Life under Communism
The Rosa Luxemburg Contraceptives Cooperative.
by Leopold Tyrmand.
Macmillan. 287 pp. $5.95.
Given the social and cultural atmosphere of the times, it is likely that some people will dismiss this hardhitting broadside, aimed at the inanities and oppressions of Communist society, with a bored shrug (“So what else is new?”). Others may even be moved to indignant outrage (“Is this the proper time to carry on about such things? What about the horrors of our own society, the destruction of the environment, the oppression of minorities? Etc., etc.”). Leopold Tyrmand, a distinguished émigré Polish novelist, has been living in the United States for some time now, but from the evidence at hand it would seem that he has not yet learned the trick of making a critique of Communism palatable to the Western intelligentsia. For instance, there is not a single sentence in his book beginning, “We in the West, for our part, are far from blameless,” no reassuring hint of the traumas that are common to all post-industrial societies, no yearning glance at the freedom-loving peoples of the Third World. Reading Tyrmand, we seem to be back in the 50’s; the Gulf of Tonkin incident might just as well never have happened, and Herbert Marcuse never have been born.
Surely Mr. Tyrmand’s “anachronistic” attitudes are not the product of ignorance. He has written for some of America’s leading (and liberal) magazines and presumably he has read the work of his fellow contributors. So if he ventures where intellectuals this side of the National Review and Henry Regnery fear to tread, it is because he writes from the heart and in anger. To be sure, his passion often leads him into oversimplification and crudity, but at the same time it renders his testimony much more valuable than if he had dressed it up in the more fashionable sociological profundities of the moment.
The message is simple: life under Communism is awful—and it doesn’t matter whether the Communism in question is of the pre-Stalin, post-Stalin, or “humanistic” variety. Though Tyrmand does not say so explicitly, he clearly implies that this would be the case even had the main architects of present-day Communism been not Stalin and Khrushchev but George Lukÿcs and Antonio Gramsci. For the outstanding characteristic of Communist society is not its terror but its contrived boredom, harnessed to an incredible inefficiency in matters having to do with the individual’s, as opposed to the state’s, needs. The average citizen in a Communist society, both as thinker and consumer, is subjected to constant indignities and chicaneries. If he wants to keep his head above water, he cannot afford the luxury of quiet, to say nothing of violent, exasperation. Instead, he must feign enthusiastic acceptance of the bleak reality which surrounds him.
Mr. Tyrmand writes out of his post-World War II experience in Poland. Hence he does not fully comprehend—and this is perhaps the most depressing reflection of all—how sometimes the acceptance of a particular Communist regime can in fact be genuinely enthusiastic. Had he lived through the Stalinist period in Russia, he might, it is fair to surmise, have welcomed the Khrushchev era as one that brought an intoxicating infusion of freedom. (Only an unusually sophisticated, or cynical, or, in any case, aging Soviet citizen in 1956 could have made the remark preserved for posterity in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope: “Thank God we are now almost as well off as we were before the Revolution.”) Writing as he does from the perspective of a society only recently subsumed by Communism, Mr. Tyrmand often fails to appreciate those elements of Communist doctrine and practice which are at once its most attractive and, to us, its most disturbing points.
In Poland, Communism has been almost entirely an artificial, imposed growth. Were the threat of Soviet intervention to disappear entirely, Communism in Poland would not have to be overthrown—it would vanish overnight. But in the Soviet Union, over the course of two generations, Communism has become so inextricably blended with Russian nationalism as to form part of the national culture. The average Russian suffers, in Tyrmand’s words, from “the indignities and inanities of life in a Marxist society” no less, and possibly more, than the average Pole or Czech. Still, for the most part, he can criticize this society only in its own idiom. Mr. Tyrmand’s failure to see this results in a rather serious oversimplification. Communism is to him, without qualification, a gigantic con game. Of that undeniable existential quality, which, when combined with genuine emotion, enables the Communist doctrine to stir men’s hearts and minds, he says not a word.
It is when people are supposed to live under it as a system, rather than fight for it as an ideal, that Communism reveals its appalling shortcomings. Yet even then Communism may offer psychological compensation for the practical inconveniences and irritations that it imposes on its victims. The Soviet citizen may be unhappy about the restrictions on his freedom and he may grumble about the shortages of consumer goods, but un-like the average citizen of a democracy he is relieved of the mental burden of worrying about what proportion of the national budget, for instance, should go to defense.
Mr. Tyrmand’s anger also leads him to be unfair in appraising the post-Stalin phenomenon of what might be called the loyal dissenter. People who operate within the allowable limits of dissent in Communist society are his special bête noire—more so, it would seem, than the all-out zealots and conformists. He is caustic about the readiness of many in the West to grant “fighter-for-freedom” status to those Polish and Czech bureaucrats and intellectuals who, Stalinists when Stalinism was in flower, liberal Communists when that was the fashion, suddenly find themselves victims of persecution or exiles at the latest twist of the dialectic; he reserves a special disdain in this connection for Yevtushenko and Ilya Ehrenburg.
Mr. Tyrmand’s moralistic fervor, admirable enough in the abstract, gets the better of him here. In the area of social reform, trimmers and opportunists sometimes contribute as much as, if not more than, martyrs and idealists, and it would be foolish to deny that, whatever their personal motivation and whatever their status as writers, Ehrenburg and Yevtushenko have exerted a positive influence on the tone of Soviet cultural life. It is also not impossible for an erstwhile Stalinist to undergo a genuine conversion; witness Alexander Dubcek. When it comes to considering the complexities of life and conscience in a Communist society, the first rule is to try to understand before judging. In this very unliberal world, those who hope to exercise a civilizing influence cannot afford any variant of the Lenin-Stalin stance: “Who is not with us is against us.”
By the same token, however, we must be grateful for the occasional unvarnished testimony of the bleakness of the Communist reality. For too many Western intellectuals, this reality has become obscured, on the one hand by the cataclysmic vision of a Zamyatin or an Orwell, and on the other by the glowing accounts of experts and casual travelers alike who report on the abundance of goods in the Budapest stores or the undying devotion of 800 million Chinese to communal living and Chairman Mao. Little enough is published that would enable a Western reader to get a feeling of the everyday drama and comedy of life under Communism, and it is the particular merit of Tyrmand’s honest and angry book that to a considerable degree it succeeds in doing just that.