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True Communists Such As I

A Discussion of the Party Loyalty After Great Trial of Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg

by

Bruce A. Clark


I. Introduction

Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind is the story of the author’s arrest and imprisonment in the purge in the USSR in 1937 and afterwards. It can also be read as the compilation of reasons why she retained her loyalty to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) through the whole ordeal. There is no single reason why she necessarily would or would not have her faith in the Soviet system shaken by her ordeal. It is bound to be a complex of reasons. To easier find which are the essential events which led to her decision, it is useful to compare her circumstances the those of someone who made the opposite decision: to abandon Communism and the Communist Party.

Arthur Koestler is such a person, and he describes this part of his life in the second volume of his autobiography, The Invisible Writing. Koestler joined the German Communist Party (KPD) in 1931. He was born two years before Ginzburg, of Russian and Czech Jewish parents. He traveled around the USSR from September, 1932 to August, 1933, and was imprisoned for a short time by Franco during the Spanish Civil War. After the Moscow Trials and the purge, he left the Party, but was a sympathizer for a short time thereafter. In short, there are both interesting similarities and differences between Koestler and Ginzburg, and a comparison between them is fruitful.

II. Background and Environment Issues

Ginzburg was born ten years before the Russian Revolution. It seems that her father, at least, was of the intelligentsia and was a technician. She was in a position to make a comparison between the two political systems, and make a judgement based upon that. In her own words:

... would we vote for any other than the Soviet system, which seemed as much a part of us as our hearts and as natural to us as breathing? Everything I had in the world — the thousands of books I had read, memories of my youth, and the very endurance which was now keeping me from going under — all this had been given me by the Soviet system, and the revolution which had transformed my world while I was still a child. How exciting life had been and how gloriously everything had begun!

Moreover, everything about it was natural to her. The working class, and to at least some degree, peasant basis of the USSR, of necessity growing anew from the ground up made her accustomed to the problems and benefits of living in a place where the new upward mobility forced one to mix with all kinds of people, and work with them productively.

How different this is from Koestler’s background. He grew up in Hungary, in a more or less successful bourgeois family. He also was well educated and multilingual, but these things and most everything else he had during his formative years were imparted to him under capitalism. In the ,deepest sense, the Soviet system was an alien one. He says:

My idea of Russia had been formed entirely by Soviet propaganda. It was the image of a super-America, engaged in the most gigantic enterprise in history, buzzing with activity, efficiency, enthusiasm. ... At the frontier I would ‘change trains for the twenty-first century’, as another slogan had promised.

Since his background was different, and his view of the Soviet Union (on which the KPD was based) was actually an illusion, he was in no position to make a for-better-or-worse acceptance of it. He very eloquently described the situation in a fictional work about a home for the children of German Communists who were either working underground or had been killed by the Nazis. He put much of himself into one of the characters, Ullrich, who says:

I want to warm myself against their bodies, I want to belong to them, I rub myself against them like a sheep pressing against the flock. I want to feel that I am not the only person alive in this world.

But I have hardly been two minutes with them, and it is all gone. They bore me. They are primitive. They are stranger to me than Hottentots. ... Some are like marionettes on wires, others like figures in a waxworks. ...

It drives me mad that my mother should after all have been proved right: I don’t be long to them. No profession of faith in Marx and the proletariat can alter the fact. I believe in Marx and I believe in the proletariat, but I can’t get accustomed to the smell of Charlie’s socks. I am a frustrated Communist. I am frustrated by a pair of socks ... No, I don’t belong to the sunken world of my parents. But I don’t belong to the others, either. ...

I know that these little Proles can’t help being what they are — dumb, callous, primitive, narrow in mind, coarse in spirit. ... There is an estrangement impossible to bridge. ... I do not despise them since I have become a Marxist — but they bore me stiff.

Further on, Koestler quotes from another work:

‘I have come to you,’ says the young boy, ‘to ask you on which side I stand in this great upheaval, and where I belong.’

‘Well, well,’ says the professor, ‘I believe that you don’t belong anywhere.’ ... ‘There is a collective destiny, and to revolt against it doesn’t lead anywhere. History is not interested in the wishes of individuals. ... You will see everything and understand every thing, you will survive new wars and new revolutions, but you will be alone, without friends, without a roof or a country, without echo and achievement ...

This clearly doesn’t apply to Ginzburg. She does belong, and does have friends, a country, and possibilities, but the key to it all is the Party.

