hatton.
About “Russian” fairy-tales
A foolish fashion has spread among the authors of books about the Soviet Union, which compels them to contemplate the history of Russia, the nature of this land of great plains, the bad character of the Russian tzars and the suffering of the people. Be it out of a taste for the exotic, be it out of a scientific inclination, be it to please intelligentsia that does not want to recognize the legitimate child of their ideas in the Soviet freak, the Mongolian invasion always takes up more space in these books than scientific socialism, as if the Soviet state was founded by Ivan the Terrible and the nationalization was carried out by Peter the Great.
It would be difficult to find two events in history that were not related in some way, and if one tried one could prove convincingly that the current economic problems in England, for example, go back to the Norman conquest, and that Henry VIII set precedent for the increasing numbers of divorces. While such research may be entertaining to historians, no one would think of publishing it in a travel guide or popular science work on England, and the government is careful not to base its socio-economic policy on such analysis.
The foolish fashion I am talking about enjoys a different fate, no doubt because it is mutually convenient. For the Soviet authorities and for their western fellow travelers it means justifying the regime, just the way a provincial attorney makes use of his criminal client’s unhappy childhood. For those who are thirsting for socialism, it brings consolation: for in their civilized country it will have different results. For the vast majority of people who are not familiar with the subject, such an explanation is more accessible than all the confusing treatises of Hegel or Bebel. People today have little interest in the ideas which used to be fashionable in the last century, and they imagine the Soviet Union as a huge Haiti of Duvalier's time. In fact, it makes no difference where "human rights are violated,” whether here or there …
But why should one blame the man in the street, when the top politicians in the West do not know any better and seem to regard communism in all seriousness as a version of traditional Russian despotism? A well-known French politician attributes the invasion of Afghanistan to the traditional longing of the Russians for warm shores, and Margaret Thatcher explains to us after two conversations with Secretary General Gorbachev that this is an "honest and courageous" man whom one should trust and with whom one can "do business.”
It is hard to believe that there was nobody to make it clear to Ms. Thatcher that the USSR is not a monarchy and Gorbachev is not a tzar and that, even if he makes a good impression, you do business with the whole system and not with one single individual. And what does his courage actually consist of? That he is trying to save the Soviet Union from ruin? Lenin also showed "courage" in the same way and proclaimed the NEP policy in 1921, when he was standing on the edge of an abyss. Stalin could not be denied courage either, since he reopened the churches in 1941 when the Russian people were reluctant to defend his concentration camps and the collective farms against the German armies. And let's not forget Khrushchev, whose entire reign was an act of heroism. Is it so difficult to notice that attacks of courage plague Soviet leaders every twenty years and that these inevitably coincide with a crisis of the system?
Obviously, it is less a question of ignorance than of convenience that this view affords to Western politicians. If these mythical "Russians" have been like this since the beginning of time, if they, because they are fed up with vegetating in the Siberian ice, strive relentlessly to get to the warm seas, then there is nothing to be done and nothing to accuse anyone of. One can only wait for a good, enlightened monarch to appear in Russia with whom one can "do business.”
This view always concludes with the fact that the Russians, if they are attached to their centuries-old barbarism and have longed for warmth for centuries, can only be hostile to the interests of the West. The communist rulers of the USSR are something akin to natural allies of the West in the fight against this barbarism, especially when they become civilized through contact with their peers in the West and draw the courage to curb their barbaric instincts.
Lovely, isn't it? It is not just the shameless chauvinism of these ideas about the Soviet Union, but their absurdity — we are hostile to a people and make friends with communism, and then we are surprised that it spreads so vehemently over the entire world.
So about fifteen years ago, in the middle of the relaxation phase, the aggressiveness of the Soviet system was explained to us with the traditional "Russian paranoia" which , apparently, results from the numerous hostile attacks to which Russia had been exposed in the course of its history. But all hope was placed on the "doves" in the Kremlin, with Marshal Brezhnev at the helm, and you were well advised to support them in their fight against the paranoia of the people. But how can one help them? We were told that "the Russians,” if they were granted military supremacy, would calm down, become weaker and devote themselves to their domestic tasks. The results of this policy can still be felt, not only in Europe but in numerous third world countries, most recently and most obviously in Afghanistan.
Fifteen years have passed and the new general secretary sees himself once again greeted as the savior of humanity, proclaimed as the successor to Peter the Great, as a reformer and light-giver, who is finally able to cut the beards of his people stiff with filth and watch them dress in western-style clothes. As a result, we were presented with nonsense on television, a series about Peter, a Soviet-American joint production, where the emperor of Russia (whose weakness for carousing incidentally was rather famous) gives his people Gorbachev-style speeches about moderation and profitability of honest work.
Little is missing now, we are assured. We must of course support the new hero in this unequal struggle, and he will then grant us the long-awaited peace. In this way one will see the idiotic half-a-century-long dream come true: the USSR (to paraphrase the words of a young man trying to reassure his pregnant friend) will eventually “dissolve by itself".
In short, we are dealing with a universal theory that cannot be refuted by anything. I do not know to what extent the Western reader is familiar with the discussions of American scholars on this subject, which have long since been reduced to an examination of the Russian national character, but they have now reached such a degree of sophistication that I have given up.
The opponents of the policy of détente and other "hawks" defend their position with the argument that "the Russians cannot be trusted" because of their faithlessness and their centuries-old despotism; the supporters of détente and other "peace doves", however, try to prove to us that the "Russians" are essentially no different from the Americans and that one can therefore communicate with them. Once President Reagan flatly explained to us that there is no word in Russian for "freedom" and then his right arm sees the origin of Russian expansion in the fact that the Russian word "mir" means "world" and "peace" at the same time. On the other hand, numerous speakers have flooded television with documentaries of their trips to the USSR, from which it appears that the "Russians" walk on two legs too, that they love their children, are worried about the future and above all — about the struggle for peace, — and that in Russia everyone, from the greatest to the least, thinks in the same terms as we do. We conclude from this that you have to understand these Russians, that you have to sit down with them to talk about how things should be among the well-behaved people, that you have to overcome national prejudices so that the misunderstandings can be resolved as quickly as possible. Just look at the French, they eat frogs (disgusting, isn't it?), and yet you can live in peace with them.
This vision, peddled by the educated classes of America, becomes incredibly popular as relations with the USSR improve, and at summits it takes on the proportions of a national catastrophe. Anyone who has not stayed in America during these periods of "summit mania" can hardly imagine the extent of the catastrophe. One must witness this wave of childish and maddening enthusiasm, one must hear the unspeakable donkeys that innumerable groups of specialists in Russian friendship consist of. If it were up to me, I would have it forbidden by law — just as the sale of alcohol to minors is forbidden, for there are neither allies nor principles that the great American people, intoxicated by their own progressiveness, would not be prepared to give up for their new adoptive brothers.
God protect us from such exuberant friendship and understanding, but one must admit that the opposite side is hardly any better. One only has to remember how after the destruction of the Korean Boeing the mad people smashed all vodka bottles in the bars (the vodka, mind you, not the Soviet consulates) and that the Russian emigrants feared a pogrom in all seriousness. Such behavior pushes you, against your own will, into the camp of the "advocates".
What can you do if the smallest, but somewhat more complex idea does not want to get into an American head, and not only among bar customers, but also among journalists, professors and politicians? That leads to absurd situations: One day, for example, I got involved in a television debate on the subject of "Can you trust the Russians?" which I was invited to. Confused, I tried to explain that my participation would only mess up the cards, but the organizers did not understand my objections. Or was I mistaken about the purpose of the invitation?
Explaining something to academics is even more difficult. Imagine that a Martian accidentally finds himself in the middle of a debate about life on Mars. Such a phenomenon will certainly not end the debate. After a brief moment of embarrassment, it will flare up again as if nothing had happened. The majority of the participants have passed their exams, written their books, and gained a certain amount of social respect because they advocate a theory. Be that as it may, but various societal interests have built up and permeated each other around these debates, and no one cares about ending such a comfortable state of affairs just because some fool has fallen to earth.
