Isaac Deutscher

The Ex-Communist’s Conscience


First Published: As a review of book The God That Failed in The Reporter (New York) in April 1950.
Transcribed: Martin Fahlgren
Online Version: Marxist Internet Archive 2013
HTML Markup: Martin Fahlgren, 2013

IGNAZIO SILONE relates that he once said jokingly to Togliatti, the Italian Communist leader: ‘The final struggle will be between the communists and the ex-communists.’ There is a bitter drop of truth in the joke. In the propaganda skirmishes against the U.S.S.R. and communism, the ex-communist or the ex-fellow traveller is the most active sharpshooter. With the peevishness that distinguishes him from Silone, Arthur Koestler makes a similar point: ‘It’s the same with all you comfortable, insular, Anglo-Saxon anti-communists. You hate our Cassandra cries and recent us as allies – but, when all is said, we ex-communists are the only people on your side who know what it’s all about.’

The ex-communist is the problem child of contemporary politics. He crops up in the oddest places and corners. He buttonholes you in Berlin to tell the story of his ‘battle of Stalingrad’, fought here, in Berlin, against Stalin. You find him in de Gaulle’s entourage: none other than Andre Malraux, the author of Man’s Estate. In America’s strangest political trial the ex-communist has, for months, pointed his finger at Alger Hiss. Another ex-communist, Ruth Fischer, denounces her brother, Gerhart Eisler, and castigates the British for not having handed him back to the United States. An ex-Trotskyite, James Burnham, flays the American business man for his real or illusory lack of capitalist class consciousness, and sketches a programme of action for nothing less than the world-wide defeat of communism. And now six writers – Koestler, Silone, André Gide, Louis Fischer, Richard Wright, and Stephen Spender – get together to expose and destroy The God that Failed.

The ‘legion’ of ex-communists does not march in close formation. It is scattered far and wide. Its members resemble one another very much, but they also differ. They have common traits and individual features. All have left an army and a camp – some as conscientious objectors, some as deserters, and others as marauders. A few stick quietly to their conscientious objections, while others vociferously claim commissions in an army which they had bitterly opposed. All wear threadbare bits and pieces of the old uniform, supplemented by the quaintest new rags. And all carry with them their common resentments and individual reminiscences.

Some joined the party at one time, others at another; the date of joining is relevant to their further experiences. Intellectual integrity was still valued in a communist; it had not yet been surrendered for good to Moscow’s raison d’état. Those who joined the party in the 1930’s began their experience on a much lower level. Right from the beginning they were manipulated like recruits on the party’s barrack squares by the party’s sergeant majors.

This difference bears upon the quality of the ex-communist’s reminiscences. Silone, who joined the party in 1921, recalls with real warmth his first contact with it; he conveys fully the intellectual excitement and moral enthusiasm with which communism pulsated in those early days. The reminiscences of Koestler and Spender, who joined in the 1930’s, reveal the utter moral and intellectual sterility of the party’s first impact on them. Silone and his comrades were intensely concerned with fundamental ideas before and after they became absorbed in the drudgery of day-today duty. In Koestler’s story, his party ‘assignment’, right from the first moment, overshadows all matters of personal conviction and ideal. The communist of the early drafts was a revolutionary before he became, or was expected to become, a puppet. The communist of the later drafts hardly got the chance to breathe the genuine air of revolution.

Nevertheless, the original motives for joining were similar, if not identical, in almost every case: experience of social injustice or degradation; a sense of insecurity bred by slumps and social crises; and the craving for a great ideal or purpose, or for a reliable intellectual guide through the shaky labyrinth of modern society. The newcomer felt the miseries of the old capitalist order to be unbearable; and the glowing light of the Russian revolution illumined those miseries with extraordinary sharpness.

Socialism, classless society, the withering away of the State – all seemed around the corner. Few of the newcomers had any premonition of the blood and sweat and tears to come. To himself, the intellectual convert to communism seemed a new Prometheus – except that he would not be pinned to the rock by Zeus’s wrath. ‘Nothing henceforth [so Koestler now recalls his own mood in those days] can disturb the convert’s inner peace and serenity – except the occasional fear of losing faith again. . .’

