Leszek Kolakowski, in his essay collection Is God Happy?, wrote several fascinating essays on Communism vs. other forms of Socialism, such as Fascism and generic Leftism. He notes that while Communism proper attracted lots of serious intellectuals and artists, who produced some works of real merit, generic “Leftism” had few, and Fascism almost none.
He also notes the degeneration of art on the Left. I don’t want / am not qualified to get deep into the weeds of art history, but let me use an example (mine, not Kolakowski’s): Pablo Picasso vs…. oh, pick an artist, they’re all Lefties… let’s say Andy Warhol. Noting that “important” can be diametrically opposed to things like “good,” “aesthetically pleasing,” etc., we can all agree that both were important artists. Whatever else their differences, the most obvious one was:
Picasso was a lifelong member of the Communist Party. He was also a sincere artist (which, again, can be miles away from “good;” I personally can’t stand Picasso’s art). Guernica is wildly overrated, and its sentiment jejune — we all agree that bombing civilians is bad, mmkay? — but at least it’s sincere. Warhol, on the other hand, never took a sincere breath in his life. Making your work superficial on purpose doesn’t absolve you from the sin of superficiality. Warhol (and Roy Lichtenstein, and the rest of the “Pop Art” crowd) gave wannabes permission to substitute “being ironic” for “having something to say,” and there’s your modern art in a nutshell. Calling a modern “artist” a poseur is like calling water wet — what could possibly be the point?
Which brings us back to Kolakowski. He notes that there are apostates aplenty from Communism, and they all seem compelled to write big long books full of critical self-examination. Cheering for the murder of millions would do that, one supposes… except that, as Kolakowski says, you can’t find one single ex-Leftist doing it. Hell, is there such a thing as an ex-Leftist, as opposed to an ex-Communist? Kolakowski couldn’t find one (as of 1995, I think), and I can’t think of one either. Every former radical I’m aware of was just that — a radical, a card-carrying Communist or at least a virulent fellow-traveler, e.g. David Horowitz. We probably all have heard of someone waking up one day (say, after 9/11) realizing that the Democratic Party they’d been knee-jerk voting for all their lives was out to lunch, but do you know of any True Believers seeing the light?
Or, to put it another way, what do you think would make this gal
come around? Anything? Is it possible? They say a conservative is just a liberal who’s been mugged, but as we’ve seen all too often — and as we’re currently seeing in Minneapolis and other places — there are plenty of liberals who keep getting mugged, over and over and over again, and remain liberals. How is that possible?
Kolakowski suggested an answer (though he didn’t follow up on it). In a glorious metaphor, he said that Communists were hawks, but Leftists were just irritated butterflies. Let’s give those murderous bastards their due: Commies got their hands dirty. Communists were under no illusions about the souls they were trying to save. Indeed, their fanatical willingness, even eagerness, to kill can be explained no other way — there are certain folks who are incorrigible; incorrigibles will always stand between us and Utopia; therefore, incorrigibiles must be eliminated.
That’s one hell of a realization to have about yourself: That you’re willing to kill for an idea. You might be ready to die for the Revolution, but are you willing to kill for it? Read the autobiographies of apostate Commies. They might not put it exactly that way, but that’s the crucial realization, every single time: If you’re willing to endorse Josef Stalin committing the “necessary murder,” then you ultimately must be willing to commit it yourself…. and if you’re not, then the whole intellectual edifice you’ve spent so much time and effort building must come crashing down. Such a person can’t keep lying to himself, because he’s surrounded by people who really are willing to commit the necessary murder…. or who already have.
Leftists, by contrast, were, are, and always shall be nothing more than irritated butterflies. They don’t have to leave their ivy-covered ivory towers, so they won’t. They don’t know anyone who has ever killed so much as a mouse. When it comes right down to it, they find this whole “Revolution” business to be just….so…. vulgar.
What’s life like in the Soviet Union? They neither know nor care, until the brute facts of life in the USSR are rubbed into their faces for so long that they have to acknowledge them. At which point they simply switch allegiances. Kolakowski’s essay doesn’t mention Paul Hollander’s Political Pilgrims, but they arrive at essentially the same conclusion — that instead of becoming disillusioned with Communism (Socialism, “social justice”) itself, the irritated butterflies of the Left grow disillusioned with a particular country or leader. The USSR has failed, yes, but — all together now! — “real Communism has never been tried,” so let’s put all our faith in Mao… and then Castro… and then Chavez, et cetera ad nauseam.
It’s all about maintaining the purity of the idea in the face of disappointing, vulgar, grubby reality. An honest-to-Marx Communist will come into plenty of contact with reality. A Leftist never will, because xzhey have convinced xzhemself that even the mugging they’re currently experiencing is a lofty and noble expression of authenticity. They’re willing to die for the Revolution, certainly — the urge for martyrdom has always been highly conspicuous on the Left. So long as they never feel that base, grubby, vulgar proletarian urge to defend themselves, they’ll be fine.
[Which, incidentally, explains why nationalist forms of Socialism never attracted big league artists and intellectuals. Nazism, especially, is a purely defensive ideology. I know, I know, you’ve been taught all your lives that “Nazism” is all but synonymous with “wars of conquest,” but it’s funny how strongly you’re discouraged from hearing anything Hitler et al actually said. Were you permitted to consult primary sources, you’d see that National Socialism is presented as the last, desperate hope for the preservation of the German race. And thanks to those aggressive wars, Hitler made it quite clear that there was no such thing as a cosplay Nazi — you can live a wonderfully coddled little upper-middle-class life in your gated community while sucking up to Stalin, but Hitler would make you get off the couch and fight].
“Never cheer for your own.” When you come right down to it, that’s the Leftist motto. Leftists don’t deride “sportsball,” for instance, because they’re un-athletic little dweebs who were always picked last at recess (well, ok, not only that). It’s because cheering for a team, any team, is vulgar. It’s what grubby little proles do. (That’s another way to distinguish a Communist from a Leftist, by the way. Actual Commies love sports; look at all the resources the USSR poured into the Olympics, for instance. That’s because sports are good training for war).
Is Leftism curable? Can they be made to cheer for their own? Experience suggests that the cure will be very harsh indeed… if indeed it’s possible at all.