My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual
What is our worst existential fear, worse than any cyber, biological, environmental, or even nuclear threat? It is the threat of a utopian ideology in the hands of a formidable power. Because utopia is, in and of itself, the perfect political and spiritual arrangement, any measures to bring it about are morally justified, including totalitarianism and mass murder. But what, on the individual level, has always been the attraction of utopian ideology, despite what it wrought in the 20th century? Its primary attraction lies in what it does to the soul, and understanding that makes clear just how prone our own age is to a revival of utopian totalitarianism.
Aleksander Wat, the great Polish poet and intellectual of the early and mid-20th century, explains that communism, and Stalinism specifically, was the “global answer to negation. . . . The entire illness stemmed from that need, that hunger for something all-embracing.” The problem was “too much of everything. Too many people, too many ideas, too many books, too many systems.” Who could cope?
So, Wat explained, a “simple catechism” was required, especially for the intellectuals, which explains their initial attraction to communism and, yes, to Stalinism. For, once converted, the intellectuals could then unload this all-embracing catechism on the masses, who would accept it as a replacement for the traditional and hence normal catechism of religion. Whereas traditional religions fill a void in the inner life of the individual, thereby enriching it, Stalinism turned that inner life immediately, in Wat’s words, “to dust.” Stalinism represented “the killing of the inner man”; it stood for the “exteriorization” of everything. That was its appeal. For without an interior life, there would be less for a person to think and worry about.
Wat’s clinical insights come in one of the most urgent memoirs of the modern era, his My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual, published posthumously in 1977. My Century is not a memoir in the traditional sense. It is rather a transcribed series of interviews with the author conducted in the mid-1960s by the Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz. Wat was ill at the time, both physically and mentally, and was unable to write. We may thus place him in the highest category of intellectuals: those who do not necessarily have to write, for it is enough to listen to their voices.
As a title, My Century is neither exaggerated nor self-referential. For Wat and his family did indeed live the life of the 20th century in all its horror. Wat’s family was Central European, and its history lay “at the borderline of Judaism, Catholicism, and atheism.” Anti-Semitism is, in his telling, part of the permanent tapestry of Soviet prison life. Wat’s older brother perished at Treblinka, his younger brother at Auschwitz. Wat himself spent seven years during and after World War II in Soviet prisons, including the Lubyanka, and in exile in the deserts of Central Asia. He returned to public life in the Eastern Bloc in 1957, in the wake of de-Stalinization, and committed suicide in France a decade later.
The pages of his conversations with Milosz ache with recollections of the ghastly deportations, in which people froze to death in train cars even as women were giving birth. He remembers the icy prison cells that were steaming hot in summer; the constant dread, day after day, year after year, of being tortured; the gnawing anxiety in prison about the fate of his family; the deranged cell mates; the filth and chaos of the railway stations. All this characterized the life of millions in the 20th century; all this and more were the wages of utopian ideologies.
“Oh”, you might say, “the 20th century was unique, tyrants of the scale of Hitler and Stalin come along only once in a thousand years.” Wat’s story is an overpowering classic, but it is about the last century. What does it have to do with this one?
Clearly, the Final Solution was unique and has no equivalents—none. Stalin’s machine of terror was singular in its industrialized and ideological horror. And because these things exist only one lifetime removed from our own, a virtual nanosecond in history, our intellectual and policy debates are still rightly obsessed with them (except, of course, when it is convenient to ignore them altogether). But at the same time there is a belief, a certainty, very true up to a point, that the 21st century is radically different than the previous one, and will therefore have radically different pathologies. Thus we study Hitler and Stalin as past, not prologue. Like scary dinosaurs, they are extinct. They are no longer threatening, at least according to the conventional wisdom.
For the 20th century was about bigness: big industrialized states with big military machines that monopolized the use of force, and thus were capable of great evil. But the 21st century is about smallness: the erosion of state power by postindustrial cyber and informational tools, tools that put power into the hands of stateless groups and lessen the domination of states. Thus, the horror of chaos has replaced the horror of totalitarianism. Saddam Hussein, the Arab Stalin, was brutal beyond description, but the anarchy that followed in Iraq was even worse. Yes, Wat bears witness, and so his memoir is a work of literature. But it is about his time, not ours.