On our poor earth, the aim of debates has long ceased to be the search for the truth, they have become a means of earning a living. What good could an old-fashioned affair like Truth be? In our pragmatic century, what is useful is true. For example, Marshall Shulman, a very influential professor at Columbia University, explains the hostility that characterizes Soviet-American relations the following way:
"The hostility does not result from any natural antipathy between the peoples of the two nations, but in the fact that over the course of time each has gained the conviction that the other has bad intentions, so that it is now difficult to distinguish the facts from fiction in relation to each other."
(Marshall Shulman, What The Russians Really Want, Harpers, April 1984).
Are we really to believe that the honorable Professor has never heard of Marxism-Leninism and the laws of class struggle? Of course he has heard of it, but he and his ilk regard the communist ideology as insubstantial and out of date, and the Soviet bosses seem to them, in the words of an even more honorable professor, namely the renowned George Kennan:
"... a collection of quite ordinary individuals, to a certain extent victims (...) of the ideology which they have been fed, but more decisively shaped by the discipline of their responsibility (...) as heads of a large country (...) worried much more about preserving the current limits of their political power than expanding them (...) whose motivations are actually defensive (...) and whose attention is primarily focused on the constantly open problems of economic development of their own country.”
(George Kennan, The Nuclear Delusion - Soviet-American Relations, in The Atomic Age, NY Pantheon, 1982).
Note, this was written in 1982, at the time of Brezhnev, before Gorbachev appeared on the scene with his reformist speeches. Nowadays Professor Kennan shouldn't shy away from anything. If such a view of the USSR and its leaders could be reconciled for him with the invasion of Afghanistan and the support of numerous murderers, he would only be able to interpret the behavior of a bankrupt Soviet system as evidence of goodwill, a sense of responsibility and the power's tendency to self-restraint.
Whether you call them victims or pioneers of ideology has little meaning. Lenin defined precisely what kind of compromise a communist can make with the class enemy and what kind of compromise would be impossible. Let's assume, he says, that armed bandits stop your car and, under threat of death, take away your money, your papers, your revolver — without which Vladimir Ilyich obviously couldn't imagine a going for a drive — and your car. This is obviously a compromise, he says, since you can save your skin as a result of it, it is a compromise that no sensible person would refuse, as it allows you to later settle accounts with the bandits. In other cases, according to the leader of the world proletariat, compromising with the class enemy is treason.
A nice upbringing
As a result, the same ideological norm served to bring up a good three generations of Soviet leaders. Nice education! Which eliminated anyone who poorly understood the business of acceptable compromises (and thus became a traitor) by means of a bullet in the head. It will be found that such trauma is long-lasting, and that a compromise with Lenin's heirs is likely to be possible only if the pistol is put to their chests. Why does it matter whether they believe in communist ideas or not, if in their constant struggle for power they do not have the slightest freedom to disregard ideological norms? Whether these men are taken for "victims" or "followers of the doctrine”, for ordinary people or knights of the world revolution, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has never declared peace on its class enemy.
However, to quote Lenin today, one has to be an extremist kind of Martian. Because Lenin, it is said, lived a long time ago, too long ago to influence the current Soviet development. It's not like the times of Peter the Great or Ivan the Terrible. It is astonishing, but the connection between Marxism-Leninism and the present-day Soviet state in its foreign or domestic policy is either ignored or even completely denied by the American universities, often more energetically by the conservatives than by the liberals. The more the world learns about the crimes of the regime, the worse the impression the Soviet Union makes, the more the subject becomes taboo. A self-respecting American professor talks about communism like a deceased colleague: nihil nisi bene. Sometimes when you have to say something that is just a little bad, you do it with restraint and apologize for it. It is a kind of moral taboo, like the rule that one does not speak of the rope in the house of someone who was hanged, and whoever breaks this taboo will not find anyone to polemicize with him, a vacuum is created around him. Consequently, the opponent of the deceased tries to be particularly considerate, because every disturbing word from his mouth could be interpreted as deliberate rudeness.
Indeed, it is people who are considered conservative and "who could not be suspected of sympathy for communism" who invented the following legend, now valid:
“The answer to many puzzles of Soviet behavior lies not in the stars, but in the Tzars. Their bodies lie buried in Kremlin vaults, and their spirits like on in the Kremlin halls. In many respects the revolution that brought the communists to power in Russia was less a change from the tzarist ways than it was a refinement and reinforcement of those ways. Russia has never not been an expansionist power. Nor, except for a few brief months in 1917, has it ever not been either an authoritarian or a totalitarian state. There simply is no tradition in the Soviet Union of freedom internally or of nonaggression externally. Territorial expansion comes as naturally to Russia as hunting does to a lion or fishing to a bear.”
“The Soviet police state traces its lineage to the Tartar yoke. … The brutal exercise of total power, the subjugation of the individual to the state, the ruthless marshaling of all resources for the purposes of the state, the idea of constant, unremitting war — these all have their roots deep in the Russian past, in the terrors of Mongol rule and in the bitter necessities of fighting the Tartar hordes.”
“The first ‘Tsar of All the Russias,’ Ivan the Terrible, was also the first Tsar to make the use of terror a state policy; the origins of both the tzarist secret police and today’s KGB can be traced to him. … In our own century Joseph Stalin personified Russia’s tzarist heritage. The dynasty he represents was a party, not a family, but like the ‘great’ Tzars before him, he extended Russian rule over vast new areas. … Like Ivan the Terrible, Stalin created his own private secret police and employed terror as a basic instrument of state policy. Like Peter, he appreciated the value of Western technology in fashioning a modern fighting machine.”
(Richard Nixon, The Real War, Warner Books, 1980).
We can only speak with a touch of sympathy about today's Soviet leaders, enlightened through contacts with people like Nixon or Kissinger:
“Khrushchev and his successor, Brezhnev, have gone a long way toward making Russia a truly European country. It could be said that Stalin, like Mao, was basically a nationalist, and that Khrushchev, like Zhou, was an internationalist. Stalin rarely left the Soviet Union, but Khrushchev was a world traveler, taking fifty-two journeys abroad in his eleven years in power. Stalin was an Asian depot looking east, but Khrushchev and Brezhnev both looked to the West.”
(Richard Nixon, Leaders, Plan 1984).
While we let our learned writers take responsibility for such exotic views of Russian history, we would like to understand how the ominous and reactionary traditions of the autocracy survived the Bolshevik revolution. As we know, not only were the physical bearers of these traditions — aristocracy, officer corps, intelligentsia, merchants, ecclesiastical dignitaries — wiped out, but all Russian traditions were rewritten and turned into a history of class war that was well guarded. It was even decided to create a completely new, "proletarian" culture in which the old "legacy" was only represented by a few revolutionary writers. Thus several generations were brought up in the struggle against “the inheritance" so effectively that when Stalin decided in 1941 to rehabilitate some of the servants of tzarism in order to raise the morale of the population, the commissioners had to explain to an astonished audience who were all these Suvorovs, Kutuzovs and Alexander Nevskys. Who would have found a way, and by what miracle, to continue the forbidden traditions?
This problem is happily explained by another American thinker who is not so conservative and even more dignified than the previous ones. You see, the crux of the matter is the Russian peasantry, which Stalin, despite all his best efforts, could not completely exterminate. These peasants suffered the worst consequences in conforming to the Mongol yoke and serfdom, which they "managed to survive ... not by entrusting themselves to the protection of laws and customs, but by exercising extreme cunning and single-mindedly pursuing their private interests,” and this peasantry now provides “practically the entire elite of the Soviet government.” So consequently, in the opinion of our learned author, the "overwhelming majority of the Russian population" carries this bacillus of totalitarianism:
“Various elements of historical experience blend to create a very special kind of mentality, which stresses slyness, self-interest, reliance on force, skill in exploiting others, and, by inference, contempt for those unable to fend for themselves.”
(Richard Pipes, Detente: Moscow’s View, 1977).
If our Harvard professor had not been so stingy with epithets, if he had added a few more to this charming bouquet, we would have had before us the classic picture of Judaism depicted in a certain type of literature that has set itself the task to ascribe the Jews the leading role in the communist movement. One has to admit that two thousand years of diaspora, humiliation and persecution are not much better than four hundred years of serfdom and it could not have been an ethnic character that had no way of "relying on the protection of law" and good morals. Is it to be assumed that the blacks will bother us too, since they too were liberated only four years after the Russian serfs? And not to mention the gypsies: can you really trust gypsies?
