May Day: The Conspiracy of Silence Around the Romance of Evil
“The Soviet system, according to Malcolm Cowley, the American writer, ‘was capable of supplying the moral qualities that writers missed in bourgeois society: comradeship in struggle, the self-imposed discipline, the ultimate purpose . . . the opportunity for heroism and human dignity.’ Leon Feuchtwanger, the German writer, rejoiced in the ‘invigorating atmosphere’ of the Soviet Union where he found ‘clarity and resolution.’ John Dewey compared the ethos prevailing in the Soviet Union to ‘the moving spirit and force of primitive Christianity,’ and Edmund Wilson confessed that ‘you feel in the Soviet Union that you are on the moral top of the world where the light never really goes out.’ J.D. Bernal, the British scientist, found ‘sense of purpose and achievement’ and was persuaded that ‘the cornerstone of the [Soviet] Marxist state was the utilization of human knowledge, science and technique, directly for human welfare.’”
–Paul Hollander, “Judgments and Misjudgments,” in Lee Edwards, The Collapse of Communism
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
–Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Romance is no excuse for evil.
The slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” stimulates our atavistic moral impulses much as the sight of a woman’s body stimulates a man’s primitive reproductive impulses. Both impulses can be perverted.
Marxism conflated the desire to help those in need with an intellectual system and political agenda based explicitly on violence and deceit. This redirection of primitive moral desire towards an evil end is just as much a perversion of human nature as is the redirecting of sexual desire towards a child. Romantic illusions, such as
“you feel in the Soviet Union that you are on the moral top of the world where the light never really goes out”
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul.”
are not an excuse for evil.
The lingering effects of this romance corrupt the intellectual world to this day. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I should not need to remind readers that communism explicitly celebrated the idea of violent revolution leading to a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and according to which most known forms of morality, including human rights and justice, were dismissed as merely “bourgeois morality.” Respect for human life was regarded as a bourgeois prejudice that could be overcome for the Marxist cause at any time, as Lenin stated explicitly in a speech published in Pravda in 1920:
“We say: morality is what serves to destroy the old exploiting society and to unite all the working people around the proletariat, which is building up a new, communist society.”
If killing human beings “served to destroy the old exploiting society” then killing human beings was regarded as moral. The subsequent actions of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and other Marxist leaders made it perfectly clear that the idealistic goal of building up a “new, communist society” led to the justification of mass murder. Ideas have consequences.
Marxist communism was based on an intellectual system that openly justified dishonesty, violence, and murder in countless public writings that were debated as respectable intellectual material in universities around the world throughout the 20th century. More than a hundred million people died as a result, and easily a billion more are unnecessarily poor today. Thousands of years of cultural capital – trust, work ethics, craftsmanship, traditions, civility, and morality itself – were cheerfully obliterated in an unbelievably stupid, sadistic, and ineffective system. We will never know the full human cost of Marxist communism.
Absurdly, when I bring up the crimes of communism to many people, they often respond with comments such as “we all have blood on our hands” or “capitalist wars have killed millions as well.” But while the theory of communism explicitly advocated violence and dishonesty, the theory of classical liberalism was explicitly based on voluntary consent and honesty. Advocates of classical liberalism in both the 19th century and 20th century have been among the leading opponents of imperialism and war precisely because they saw imperialism and war as betrayals of classical liberal principles. Violence is unambiguously a betrayal of classical liberal principles. Violence was unambiguously a legitimized element of Marxist theory and practice. It was not an accident.
The intellectual reputations and moral credibility of Martin Heidegger and Paul De Man are forever tainted by their support for the Nazis. They are still influential intellectuals, but their judgment is questioned, they cannot be taken as intellectually or morally authoritative insofar as their intellectual prowess failed to prevent them from making a horrible mistake in moral judgment.
Leading 20th century intellectuals advocated communism, were “fellow travelers,” or apologized for communist crimes, and yet more than twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall there has been no reckoning of this failure of moral judgment. While there were certainly people who innocently allied themselves with communism who were ignorant of the Marxist endorsement of violence and deceit, there were plenty of intellectuals who were fully aware of comments such as that of Lenin above. The conspiracy of silence around this particular romance of evil continues.
What can one do when one lives in a world in which the accomplices of evil are living peacefully all around us? What can one do when the iconography of Che and Mao remain fashion statements? How does one communicate the revulsion that we all ought to feel towards an ideology of violence that was beloved by many of the most respected thinkers of the 20th century?
A woman I once dated had an uncle who exposed himself to young girls in her family. In the social climate of the 1960s, everyone knew that he did it, but no one talked about it and no one stopped it. I had a great uncle, a drunk, who hit on all the nubile young girls at family gatherings, and only much later did I hear about it from various cousins who had been hit on by him. Many families had such an uncle, or cousin, or friend, or whatever, and the tradition was not to talk about it.
A sea change in moral perspective has occurred, thanks to feminism, in which we now realize that these issues must be addressed openly and directly, or else they will continue to take place and the perpetrators will continue to walk among us. The pope is currently under scrutiny for allegedly allowing pedophile priests to escape condemnation and prosecution. Roman Polanski was recently arrested for raping a thirteen-year old girl nearly thirty years ago. Teachers are liable for criminal prosecution for not reporting suspicions of child abuse. Our society has created a bright moral line around the issue of pedophilia; there is nothing funny, charming, or romantic about it.
