IN THE FRENCH PRESS
"To Choose Freedom" Review by Alain Malraux
in Le Journal du Parlement, 1981.
Vladimir Bukovsky shares with us his impressions of the West, where he has been living for just over four years. In 1976 the Soviet government exchanged him for Luis Corvalan, the leader of the Chilean Communist Party. At the time he was 34 years old, and 12 years of his life had been spent between labor camps and psychiatric hospitals: more than four thousand days… A superb testimony titled To Build a Castle came out as a result of these many thousands of days. Now living in Cambridge, Great Britain, where he currently studies, Bukovsky had been approached by an editor who sought his insights into life on this side of the Berlin Wall. Hesitant because of the scale of the task, as he also knew all too well that he had unpleasant things to say about our ways and pompous attitudes. But here he is, nonetheless, after having been relentlessly pressured to write this book: it is now done. The result is a remarkable work in all respects, although almost every page puts us to shame… Surely, Solzhenitsyn didn’t wait for his junior to admonish Westerners, and Americans in particular, during a famous Congress speech. This book here, of modest size, has other merits: its verve, its devastating humour, its lack of solemnity. Or rather, the quality that sums them all: the extraordinary youthfulness that motivates Bukovsky’s comments that are as delicate as they are clear-sighted. This youthful approach is perhaps what other major books on demystification of communism lacked, to name but three: Darkness at Noon, The Opium of the Intellectuals, and The GULAG Archipelago. Each in their own way, Koestler, Raymond Aron and Solzhenitsyn wrote books in a state of full-blown maturity and addressed their readers at their own level of moral and intellectual reflection. The same can be said of Bukovsky, as long as it is added that he blends a streak of mischief into his impressions, and that makes this book marvellous.
It is this playful approach that makes To Choose Freedom accessible to a very large audience, despite the enormity of what he finds among us. He draws from his Russian origin this marvelous knack for portrayal. Like that of these British Labour Party workers who yawn while he speaks and “who have never carried anything heavier than a toast in their hands”
This funny and libertarian disrespect is continuously found here. For example, “In order to deal with the Soviets, the West would be better off appointing… an old Chicago sheriff who is completely familiar with the mentality of that environment, instead of professional diplomats”. How can one explain this in about fifteen minutes to the American president? Another discovery: “The incredible western bureaucracy and the population’s immense docility to it”. But “where to find, in this cynical century, men who can afford the luxury of having principles and to actually follow them?” French officials don’t have the elementary courage to receive Bukovsky, in order not to jeopardise the policy of détente… As for the editors (Anglo-Saxon, as well as others), Bukovsky notes their contradictions, their weak-willed spirit and their way of complicating things and slowing them down as soon as they get a chance… All of this is as terrible as it is laughable. Besides, as he himself puts it, “In order to appreciate the rule of law, one has to have gone without it for a very long time”. He continues: “In practice, totalitarianism accepts compromises, but only those that are beneficial to it”. Hence, this permanent illusion of détente, this farcical myth which European and American diplomats revel in. If only the disrespect for the Helsinki Accords could be ceased for one day only… But how does one resist?
By changing mental habits. By ceasing to view socialism as it should be, and seeing it for what it is. By only counting on ourselves and not on the assistance of others if we want to get out of the crisis. The least we can say, when finishing reading this little book, as singularly corrosive and devastating as Bernanos’ famous La liberté, pour quoi faire? , is that we are not taking the path of socialism.
We must read To Choose Freedom carefully while there is still time.
Interview with Vladimir Bukovsky by Benoit Rayski,
France-Soir daily newspaper, June 26, 1981.
RAYSKI: I have read your book carefully and, in my eyes, the thought that emerges could be roughly summarised as follows: western countries are countries that are becoming – I am using your word – socialised, countries that are moving towards a communist system, albeit in a slower pace than the Soviet Union. Coming from you, is that supposed to be a joke?
BUKOVSKY: This is not a joke. Of course, I tried to be a little provocative. But, more than anything else, I tried to reflect on how a regular Soviet person regards the West. For this reason, what I say in this book is not a sociological or a scientific analysis: these are impressions, my actual impressions.