It must be mentioned that such an argument from the mouth of the American "hawks" comes in handy for their opponents, the "doves", because it brings them close to those radicals who, after the affair with the Korean Boeing, smashed all the vodka bottles in the bars. Also, when Russians find themselves in some kind of huge ghetto, the question begins to take a familiar turn for the American liberals. Hence a lot of recipes in the style of their bill about civil rights, "positive discrimination,” "desegregation" and the demand to "understand" the other camp.
But what can we suggest if our conservative professor sees practically no way out?
“Nothing short of a major cataclysm that would demonstrate beyond doubt that impulses rooted in its history have lost their validity is likely to affect the collective outlook of the Russian nation and change it, as defeat has caused the Germans or Japanese to turn away from dictatorships, and the Nazi massacres have caused the Jews to abandon their traditional pacifism.”
(Richard Pipes, Detente: Moscow’s View, 1977).
But you can't send the National Guard to change the "historical impulses" of this nuclear superHarlem. If it would have been difficult to defeat Japan without Hiroshima, there can be no question of defeating today's USSR without nuclear war.
This is another argument in favor of the "doves" who try to convince us that their recipes have no alternative but the world war. In this way, then, the scholarly discussion has continued for half a century in a climate of harmony and mutual support. The devil himself wouldn’t be able to find out which of them is now liberal and which is conservative. The world map changes, peoples and nations disappear, only the substance of the debate remains unchanged. Some, like Gogol's Manilov, dream of building a bridge to connect with a neighbor, with a pergola in the middle, which would invite nice encounters and pleasant conversations. The others, like Sobakevitch, divide the subjugated peoples into classes by distinguishing between the pigs and the villains.
Indeed, are Ukrainians Russians or not? On the one hand, it seems as if they aren't, since the Russians have occupied them. On the other hand, the Ukrainian peasant also got a taste of serfdom, and certainly not the obedience to the law. Their story was no picnic either: Poles, Turks, and Tatars took turns paying them too much attention. Speaking of which, those Tatars, from whom everything bad comes, are no better than the Russians. And the Bulgarians? How can you not be a villain when you've borne the Turkish yoke? The Vietnamese are bad, that's clear. They were always the aggressors. With the Afghans we don't know exactly yet, but it is said that they are a cruel and devious people, qualities which give them a good chance of becoming Russians.
Only the Cubans cause problems: they have never known serfdom, they are far from the Tatars and they still behave like Russians. What a mysterious nation. A lot can certainly be explained by the Russian influence, but who is forcing them to submit to this influence? Where do all these Fidels come from?
Indeed, where do all the Russian peasants in this world come from? How have they multiplied to such an extent that in France, at the heart of European civilization, the Communists received almost 25 percent of the votes and in Italy 33 percent? Perhaps every people (including the Russians) has its share of "Russians" whom Karl Marx urged in his indestructible manifesto to unite:
“The communist revolution is led by the class, which is itself the expression of the dissolution of all classes, of all nationalities.”
(Richard Pipes, Detente: Moscow’s View, 1977).
If the climate and the soil are favorable...
Perhaps, if we will finally let the ashes of the Russian tzars rest in peace, we would notice that a completely different ghost haunts the halls of the Kremlin? The same ghost that haunted Europe in Marx's time and that has since then adapted perfectly to other continents? Perhaps one has to fall back on biblical wisdom and admit that there was a word in the beginning, in the present case — the teaching of Marxism-Leninism, which showed Russians of every nationality what to do in order to achieve universal happiness?
“No way, never!”, the scholars answer with contempt, for like Doctor Faust they are inclined not to attach such great importance to words. As if they didn't know! As if it wasn't their job to produce words! What would happen if one had to take responsibility for every word? But better let the stupid people smash vodka bottles:
"My answer to these questions is that the ideas do not bring about any important political or social changes, at most they encourage them: that is, they only have an effect if the climate and soil are favorable to them. The core of the problem is not the nature of the proposed ideas, but the way in which they are received."
(Richard Pipes, Detente: Moscow’s View, 1977).
I admit, there is some truth in that. But what should one do when the ground is always ready for a certain type of ideas in the moment of crisis, and their consequences are always predictable? Admit, Professor, that certain ideas can be interpreted in several ways, especially if they are addressed to a certain class of the population and leave a noble aftertaste, persuade people through historical necessity and make universal happiness dependent on their realization. It should also not be forgotten that there are people who receive the word of educated people much more reverently than the heirs of Faust do, and that these ideas are aimed precisely at them. So what should one do? Shall we admit that these "ideas", if only partly, have something to do with their consequences? Is it really not so? Not even such "ideas" like: "Death to the Jews!" or "Death to the bourgeoisie!"?
"It is true that Marxism contains the seeds of totalitarianism (as it also contains liberal elements), but how is it that this doctrine, which was born in Western Europe, never led to totalitarianism in its homeland?"
(Richard Pipes, Detente: Moscow’s View, 1977).
Of course! If instead of "Death to the bourgeoisie" we would have seen another idea triumphant, that does not change the discussion about word and deed. Whether the German proletariat has striven for national or international socialism after its unification is not a Tartar invasion, but it has behaved as badly under the influence of an idea as the Russians, and that is an important process. Should we see Mein Kampf as a little innocent book that everyone interprets according to the degree of his moral deprivation?
It is strange scientific reasoning to refer to what has not happened in history to explain what is happening. Much has not happened in our history. The Englishman Locke discovered the separation of powers, which was then realized in America and not in England. The Russians Bakunin and Kropotkin invented anarchism, which became popular in Spain, not in Russia. The Chinese invented gunpowder, but its military use became a matter for Europe.
And as for the Jews, around whom Christianity was born, strangely enough, they did not profess that religion. Must we therefore assume that the English love unrestricted power, that the Spaniards are more anarchist and the Russians, that the Chinese are more peaceful than the Europeans, and that the Jews are incapable of mercy?
If everything had happened the other way around, our scholars would have shown us the opposite with at least as much zeal. If the communists had come to power in France and not in Russia, one would remember the traditions of absolutism, the terror of the revolution and the Napoleonic wars.
After all, the Russians did not choose communism, but it was imposed on them at the end of the civil war. We know that in 1917 there were no more than forty thousand Bolsheviks in all of Russia, a number so small that — alas! — nobody took them seriously, not even after the October coup. Because everyone expected that they would dissolve by themselves.
By the way, where are the "liberal elements" of the Marxist doctrine that we were promised? Why have they not revealed themselves in any country, to any people, on any continent where the communists have taken power? Well, let us leave the question of where and for what reason the communist regime prevailed, on what historical premises, on what traditional basis. Once it had established itself, it developed further and acted according to its teaching, as far as external circumstances made it possible.
What interests us more if we want to understand the further course of the disease — the type of bacillus that caused it or the childhood of the sick person?
“The thought that a nation of more than ten million inhabitants with the legacy of a thousand years of documented history can be radically changed and, over the decades, be forced to behave differently in a scandalous way under the influence of certain 'perverse ideas', amazes me with its phantasmagoric side. ... Basically, one and the same people, who inhabit the same country, speak the same language, cultivate the same land and inherit the same thousand-year history, would not have developed, even with the greatest imagination, two different political systems that have nothing in common. The deepest natural mutations affect different biological organisms; but such a phenomenon is inconceivable in history.”
(Richard Pipes, Encounter, April 1980).
All these considerations are up to the author and his imagination. We can only pity him or comfort him with Kosma Prutkov's advice: "If you read the word 'buffalo' on an elephant cage, don't believe your eyes".
A biologist’s imagination would not be so deeply shocked by such a startling mutation. Different kinds of organisms differ from each other only by a few mutations, and the biologists differ from the historians in that they research what they have seen instead of denying it. What use would science have if, in the face of a mutation, we tried to prove — foaming at the mouth — that no change had occurred? It is, in fact, a science that allows you to measure and weigh. It is different from history or politics, where pluralism of the charlatans reigns: you think this, well, and I think that.