Our ex-communist now bitterly denounces the betrayal of his hopes. This appears to him to have had almost no precedent. Yet as he eloquently describes his early expectations and illusions, we detect a strangely familiar tone. Exactly so did the disillusioned Wordsworth and his contemporaries look back upon their first youthful enthusiasm for the French revolution:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

The intellectual communist who breaks away emotionally from his party can claim some noble ancestry. Beethoven tore to pieces the title page of his Eroica, on which he had dedicated the symphony to Napoleon, as soon as he learned that the First Consul was about to ascend a throne. Wordsworth called the crowning of Napoleon ‘a sad reverse for all mankind ‘. All over Europe the enthusiasts of the French revolution were stunned by their discovery that the Corsican liberator of the peoples and enemy of tyrants was himself a tyrant and an oppressor.

In the same way the Wordsworths of our days were shocked at the sight of Stalin fraternizing with Hitler and Ribbentrop. If no new Eroicas have been created in our days, at least the dedicatory pages of unwritten symphonies have been torn with great flourishes.

In The God That Failed, Louis Fischer tries to explain somewhat remorsefully and not quite convincingly why he adhered to the Stalin cult for so long. He analyses the variety of motives, some working slowly and some rapidly, which determine the moment at which people recover from the infatuation with Stalinism. The force of the European disillusionment with Napoleon was almost equally uneven and capricious. A great Italian poet, Ugo Foscolo, who had been Napoleon’s soldier and composed an Ode to Bonaparte the Liberator, turned against his idol after the Peace of Campoformio – this must have stunned a ‘Jacobin’ from Venice as the Nazi-Soviet Pact stunned a Polish communist. But a man like Beethoven remained under the spell of Bonaparte for seven years more, until he saw the despot drop his republican mask. This was an ‘eye-opener’ comparable to Stalin’s purge trials of the 1930’s.

There can be no greater tragedy than that of a great revolution’s succumbing to the mailed fist that was to defend it from its enemies. There can be no spectacle as disgusting as that of a post-revolutionary tyranny dressed up in the banners of liberty. The ex-communist is morally as justified as was the ex-Jacobin in revealing and revolting against that spectacle.

But is it true, as Koestler claims, that ‘ex-communists are the only people . . . who know what it’s all about’? One may risk the assertion that the exact opposite is true: Of all people, the ex-communists know least what it is all about.

At any rate, the pedagogical pretensions of ex-communist men of letters seem grossly exaggerated. Most of them (Silone is a notable exception) have never been inside the real communist movement, in the thick of its clandestine or open organization. As a rule, they moved on the literary or journalistic fringe of the party. Their notions of communist doctrine and ideology usually spring from their own literary intuition, which is sometimes acute but often misleading.

Worse still is the ex-communist’s characteristic incapacity for detachment. His emotional reaction against his former environment keeps him in its deadly grip and prevents him from understanding the drama in which he was involved or half-involved. The picture of communism and Stalinism he draws is that of a gigantic chamber of intellectual and moral horrors. Viewing it, the uninitiated are transferred from politics to pure demonology. Sometimes the artistic effect may be strong – horrors and demons do enter into many a poetic masterpiece; but it is politically unreliable and even dangerous. Of course, the story of Stalinism abounds in horror. But this is only one of its elements; and even this, the demonic, has to be translated into terms of human motives and interests. The ex-communist does not even attempt the translation.

In a rare flash of genuine self-criticism, Koestler makes this admission:

‘As a rule, our memories romanticize the past. But when one has renounced a creed or been betrayed by a friend, the opposite mechanism sets to work. In the light of that later knowledge, the original experience loses its innocence, becomes tainted and rancid in recollection. I have tried in these pages to recapture the mood in which the experiences [in the Communist Party] related were originally lived – and I know that I have failed. Irony, anger, and shame kept intruding; the passions of that time seem transformed into perversions, its inner certitude into the closed universe of the drug addict; the shadow of barbed wire lies across the condemned playground of memory. Those who were caught by the great illusion of our time, and have lived through its moral and intellectual debauch, either give themselves up to a new addiction of the opposite type, or are condemned to pay with a lifelong hangover.’

This need not be true of all ex-communists. Some may still feel that their experience has been free from the morbid overtones described by Koestler. Nevertheless, Koestler has given here a truthful and honest characterization of the type of ex-communist to which he himself belongs. But it is difficult to square this self-portrait with his other claim that the confraternity for which he speaks ‘are the only people . . . who know what it’s all about’. With equal right a sufferer from traumatic shock might claim that he is the only one who really understands wounds and surgery. The most that the intellectual ex-communist knows, or rather feels, is his own sickness; but he is ignorant of the nature of the external violence that has produced it, let alone the cure.