RAYSKI: In that case, let’s talk in more detail about your impressions. When I read this book, my understanding was that we can no longer distinguish between the Swedish or the British socialism and Soviet socialism, because you explain that one sort of socialism leads necessarily to the other. Yet, the reality that is lived in Sweden or in Great Britain is light years away from the Soviet Union. How do you reconcile these two things?
BUKOVSKY: I talk about a process. Besides, I do not say that the outcome Great Britain or France are moving towards will be exactly the same as the one in the Soviet Union. But I know that the same disease can develop in a different way. Some diseases evolve more lightly, others in a more serious way, but the fact remains that it is still a disease.
RAYSKI: Anyway, you are well aware that as far as history is concerned, whether it is Soviet history or history of other countries, the first opponents as well as the first victims of communism were, precisely, socialists. How can you say that a certain form of liberal socialism is a stepping stone for communism?
BUKOVSKY: It is history, actually, that proves my point best. Socialists have always thought that they were the toughest enemies, the most capable of standing against communism. At first, indeed, we may get that impression from looking at France, for instance, where socialists are victorious and communists are defeated*. But there’s a detail we need to keep in mind. Communists can only flourish, develop and expand in a socialist climate.
RAYSKI: I have to stop you here: communists, in France, grew up and thrived until today in a climate which wasn’t exactly socialist, and which was, precisely, anti-socialist, for a quarter of a century…
BUKOVSKY: You have misunderstood. When I speak about climate, I am actually referring to a mental and psychological climate, not to the appearance of the political power. A climate that allows some principles to be accepted, such as the idea that we need material equality, the idea that we must emphasise the importance of life’s material aspect. Another favourite idea of communists is class struggle within society. However, as soon as you adopt those principles, everything moves in the direction of Marxism. Socialists may well consider themselves as the most important force against Marxism, but they are, in fact, its first victims.
If I may make a comparison, I would say that socialists actually provide the food that feeds communists. Communism is like a parasite that develops on the socialist body. In this regard, one day I had a rather amusing conversation with Pierre Mauroy, who is now your Prime Minister. We were in Lille, where he was the mayor. He welcomed us warmly and, of course, we started talking about socialists and communists. And he said: “You know, us socialists, we have a tremendous experience and we know how to deal with communists.” And I replied to him: “Yes, I know that it’s a great experience, and that’s why I am not surprised to see that socialists continue to be massacred everywhere by communists!”
RAYSKI: What was Pierre Mauroy’s response?
BUKOVSKY: Oh! Everyone around us started laughing… But let’s talk about more serious things, and look at what is happening in Great Britain. In this country there was a great Labour party with a social democratic tradition. But, inside this party, a tiny little left-wing extremist group established itself. Throughout the past fifteen years, this group started getting hold of the entire party. Well, at the present time, all the social democrats, the wisest ones, the old ministers, etc., all those who founded the party, have already been removed…
RAYSKI: Let’s continue with this issue, but let’s leave England. If we look at the evolution of the relationship between western countries and the Soviet Union, we realise that, in reality, the best allies of the USSR were capitalist regimes or systems, which we consider “bourgeois”, and which saw the Soviet Union as another power with which they could do business and sell machines. And yet, these people I am referring to, are men who pretend to be fiercely anti-communists and fiercely anti-socialists!
BUKOVSKY: It is true that whichever State, whichever western structure, from the moment it is democratic, it becomes a very easy prey for the Soviet system. And not only for the Soviet system, but for the Hitlerian one too. The problem you are now talking about is, in reality, slightly different from the issue of the relations between socialists and communists. I would say that the question of the relations between the capitalist West and the Soviet Union is that of a relation between a raptor and its prey, while, the relation between communists and socialists is, in biological terms, that of a parasite and the parasitized organism.
RAYSKI: I am looking for some sort of logic in your line of thought. If democracies aren’t capable of resisting a totalitarian grip, be it Nazi or Communist, if liberal socialism is a field which allows communism to flourish, what should we then oppose to Soviet communism? Fascist dictatorships?