It took hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and mutation for man to escape the animal condition. To return man to the animal condition, not a single mutation is needed, all it takes is a whack on the head. The matter is even simpler when it comes to our civilisation, for it leaves no traces in the genes. Perfectly civilised English schoolchildren, abandoned by fate on a desert island, easily turn into savages; children separated from their parents by a barrier of hate and from all past traditions by propaganda easily become Maoist Red Guards, SS soldiers or the likes of Pavlik Morozov. Lord of the Flies lies dormant in every one of us, biding its time. You think you are better, mister Professor? Scratch yourself and, under the Harvard varnish, you will be sure to find your very own Russian.
Is it not striking that in the 20th century, after Camus and Ionesco, Brecht and Bulgakov, Orwell and Zamyatin, we still believe lullabies and fairy tales about good and bad nations? Why stick to our century? Didn’t Goethe create the first dystopia by demonstrating that each of us harbours a rebellious and worried spirit, a doctor Faust who suffers from the imperfection of men and the injustice of this Earth?
Look about, from this height’s extreme,
Across the realm: it seems like some bad dream,
Where one deformity acts on another,
Where lawlessness by law is furthered,
And an age of crime is discovered.
(Goethe, Faust, II, v.4782-4787. Poetry translation in Kline, A.S., Goethe: Faust Acts I and II Complete.)
What other choice than to rebel against the power of Speech that has created and perpetuated this world order? Indeed:
With words fine arguments can be weighted,
With words whole Systems can be created,
With words, the mind does its conceiving,
No word suffers a jot from thieving.
(Ibid, I, v.1996-2000.)
Yes indeed, action is the premise of existence! Without action, no progress, the conditions of existence cannot be changed, rendering happiness impossible.
But action alone cannot create without speech, for it ignores the what? God had it easy. He said, “Let there be light”, and there was light. Let me attempt to act without Speech. In that case, it is possible to destroy, but impossible to create.
However, this problem is easily solved: wherever there is man, there is also the devil, always ready to back up our noble impulses. As long as our impulses are sufficiently powerful to bring us to make a deal with him, the Devil will take them into consideration. Faust knows only what he doesn’t want: the old world, with its ever-sterile desires:
Curse what deceives us in our dreaming,
With thoughts of everlasting fame!
Curse the flattery of ‘possessing’
Wife and child, lands and name!
Curse Mammon, when he drives us
To bold acts to win our treasure:
Or straightens out our pillows
For us to idle at our leisure!
Curse the sweet juice of the grape!
Curse the highest favours Love lets fall!
Cursed be Hope! Cursed be Faith,
And cursed be Patience most of all!
(Ibid, I, v.1595-1606.)
Let us note that this list of curses allows us to easily imagine the world in which Faust would like to live: a world where wealth, that corrupter of souls, no longer reigns, where there will no longer be power, nor family, nor the constant worry of having to provide for one’s needs, a world where neither the sacred nor vain luxuries, nor the selfish appetite for glory, nor indeed the never-ending wait will detract man from eternal happiness. In short, death.
When, to the Moment then, I say:
‘Ah, stay a while! You are so lovely!’
Then you can grasp me: then you may,
Then, to my ruin, I’ll go gladly!
(Ibid, I, v.1699-1702.)
You must admit that this enterprise is taking on a bizarrely familiar form. And this is only confirmed by what follows. After a long period of wandering, after numerous adventures and quests, not one of which, of course, satisfies Faust, a grand project springs to his mind: to tame the arrogant rage of the sea, to steal a part of its domain and to create the world of his dreams there. Well, clearly, if one has the Devil in support: no sooner said than done. At the place where the greying abyss boiled, “sterile and fecund in sterility”,
See a garden planted, widely,
See the Paradisial view.
The tide extended its wide flow.
Clever Lords set their bold servants
Digging ditches, building dikes,
To gain the mastery of ocean,
Diminishing its natural rights.
(Ibid, II, v.11085-94.)
On top of that, the harbour may offer a hospitable welcome to merchant ships. But the devil is indeed the devil, it is he who manages the practical side of life in our earthly paradise, he who fills the treasury’s chests with the booty of naval plunder, and the vessels in this harbour do not arrive of their own accord. The moral principles introduced by the devil to this paradise sound equally familiar:
You have the might, and so the right.
You wonder what, and never how.
I know a little of navigation:
War, trade, and piracy, allow,
As three in one, no separation.
(Ibid, II, v.11184-88.)
Another familiar trait: it is dangerous to live in the neighbourhood of this paradise of Faust’s:
[…] like subjects we must kneel,
When we boast such neighbours.
(Ibid, II, v.11133-34.)
Not far away, some pious old men live peacefully, which, presumably, shouldn’t stop Faust rejoicing in the greatness of his creation. But no!
It’s a thorn in my eye, and deeper:
Oh! Would I were somewhere other!
The least tree in another’s field,
Detracts from my whole estate.
(Ibid, II, v.11161-62.)
As a result, the Devil is charged with the mission of moving the old men away. No, not like that! Without cruelty nor violation of human rights! The only demand is that they be relocated to a beautiful manor, set aside for their exclusive use, on the paradise’s territory, where they will be infinitely happier, and have anything they could possibly wish for. But the Devil stays true to himself:
That pair knew scant anxiety,
They died of terror, peacefully.
A stranger, who was hiding there,
And wished to fight, we tried to scare. But in the fast and furious bout,
From the coals that lay about,
The straw took fire. Now all three,
In that one pyre, burn merrily.
(Ibid, II, v.11362-69.)
What is to be done? Faust comes to terms with his dissatisfaction. He decides to build a high tower from which to contemplate his possessions.
But he knows no peace of mind. Here he is, powerful without limit, wise without measure, rich with uncountable riches, the coryphaeus of all the sciences and the best friend of the navigators, but he does not have happiness. Care chews away at him: his work is not done, his creation is not perfect.
It is, incidentally, difficult to say whether the men who populate Faust’s paradise are happy. We do not know much about them. We know only that the Devil has three helpers, three “Mighty Warriors”: Bullyboy, Grab-quick and Hold-tight, whose functions correspond perfectly to those of the army, the KGB, and the Party apparatus. We also see a border guard on duty at the top of a tower. He is eternally happy and never stops singing. For the joy of it, like an itinerant Turkish poet: what he sees, he celebrates. In particular, he sings that the world is beautiful and that he loves this world.
As for Faust, blinded by Care, he is consumed by questions and economic plans.
Up from your beds, you slaves! Man on man!
Reveal the daring of my favoured plan.
Seize the tools: on with pick and spade!
Let the end-result be now displayed.
Strict order, and swift industry
Then the finest prize we’ll see:
And so the greatest work may stand,
One mind equal to a thousand hands.
(Ibid, II, v.11503-10.)
He orders for a canal to be dug, the social significance of which is important, but not completely clear. This canal is dug among other by lemures, that is to say restless spirits or malignant shadows (uncannily similar to zeks), whose overseer is of course the Devil.
Come on! Come on! In here, in here!
Quivering spirits of the dead,
All you patchwork semi-natures,
Sinew, bone, and tendon wed.
(Ibid, II, v.11511-14.)
Is this not similar to the departure from the camp to the work site? All these lemures have left to do is to get drugged up on chifir.
However, mesmerized by Care, Faust does not even know that they are digging his grave and not a canal. But Faust is finally happy. The ringing of spades flatters his ear and the project of making “the waves accept their boundaries” grips him once again. He pressures the Devil, orders him to scold the workers (even though the Devil knows full well that his parent Neptune will soon be reclaiming this nice building site in its entirety). There it is, that long-awaited moment!
A swamp lies there below the hill,
Infecting everything I’ve done:
My last and greatest act of will
Succeeds when that foul pool is gone.
Let me make room for many a million,
Not wholly secure, but free to work on.
(Ibid, II, v.11159-64.)
What a poor blind old man who, on the edge of the grave that constitutes his greatest achievement, continues to deliver pathetic speeches about the universal happiness of “liberated labour” in this earthly paradise that is sure to blossom among “his” lands.