Yet what if that’s not the whole story? What if in describing the psychological attraction of Stalinist ideology, Wat is also providing a warning for our time? What if the response to sustained chaos will lead back, inversely, to the ideological intensities of the 20th century? I am not talking about new Hitlers and Stalins so much as about disease-variants of them.
Our time on earth, indeed, may be ripe for the next batch of utopian ideologies. Far more than the early 20th century even, we are bombarded by stimuli: If there were too many books and ideas, too many people and systems, back in Wat’s time, they were only a fraction of what people must cope with now. The soul itself, explains the contemporary Romanian philosopher Horia-Roman Patapievici, is being hollowed out because of the substitution of the inner imagination by technology: smartphones, intelligent toys, the array of electronics at malls. Technology, as Martin Heidegger understood, is devoid of intrinsic purpose, with mental anguish and confusion merely the result of its overuse. Thus, we desperately require meaning in our lives, which conventional politics obviously cannot satisfy, even as technology and primitivism—witness the Islamic State—can flow together in new belief systems that assign themselves to traditional religions.
Then there is loneliness. Toward the end of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt observes: “What prepares men for totalitarian domination . . . is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the evergrowing masses of our century.” Totalitarianism, she goes on, is the product of the lonely mind that deduces one thing from the other in linear fashion toward the worst possible result, and thus is a “suicidal escape from this reality.” Pressing men and women so close together in howling, marching formations obliterates individuality and thus loneliness. But even with all of our electronic diversions, is loneliness any less prevalent now than it was when Arendt published her magnum opus in 1951? People are currently more isolated than ever, more prone to the symptoms of the lonely, totalitarian mind, or what psychiatrists call “racing thoughts.”
People everywhere—in the West, in the Middle East, in Russia, in China—desperately need something to believe in, if only to alleviate their mental condition. They are dangerously ready for a new catechism, given the right circumstances. What passes as a new fad or cult in the West can migrate toward extremism in less stable or more chaotic societies.
The jet-age elites are of little help in translating or alleviating any of this. Cosmopolitan, increasingly denationalized, ever less bound to territory or parochial affinities, the elites revel in the overflow of information that they process through 24/7 multi-tasking. Every one of them is just so brilliant! They can analyze everything while they believe in nothing, and have increasingly less loyalty to the countries whose passports they hold. This deracination renders them wholly disconnected from the so-called unwashed masses, whose upheavals and yearnings for a new totality, a new catechism, in order to fill the emptiness and loneliness in their souls, regularly surprise and shock them.
The rise of the Islamic State may be only a portent—and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi but an early example—of the disease-variants that follow in the footsteps of 20th-century totalitarians. Al-Baghdadi arose out of the chaos of the Arab Spring and the American invasion of Iraq. The Arab Spring was never about the rise of democracy, as Western elites initially announced, projecting their own values and experiences onto an alien part of the world about which they comprehend little. Rather, it was about a fundamental crisis of political and moral authority. Political authority was illegitimate because it was seen as both corrupt and secular. Western journalists at first fixated on cosmopolitan young urbanites in Arab capitals, each group seeing itself reflected in the other. Meanwhile, the Arab masses yearned for a purity of belief and logic, even as their own ethnic and sectarian divisions, which are magnified rather than reduced by communications technology, undermine the emergence of any civil society that might assuage their individual demands for dignity and justice. Such conditions have led, and can only lead, to new forms of authoritarianism. As Aleksander Wat would probably have understood, the worse and more prolonged the anarchy, the more utopian and millenarian these new forms of authoritarianism will likely be.