This irrational emotionalism dominates the evolution of many an ex-communist. ‘The logic of opposition at all costs’ says Silone, ‘has carried many ex-communists far from their starting-points, in some cases as far as fascism.’ What were those starting-points? Nearly every ex-communist broke with his party in the name of communism. Nearly every one set out to defend the ideal of socialism from the abuses of a bureaucracy subservient to Moscow. Nearly every one began by throwing out the dirty water of the Russian revolution to protect the baby bathing in it.

Sooner or later these intentions are forgotten or abandoned. Having broken with a party bureaucracy in the name of communism, the heretic goes on to break with communism itself. He claims to have made the discovery that the root of the evil goes far deeper than he at first imagined, even though his digging for that ‘root’ may have been very lazy and very shallow. He no longer defends socialism from unscrupulous abuse; he now defends man-kind from the fallacy of socialism. He no longer throws out the dirty water of the Russian revolution to protect the baby; he discovers that the baby is a monster which must be strangled. The heretic becomes a renegade.

How far he departed from his starting-point, whether, as Silone says, he becomes a fascist or not, depends on his inclinations and tastes – and stupid Stalinist heresy-hunting often drives the ex-communist to extremes. But, whatever the shades of individual attitudes, as a rule the intellectual ex-communist ceases to oppose capitalism. Often he rallies to its defence, and he brings to this job the lack of scruple, the narrow-mindedness, the disregard for truth, and the intense hatred with which Stalinism has imbued him. He remains a sectarian. He is an inverted Stalinist. He continues to see the world in white and black, but now the colours are differently distributed. As a communist he saw no difference between fascists and social democrats. As an anti-communist he sees no difference between nazism and communism. Once, he accepted the party’s claim to infallibility; now he believes himself to be infallible. Having once been caught by the ‘greatest illusion’, he is now obsessed by the greatest disillusionment of our time.

His former illusion at least implied a positive ideal. His disillusionment is utterly negative. His role is therefore intellectually and politically barren. In this, too, he resembles the embittered ex-Jacobin of the Napoleonic era. Wordsworth and Coleridge were fatally obsessed with the ‘Jacobin danger’; their fear dimmed even their poetic genius. It was Coleridge who denounced in the House of Commons a Bill for the prevention of cruelty to animals as the ‘strongest instance of legislative Jacobinism’. The ex-Jacobin became the prompter of the anti-Jacobin reaction in England. Directly or indirectly, his influence was behind the Bills Against Seditious Writings and Traitorous Correspondence, the Treasonable Practices Bill, and Seditious Meetings Bill (1792-4), the defeats of parliamentary reform, the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and the postponement of the emancipation of England’s religious minorities for the lifetime of a generation. Since the conflict with revolutionary France was ‘not a time to make hazardous experiments’, the slave trade, too, obtained a lease on life – in the name of liberty.

In quite the same way our ex-communist, for the best of reasons, does the most vicious things. He advances bravely in the front rank of every witch hunt. His blind hatred of his former ideal is leaven to contemporary conservatism. Not rarely he denounces even the mildest brand of the ‘welfare State’ as ‘legislative Bolshevism’.

He contributes heavily to the moral climate in which a modern counterpart to the English anti-Jacobin reaction is hatched.

His grotesque performance reflects the impasse in which he finds himself. The impasse is not merely his – it is part of a blind alley in which an entire generation leads an incoherent and absent-minded life.

The historical parallel drawn here extends to the wider background of two epochs. The world is split between Stalinism and an anti-Stalinist alliance in much the same way as it was split between Napoleonic France and the Holy Alliance. It is a split between a ‘degenerated’ revolution exploited by a despot and a grouping of predominantly, although not exclusively, conservative interests. In terms of practical politics the choice seems to be now, as it was then, confined to these alternatives. Yet the rights and the wrongs of this controversy are so hopelessly confused that whichever the choice, and whatever its practical motives, it is almost certain to be wrong in the long run and in the broadest historical sense.

An honest and critically minded man could reconcile himself to Napoleon as little as he can now to Stalin. But despite Napoleon’s violence and frauds, the message of the French revolution survived to echo powerfully throughout the nineteenth century. The Holy Alliance freed Europe from Napoleon’s oppression; and for a moment its victory was hailed by most Europeans. Yet what Castlereagh and Metternich and Alexander I had to offer to ‘liberated’ Europe was merely the preservation of an old, decomposing order. Thus the abuses and the aggressiveness of an empire bred by the revolution gave a new lease on life to European feudalism. This was the ex-Jacobin’s most unexpected triumph. But the price he paid for it was that presently he himself, and his anti-Jacobin cause, looked like vicious, ridiculous anachronisms. In the year of Napoleon’s defeat, Shelley wrote to Wordsworth:

In honoured poverty thy voice did weave
Songs consecrate to truth and liberty
Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.

