Normblog pointed out a review by David Aaronovitch in the New Statesman the other day (read the NS item promptly because it will go subscription soon). It’s about a familiar but permanently mysterious fact of recent history: the willingness of the Stalinist and Leninist left to ignore or explain away or deny or justify mass murder. Thus it’s also about one of the starkest examples on record of the phenomenon B&W was set up to document and examine: the way ideology can distort the ability to think properly. B&W is primarily about the way ideology can warp judgments of the truth about the world, but moral judgments play a part in that process too. The denial of Stalin’s crimes was a moral denial as well as a factual one. In fact it was the usual sort of cover-all-bases defense of the desperate. I wasn’t even in the room, I didn’t break it, it was already cracked, everybody hated it anyway. There were no mass murders in the Soviet Union and they were a damn good thing.
How did it happen? Aaronovitch asks.
…for 20 years, this question has come to bother me more and more. Why did so many on the British left do it? Was it the case that they somehow didn’t know that the trials were rigged, the executed comrades were innocent, that the whole thing was a vast, foul set-up, until Nikita Khrushchev gave them permission to know in 1956?…And what now should we make of their credulity? Could such wilful blindness be repeated?
Any time, one can’t help thinking. Nothing easier. In fact one sees a fair amount of wilful blindness around even now.
What is revealed brilliantly through Beckett’s compassionate and well-researched account is this strange state of simultaneously knowing and not knowing. The communists looked at the beast, saw its claws and fangs, and loved it still, as people are required to love their own youth. They excused, explained, justified, denied, ignored, defended and forgot what everyone else knew.
Norm has a second post yesterday with a very good quotation on the subject from Maxime Rodinson, which I will just quote in my turn.
[T]he deeper reason for the delay in registering disillusionment is simply the visceral need not to renounce a commitment that has illuminated one’s life, given it meaning, and for which many sacrifices have often been made. Hence the reluctance to recognise the most obvious facts, the desperate paralogical guile to which one resorts in an effort to avoid the required conclusion…
Just so. Just so. We’ve talked about these things before, I think – quite often. How double-edged things like commitments and meaning can be – how destructive as well as beneficent they can be. How they can motivate courage, self-sacrifice, dedication, hard work, generosity; but they can also motivate fanaticism, cruelty, ruthlessness, lying, vindictiveness, hatred. Exactly the same ambivalence came up in that discussion of religion a few months ago, when Chris at Crooked Timber said the reason he couldn’t agree with my hostility to religion had to do with religion’s power to motivate. I saw his point, and agreed (and still do), but also pointed out, as did Norm, that it cuts both ways. I think it’s an unresolvable issue, really. I do think commitments are a good thing (though some commitments are vastly better than others, of course, and one can always judge among and between them), but I also think they are potentially and often actually terribly dangerous. There’s not even any need to name examples of highly committed, motivated people in the world today whose commitments are dangerous in various ways. People can be for instance deeply committed to taking away other people’s rights, to subordinating and exploiting other people, or just to getting rid of them entirely; to demarcating who is inferior and who is not and then acting accordingly. People can find that a very meaningful activity. Can and do.
This idea relates to the idea of utopia, I think. My colleague and I were talking about utopia recently (I forget why). I said a good word for the idea, and he commented that we may have a basic disagreement on the subject. Maybe, but maybe not. My good word for the idea is a very limited, hedged, cautious one. It’s the sort of good word I just said about commitments and motivation. Ideas of utopia can inspire – but they can inspire to appalling things as well as to good ones. It may be that the only disagreement we have is on how inevitable the appalling possibility is – and I’m not really even sure I disagree about that. It may be that I do think the road to utopia leads straight to the basement of the Lubyanka.