As part of my “literary leftists” series, I’ve been doing research for a possible future post on Richard Wright, the black novelist and poet (and member of the Communist Party from the late 1920s through part of the 1940s), whose work I became familiar with as a young teenager by reading his short story “Bright and Morning Star,” which had a powerful effect on me at the time.
One of these days I may write about Wright. But not today.
As so often happens, way leads on to way, and Googling “Richard Wright” led me to another discovery. Apparently, Wright wrote at some length about his membership in the Communist Party: what led up to it, and why he eventually repudiated it. The essay became part of a larger work, The God That Failed, that offers six such stories.
It became clear to me that this was still another book that had to go on my “change” reading list. The library obliged by finding a worn and tattered copy through Interlibrary Loan. It wasn’t easy; the book doesn’t seem to be standard issue in most libraries, and the one I finally obtained had, curiously enough, a stamp in front claiming it was originally the property of a no-longer-with-us air force base. Plus, the fact that I had somehow transformed the title of the book into “The Light That Failed”–which turns out to be a novel by Rudyard Kipling–didn’t help the library much in its search. But I digress.
I haven’t read the entire book yet–just a few passages, actually. I initially opened it at random, and it fell open to a piece by Arthur Koestler (Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers is another old favorite of mine).
The background to the following (the very first passage I read) is this: Koestler, of Hungarian/Austrian/Jewish descent, was living as a young man in Berlin in the fading days of the Weimer Republic. He joined the Communist Party there, having been “converted” by his idealist readings of Marx and Engels. Here is how he describes the Communist Party’s rigid position during an election in which Hindenburg was running against Hitler (and see this previous post of mine if you’re interested in a rundown of how Hitler actually ended up becoming Chancellor):
We [the Communist Party in Germany] had refused to nominate a joint candidate with the Socialists for the Presidency, and when the Socialists backed Hindenburg as the lesser evil against Hitler, we nominated Thalmann though he had no chance of winning whatsoever–except, maybe, to split off enough proletarian votes to bring Hitler immediately into power. Our instructor gave us a lecture proving that there was no such thing as a “lesser evil,” that it was a philosophical, strategical, and tactical fallacy; a Trotskyite, diversionist, liquidatorial and counter-revolutionary conception. Henceforth we had only pity and spite for those who as much as mentioned the ominous term; and, moreover, we were convinced that we had always been convinced that it was an invention of the devil. How could anyone fail to see that to have both legs amputated was better than trying to save one, and that the correct revolutionary position was to kick the crippled Republic’s crutches away? Faith is a wondrous thing; it is not only capable of moving mountains but also of making you believe that a herring is a race horse.
This ideological purity and unwillingness to compromise was only a small part of the evils of Communism, of course. But it’s an interesting description of how a rigid refusal to accept the “lesser of two evils” reality that sometimes is necessary in life is emblematic of many movements in many times–particularly, as I’ve written about before, pacifism. And the consequences can often be dire.
Koestler’s disillusionment with Communism and final protracted leavetaking from it may be a story I’ll tell another time. And Koestler himself is a figure of great controversy on a host of topics, including his interest in mysticism and psychic phenomena; as well as his attitude towards his own Jewish origins, and a book he wrote which ended up being used by anti-Semites to disown Zionism, although that was not his intent in writing it.
Koestler’s later personal odyssey aside, there do seem to be some commonalties in these stories of leaving the fold. So far I’ve noticed an upbringing that predisposes to looking for idealistic and Utopian answers–sometimes a result of terrible hardship, sometimes a result of bookish naivete and relative privilege–and a swallowing whole of an ideology that is considered the answer to all problems (that’s why the title of the book is “The God That Failed). Then there is some later life experience so striking and so terrible that it causes profound and lasting disillusionment.
When I look at myself and my own “change” experience, I consider that one big difference for me is that I have never swallowed any ideology whole. As a liberal, I had doubts, caveats, and hesitations; as a neo-neocon, the same. Sometimes trolls and critics here accuse me of naivete in believing there are simple answers that will inevitably fix everything. But I do not believe so at all. Rather, I believe all answers are complex and risky, but that can’t keep us from our duty to try to choose what seems to be the best among them–even if sometimes that “best” is only the lesser of two evils.