In the USSR, the CPSU is fully legal and a part of the everyday fabric of the community. In the west, especially for a member of the KPD in exile from Nazism, this is not the case. Koestler says “I no longer had any friends outside the party. It had become my family, my nest, my spiritual home.” and “I was leading the life a Communist should lead, a life of poverty, dedication and obedience.” This is untenable for a healthy, social person, and is not likely to survive a severe shock like the Purge. Ginzburg was in a very different position: the party-society link provided a cushion.

III. Personality Issues

Some of the factors which helped get Ginzburg into trouble (in the sense that she might have avoided arrest by recanting and groveling early on) was also involved in getting her out of it with both self respect and Party loyalty intact. These were her political naivete, her simple loyalty and strength of character. Because of her background and position as a rank and file (rather than full-time) party member, she was no political sophisticate. She had not the exposure to other philosophies and political systems in action to pose anything other than the binary choice: the party or nothing. Thus, her informed choices of how to politically react to her experiences were limited.

Ginzburg was truly loyal to the party. Perhaps she could have left town and avoided arrest, but “How can a Communist run away from the Party?” Also, having spent the first ten years of her life under capitalism/tsarism, she was unlikely to choose that. If she rejected the Soviet system and the party, then what?

She said:

if the demagogic habits of mind I had been trained in were so deeply rooted in me that I could not now make an independent analysis of the situation in the country and the Party, then I would be guided simply by the voice of my conscience. I would speak only the truth about myself, I would sign no lies against myself or anyone else, and I would give no names. ... It was impossible that they could be of service to the Party I had so fervently believed in, and to which I had resolved to dedicate my life.

The closest she ever got to taking blame on herself was the shame she felt for the way her party treated German Communists, by imprisoning them.

In contradistinction to this was Koestler’s broader experience, both in life and in politics. Unlike Ginzburg, he had the option to leave not only the Soviet Union, but also the Party and the ideology when events finally overcame his ability to reconcile them to his life. His approach to the Party was idealistic, not a matter-of-fact part of his life, and in trying to bend his life to his ideas, he did things which violated his basic morality. For example:

During my seven years in the Communist Party, the only person whom I denounced or betrayed was Nadeshda, and she was dearer to me than anybody during those seven years. ... The Party to which I betrayed her I did not love ... But I was a part of it, as my hands and my guts were a part of myself.

This added guilt to his other doubts and later invoked his basic character against continuing his loyalty to the party. Ginzburg avoided this situation.

Another factor which undoubtedly plays a role in Ginzburg’s loyalty decision is an absence of preoccupation with herself. She was, of course, worried about her survival, but, other than that, her book doesn’t reflect that she spent a great deal of time being introspective. She was secure with herself and didn’t feel the need. “Many a time, my thoughts were taken off my own sufferings by the keen interest which I felt in the unusual aspects of life and of human nature which unfolded around me.” When she was in the most desperate circumstances, she worried not about herself, but her children, who were physically safe: “My poor little one, alone in this dreadful world — and what did he have to remember his mother by? That she had slapped him for an idiotic bottle of scent.”

Koestler was different:

Now, at twenty-six, this floating mass of anxiety and guilt, always ready to fasten on the first peg in sight, turned against my bourgeois background, my powers of reasoning and capacity for enjoyment.

and

Through a long process of trial and error, I began to learn that complete dedication to a cause was for me a physical necessity, my only haven from the nagging sense of guilt which my childhood had implanted ...

Once he had matured and dealt with such psychological factors as guilt, his need to be a Communist was weakened, and his continued participation had to rely upon other factors, which were weakening also. This leads the speculation that if Ginzburg were not so well adjusted to her circumstances and to herself, she might have been influenced to decide her loyalty question differently.

IV. Personal Ideological Issues

Ginzburg’s ideology came to her naturally, with growing up, being educated, and employed under the Soviet system. Being in love with and married to a high party official undoubtedly contributed, also. For someone in her position, with a successful career and some degree of privilege, things fit together very naturally. The Party, as the active force in this ideological system, could be seen as a living organism, with good points and bad points, just like everything else in the world. She could view her friends in their social and, if members, their Party roles. Loyalty to self, husband, country, friends, political system, and party all became one, and was tied to her general level of happiness and satisfaction.

Being from a bourgeois background, there is, of course, no possibility that Koestler could have come by his Communist ideology as naturally and completely. He quotes Pablo Picasso, saying “I went to Communism as one goes to a spring of fresh water.” Koestler says, of Communists,

... they behaved with courage, discipline and determination, which won them grudging admiration and gave them a considerable advantage over their soft and undecided progressive allies. It was this fearless, active, knight-errant aspect of Communism which attracted me and millions of others to the movement, and which compensated us for our disappointments.

and

... that the two poles of the Communist’s faith are longing for Utopia and rejection of the existing social order. ... The show-trials of 1936-38 disgusted many European Communists, but the Fascist menace ... disgusted them even more.

