Friday, December 23, 2005

"The God That Failed"--and the lesser of two evils

As part of my "literary leftists" series, I've been doing research for a possible future post on Richard Wright, the black novelist and poet (and member of the Communist Party from the late 1920s through part of the 1940s), whose work I became familiar with as a young teenager by reading his short story "Bright and Morning Star," which had a powerful effect on me at the time.

One of these days I may write about Wright. But not today.

As so often happens, way leads on to way, and Googling "Richard Wright" led me to another discovery. Apparently, Wright wrote at some length about his membership in the Communist Party: what led up to it, and why he eventually repudiated it. The essay became part of a larger work, The God That Failed, that offers six such stories.

It became clear to me that this was still another book that had to go on my "change" reading list. The library obliged by finding a worn and tattered copy through Interlibrary Loan. It wasn't easy; the book doesn't seem to be standard issue in most libraries, and the one I finally obtained had, curiously enough, a stamp in front claiming it was originally the property of a no-longer-with-us air force base. Plus, the fact that I had somehow transformed the title of the book into "The Light That Failed"--which turns out to be a novel by Rudyard Kipling--didn't help the library much in its search. But I digress.

I haven't read the entire book yet--just a few passages, actually. I initially opened it at random, and it fell open to a piece by Arthur Koestler (Koestler's The Sleepwalkers is another old favorite of mine).

The background to the following (the very first passage I read) is this: Koestler, of Hungarian/Austrian/Jewish descent, was living as a young man in Berlin in the fading days of the Weimer Republic. He joined the Communist Party there, having been "converted" by his idealist readings of Marx and Engels. Here is how he describes the Communist Party's rigid position during an election in which Hindenburg was running against Hitler (and see this previous post of mine if you're interested in a rundown of how Hitler actually ended up becoming Chancellor):

We [the Communist Party in Germany] had refused to nominate a joint candidate with the Socialists for the Presidency, and when the Socialists backed Hindenburg as the lesser evil against Hitler, we nominated Thalmann though he had no chance of winning whatsoever--except, maybe, to split off enough proletarian votes to bring Hitler immediately into power. Our instructor gave us a lecture proving that there was no such thing as a "lesser evil," that it was a philosophical, strategical, and tactical fallacy; a Trotskyite, diversionist, liquidatorial and counter-revolutionary conception. Henceforth we had only pity and spite for those who as much as mentioned the ominous term; and, moreover, we were convinced that we had always been convinced that it was an invention of the devil. How could anyone fail to see that to have both legs amputated was better than trying to save one, and that the correct revolutionary position was to kick the crippled Republic's crutches away? Faith is a wondrous thing; it is not only capable of moving mountains but also of making you believe that a herring is a race horse.

This ideological purity and unwillingness to compromise was only a small part of the evils of Communism, of course. But it's an interesting description of how a rigid refusal to accept the "lesser of two evils" reality that sometimes is necessary in life is emblematic of many movements in many times--particularly, as I've written about before, pacifism. And the consequences can often be dire.

Koestler's disillusionment with Communism and final protracted leavetaking from it may be a story I'll tell another time. And Koestler himself is a figure of great controversy on a host of topics, including his interest in mysticism and psychic phenomena; as well as his attitude towards his own Jewish origins, and a book he wrote which ended up being used by anti-Semites to disown Zionism, although that was not his intent in writing it.

Koestler's later personal odyssey aside, there do seem to be some commonalties in these stories of leaving the fold. So far I've noticed an upbringing that predisposes to looking for idealistic and Utopian answers--sometimes a result of terrible hardship, sometimes a result of bookish naivete and relative privilege--and a swallowing whole of an ideology that is considered the answer to all problems (that's why the title of the book is "The God That Failed). Then there is some later life experience so striking and so terrible that it causes profound and lasting disillusionment.