BUKOVSKY: No, that’s absolutely not the solution. In reality, the policy of fascist dictatorships is almost the same thing as Soviet totalitarianism. Both systems are very close and, in this day and age, they are practically indistinguishable. If you want an answer, I could give you a general definition, but nothing more: one should resist communism with personal responsibility of each human being.
RAYSKI: This means you are not a strong supporter of the struggle against communism through the repressive means of authoritarian anti-communist systems (like Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal, Pinochet in Chile, the Greek Colonels in Athens), since they are regimes which, actually, use methods that look like Soviet methods?
BUKOVSKY: I have written an entire chapter on this matter in my book, to show that authoritarian or totalitarian means of defense against communism clearly accelerate the process of communist victory. If we really have to choose between this authoritarian solution and that of liberal socialism, we might as well opt for liberal socialism, because, at that point, the road is longer and slower…
RAYSKI: In your book there is a sentence that caught my attention and which requires explanation. So, you refer to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing as “Brejnev’s best friend”. Can you clarify what you mean by that?
BUKOVSKY: I would have never thought that one day I would have to explain this to a Frenchman. It seems to me that the French know this better than anyone else.
RAYSKI: If I ask you that, it’s probably because a number of French people do not agree with your analysis…
BUKOVSKY: Let’s simply recount the facts: who gave a fraternal hand to Brejnev during the invasion of Afghanistan?
RAYSKI: You are talking about the meeting in Warsaw?
BUKOVSKY: Not only that. Before the meeting in Warsaw, there has been an entire series of French diplomatic manoeuvres. We know them well because each time we have tried to do something against USSR, we came up against a very active French counteraction.
RAYSKI: I am going to pose my question differently. How can you explain that type of attitude, which might appear odd, coming from a democratic, liberal and anti-communist country? How can you explain that type of behaviour vis-à-vis USSR?
BUKOVSKY: About Giscard, I would tell you that he was so crafty that he himself ended up making a mistake. He may have thought that, by finding an agreement with the Soviets, he could calm his own communists down… But, for us, what matters, is the result. And it has always been the same: whether it was in Belgrade or in Madrid, during the conferences on European security, the resistance we have met came from Giscard’s France.
RAYSKI: Let’s talk about the other France… From what you know about French socialist leaders, don’t you have the impression that they share some sort of traditional attachment to human rights, hence making them tougher and stricter towards the lack of freedom in the Soviet Union?
BUKOVSKY: I think there is an attempt of such nature. Well, I hope so… I hope that, in relation to the USSR, because of his attitude towards the issue with Afghanistan, and because of USSR’s problem with human rights, Mitterrand will be stronger than Giscard. That’s why I am giving you my response to these French elections, which, of course, aren’t my concern: for us, obviously, it’s good. But… poor French people!
RAYSKI: Regarding these “poor French people”, don’t you think it would be good to mobilise them a bit more to participate in the struggle for human rights and freedom?
BUKOVSKY: Yes, but we already had a disappointing experience with President Carter. I believe I am correct when I say that the first reactions of a socialist government can be favourable to us: but given the fact that the PS is made up of different groups, different fractions, which are more or less left wing and more or less pro-Soviet, there will be, in the next phase, an enormous pressure for it to pay exclusive attention to the human rights problems in South Africa and Latin America. And the following step will consist of forgetting, completely, about the Soviet Union. That’s exactly what happened with Carter…
Let’s return, if you will, to the case of François Mitterrand. We are wondering about his plan in relation to the Soviet Union. But he took the time already to express his sympathy towards Cuba through a message. And when he did it, he did not talk about Castro’s political prisoners, who have been detained over there for fifteen or twenty years. Another significant fact. At the time of the Pantheon ceremony, he gathered a great number of intellectuals around him; most of them were representatives of Latin American countries. Yet, there was a Czech on the guest list who was supposed to come. It was Milan Kundera (famous dissident writer). Well, at the last moment, they refused to invite him…
RAYSKI: Was he really on the list?
BUKOVSKY: Yes, I saw it. It must have been Régis Debray or Jack Lang who erased his name at the very end…
RAYSKI: Are you not worried that we might put the reactionary or far-right label on you?