How the ideological solidity of the two people compare is summed up succinctly by Koestler, when he states that “a faith that is held ‘in spite of’ is always more resilient and less open to disillusion than one based on a ‘because’.”

A very major factor in Ginzburg’s ability to hang on to her ideology ‘in spite of’ her tragic experiences is her confidence that her Communist views are correct. (Whether they in fact are correct is neither here nor there.) The extra punishment prisoners receive on political holidays further reinforces the feeling that she is being punished by someone because she is a good Communist, and not for some other reason. This confidence allows her to isolate the acts done to her and others, and well as those doing them, as beyond the Communist pale, and therefore are nothing necessitating abandonment of the Party and her ideology.

Both from her own analysis and from listening to others she meets, she begins to understand. At first, she says “I had first to determine who these people were, who kept me imprisoned. Were they fascists in disguise? Or victims of some super-subtle provocation, some fantastic hoax?” Later, she says variously: “it had been absurd to look for rhyme or reason in the acts of lunatics”, “those who did these things were not human beings”, “I saw what it was they had in common — the empty look of a mummy, or a fish in aspic.”, and “they were brigands anyway, ... Do you, with your codfish faces, really think you can go on robbing and murdering for another ten years”? She refers to the events as “the Great Lunacy.” But never does she think that they are the true Communists and that their actions condemn Communism.

Gradually she comes to focus on the idea that the basis of the problem is personified by one man — Stalin. First, it is in Garey’s words: “‘Koba. It’s his eighteenth Brumaire. Physical extermination of all the best people in the Party, who stand or might stand in the way of his definitely establishing his dictatorship.’” Later, it is her own words: “But if all these people have betrayed one man, isn’t it easier to suppose that he has betrayed them?”

The completeness and naturalness of Ginzburg’s ideology allows her to see this answer. The different circumstances of Koestler’s experience lead to a different conclusion. His time has been spent working in a Comintern-affiliated party in the capitalist west, both as a full-time party worker and as a writer/propagandist earning his own income from his work. The Communists with whom he is in contact are all like him: isolated from the mainstream of the surrounding society and following changing orders from Moscow. They can hope for the final goal, but they can’t take comfort in surroundings which fit together comfortably as could Ginzburg. Koestler identified the whole Communist movement with the professional Communist politicians. Consequently, the whole party seemed to be moving as one unit to do the things which he came to criticize. He was critical of the personal power of Stalin and of the sycophantic Party leaders who maneuvered similarly, but in the long run couldn’t in his mind excise one or a few bad apples, and threw out the whole barrel. While writing a historical novel of the Spartacus slave rebellion in ancient Rome, he was led to examine his own political feelings and said:

... I had been critical of the Soviet leadership and the Comintern bureaucracy, but not of the basic teaching of Communism ... Now, the more engrossed I became in my subject, the more questionable became the very foundations of the doctrine, the more cracks appeared in the wall around the ‘closed system’, and the more fresh air blew in.

Koestler makes the point that intelligent Communists, such as Ginzburg, are deceiving themselves. He states that “every single educated Communist ... has his own private and secret philosophy whose purpose is not to explain the facts, but to explain them away.” There is no way of disproving a sweeping statement like this; it may be true, it may not be. For the purposes of this discussion, however, it does not matter, for the point is to discover how and why Ginzburg retained her loyalty to the Party and the Soviet system, not whether she was reasonable (by some standard) in doing so.

V. Political Viewpoint Issues

Ginzburg’s Communist ideology is not cold and philosophical. It could not be in such a warm and compassionate person. Her love of literature rather than cold political writing is further evidence of this. This love of and faith in the humanity of her country and her people were not weakened, but, rather, were strengthened by her experiences and helped sustain her through her ordeal. She returns to this idea repeatedly. Early on, she greets a messenger at her door and

he handed me a large bunch of sad autumn flowers, asters. In it was an affectionate note from my last year’s students. ... Grandmother joined in ... saying ... ‘They’re a plucky lot, the students. They’ll catch it for those flowers.’

And later, while on a prison truck,

‘Hello, girls!’ shouted a tall young man, walking past with a group of friends. They waved their caps and I felt a surge of warm affection for these unknown people. How good that they were left in peace, and every evening strolled on the embankment.