When I look at myself and my own "change" experience, I consider that one big difference for me is that I have never swallowed any ideology whole. As a liberal, I had doubts, caveats, and hesitations; as a neo-neocon, the same. Sometimes trolls and critics here accuse me of naivete in believing there are simple answers that will inevitably fix everything. But I do not believe so at all. Rather, I believe all answers are complex and risky, but that can't keep us from our duty to try to choose what seems to be the best among them--even if sometimes that "best" is only the lesser of two evils.


At 6:56 PM, December 23, 2005, Blogger Motor 1560 said...

I'm currently nearing the end of Ex-Friends by Norman Podhoretz. While it is an odd little book; I'd describe it as a gossipy memoir with some intellectual rigor; it deals with the author's migration from the left to the right. The period it deals with is the 50's to the rise of the New Left. It also discusses the reactions of the New York intellectual elite, of which he was a member, to this migration.

The critique in Ex-Friends of the left reminds me quite a bit of that found in The God That Failed. I don't doubt that your library had a had time finding it. In the 60's it was subject to theft as a deliberate program to try to eliminate "reactionary" books.

I read Wright's Native Son many years ago, another teenager "reading above grade level", along with some of his other work and it hard a powerful effect on me, as well.

However, I came from a politically sophisticated background and had skepticism of easy, global answers fed to me along with my Gerber's. It was a program of inoculation against "Infantile Leftism" that I have been able to pass on.

I'd like to suggest another book, that should probably be read at the beginning of the sequence of The God That Failed and Ex-Friends and then reread again. That book is The True Believer; Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, by Eric Hoffer. Since Hoffer was self taught and worked as a longshoreman there is very little pretense in this work. He gets right to work. If you ever wondered how Jim Jones got all those people to "drink the Kool-Aid" this book will give you a good framework to understanding the phenomena of how cults, including mass political cults, function.

This book, written in 1951, is still as relevant today as it was when it was first published.

At 10:40 PM, December 23, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

That reading list of mine is getting loooong :-).

Actually, though, that one (Hoffer) was already on it.

At 10:52 PM, December 23, 2005, Blogger SippicanCottage said...

You are familiar, perhaps, with a book by Paul Johnson called "Intellectuals" ?

You could use it as a sort of Cliff Notes for your project, and use the time you save to learn more Inuit.

At 1:39 PM, December 24, 2005, Blogger Richard Landes said...

wasn't the strategy of those who voted for Nader in 2000 -- what's the difference between Gore and Bush?

At 4:47 PM, December 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...


James Baldwin's essays are a good source on Wright. He and W had quite a difficult relationship - Baldwin hero-worshipped him, but also felt he was a "road block" that he had to clear in order to flourish as a writer. Michel Fabre's biography is also useful, if you can get hold of it.

At 8:36 PM, December 24, 2005, Blogger David Thomson said...

The God That Failed could have been purchased used for a grand total of $2.51 at The book itself cost one penny and the delivery is $2.50. I have much experience obtaining books in this manner. Amazon is a God send for those like myself who have tight budgets.

I describe myself as a second rate Eric Hoffer imitator. His seminal work, The True Believer, is indispensable in trying to understand the mindset of the terrorist---especially those born well to do. Such an individual is truly “a guilt-ridden hitchhiker who thumbs a ride on every cause from Christianity to Communism. He’s a fanatic, needing a Stalin (or a Christ) to worship and die for.” It is the radical fervor and the demand for unquestionable existential adherence which attracts them. The specific doctrines are of secondary importance.

At 3:44 PM, December 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just read it and I have to second what the other guy said about Amazon. Sometimes it is better to just buy the book.

As to 'the moral' of the story, yes, an unwillingness to compromise is one of the clearest indicators that someone is an extremist and potential totalitarian. The extreme left and right mock parliamentary democracy (or at least they did back in the 30s) precisely because it is all about compromise....

Ergo, don't trust anyone that thinks moderate other opinions are 'evil'.

At 4:50 PM, December 27, 2005, Blogger Lichanos said...

