We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

As to the position of intellectuals in Cuban society, it appeared that they had almost everything estranged Western intellectuals desired. There was, to start with, ample official recognition. They were taken seriously and, if loyal to the regime, given generous opportunities to share in power and the management of the new society. They were given responsibilities such as the visitors rarely enjoyed in their own societies. For the most part these were, in the words of Susan Sontag, “pedagogical functions,” and “a major role in the raising of the level of consciousness.” The jubilation on the part of the visitors, as they witnessed Cuban intellectuals moving into positions of power and responsibility, signaled their relief that at long last intellectuals could abandon their traditional roles as social critics and outsiders and could now joyously affirm, endorse, and assist an ongoing social system. At last the painful dichotomy between thought and action was dissolved; Cuban intellectuals were men of action, some actually fought as guerillas; others became revolutionary deans of universities, revolutionary officials in ministries of education, culture or propaganda, revolutionary writers, film-makers, academics. Most of them shared, from time to time, the manly burden of manual labor with the masses. Most importantly, they were fully integrated into society, there was nothing marginal about them.

Under these circumstances, it was possible to accept with a clear conscience the material benefits and privileges the regime bestowed on them, unlike in Western societies, where the material privileges and status advantages of estranged intellectuals often became a major sources of their bitterness, inner conflict, or self-contempt. Wishing to be severe social critics of the societies they lived in and half expecting some measure of retribution or mild martyrdom for their criticism, instead they often found themselves either ignored by the holders of power or, worse, in positions of influence or high social status despite their relentless castigation of the social system which continued, almost absent-mindedly, to feed generously the mouths that so regularly bit it.

Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China and Cuba, 1928-78, Paul Hollander, page 264.

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17 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Watchman

    Or to put it succinctly, the price of freedom is to discover you may not be as valuable as you think you are…

  • Alisa

    Well, that was a long time ago – since those times they have clearly achieved all that and more in the West.

  • QET

    They were taken seriously and, if loyal to the regime, given generous opportunities to share in power and the management of the new society.

    And if not “loyal to the regime”?

  • And if not “loyal to the regime”?

    The firing squad.

  • Watchman

    Longrider,

    Surprisingly not – most (i.e. non Khemr-Rouge or Kim Family inc.) communist regimes had a cadre of non-compliant intellectuals who were sort of stuck in a wierd limbo if no purges were going on (which due to the limited number of purgable units – I think they are called people – was a rare event). They had been trained up to think but their thoughts didn’t fit, but they were not actively opposing the regime. I suspect the fact that fellow travellers visiting these countries did not focus on them but on those complying with the system’s requirements is unsurprising.

    Note if it was the firing squad, there would be a lot less potential for people like Vaclav Havel to have existed at the end of Communism…

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Watchman, true for Brezhnev’s USSR, sort-of true for Khruschev’s, not true for Stalin’s.

    General comment:

    I heartily recommend the Political Pilgrims book from which this quote comes. Name-check all your favourite intellectuals. A few of them gagged at the flattery, but most of them lapped it up.

  • Runcie Balspune

    And if not “loyal to the regime”?

    Or gay?

    But then, as Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn are fond of telling us, you can’t make an omelette without killing a few hundred chickens.

  • Watchman

    Natalie,

    Accept the correction there – not really true for Cultural Revolution China or early Vietnam either. But in the Soviet satellites (where the lessons of Stalinism seem to have been learned even whilst Stalin was alive) and post-Stallin USSR, true enough that Commuist thought never was the only option (comes to think of it, the communists never actually got rid of the religious intellengsia…).

    It appears eliminating all your ideological oposition is hard work, especially when the next generation of intellectuals will just pick up awkward questions once again (it’s kind of a useful function they have).

  • Surellin

    Poor Western intellectuals. Perhaps, to improve their happiness and self-image, they should have stopped being intellectuals and started digging ditches.

  • QET

    Well it would be interesting to learn what kind of life & lifestyle were led by the “not-loyal” intellectuals. I find it hard to believe they were bestowed the “material benefits and privileges” their loyalist colleagues were, or that they were “taken seriously” in a benign or benevolent manner. I expect that a line still had to be toed, a line the other side of which was “dissident” territory, and I also expect that it was not too far off the loyalist line.