It is most apparent when the prison train stops and some peasants feed them:

Horny, weather-beaten hands were thrust into our car with pickled gherkins, curds, eggs, and bread. Beneath the kerchiefs which covered the women’s foreheads we saw the ancient peasant eyes filled with tears and pity. One of them splashed milk into the mugs we were holding out ... ‘Fancy the cruel devils not giving them any water! Here, Anka, fill up the pail again. ... And think of all their poor little children left at home, no better than orphans.’

When Koestler was imprisoned in Spain by Franco’s forces, the Soviet government was busy giving aid to the Republican forces with an eyedropper and slaughtering Trotskyists, not trying to get him released. While some Communist friends campaigned for his release, it was pressure from bourgeois liberals which resulted in the prisoner exchange that saved his life. He didn’t have the example of human warmth coming from the Soviet people to sustain his hope. Rather, he came to feel that ideological people were less human than the rest. Speaking of his denunciation, he said “What happened at Baku made me into a bad Communist, and a bad anti-Communist, and thereby a little more human.”

Another sustaining thought of Ginzburg’s was the idea that “This too will pass”. She had seen changes in Party life before and could view the happenings as a temporary phenomenon. If one can see the Purge as temporary, one can have hope for the future. Since Koestler didn’t view it in this way, it couldn’t give him the necessary hope for change that might have kept his loyalty.

Another contrast between their ideological views exist in the differing idea of freedom between Koestler and Ginzburg. Koestler’s view is definitely one of the freedom of the individual. He quotes from his Darkness at Noon, saying

The Party denied the free will of the individual — and at the same time it exacted his willing self sacrifice. It denied his capacity to choose between two alternatives — and at the same time it demanded that he should always choose the right one.

Ginzburg’s continuing faith in Marxism implicitly gives her the view that freedom is the recognition of necessity. This allows her to justify the necessity for sacrifices by herself and others for the Party and the country to try to catch up with the capitalist west in industrial development, etc. Once this precept is agreed to, loyalty in the face of difficulty becomes much easier.

VI. Conclusion

How, after her great ordeal, could Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg retain her dedication to the Soviet system and her loyalty to the CPSU? Considering her background, the way her ideology had developed, her faith in humanity, her basic psychological health and her strength of character and morality, she could hardly have done anything else. She was ideologically a materialist: being determines consciousness. The material reality of the way she fit into her society and the needs of that society which had given her so much were solidly a part of her, and were not just mental ideals reached rationally, as were the Communist views of Koestler. She couldn’t just change her mind. She would have to have been much more totally broken than she was to have the whole framework destroyed.

While to trying to make the opposite point, Arthur Koestler paid a tribute to such people as Ginzburg, at least within the context of her own society. He says:

There existed another human element which prevented the colossal machinery from breaking down into its component parts, which kept the creaking transmissions and the dry bearings somehow going. It was a certain category of men that I find difficult to define though I have a vivid impression of the various individuals who belonged to it. I can best de scribe them by quoting a Talmudic legend which I recently read in a novel (Manes Sperber’s To Dusty Death). It is called ‘the legend of the thirty-six just men’:

When I was a child, our Rabbis taught me that if the thirty-six men did not exist, mankind couldn’t last a day, it would drown in its own wrongs. The thirty-six are not marked out by any rank or office. They cannot be recognized, they never yield their secret, perhaps they are not even aware of it themselves; and yet it is they who, in every successive generation justify our existence and who every day save the world anew.

I have met them on my travels in every part of the Soviet Union. ... What did these individuals have in common? They were ‘not marked out by rank or office’. They had the most various occupations. They were not fanatical supporters of the regime. They were the people who, when I was lost and despairing, restored my faith in the Soviet Union. They created around themselves little islands of order and dignity in an ocean of chaos and absurdity. ... These men, whether Communists or not, are ‘Soviet Patriots’ is the sense in which the word was first used in the French Revolution. They are neither heroes nor saints, and their civic virtues all go against the grain of the regime they serve. They are motivated by a grave sense of responsibility in a country where everybody fears and evades responsibility; ... they are loyal and devoted to their fellow-beings in a world where loyalty is only expected towards the State. They have personal honor and an unconscious dignity of comportment, where these words are objects of ridicule. ... Those whom I met in Russia were mostly in their early thirties, and belonged to the post-revolutionary generation. These upright, devoted, energetic and fearless men were and are the backbone of the regime ... As a Communist, I took their existence for granted, for I believed that they were the product of revolutionary education, that ‘new type of man’ whose coming Marx had predicted.


Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements of Russian History, Spring Semester, 1984-84, Brown University, Professor Abbott Gleason, History Department


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