BUKOVSKY: No label… I accept no label…
RAYSKI: The title of your book (“To Choose Freedom”) suggests that you are concerned about a central issue: freedom. But your vision of freedom is not the same as everyone’s. In fact, you seem to be horrified – it is in your book – when workers occupy their factories because of a pay rise demand or unemployment concerns. You ask what would happen if a cleaning lady occupied your apartment because you have decided that you could do without her services! Therefore, I am asking you, what is, according to you, the freedom of a worker, the freedom of a cleaning lady?
BUKOVSKY: What I am trying to say, above all, is that I am not horrified about the case I mention: I am amused and surprised by it. When I see, for instance, these protests with all the workers holding signs through which they demand instant money, it doesn’t bother me, it doesn’t shock me, it amuses me. I myself grew up thinking that money should not be asked for, but earned. And I got used to it.
RAYSKI: Those workers, their money, they earn it, however…
BUKOVSKY: Yes, they earn it. But if they want to earn more and more of it, well! let them earn it…
RAYSKI: You come from a country where freedom doesn’t exist, but I’m sure you can imagine that taking to the streets and saying “I like this, I don’t like that, I want this, I don’t want that” represents to some people a fantastic psychological and moral satisfaction. Even though it may look naive to you…
BUKOVSKY: Maybe, but we cannot level the people. There will always be people who are different, and there lies the problem. The idea of socialism automatically degenerates into an idea of uniformity and not of equality.
RAYSKI: Let’s conclude: you believe, therefore, that the existing democracies, with their economic and political systems, are doomed, in the long run.
BUKOVSKY: I wouldn’t say that they are doomed, because the battle continues and it is a question that is being taken care of at the present time. I would say that they have chances to survive in medical terms, but for those chances to materialise, we really need to defend ourselves!
Bukovsky On Television.
Ecrits de Paris magazine, July 1981.
We were not expecting that, and I don’t know whether Bernard Pivot meant any harm. The best spokesperson for the opponents of socialism, throughout this electoral campaign, was not Chirac, Lecanuet, or any other adventure seeker, but, in all likelihood, the dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who found refuge in the West in 1978.
Invited to the show “Apostrophes” (last January the 5th) on the occasion of the publication of his last book ("To Choose Freedom"), he was flanked by Louis Pauwels and came face to face with the repented Stalinists Simone Signoret and Edgard Morin. His opponents were quite dull: the ex-Stalinists had nothing to say, and Pauwels, who isn’t a man of debate, had an unfortunate tendency to cite his own articles to get away with it; he barely managed to get a word out, and that merely was to recall Mrs Signoret to a sense of decency, and to say that “naivety” of the Cold War years “was, in fact, submissiveness”.
Only Bukovsky held the audience’s attention. Not only by evoking his terrible experience of the Soviet regime, which allows him still today to “stand out amongst the crowd, with its defensive look and on his guard, a face from over there”. But also by fully stepping into French political news:
“When I see these young happy people who believe that socialism is going to give them a job… in a year they will be cruelly disappointed…”
Vladimir Bukovsky lives in England and is surprised by the little amount of curiosity the French have about that country where socialism has been established by the Labour Party and the trade unions:
“It is only 40 km away from France… there, I am having fun watching union leaders shout through their microphones to the workers: – What do you want? – Money! – When? – Now!... The French should go and see the results: a decaying country, a country that is being demolished. And it is irreversible: all the efforts the British government has tried to put on won’t do any good.”
Simone Signoret and Edgard Morin tried, in vain, to block his subversive comments. We thought that Edgard Morin would gently distance himself from his past errors, that he would have made some progress since his Stalinist period and since the time he commented on the events of May 1968 in Le Monde with his endless and muddled analyses. He proved otherwise. The unique response the Doctor of Humanities gave to Bukovsky was that socialism wasn’t what he expected, but… “aspirations…”, “aspirations…”.
Bukovsky is “laughing his head off” (that’s his expression, and, actually, his attitude) when he hears that. Let’s laugh about it too.