You misunderstand the unwillingness to compromise of the communist party. It's not that they were not able or willing to see and take the "lesser of two evils." They frequently did so when it suited them. In the case of Weimar Germany, their goals were totally different than those of the compromisers, so...why compromise? They DESIRED the destruction of the state, but they thought THEY would be around to gather up the rubble for themselves.

Similarly, nihilistic terrorists are not unable and unwilling to compromise with us. They have NO common goals with us, so compromise is irrelevant. It's an important distinction in figuring out how to deal with them.

[On a personal note, I refrained from voting in 1980: Reagan, Carter, two of the same. I sought REAL change. Now my goals are more modest and I regret not voting against Reagan who was, of course, much more conservative than Carter.]

With today's terrorists, we compound our mistake of thinking they cannot compromise (they simply don't want to, with US) with confusion over their goals. Bush et al tell us we are in a war with a small group of fanatics who wish to destroy our way of life. Fat chance! How could they ever hope to attain that goal?

No, they simply want to get us out of here or there, stop us from doing this or that, overthrough this or that corrupt regime...all clear and definite goals which they may or may not attain. [We've withdrawn our troops from Saudi Arabia, one of Osama's main goals.]By misunderstanding their point of view and goals, we develop a poor strategy to deal with them, i.e., fighting for "territory" in Iraq.

At 7:03 PM, December 27, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

There are two methods by which the terroists may destroy our life. The European model, which is subversive infiltration until one controls a country's military, infrastructure, and nuclear arsenal to force everyone to obey Sharia Law.

The other method is to get the enemy to destroy their own liberties and security. The first step in that is to reduce the security and use that gap to create enough fear, with enough fear anyone will do stupid things.

People do compound their mistake when they believe fanaticism is so strict that they won't ally with Saddam like dictators that are secular or not.

People also compound their mistakes when they believe that the terroists goals are political in origin instead of conquest based.

No political policy was ever a threat to the world, because all politics are local. What is never local is conquest policies, because conquests always tend to expand outwards.

If Hitler didn't want to fight America first, it is not because he would have stopped at Europe. Hitler not wanting to fight Russia first, is not because he thought he could stop after taking over Britain.

Don't make the mistake of thinking what the terroists want is what a politician may want for his constituents.

At 9:11 PM, December 28, 2005, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> wasn't the strategy of those who voted for Nader in 2000 -- what's the difference between Gore and Bush?

LOL, hard to say this, but, for once, it must be said:

"Thank God for Ralph Nader!"

If the man weren't a complete idiot, Gore would have been president on 9/11/01

At 2:17 PM, December 30, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For some reason, I'm reminded of the character Rorschach in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' excellent graphic novel WATCHMEN. He believes that the only moral framework inherent to the universe is that which we impose on it - but he also believes that even within that framework, certain things are absolutely unacceptable. When one of Rorschach's former associates pulls off a hoax scare that kills three million New Yorkers but prevents a nuclear war from breaking out (and killing billions more), Rorschach finds his beliefs violated and refuses to compromise and keep silent - thereby endangering the newly formed peace - and all because he refuses to accept "the lesser of two evils." For him, there is Evil and Good, and no evil should ever be done in the name of a greater good.

Perhaps it's admirable to think that there is no such thing as a 'necessary evil'. Moore and Gibbons make no judgment calls about Rorschach, instead asking the reader where their sympathies in the story lie.

At 3:13 PM, January 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"This ideological purity and unwillingness to compromise was only a small part of the evils of Communism"

I was reading about the Dreyfuss affair and picked up a new insight as to why the communists would not compromise with the social democrats in Germany.

Extremist revolutionary groups tend to loose large numbers of their members once they compromise with more moderate groups on their own end the political spectrum (they loose them to the more moderate groups). Ergo, by refusing to compromise, the communists probably thought (at the time) that their position was demonstrating they had learned from history..

Compromise tends to lead to absorption... and of course.. moderation...

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