And yet Nabokov’s Lolita creates a sympathetic narrative in which the reader experiences pedophilia as romance. The morally mature reader is expected to transcend the narrative created by Humbert, and realize what a moral monster he is. Yet no doubt countless less morally mature readers are drawn into the erotic fantasy of Humbert’s world without realizing the moral monstrosity they have thereby become.
The romance of communism stimulated the political fantasy life of intellectuals for more than a hundred years. A few morally mature intellectuals realized what a moral monster communism was, and yet countless less morally mature intellectuals were drawn into the political fantasy of communism without ever realizing what moral monsters they had become.
John Kenneth Galbraith was one of the most celebrated intellectuals of the 20th century. A PEN prize was recently named after him. And yet he celebrated Mao’s cultural revolution in his 1973 account of his trip to China (All Galbraith quotations below are from Theodore Dalrymple’s excellent article in City Journal).
Milton Friedman was one of the most hated intellectuals of the 20th century. There were protests when he won his Nobel Prize in the 1970s, and more recently when the University of Chicago proposed a Milton Friedman Center for Economic Research, more than a hundred faculty members protested the creation of such a center.
Friedman’s crime was that he provided economic advice to the military dictator Pinochet, whose regime is responsible for the deaths of several thousand people. As Friedman pointed out, he also advised the Chinese government, which even post-Mao was certainly responsible for more deaths than was the Pinochet regime. Mao was responsible for four orders of magnitude more death than was Pinochet:
- 4,000 * 10 = 40,000 * 10 = 400,000 * 10 = 4,000,000 * 10 = 40,000,000.
For those who are not math majors: Forty million is a LOT more than 4,000.
Friedman did not endorse the Pinochet regime or the Chinese communist regime. He was only interested in helping to alleviate poverty in both regimes, not in supporting the regimes themselves. He is analogous to a health care worker who is aware of an abusive situation that he cannot stop, but who continues to provide health care for the child despite awareness of the ongoing abuse.
Yes, Friedman sat down with Pinochet and with the post-Mao Chinese dictators, both of whom were murderers. But he did so in order to help the poor of both nations, and in both cases he succeeded in helping millions of people escape poverty by means of the more sensible economic policies that he proposed.
Galbraith, on the other hand, actually praised Mao’s policies. In the midst of the Cultural Revolution, after his visit to China, he managed to support the following claim by Sinologist John K. Fairbanks:
The big generalizations have all been agreed upon: There has been a tremendous betterment of the material life and morale of the common people.
Compare this with the description by Jung Chang, who actually lived through the Cultural Revolution:
“Relaxation” had become an obsolete concept: books, paintings, musical instruments, sports, cards, chess, teahouses, bars – all had disappeared. The parks were desolate, vandalized wastelands in which the flowers and the grass had been uprooted and the tame birds and goldfish killed. Films, plays, and concerts had all been banned . . . The atmosphere outside was terrifying, with all the violent street-corner denunciation meetings and all the sinister wall posters and slogans; people were walking around like zombies, with harsh or cowed expressions on their faces…
As an indication of the terror of the day, no one dared to burn or throw away any newspapers. Every front page carried Mao’s portrait, and every few lines Mao’s quotations. These papers had to be treasured and it would bring disaster if anyone saw you disposing of them. Keeping them was also a problem: mice might gnaw into Mao’s portrait, or the papers might simply rot – either of these would be interpreted as a crime against Mao…
A tremendous betterment in the morale of the people? Galbraith’s own descriptions of violence reveal a fond romanticism, “The workers were rather proud of having confined their fighting to the morning…Sadly some windows did get broken.” After the deception and sadism of Stalin’s Soviet Union, which was widely known by the 1950s, why did Galbraith and other intellectuals blindly fall in love with Mao’s China all over again in the 1960s and 70s?
Galbraith is the moral equivalent of a man who goes around telling everyone how much the girl enjoyed her “date” with Polanski (“a tremendous betterment of her morale!”), and who writes a book on how beneficially Polanski had used hot tubs, champagne, and Quaaludes to enjoy the company of young girls (“The girls rather enjoy the tussle . . . Sadly one may have to use a bit of force in the end”). From a Humbert Humbert perspective, such a book might be a good read, but some of us have the moral maturity to realize that anyone who praised Mao’s China is as much of a moral monster as Humbert was. Romance, even sincere romance, is no excuse. Humbert really did have romantic feelings for Lolita, just as Galbraith really believed his own romantic fantasy version of Maoist China.
There are cultures in which pedophilia is normal and accepted; there are tribes in New Guinea, for instance, in which young adolescent boys are taught that the more semen they swallow the stronger warriors they’ll become. There are cultures in which Marxist communism is normal and accepted; most of twentieth century academia.
When should we let bygones be bygones? The New York Times believes that the pope’s neglect of pedophiliac priests in the past is a story worth writing today. But one can’t imagine The New York Times doing an expose on academics (or reporters) who failed to report communist crimes, or who actively excused communist crimes, because there were too many, it was too normal – and The New York Times itself was too complicit in the crimes.
Marxist communism was more culturally accepted, and thereby more seductive, than pedophilia, while in sheer numbers far more human lives have been harmed. Yet its advocates live proudly among us to this day, and many of those advocates and apologists who have died continue to be honored as the leading intellectuals of the 20th century.
When will the culture of intellectuals, academia and the media, be morally mature enough to repudiate this evil, and end this conspiracy of silence?
Romance is no excuse for evil.