Childhood, manhood, age’s vigorous years,
Surrounded by dangers, they’ll spend here.
I wish to gaze again on such a land,
Free earth: where a free race, in freedom, stand.
(Ibid, II, v.11577-80.)
Well there you go! Get to work, humans, and build for evermore this earthly paradise (your mass grave) and be happy with your lot! For Faust, the main thing is that:
Through aeons, then, never to fade away
This path of mine through all that’s earthly. –
Anticipating, here, its deep enjoyment,
Now I savour it, that highest moment.
(Ibid, II, v.11583-86.)
And that’s that. Faust’s sputtering propaganda comes to an end. The lemures, or the zeks, drag his body into the grave while making sordid jokes. True, the Devil got it wrong, and he does not take Faust’s soul, but that is another story, which has neither beginning nor end, and which, in the best case scenario, promises to give rise to numerous episodes derived from contradictions between Speech and Action, between the end and the means, between creation and destruction. The history of mankind does not stop there.
But, do tell me, how on earth did Goethe so rigorously predict, over a hundred years ago, present-day USSR in its entirety, with its White Sea canal and its zeks, its international trafficking and its “submission of nature”, its ideology of collective work and its three “Mighty Warriors”, its cult of personality and its perpetually drunk border guard? Does this not convincingly prove that it is not the particularities of the development of this or that nation, but the very nature of Man that is responsible for the fact that his best intentions turn out regrettably?
One more point: how did generations of revolutionaries, who kept Faust on their bedside table, manage to not understand his sombre prophecy? Because the ultima ratio of human wisdom, proposed by Faust:
He only earns his Freedom and Existence,
Who’s forced to win them freshly every day.
(Ibid, II, v.11575-76.)
has become the motto of revolutionaries, their battle cry and, for some, an end in itself. But, just like Faust, blinded by Care, they did not notice the yawning grave in place of the awaited paradise.
Finally, how do they not get this, these Harvard professors and Western politicians who bring the eternal tragedy of Man back to platitudes about “bad” nations?
Unless, in professing Action as the premise of existence, we have made ourselves slaves to fine words, to the delight of the Devil?
Another fashionable take, just as stupid as the previous one and connected to it, involves claiming that revolutionaries, especially Russian ones, have defaced the ideas of socialism, interpreted them wrong, and applied them in contradiction with the precepts of their masters. Each person sees these distortions differently, according to their own conception of socialism. For some, the first to distort this bright idea was Marx, who was, according to others, distorted by Lenin, who in turn, according to yet others, was distorted by Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, etc. We can think that some Christian sects did the same and considered that the evangelists had betrayed the Christ, while others had sinned against the apostles, and yet others against the Fathers of the Church, the ecumenical council, or this or that pope.
It is, however, revealing that non-believers, in both cases, do not notice any distortion. It is surely more logical to speak of the evolution of ideas in the Darwinian sense, that is to say, to admit that distortions (or mutations) appear successively, survive, and the ones that adapt best to real conditions spread. For the biologist, it is irrelevant whether we designate the giraffe or the zebra as distortions or improvements of the horse. Only die-hard lovers of the Arabian racehorse will be outraged at the sight of Przewalski’s horse.
Nevertheless, surrendering to this vulgar legend, contemporary researchers will, cautiously, never call the Soviet Union a socialist State, but invariably refer to “eastern European socialism” or, worse still, a “Soviet model of socialism”. It is obvious that there is no objective index to these distortions other than the self-evident fact that the results of socialist experiments have everywhere turned out the opposite of what was expected. In this way, the creation of the kingdom of freedom was envisioned, and a great concentration camp appeared; imagined a classless society was imagined, and unprecedented differentiation between classes was born; the State was supposed to wither away, and it was reinforced and concentrated beyond words; there were predictions, thanks to the liberation of work, of unprecedented growth in productivity, perfect abundance, irresistible technological progress, the disappearance of societal ills, and instead we have witnessed the formation of an indigent and backward State, with its empty shops, its flourishing black market, its extraordinary criminality, its corruption, its alcoholism. Finally, we were meant to witness the unification of nations, a triumph of peace and creativity, and we were served a prison of nations, national hatred bordering on generalised disembowelment, excessive militarisation of society and the permanent threat of planetary slaughter. “Is that what you call socialism?” say the socialists, indignant.
Meanwhile, the western European model, although it has not led to concentration camps, has gone bankrupt everywhere, and, as a result, has brought results contrary to expectations. Voters everywhere, even the unemployed, vote against socialism, and, in those places where for local reasons socialists have come to power (France, Australia, New Zealand), they have, willingly or not, been forced to implement policies contrary to the recipes of socialism.
Where, then, is our Arabian purebred? Our unaltered socialism? Well, we will surely soon be building it Nicaragua (reportedly under the oversight of Soviet and Cuban advisers). Sweden, another country where socialism triumphs, does not seem condemned to bankruptcy. The same goes for the island of Madagascar, that has, apparently, reached unprecedented levels of justice. But, even were the Swedes to go bankrupt, the idea of pure socialism tends to linger, radiant in the popular memory. A wonderful idea, they will say, but of which humans are not yet worthy.
There is nothing more absurd than this tendency to justify theory and to deny practice. There is no such thing as an industrial design that is beautiful on its own, in abstracto, that does not take into account the materials available for its realisation. A rule is not valid if it does not take into account the possible errors of those executing it. The distortion of utopian ideas is as inevitable as entropy, with the caveat that Newton’s third law is due a correction here, for the resistance of the material will always prevail over the action of the idea.
Indeed, show me a single utopian idea that did not lead to the opposite of the desired result. It is impossible to come up with an example of this, at the same time as examples to the contrary abound, even today. Why stir up the dust of history if, before our very eyes, for example, the champions of the fight against racial discrimination in America have ended up demanding reverse discrimination, against Whites, which they have coyly referred to as positive, as if an adjective could change the nature of the phenomenon? The limitless humanitarianism of the supporters of animal rights or unborn children has turned them into terrorists planting bombs in clinics or laboratories; as for the champions of Islam, they have killed more Muslims than the enemies of Islam have managed throughout history.
You will argue that these are exceptions, excesses on the part of the tiny minority of extremists that exists in any social movement? But the extremists are simply the most consistent implementers of the Idea and this is precisely why they are in charge of these movements. Without them, there is no movement. The mere apparition of the utopian idea is a manifestation of extremism, rejected by the majority, and this is why the idea seduces potential extremists first of all. As a result, for non-believers, fanatical adherents to the utopian idea are extremists whereas, for believers, they are heroes, saints, examples to follow.
Once the goal is reached, the utopian movement, if it has imposed its ideas to the majority, will modify itself; it is no longer the work of extremists, but of conformists. It is the latter who are in charge of leading the initial idea all the way to illogical absurdity.
Over the last few days, while listening to the radio, I heard a distribution of condoms being announced as the prelude to a pop concert. Golly, I said to myself, but logically they should have been distributed instead of the concert. How did the era of “sexual revolutions”, unlimited happiness and pop music start? Do you remember?
All you need is Love!!!
the angels of the sixties sang for us and, inspired by this revelation, a generation of hippies rushed to remake the boring world of their parents, of housewives and of civil servants. What is the point, really, of money, work, the government, science, education, all that hygiene and discipline stuff, all these inventions of a disorientated world if all problems could be solved by universal love, by the immediate bliss of drugs and the deafening bellow of amplified music?
We don’t need no education!
In our lax world, no one can forbid you from organising revolutions or enjoying existence. However, you see, sooner or later, an invisible waiter brings you the bill. Sorry, we don’t take credit cards. And, twenty years later, our quite shrivelled “flower generation” once again fills the streets. What do they want now? Money. Oh! Because you still need money? How so? To study AIDS and make a vaccine. You mean science and education are useful too? And the government too, apparently, because that’s where they are demanding money from, indignant that so little is being spent. In stadiums still full, but of conformists now – unlike the idealists of Woodstock –, a silent reminder is distributed before the celebration: love alone is not enough, you need condoms too.