If our ex-communist had any historical sense, he would ponder this lesson.

Some of the ex-Jacobin prompters of the anti-Jacobin reaction had as few scruples about their volte-face as have the Burnhams and the Ruth Fischers of our days. Others were remorseful, and pleaded patriotic sentiment, or a philosophy of the lesser evil, or both, to explain why they had sided with old dynasties against an upstart emperor. If they did not deny the vices of the Courts and the governments they had once denounced, they claimed that those governments were more liberal than Napoleon. This was certainly true of Pitt’s government, even though in the long run the social and political influence of Napoleonic France on European civilization was more permanent and fruitful than that of Pitt’s England, not to speak of the influence of Metternich’s Austria or Alexander’s Russia. ‘O grief that Earth’s best hopes rest all in thee!’ – this was the sigh of resignation with which Wordsworth reconciled himself to Pitt’s England. Far, far more abject is thy enemy’ was his formula of reconciliation.

‘Far, far more abject is thy enemy’ might have been the text for The God That Failed, and for the philosophy of the lesser evil expounded in its pages. The ardour with which the writers of this book defend the West against Russia and communism is sometimes chilled by uncertainty or residual ideological inhibition. The uncertainty appears between the lines of their confessions, or in curious asides.

Silone, for instance, still describes the pre-Mussolini Italy, against which, as a communist, he had rebelled, as ‘pseudo-democratic’. He hardly believes that post-Mussolini Italy is any better, but he sees its Stalinist enemy to be ‘far, far more abject’. More than the other co-authors of this book, Silone is surely aware of the price that Europeans of his generation have already paid for the acceptance of lesser-evil philosophies. Louis Fischer advocates the ‘double rejection’ of communism and capitalism, but his rejection of the latter sounds like a feeble face-saving formula; and his newly found cult of Gandhiism impresses one as merely an awkward escapism. But it is Koestler who, occasionally, in the midst of all his affectation and anti-communist frenzy, reveals a few curious mental reservations: ‘. . . if we survey history [he says] and compare the lofty aims, in the name of which revolutions were started, and the sorry end to which they came, we see again and again how a polluted civilization pollutes its own revolutionary offspring’ (my italics). Has Koestler thought out the implications of his own words, or is he merely throwing out a bon mot? If the ‘revolutionary offspring’, communism, has really been ‘polluted’ by the civilization against which it has rebelled, then no matter how repulsive the offspring may be, the source of the evil is not in it but in that civilization. And this will be so regardless of how zealously Koestler himself may act as the advocate of the ‘defenders’ of civilization à la Chambers.

Even more startling is another thought – or is this perhaps also only a bon mot? – with which Koestler unexpectedly ends his confession:

‘I served the Communist Party for seven years – the same length of time as Jacob tended Laban’s sheep to win Rachel his daughter. When the time was up, the bride was led into his dark tent; only the next morning did he discover that his ardours had been spent not on the lovely Rachel but on the ugly Leah.

I wonder whether he ever recovered from the shock of having slept with an illusion. I wonder whether afterwards he believed that he had ever believed in it. I wonder whether the happy end of the legend will be repeated; for at the price of another seven years of labour, Jacob was given Rachel too, and the illusion became flesh.

And the seven years seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had for her.’

One might think that Jacob-Koestler reflects uneasily whether he has not too hastily ceased tending Laban-Stalin’s sheep, instead of waiting patiently till his ‘illusion became flesh’.

The words are not meant to blame, let alone to castigate, anybody. Their purpose, let this be repeated, is to throw into relief a confusion of ideas, from which the ex-communist intellectual is not the only sufferer.

In one of his recent articles, Koestler vented his irritation at those good old liberals who were shocked by the excess of anti-communist zeal in the former communist, and viewed him with the disgust with which ordinary people look at ‘a defrocked priest taking out a girl to a dance’.