    If this were not the case, then their position could hardly be said to differ from their Western counterparts:

    and half expecting some measure of retribution or mild martyrdom for their criticism, instead they often found themselves either ignored by the holders of power or, worse, in positions of influence or high social status despite their relentless castigation of the social system which continued, almost absent-mindedly, to feed generously the mouths that so regularly bit it.

    NB: “mild martyrdom” = a contradiction, typical of the fantasizing that passes for thought among this class of Western intellectual.

  • QET

    Or to put it succinctly, the price of freedom is to discover you may not be as valuable as you think you are…

    Watchman, if this site enabled upvoting I would most definitely have upvoted this.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Regarding the fate of nonconforming intellectuals (or anyone else) in totalitarian regimes, it doesn’t really matter what people say or do if the government controls employment. The professor of Nothing at Nowhere, the writer who can’t get published, and the worker who can’t get a job are as ineffectual in their society as if they were truly dead. That’s why brutality in such regimes is largely for the enjoyment of the brutalizers, or for the suppression of end-running movements like the Soviet-era samizdata and Solidarity.

  • Watchman

    QET,

    The comment may relate to bitter experience… I would point out that much of the Western intellectual class (I’m guilty of membership of that one, for all my main role in it is to pick the odd fight and improve bureaucratic experiences (yes, I’m also good at bureaucracy – I’m the stereotypical commentator here…)) has historically mocked the idiotic part with their desire for such mild martyrdom – the majority would prefer the cosseted life of the stereotypical Oxford don rather than the discomforts sacrificing yourself (mildly) for your beliefs would imply.

  • “Some of them were truly and deeply pious, like an artisan of whom I know, who preferred having his independent existence destroyed and becoming a simple worker to taking upon himself the ‘little formality’ of entering the Nazi Party. A few still took an oath seriously and preferred to renounce an academic career rather than swear by Hitler’s name.” (Hannah Arendt, ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’, from a list of reasons why the small percentage of Germans who never conformed did so).

    Natalie is right that under Stalin, Mao or Kim, it required courage to resist denouncing a friend, never mind conforming. Dissent was very dangerous. Even in milder totalitarian regimes (and Germany in the mid-30s was, for Germans, such a milder regime), actually to resist morally demanded some sacrifices. Intellectuals’ idea of themselves as a superior class is soon dissipated if one examines who and what number ever did.

  • Paul Marks

    The praise for Fidel Castro (for example the endlessly repeated LIE that he gave wonderful healthcare to everyone – in reality ordinary Cubans have to pay bribes for just about everything) has been revealing.

    The so called “Progressives” and “Liberals” are praising a vicious Marxist dictator who slaughtered tens of thousands of ordinary Cubans – a regime that promised free elections in 1959 and has spent 57 years not delivering on that promise.

    There is no need for complex explanations – Ockham’s Razor comes into play (unnecessary complications are a mistake). The “Progressives” and “Liberals” (who are the opposite of real Classical Liberals such as Prime Minister Gladstone) are Marxists themselves.

    Oh they may not believe ever detail of the teachings of Karl Marx – but Marxists have been messing about with those teachings since at least the 1920s. They, the “liberals” and “Progressives” believe the basic doctrines of Marxism – most importantly that “the rich” (and “capitalist big business”) have opposed long term economic interests to “the poor”. This is reflected in what is taught in their schools and universities and by their entertainment media – Hollywood films, television shows and so on (“big business” and “the rich businessman” is always the baddie).

    They praise Castro because they, at base, believe the same things he did. They (the “mainstream media” and the “education system” and so on) are the enemy.

  • Paul Marks

    It goes back a lot further than Karl Marx – it goes back to Plato, and long before.

    This is a very old war – and there is only one war.

    The war between private property and the enemies private property – the plunderers.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Second Natalie’s recommendation of Prof. Hollander’s Political Pilgrims.

    PS. I’ve been having decent luck finding used books on eBay and at AbeBooks.com — and often they’re cheaper than at Amazon, too. :>)