Thursday, November 3, 2011

A brilliant fool

One of the books assigned when I took a Russian history class in the late sixties was Stalin by Isaac Deutscher. Deutscher was a popular choice in those days — one of those Marxists uninfected by Stalinism, popular with the so-called "New" Left. In a characteristically interesting essay, Theodore Dalrymple writes about this particular true believer:
.... He was what might be called a dialectical equivocator, made dishonest by his early religious vows to Marxism. This made him unable to see or judge things in a common-sense way. His unwavering attachment to his primordial philosophical standpoint, his irrational rationalism, turned him into that most curious (and sometimes dangerous, because intellectually charismatic) figure, the brilliant fool. He was the opposite of Dr Watson who saw but did not observe: he observed, but did not see. He was the archetype of the man, so common among intellectuals, who knows much but understands little. ....

One of Deutscher’s collections of essays, always intensely readable, was called Heretics and Renegades....

.... The first essay in the book is an extended review of the famous book The God that Failed, a collection of six essays by ex-communist intellectuals who explain their renunciation of the faith altogether – for Deutscher renegades all. For them, it was not only that communism failed completely to live up to its ideals, but that its ideals were wrong and therefore intimately and inextricably related to the horrors that followed.

For Deutscher, by contrast, the ideal of a society in which people were completely undifferentiated by class, in which a spontaneous abundance arose, in which people produced for use and not for profit, in which no one exercised more power than any other person, remained not what it always was, an adolescent and not terribly intelligent dream, but real, something directly to be aimed at; and never mind if people initially possessed of this vision (the product, usually, of profound and often unbalanced resentment) had so far killed millions of people. They had merely gone about it the wrong way. Deutscher, the most egocentric of men despite a pretended humility, would show them the right way:
He [the ex-communist renegade] no longer throws out the the dirty water of the Russian revolution to protect the baby; he discovers that the baby is a monster that must be strangled.
The death of tens of millions becomes mere dirty bath-water; the baby – presumably the core of the Soviet Union, its ideal, not its practice – is still beautiful.

Deutscher reproached the renegades of The God that Failed for their tendency to abstraction, of uninterest in concrete realities of the world around them, but you can’t get much more abstract than calling mass famines, purges, the gulag, mere dirty water. It is no surprise, perhaps, that a man who can do so has about as much sense of proportion as a young child from whose hand a toy is removed. ....

Deutscher was a fine example of the scholar who knew a lot and understood little (including, or especially, himself). A man may smile and smile and be a villain. A man may read and read, and experience and experience, and understand nothing. [more]
Knowledge Without Knowledge > Theodore Dalrymple