Well, the good old liberals may be right, alter all: this peculiar type of anti-communist may appear to them like a defrocked priest ‘taking out’, not just a girl, but a harlot. The ex-communist’s utter confusion of intellect and emotion makes him ill-suited for any political activity. He is haunted by a vague sense that he has betrayed either his former ideals or the ideals of bourgeois society; like Koestler, he may even have an ambivalent notion that he has betrayed both. He then tries to suppress his sense of guilt and uncertainty, or to camouflage it by a show of extraordinary certitude and frantic aggressiveness. He insists that the world should recognize his uneasy conscience as the clearest conscience of all. He may no longer be concerned with any cause except one – self-justification. And this is the most dangerous motive for any political activity.

It seems that the only dignified attitude the intellectual ex-communist can take is to rise au-dessus de la mêlée. He cannot join the Stalinist camp or the anti-Stalinist Holy Alliance without doing violence to his better self. So let him stay outside any camp. Let him try to regain critical sense and intellectual detachment. Let him overcome the cheap ambition to have a finger in the political pie. Let him be at peace with his own self at least, if the price he has to pay for a phony peace with, the world is self-renunciation and self-denunciation.

This is not to say that the ex-communist man of letters, or intellectual at large, should retire into the ivory tower. (His contempt for the ivory tower lingers in him from his past.) But he may withdraw into a watch-tower instead. To watch with detachment and alertness this heaving chaos of a world, to be on a sharp lookout for what is going to emerge from it, and to interpret it sine ira et studio – this is now the only honourable service the ex-communist intellectual can render to a generation in which scrupulous observation and honest interpretation have become so sadly rare. (Is it not striking how little observation and interpretation, and how much philosophizing and sermonizing, one finds in the books of the gifted pleiad of ex-communist writers?)

But can the intellectual really now be a detached observer of this world? Even if taking sides makes him identify himself with causes that, in truth, are not his, must he not takes sides all the same? Well, we can recall some great ‘intellectuals’ who, in a similar situation in the past, refused to identify themselves with any established Cause. Their attitude seemed incomprehensible to many of their contemporaries: but history has proved their judgment to have been superior to the phobias and hatreds of their age. Three names may be mentioned here: Jefferson, Goethe, and Shelley. All three, each in a different way, were confronted with the choice between the Napoleonic idea and the Holy Alliance. All three, again each in a different manner, refused to choose.

Jefferson was the staunchest friend of the French revolution in its early heroic period. He was willing to forgive even the Terror, but he turned away in disgust from Napoleon’s ‘military despotism’. Yet he had no truck with Bonaparte’s enemies, Europe’s ‘hypocritical deliverers’, as he called them. His detachment was not merely suited to the diplomatic interest of a young and neutral republic; it resulted naturally from his republican conviction and democratic passion.

Unlike Jefferson, Goethe lived right inside the storm centre. Napoleon’s troops and Alexander’s soldiers, in turn, took up quarters in his Weimar. As the Minister of his Prince, Goethe opportunistically bowed to every invader. But as a thinker and man, he remained noncommittal and aloof. He was aware of the grandeur of the French revolution and was shocked by its horrors. He greeted the sound of French guns at Valmy as the opening of a new and better epoch, and he saw through Napoleon’s follies. He acclaimed the liberation of Germany from Napoleon, and he was acutely aware of the misery of that ‘liberation’. His aloofness, in these as in other matters, gained him the reputation of ‘the Olympian’; and the label was not always meant to be flattering. But his Olympian appearance was due least of all to an inner indifference to the fate of his contemporaries. It veiled his drama: his incapacity and reluctance to identify himself with causes, each an inextricable, tangle of right and wrong.

Finally, Shelley watched the clash of the two worlds with all the burning passion, anger, and hope of which his great young soul was capable: he surely was no Olympian. Yet, not for a single moment did he accept the self-righteous claims and pretensions of any of the belligerents. Unlike the ex-Jacobins, who were older than he, he was true to the Jacobin republican idea. It was as a republican, and not as a patriot of the England of George III, that he greeted the fall of Napoleon, that ‘most unambitious slave’ who did ‘dance and revel on the grave of Liberty’. But as a republican he knew also that ‘virtue owns a more eternal foe’ than Bonapartist force and fraud – ‘old Custom, legal Crime, and bloody Faith’ embodied in the Holy Alliance.

All three – Jefferson, Goethe, and Shelley – were in a sense outsiders to the great conflict of their time, and because of this they interpreted their time with more truthfulness and penetration than did the fearful – the hate-ridden partisans on either side.

What a pity and what a shame it is that most ex-communist intellectuals are inclined to follow the tradition of Wordsworth and Coleridge rather than that of Goethe and Shelley.

Isaac Deutscher Archive