The same liberal-trending elites in Cairo who seduced Western journalists in early 2011 in Tahrir Square would later accept the new Pharaonic strongman, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, after they themselves experienced just the slightest whiff of chaos wrought by Egyptian democracy in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood. But Egypt is not a serious concern. An age-old geographic cluster of civilizations defined precisely by the Nile Valley, the state there has a long and natural tradition of legitimacy, so that suffocating forms of authoritarianism were not required to hold it together. Countries like Libya, Syria, and Iraq are in another category, however, since their borders do not define ancient, geographic states and population nodes nearly to the degree of Egypt. Thus, they required more extreme forms of authoritarianism bordering on totalitarianism merely in order to survive—that is the root-cause for the ideological intensity of the regimes of Muammar Qaddafi, Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, and Saddam Hussein. The latter two regimes were Ba‘ath Socialist, a variant of a European utopian ideology transferred to the Middle East. Because totalitarianism eviscerates all forms of political organization between the regime at the top and the tribe and extended family at the bottom, the upshot of its demise in Libya, Syria, and Iraq has been anarchy, which, in turn, will not lead to liberal democracy but to new forms of tyranny. And because the depth and extent of the chaos in those places has been many times what Egypt has lately experienced, the form of any new tyranny in those places threatens to border on something utopian in nature.
In Iraq since 2003, because of an American invasion (which I mistakenly supported) and an arguably precipitous American withdrawal later on, people have experienced a level of Hobbesian barbarism and loss of dignity and safety far more profound than what Germans experienced prior to Hitler, and greater than what individual Russians experienced in the course of the collapse of the Romanov dynasty and the ensuing civil war, which preceded Lenin and Stalin. Since 2011, Libya and Syria have replicated Iraq. This is to say nothing of the sense of personal alienation and loneliness that even people in these underdeveloped societies have experienced, thanks to the postmodern, technological condition we all labor under. Add to the mix the alienation of being a young, unemployed Muslim male in Europe, unable to marry, and it becomes actually easy to fathom the psychology of recruits to the Islamic State. After all, sexual frustration can be appeased much more easily by a totalizing ideology than by being able to vote once every few years in an election.
But doesn’t technology empower, by putting people in touch with each other so that they can speak with one voice? Precisely: It is speaking with one voice that is the danger. The freedom of the internet is a conceit. Most people think that they generate their own ideas, but the truth is that most of their ideas are prepared by others who think for them. That some sermon or blog or tweet has gone viral is a sad reflection on the state of individualism in the 21st century. The electronic swarm is a negation of loneliness that prepares the way for new ideologies of totalitarianism. Imagine the swarm of electronic followers in countries where all personal dignity has been erased because of war, crime, and chaos, where a postmodern form of extreme religiosity is the only imaginable panacea.
The ascent of the Islamic State and other jihadi movements, both Sunni and Shi‘a, is not altogether new in imperial and post-imperial history. The seasoned, Paris-based commentator William Pfaff, who covered international politics for decades before he died, observed that the rise of radical populist movements, demanding in many cases the restoration of a lost golden age, occurred twice in mid- and late 19th-century Qing China (the Taiping and Boxer rebellions), once in mid-19th-century British India (the Sepoy Mutiny), and once in late 19th-century British Sudan (the Mahdist revolt). In that vein, as Pfaff explains, groups such as the Ugandan-based Lord’s Resistance Army and the Nigerian-based Boko Haram, which we in the West label, in almost infantile fashion, as merely “terrorist”, are actually redemptive millennial movements that are responding to the twin threats of modernism and globalization.
Globalization, as it intensifies, carries the potential to unleash utopian ideologies by diluting concrete, traditional bonds to territory and ethnicity, for in the partial void will come a heightened appeal to more abstract ideals, the very weapons of utopia. And it is not only the Middle East that should concern us. China is in the process of transforming itself from a developing country into a national security state that in future years and decades could adopt new and dangerous hybrid forms of nationalism and central control as a response to its economic troubles. Russia’s Vladimir Putin may yet be the forerunner of even greater xenophobia and nationalism under leaders further to the Right than himself, as a response to Russia’s weakening social and economic condition. In an age of globalization, not only religion, but nationalism, too, can become still more ideological, illiberal, and abstract.
We must be both humble and vigilant, therefore. Humble, in the sense that we don’t assume progress; we shouldn’t feel safe in smug assumptions about the direction of history. Vigilant, in that we always stand firm in the defense of an individual such as Aleksander Wat, who, however doubt-ridden and self-questioning, refused to submit to pulverizing forces.