Leszek Kolakowski wrote a fascinating essay called “Communism as a Cultural Force,” which attempts to explain the appeal of Bolshevism* to so many good artists and thinkers. It’s worth reading for its intended purpose. But it’s also worth reading as a historical artifact — specifically, his comments on the artistic appeals of Communism and Fascism.
Kolakowski was born in 1927. For his parents’ generation, all the so-called “glories” of Western Civilization led inexorably to the Western Front. Lenin was right — Imperialism is the highest stage of Capitalism, and World War I was the inevitable result of Imperialism having no more worlds to conquer. Germany was the apex of both science and culture in the 19th century, and the sum total of all that was that ridiculous strutting fool Kaiser Wilhelm II, with his crippling insecurity and fantasies of Empire and truly awful taste:
Here’s George Orwell (born 1903) on the last decades of the pre-war world:
When [H.G.] Wells was young, the antithesis between science and reaction was not false. Society was ruled by narrow-minded, profoundly incurious people, predatory business men, dull squires, bishops, politicians who could quote Horace but had never heard of algebra. Science was faintly disreputable and religious belief obligatory. Traditionalism, stupidity, snobbishness, patriotism, superstition and love of war seemed to be all on the same side; there was need of someone who could state the opposite point of view. Back in the nineteen-hundreds it was a wonderful experience for a boy to discover H. G. Wells. There you were, in a world of pedants, clergymen and golfers, with your future employers exhorting you to ‘get on or get out,’ your parents systematically warping your sexual life, and your dull-witted schoolmasters sniggering over their Latin tags; and here was this wonderful man who could tell you about the inhabitants of the planets and the bottom of the sea, and who knew that the future was not going to be what respectable people imagined.
For these people — Kolakowski’s parents — history was just a catalog of errors made by fat, self-satisfied bankers who blithely sent other men’s sons off to die in their millions for King, Country, and the Old School Tie. Pedants, clergymen, and golfers kept sending battalions over the top to be wiped out to the last man, in exchange for a few feet of muddy trench that would be surrendered in the next counterattack. Is there any wonder artists of the 20s and 30s wanted to throw the whole thing away?
But there was another “throw it all away” movement afoot in the 20s and 30s: Fascism. Kolakowski doesn’t say so, because it would’ve been obvious to his generation: Fascism looked to the past, not the future. While Commies wanted to scrap the past entirely, Fascists wanted to live there. Lenin defined Bolshevism as “Soviet power plus electrification.” Goebbels didn’t say anything that pithy, but a decent working description of the Nazi ideal would be “feudalism plus autobahns.” Kolakowski says that Fascism was purely destructive of culture. That’s wrong. It’s purely destructive of modern culture. Picasso was the wave of the future at the turn of the 20th century. Picasso was a lifelong member of the Communist Party. The Nazis, of course, considered him a degenerate.
Communism looks like the future when you consider the past to be one long chronicle of evil (read Orwell’s description again. Doesn’t that sound like something you’d hear on a college campus even now?). This was understandable in the 20s and 30s. In those circumstances, Fascism’s weird techo-feudalism had limited appeal. Do pedants, clergymen, and golfers prefer this
Adolf Ziegler, The Four Elements (1937)
Picasso, Woman with Folded Arms, 1902
In Kolakowski’s day, the answer was obvious. But now? Ask yourself: Can Trigglypuff define the word “pedant”? Does she know any clergymen, or golfers? Would she even recognize a Picasso?
Under these conditions — here in The Current Year — the past doesn’t look like one long chronicle of self-satisfied stupidity. To most people out there, the past looks pretty damn good. And even the Trigglypuffs know it. That’s why their gripes always sound like foul-mouthed versions of that Orwell quote. Listen to the Bernouts and trustafarians on any college campus — take out the profanity and the weird Gender Studies jargon, and you could easily mistake them for Eugene V. Debs after a few drinks, ranting about Haymarket Square. To hear them tell it, American history goes: Pocahontas; the Democrats winning the Civil War; the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior; Barack Obama. They can’t name a single American writer or artist (the ones over thirty might be able to say “Maya Angelou”). They can’t even make jokes about vacuous tv shows like Leave it to Beaver, because they’ve never heard of it, let alone seen it….
…. but the rest of us have. We can’t believe in the glorious socialist future they keep promising us, because we’ve seen it fail everywhere it’s been tried, with an enormous body count, for a hundred years. But we can believe in the past, because it’s right there on YouTube. Leave it to Beaver? Oh please God yes — any day of the week, and twice on Sundays. The first Sports Illustrated swimsuit model was Babette March, in 1964:
This year, Sports Illustrated put Bruce “Caitlyn” Jenner on a cover:
It seems to me that those pedants, clergymen, and golfers were on to something. Yes, Fascism absolutely is destructive of culture — modern culture. In the 1930s, you could look back on the culture of 50 years ago and say yes, this world of pedants, clergymen, and golfers was just a cover for Imperialism, and led inexorably to the trenches. In the 2010s, though, we turn the clock back 50 years and see….
The Andy Griffith Show: Ron Howard, Frances Bavier and Andy Griffith (from left)
© Paramount Pictures, All Rights Reserved.
Which would you prefer, the possibility of that oh-so-stifling world of pedants, clergymen, and golfers, or the certainty of rule by these people:
It’s the culture, stupid. It has always been the culture.
*It doesn’t matter for our purposes here, but it’s worth noting that, strictly speaking, it’s Bolshevism we’re discussing. Kolakowski points out that Communism, the social and political doctrine, was a fringe preoccupation until World War I, and even then only came to prominence through the victory of Lenin’s faction in the infighting of the Russian Revolution.