We all like to imagine ourselves as heroes. We watch movies, and we instinctively put ourselves in the place of the hero, not in the place of the villain. We read the histories of twentieth-century tyrannies, and we assume we would be the resistance fighter, not the collaborator, informer, or toady to the new archons. Maybe we would be heroes. But probably not, if history is any guide. Czeslaw Milosz’s 1951 The Captive Mind explores, through the author’s personal experience, what motivates seemingly morally strong, thoughtful men to instead cooperate with, and often embrace, evil. Sadly, this question is as relevant today as seventy years ago, which makes this book very much worth reading for its insights into the future, as well as into the past.
We in America have long thought highly of ourselves. This feeling crested during the early Cold War, when most Americans believed that our “system,” our way of life, was superior to any other—especially Communism, but more broadly any based on any other values. Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize winner, was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974 because he was too famous to be killed. We initially praised him; he vigorously attacked Communism, and we assumed that meant he endorsed our American system. But he disabused us of that assumption in this famous speech, given as the Harvard commencement speaker in 1978. The reaction of the American elite was frothing fury, and Solzhenitsyn was cast out from polite society. Examining his speech now, forty years later, we can see what Solzhenitsyn got right, and what he got wrong.
I am fond of pointing out that the safety and security we think we enjoy is, historically speaking, anomalous and ephemeral. This memoir, by the late Kristina von Rosenvinge, brings this truth to life. It is not a maudlin tale of woe. Instead, it is optimistic and grateful, even though the events it narrates, of her young life during World War II and immediately after, must objectively have been extremely trying. And since I am always looking for additional messages in books, aside from simple human interest, I found her story has much to tell us both about history, and about the future.
Few Americans know much about Francisco Franco, leader of the winning side in the Spanish Civil War and subsequently dictator of Spain. Yet from 1936 until 1975, he was a famous world figure. Now he is forgotten—but not by all. Franco is, and has been for decades, a cause célèbre among the global Left, seen as the devil incarnate for his successful war against Communist domination of Spain. To successfully delay, or worse, block, any Left attempt to establish their permanent rule, thereby revealing that history lacks a progressive direction, is the unforgivable sin. Naturally, therefore, my own impression of Franco was generally favorable. But after reading up on him, my impression of him has changed. Now it is positively glowing.
Eric Hoffer was, Dwight Eisenhower said in 1952, his favorite philosopher. This endorsement made Hoffer, a self-educated San Francisco stevedore, famous. The True Believer is the book that Eisenhower gave all his friends. Read today, however, this book is mediocre, at best. It is the type of book that congratulates the reader while pretending to challenge him; it is a mirror that reflects to the reader what he wants to hear—especially for self-proclaimed “moderates” of flexible principle like Eisenhower. The True Believer is the Cream of Wheat of political books—you can taste anything you want in it, and if you add the right toppings yourself, you can be sure that you will be pleased.
I continue to be fascinated by the Bolshevik Revolution, because in its success there are many lessons. Unbiased history and biography of the Bolsheviks is a relatively recent phenomenon; prior to 1991, a combination of lack of primary materials and philo-Communism among Western historians meant very few objective books were published. Since 1991, though, the balance has shifted, even if plenty of Communist-loving propaganda is still published by major historians, because the global Left has always, and continues to, fully support the goals and methods of Communism. They mostly just keep it a bit more quiet in public than they used to.
Ernst Jünger was one of the more fascinating men of the twentieth century. Remembered in the English-speaking world primarily for his World War I memoir, The Storm of Steel, he was famous in Europe for a range of right-leaning thought spanning nearly eighty years (he lived from 1896 to 1998). His output was prodigious, more than fifty books along with voluminous correspondence, and not meant or useful as a seamless ideology, although certain themes apparently recur. This book, The Forest Passage, was published in 1951, and is a compelling examination of how life should be conducted under modern ideological tyranny. Jünger’s answer is jarring, both in its originality, and in its flat rejection of any relevancy of those modern (though failing) totems, liberal democracy and egalitarianism. Jünger was no Nazi; he contemptuously rejected their efforts to profit off his reputation, and was tangentially involved in the Stauffenberg plot. But he had just as little use for modern democracy or liberalism; much of his thought seems to have revolved around a type of social and political …
I am currently very focused on the ascent to power of Communism in Russia, not because it had anything to recommend it, but for the lessons it can teach us. Some of those lessons are ones the author of this book, Sean McMeekin, wants to impart—the dangers of left-wing ideology, primarily. Those are valuable lessons, certainly, but if we haven’t learned them after many decades of left-wing horror shows, we’re not going to learn them from this book. The lessons I am seeking, therefore, are more dynamic: how power can be grasped and used in fluid, chaotic situations, and by what kind of people. And those lessons are also on full display in this book, even if I did not learn any new ones.
This is a book that rewards patience. The problem is, I am not a patient man, nor do I think that the reward here would be commensurate with the effort. Thus, I spent enough time, which was quite a bit, to grasp maybe half of this book. I think the rest escaped me. That’s partially my fault—but it’s also the author’s fault, since an elliptical writing style combined with frequent use of untranslated French phrases (even the educated don’t generally learn French anymore), along with scatterings of Greek, does not conduce to good communication. And aside from foreign languages, Arendt’s thought sometimes is so obscure as to be ethereal, an odd trait in a book that (in this edition) features a clenched fist on the cover, which is really not truth in advertising.
This book was once famous, but was mostly forgotten when Communism died and so-called liberal democracy seemed ascendant. It is increasingly famous again, and relevant, in these days of a new creeping totalitarianism, this time in the West itself. Such timelessness is the signature of a classic work, so my goal today is to explicate Václav Havel’s thought, and to show why its time has come round again.