This is how in one generation “revolutionary” ideas have degenerated, leaving behind them only ritualised forms, the meaning of which is lost. And even then, they have only survived thanks to the might of the entertainment industry. Should we be surprised that today’s pop stars are the artificial products of advertising, driven only by the lure of easy profit, voiceless, talentless, without a single new idea, reduced to electronic trickery? What possible pleasure is there for us to watch other people getting rich? If it were not for conformity, we would pocket the free condoms and go home peacefully.
Ideas that are more complex and profound than these – which succeeded only in giving rise to a generation of narcissists – usually live on for longer and lead to their opposite much later. The lifecycle of ancient civilisations was measured in centuries, if not millennia. It is common knowledge that the effervescent development of socialist ideas over the last two centuries was a reaction to a crisis of Christianity. These ideas themselves go back to High Antiquity, but the attempt to create a radically new civilisation, albeit based on these ideas, is an absolutely new phenomenon.
The external causes of this crisis are of little importance to our reflection. Be they the results of the Reformation, or of the political struggle against absolutism expressed as a rejection of monarchism by divine right, or of the rapidly growing authority of science, understood as the triumph of reason over faith, or all these reasons put together, the question is purely academic. Whatever the cause, the immutability of the cosmic order that sprung from the Word of God was doubted, and a shadow of doubt spread all the way back to the prehistory of this notion: either the world was created and is therefore immutable, or it appeared as the result of a process of causality and it can therefore be changed radically. Either Good and Evil come to us from above – Virtue and Vice are already formed in us at birth – or they take shape under the influence of outside circumstances, as part of a process of evolution. Consequently, either man is free to choose between good and evil, or his choice is predetermined by conditions and circumstances.
In short, the very principles of Christian doctrine were reconsidered: just like Doctor Faust, the Enlightenment thinkers rebelled against the first line of the first page of the Gospel. The more the revolt of Action against Speech developed, the more pages were discarded. We should not be surprised if, two centuries later, the civilisation founded on socialist ideas is as radically different from Christian civilisation as Lobachevsky’s geometry is from Euclid’s.
We can think that each era generates its own prejudices, and if faith in sorcery characterised the Middle Ages, the modern era is characterised by blind faith in the magic of science, all the more understandable given that science has obtained absolutely tangible results. The idea of a utopian society managed to inspire thinkers for millennia, much like other obsessions – the perpetuum mobile or the philosopher’s stone –, but only the successes of science managed to incite a social experiment. Science can do anything, and in particular it can create conditions of existence capable of making man perfect. Scholars, naturally, were the least inclined to the vast generalisations that students and philosophers dedicated themselves to. This is how absolutely scientific observations demonstrating the empirical nature of the human mind were used as proof, during the Enlightenment, of the original equality of men, although such a conclusion in no way follows from the observations in question.
Indeed, Enlightenment thinkers, whether moderates or otherwise, started from the conviction that human reason is a blank slate that experience fills in. As a result, men were all assumed to be born free, be it in a royal family or among bedraggled vagabonds, and their ulterior experience was to lead them to different results. What we are talking about here is not so much professional habitus, general culture or the elegance of one’s manners, but instead about moral profile and the formation of personality. Or rather, all of this is taken together as a unique process of filling in the “blank slate”. Therefore, for Rousseau, man is good by nature, and it is society that makes him bad. By judiciously choosing favourable external conditions – education –, you can create a society of sublimely virtuous individuals.
Such a society, we are assured, existed in the past, at the dawn of humanity, when men obeyed the laws of nature, being themselves a part of nature. Do we even need to add that they knew nothing of domination over one another, nor of wealth, poverty and violence? To return to this felicitous condition, it is paramount to destroy the inequality and injustice that have appeared in the meantime and especially their source: private property.
All the Enlightenment thinkers certainly did not share such an extreme point of view. Locke, for example, was even a fierce advocate of private property and did not see in it the fatal source of inequality. But, as we have said above, it is the most logical opinions that set movements in motion. And it is Rousseau, with his preaching of “general will”, to which one must sacrifice all one’s individual rights in order to build an absolutely happy society, who was the precursor of scientific socialism. In its relations with its constituents, the State takes control of all their goods.
Hence, the philosophers of the French Revolution were inspired by the most radical ideas of their encyclopaedist teachers, sometimes pushing them to absurdity. Helvétius, who had an enormous influence both on his contemporaries and in posterity, already believed that all individual differences are due to differences of education. According to him, talents and inclination were the effect of teaching, and genius is simply a game of chance. If Shakespeare, he tells us, had not been caught for poaching, he would have ended up as a wool merchant.
In any case, this idea is no more absurd than the representation of man as a blank slate. It is difficult to separate the development of talents from the formation of personality, and “genius” from other character traits. You must admit that the inculcation of the “characteristic traits of the builder of communism” in an entire people and for seventy years is no less absurd a pastime than attempting to elevate the national literature by organising search parties against poachers. Over the course of these seventy years, or the life of three generations, proclivities and the spirit of property have been combatted in all sorts of ways, lawful or otherwise, from prison and the execution block to the material motivation of the most disinterested individuals. And then what? According to the estimations of Soviet economists, the value of the black market has now reached ninety billion roubles, or 15 percent of the GDP, and the number of clandestine millionaires is certainly no fewer than several thousand. Nevertheless, there are plenty of people on this planet who suppose that private property is the source of all evil and its abolition, or at least the suppression of the inequality of its distribution, would ennoble humanity.
But enough about property! Name a single country where schoolteachers do not believe they are engaged in a good deed when they inculcate elementary truths about honesty and hard work to their students, or lawyers do not defend their clients by invoking their difficult childhood! As a general rule, neither one nor the other remember the doctrine from which these convictions emerged, just as socialists probably do not remember either. The prejudice remains incarnate in social structures, habits, sometimes in entire countries.
It is curious that science, which originally did so much to spread these prejudices, quite quickly came to opposite conclusions. Nowadays, physiology itself no longer defends the empirical nature of perception, and insists instead on mechanisms of centralised control of the process or, in simpler terms, on the fact that we perceive selectively what we want to perceive. Some observations on identical twins, separated at birth, have demonstrated a stunning resemblance in tastes, inclinations, talents and even minute character traits, decades later. Neither archaeologists nor historians have found any trace of the golden age in the most ancient civilisations known to us. There is no need to restrict ourselves to our era because Darwin’s theory of evolution, welcomed by socialists as the very latest triumph of reason, rigorously refutes the idea of the natural equality of men. Indeed, natural selection is impossible if differences between adults are entirely defined by education.
However, all this passed unnoticed, or at least did not impress those who just cannot wait to build the perfect human city. Even nowadays, when schoolchildren are asked to know the basics of genetics, a group of feminist scholars in Berkeley ran experiments with the objective of proving that differences in behaviour between men and women is the result of education. Over the course of several years, they kept a group of new-borns of both sexes in rigorously equal conditions, dressing them in the same clothes, making them play with the same toys, making them sing the same songs. You can easily guess the results: the little girls did not notice anything growing on their bodies, nor did the boys notice anything dropping, the former sought out dolls, while the latter sought out toy soldiers. What phenomenal force of attraction must the idea of natural equality possess for an American university to run such experiments at the end of the 20th century? In reality, it is an indestructible dream. Not long ago, in a jungle in the Philippines, a rogue explorer “discovered” a primitive tribe whose language had no words for weapons, enemy or war. The whole world immediately believed this fable. Even a journal as serious as National Geographic published a story about this find. The scam was revealed only later, after the ousting of Marcos, who the crook happened to be a friend of.
Should we be surprised that the dreamers of the 18th and 19th centuries were even less inclined to perceive reality? Genetics had not been invented yet, and scholars had yet to agree on the heredity of acquired character. Of course, there were already identical twins back then, who can be observed without any special apparatus, and who are far less difficult to study than social revolutions are to carry out. If Marx or Lenin had directed their energy towards twins instead, perhaps humanity would have escaped many a calamity. The task must have seemed too modest to them compared with the fabrication of scientific socialism.
Everything in its own time and to every era its own heroes. In our hyper pragmatist century, educated people pull a face at the very word of “concept”: do forgive the vagueness, my dear sirs! Let us have a good look at the facts. What is valued nowadays are mechanisms, models and functions. A century and a half ago, any self-respecting academic, like Kant or Hegel, aimed for nothing less than a global system designed to explain everything, rigorously, from the macrocosm to the microcosm, thanks to a single concept.
One must recognise that if, in lieu of God the Creator, we are dealing with a process of development, then it is only right to work out its laws with as much care as ancient metaphysics took to study the nature of deities. So be it! We will admit that there was never a Word of God, but surely there must be some little word at the origin of creation! If Newton discovered the laws of physics and Darwin the laws of the evolution of species, why would the evolution of human societies not have laws too?
The person who wishes to create perfect men must know exactly the conditions and the results that derive from them and elaborate the chain of conditions with the utmost precaution, for fear of consequences that would stun Doctor Frankenstein himself. This is how one can easily end up rounding up poachers who then become poets, who, as we know, Plato banishes from his ideal city. Let us talk about the likes of Fourier and their phalansteries or Owen and their cooperatives! What is needed is a scientific basis, exact knowledge of the social process valid for centuries and allowing one to calculate the tiniest particle of existence with as much rigour as for celestial mechanics. How should we move from the exploitation of work for profit to an inspired labour destined to bring happiness to society? Could we manage it by sticking to exhortations or by calling upon people’s conscience?
Let us not get into the detail of the debates between philosophers and socialists of the time, indeed we certainly do not have the intention of writing a detailed history of Marxism. Today, people do not properly understand the nature and the stakes of this debate. We do not properly understand this faith in the inevitability of progress, in the laws of history and the even stronger faith in the omnipotence of science. The quarrel between materialism and idealism, so important back then, has been completely emptied of its meaning, and to understand the reasons that drove Marx to “put Hegel back on his feet”, one would have to scratch away for many, many pages. In vulgar terms, if Hegel recognised the laws of dialectics only in the work of the mind, of thought, Marx and others extended the domain of dialectics to all of nature, to the entire “material” world, because, according to them, thought is only the reflection of processes common to all of nature.
It is pleasing to notice that a similar method was used by the Scholastics to demonstrate the existence of God. And, by the way, if thought is only a reflection of reality, where did this tenacious idea of God come from, that appeared among all men of all people throughout history?
Nowadays, such demonstrations obviously seem fantastical. The more we learn, the more we become sceptical, preferring to express hypotheses in terms of probability, and the figure of Sisyphus, since Camus, has significantly dampened our historical optimism. The thinkers of yesteryear still fought the Bible, and, in their desire to emancipate reason from the chains of religion, they failed to notice that they ended up submitting reason to the diktat of “objective laws of development”. And if, for Dostoevsky, “without God everything is permitted”, it is quite the contrary for Marx, for whom “freedom is the consciousness of necessity”. From this point of view, Marx’s “dialectic materialism” marked the clearest primacy of Action over Speech, which guaranteed it the approval of his contemporaries.
Translated from French by Arthur Beard.
The New Faust
Frankly speaking, I don't like Faust, nor any of his ugly breed. Externally, especially on a person of little experience, they can produce a strong impression, because they speak loudly, with conviction, even intelligently, although a little too loud, in a voice trembling with contained passion. Their monologues (for they are accustomed to speaking in monologues, even in the midst of a conversation) are usually devoted to high matters, to pan-historic and universally human problems, without condescending to dealing with earthly, mundane things, refusing, so to speak, of getting dirty in contact with practical things. On the other hand, on the global level which they operate on, they are unmatched in denouncing our weaknesses and our imperfections, nor in the art of discovering the surest solution to any issue. How not to be seduced by the brilliance of their mind, the breadth of their erudition and the nobility of their thought? They have an irresistible effect on young ladies and adolescents.
However, looking more closely, we begin to realize that their knowledge is rather superficial, their nobility — too global, their inclination to apply their theories to living, concrete people — too small, and their absent-mindedness of scientists, their lack of practicality, the simplicity — even the self-neglect — of their clothing, are less the result of disinterested thought or of hard work of the intellect and more a deficiency of their practical sense, a form of sterility, or terror in the face of real life. A kind of camouflage hiding the interior of a parasite. Their entourage, however, are convinced that they cannot let a man of this caliber go unnoticed.
What a brilliant man who gave us such a vivid picture of how the world should be reconstructed, but who is incapable of driving a nail or earning enough to buy a pair of shoes! It is we, of course, who will drive his nails and buy him shoes. Anyway, let's see, he can do anything, but he judges certain things below his dignity. He was born for great works, for global solutions. His task is to "set hearts ablaze with the fire of the Word" while we will carry out his grandiose designs, feed him and clothe him during his lifetime, and erect monuments for him after his death.
In short, I don't like Faust. I don't believe that a man unable to afford shoes can rebuild the world. I remember that during my school years, while studying Tolstoy, I was indescribably annoyed by Pierre Bezoukhov. Here was another one who was devoured by his noble feelings. He must have owned about five hundred thousand serfs, and he dreamed of liberating all mankind. He should have freed the serfs, given them a decent life and saw how this is done. But that was too difficult. Instead, preferred to tackle the task of reconstructing the world. If it's so hard to rebuild the lives of half a million men, why would it be easier to reform the whole world? If one is incapable of remaking oneself, why approach others with this task?
Let us take another hero of Russian literature: Tchatsky. Throughout the play, he does nothing but run around the salons in order to accuse everyone there in a stern tone. For sure — the inhabitants of these salons were unappetizing people, rather dirty people, to be frank. But then why lecture them? If this company is not to your liking, find another one. What profit is there in going to visit them every day to tell them that they are bad people? Well, no, he doesn't do anything else throughout the play. It is only at the end that he decides to move away.
It was the Tchatski and the Bezoukhov who subsequently descended on the Senate Square. Loud cries, loud noises, mutual encouragement to act. Enough words, they said. "Freedom! To the people!" Once in the Square, they stayed there all day long, waiting to be dispersed.
Isn't that admirable: on the one hand our Faust despises words, celebrates action, and on the other he is incapable of acting, but understands how to deliver sublime speeches. There is nothing surprising: deep inside they feel they are demiurges, creating by the force of their words the dry land and the depths of the water. The word is their action. Each of them believes in the power of his word as wizards of the Middle Ages believed in the power of his incantations. It is up to others to act: to those to whom they address their words. To put it plainly, each Faust is in search of his Devil.
It is evident that most of them are completely harmless to mankind, and that, without having done anything remarkable, they usually find themselves a peaceful and devoted companion prone to self-sacrifice (among the young girls formerly intoxicated by their words), a narrow circle of admirers; in short — a microcosm where they are masters of thought. The woman, of course, raises the children, lets herself be absorbed by the household, does her best to stretch a meager family budget (without the slightest protest, of course), and the friends-admirers make small donations of money in a hiding place, while Faust is busy composing a great work which this time will not fail to shake humanity and remake the world. It's a good bet that the work in question will never be completed, but all these little people seem to live only for a great goal, in contact with immortality and ready to sacrifice themselves to it. A pious silence reigns in the house, the children walk on tiptoe, while God the Father dozes over his manuscript. "Children, silence, daddy is working." And the mother's eyes shine with indestructible fidelity to the ideal.
The matter becomes rather different if our Faust gets hold of his Devil. This is something that can happen either during his lifetime, or posthumously, thanks to the great work that friends-admirers do not fail to publish as a subscription publication after his death. This vast work could have collected dust on he shelves of a library for dozens of years, but as soon as some young Devil grabs hold of it, we see such a merry-go-round round begin to rotate, such a mayhem being to unfold, that we begin to wish all the fires of hell upon all the Fausts.
There is no use pretending. Of the two, the Devil has much more sympathy from me. He is cynical and realistic (there is no harm in that), a hard worker, he doesn’t balk at doing any kind of messy work as long as it achieves its goal. And above all, he does not deny his faults, does not shirk his responsibilities and with the greatest patience endures the curses incumbent on him eternally. Besides, are his faults as great as we usually think they are? He is simply slandered by claims that he disfigures all the noble designs of Faust out of malice.
Take a closer look and you will see that he never or in any way dodges the assigned task and that he does not add anything of his own. On the contrary, one could perhaps accuse him of excessive dogmatism, of servile docility to the words of Faust. It is quite true that he pays little attention to Faust's words. It is also true that he pays little attention to the means, and he is not too scrupulous, but Faust himself is convinced that the expenses of the company are largely compensated by the majesty of the result. In any case, he never corrects the Devil, never tells him how to do things, but simply tells him what to do. And he does well: because the Devil is not God, he cannot work miracles, he is only conscientiously carrying out projects conceived elsewhere. It is not his fault that the world is so imperfect and the grandiose purpose fails to come true. You cannot enforce a nail without making a hole in the wall. Or omelet without breaking the eggs. Even the Devil is incapable of that.
Notice that the Devil constantly apologizes, does not deny his faults, although, I repeat, they are not so terrible. But what about Faust? He acts the opposite way. He seduces a very young girl, goes berserk with her brother, poisons her mother, yet he is not guilty! Everyone is guilty around him, except for him. First of all this poor Devil (but he, Faust, did not know who he was dealing with), then the rotten society (Faust doesn’t what kind of world he lives in), finally his very victim, the unfortunate woman who did not flee (though he slips away and leaves her alone to face the judgment).
Without speaking of the obscurantists of the Middle Ages, even the civil court of Moscow would have condemned this with all the severity of socialist legislation. But he, you see, he dreamed of a sublime life and therefore did not have to assume responsibility for the consequences. Maybe he could have stayed with the little girl, taken the blame? As if! He goes off with the Devil to continue his escapades elsewhere.
Frankly speaking, I am not so irritated by Faust as by our tradition which always justifies him and accuses the Devil of all evils. We are ready to give all the credit to narcissistic talkers, who are the bulwark of our love of freedom, akin terrorists who barricade themselves behind their hostages. It is time to recognize each idea for what it is, the harm it can cause, and use common sense while doing it. The inhabitants of “the quarter of the crows" whipped thinker Vassissouali Lokhankine without harming the rest of the world and its freedom to think. For his absent-mindedness and his egoism his “tender parts” received quite a few lashes and just as well. You have the right to be a daydreamer, but at your own expense, and you should turn off the light in the toilet you share with other tenants. Why should those around him have to pay the cost of his deep thoughts?
Why persecute the Devil? He is only a technician, an expert serving the political commissar Faust. On his own, he would never have started digging. His fault is infinitely less serious, as is that of the executioner acting on an erroneous verdict, if we compare it to the crime of the judge who pronounced the judgment. Would Stavrogin and Verkhovensky therefore be less guilty than Fedka the convict? And would those who invented the "final solution" be less responsible than Eichmann?
In this area, our traditions are thoughtless and excessively unjust. Why? Because they were invented by other Fausts — masters of thought and legislators of intellectual fashions. The devil? He is not a master writer and he is not inclined to produce monologues. Perhaps in his old age, at odds with the entire world, he will undertake to write his memoirs in proud solitude, with little chance of seeing them finished. While we are raising monuments to Faust while cursing the Devil!
The trouble is that, unlike in the Middle Ages when the Fausts were few and far between and, therefore, less destructive, Europe at the end of the 19th century saw their breed multiply to the point of aversion. They became a real social class over there, and in Russia they became a social catastrophe. The human herd is not very pleasant, but imagine a herd of Fausts, the least of which is God the Father, no less, the Truth residing in one person, and a well of knowledge. Should we be surprised by their extreme intolerance, or their hatred for each other, or their tireless struggle sometimes pushed to the extent of intellectual horror? One of them, a keen observer with a sharp tongue, described the mores of this fauna a hundred years ago:
My soul sat hungry at their table too long; I am not, like them, trained to pursue knowledge as if it were nut-cracking. I love freedom and the air over the fresh earth; rather would I sleep on ox hides than on their decorums and respectabilities.
I am too hot and scorched with mine own thought: often is it ready to take away my breath. Then have I to go into the open air, and away from all dusty rooms.
But they sit cool in the cool shade: they want in everything to be merely spectators, and they avoid sitting where the sun burneth on the steps.
Like those who stand in the street and gape at the passers-by: thus do they also wait, and gape at the thoughts which others have thought.
Should one lay hold of them, then do they raise a dust like flour-sacks, and involuntarily: but who would divine that their dust came from corn, and from the yellow delight of the summer fields?
When they give themselves out as wise, then do their petty sayings and truths chill me: in their wisdom there is often an odour as if it came from the swamp; and verily, I have even heard the frog croak in it!
Clever are they - they have dexterous fingers: what doth my simplicity pretend to beside their multiplicity! All threading and knitting and weaving do their fingers understand: thus do they make the hose of the spirit!
Good clockworks are they: only be careful to wind them up properly! Then do they indicate the hour without mistake, and make a modest noise thereby.
Like millstones do they work, and like pestles: throw only seed-corn unto them!- they know well how to grind corn small, and make white dust out of it.
They keep a sharp eye on one another, and do not trust each other the best. Ingenious in little artifices, they wait for those whose knowledge walketh on lame feet, - like spiders do they wait.
I saw them always prepare their poison with precaution; and always did they put glass gloves on their fingers in doing so.
They also know how to play with false dice; and so eagerly did I find them playing, that they perspired thereby.
This endless internal quarrel is in no way an obstacle to the cohesive defense of the interests of their "corporation", of its authority, or of the dominant idea of the moment or rather of intellectual fashion. More particularly — defense of the indestructible dream of all the Fausts of all times and all countries who intend to rebuild the world on "reasonable" bases. Disagreements are then put aside to form a united front against the enemies of reason and progress.
It was the same with our Russian swindlers, spiritual children of "useless men" (useless, apparently, not because there was a lack of work to do in the country, but because these men did not know how to do anything other than to pronounce exterminating monologues) which matched their European counterparts in pretension and resentment.
To their chagrin, our Tsarist obscurantists did not want to listen to them and rebuild society in the latest fashion. From despair they put on their traditional bark slippers and went "to the people" to preach there the idea of socialism which their masters thought was inherent in the Russian people. The people, however, received them as blatantly "useless" men, saw them as sated and capricious gentlemen, and handed them over to the police everywhere. Others, more humble, would have reflected on this failure and would have concluded that it was necessary to revise their ideas, since the government as the society had unanimously rejected them.
It would have taken an ounce of humility to do that. But now we had an "elite" which had proclaimed itself public opinion. And which had less ideas than reveries and dreams borrowed from Vera Pavlovna, all steeped in foreign schools of thought, the bitter fruit of pretentious knowledge, imported from hazy Germany by a mysterious verb, so they decided that progressive ideas were not to be questioned: it was necessary to attack the backwardness and the lack of culture of the people which needed to be “awakened”, and the obscurantism of the autocracy which had to be destroyed.
Revolution thus appeared as the only way out and became the idee fixe of our thinkers. From modern liberals who saw in it the "purifying storm" charged with atoning for their own original sin, to the terrorists who only considered it the first step to be taken in building an ideal society, all the educated flock dreamed of a revolution. Several generations were brought up on this nonsense and on a mystical faith in the people — not the people who handed the troublemakers over to the police, but in a certain people, other, "spontaneously socialist", which only asked to be "woken up".
The Tsars, however, carried out liberal reforms, developed industry, expanded railways. It was all bad, all in vain. They needed the revolution, otherwise they would remain "useless".
They ended up waking up the people, to their own peril. Everyone happened to be wrong except for them: the "people", to begin with, who refused to become sufficiently socialized, then the tsars, who were not reformist enough. National history was ungrateful, the country deplorable, too slow to evolve. Once again they accused each other of "deformations" or "deviations", without ever questioning their own idea of "reasonable reconstruction" of society or the social class which had given birth to it. They remained just thinkers, concerned with the happiness of this poor humanity.
I hear from a jovial growl: "It is Russian barbarism, Russian intolerance, the peculiarities of Russian history. We ,civilized Europeans, have had our own socialists, and our socialism is moderate.” No doubt: the Fausts will always be hiding behind the backs of the Devils.