Are political pilgrimages a matter of history, or has the phenomenon survived? If so, in what form? Some reference to these questions has been made in the preface to the (1983) paperback edition of my book Political Pilgrims, but the years that have passed since then call for further reflections on this matter. History has not stood still: in the light of relatively recent developments in the Soviet bloc, there are good reasons to take a new look not merely at the pilgrimage itself, but at the attitudes that underlie it.
The most striking political-intellectual phenomenon of the last few years has been the growing disjunction between the change and turmoil inside the Communist bloc countries, and the stability of the political attitudes among those who time and again have provided the reservoir from which the Western pilgrims or political tourists are drawn. I call this phenomenon “the survival of the adversary culture.” I argued at length in Political Pilgrims that it has always been the adversarial attitude, the estranged sensibility, that motivated the pilgrims and political tourists to look for and find glorious alternatives to the flawed arrangements of their own society which they held in such deep contempt. It is these attitudes that have survived.intact even while developments around the world, and in the so-called socialist countries themselves, have made it more difficult to find political systems that can be favorably contrasted with Western corruption and decline, and endowed with virtues and values Western societies have failed to supply. The impulse to embark on new pilgrimages is still there, but the number of available destinations has become much smaller.
By the mid-1980’s the pace of change—and especially the volume of self-critical disclosures—within the Communist bloc had greatly expanded. Most importantly, from the standpoint of potential pilgrims, internal scrutiny and soulsearching, now officially authorized, sharpened. As a result, neither in China, nor anywhere else in the Eastern bloc, was there much left of the outward self-assurance and self-congratulatory disposition that had earlier impressed visitors in search of political rectitude, a sense of purpose, and collectivized self-transcendence.
The new openness meant that critiques of these systems, which had been thoroughly and ruthlessly suppressed earlier, could now be voiced and widely disseminated both in the official media and in new, semiofficial sources. These revelations eroded, indeed made mockery of, what used to be the major appeals of these systems. By the mid-1980’s not even the most determined or visionary pilgrim could find in them the sense of purpose, social cohesion, warm communal bonds, social justice, and egalitarianism, let alone spectacular material accomplishments and other praiseworthy qualities of life that had in the past exercised such a powerful attraction.
It was no longer just the poor record of these societies regarding civil liberties and free expression that made their idealization difficult. The new, Gorbachev-era revelations made clear that these systems faced serious domestic economic crises, and their claims of great material progress—which used to be seen as adequately compensating for the lack of personal freedom—were unfounded. Social problems thought earlier to be peculiar to capitalism abounded: crime, drunkenness, corruption, environmental destruction, declining public health, the misery of old-age pensioners, the disintegration of the family, shortages of food and basic commodities, declining living standards, old-fashioned poverty—the socialist countries had them all, and they were getting worse, not better. Under state socialism alienation, too, became a malaise that held in its grip not only idealistic intellectuals with high expectations (as has been the case in the West), but the masses of ordinary people as well. No sense of purpose, community, or optimism, but a new sense of stagnation and decline, even decomposition, became the hallmark of these countries.
While Western intellectuals continued to dwell on and lament the ravages and injustices of capitalism, socialist systems increasingly acknowledged the failures of the state-controlled economy—its massive inefficiency and lack of productivity, its inability to meet human needs. Cautiously, socialist leaders sought to reintroduce private enterprise.
There is a huge irony in all this. While state-controlled economies were in spectacular decline and leaders of socialist countries began to gradually dismantle the ideological foundation of these malfunctioning institutions, Marxism continued to bask in the reverence of academic intellectuals in the West. These Westerners continued to cling to it while in the countries where Marxism has been the centerpiece of the official value system, a guide to practice and major source of legitimacy, it became a totally discredited and irrelevant doctrine, and not only for the masses (who never embraced or understood it), but also for the intelligentsia.
For the most part, the estranged, adversarial intellectuals in the West have resolutely averted their eyes from these developments, from the resounding moral and material failures of these state socialist countries. They are especially disinclined to detect any connection between the ideas and ideals of Marxism-Leninism and the sorry state of affairs in the Communist bloc.
The persistence of these attitudes can be linked to the institutionalization of the values that motivated the protest movements of the 1960’s, and gave rise to, the adversary culture. Signs of the survival of these political and cultural values have been numerous and hard to miss. They include the candidacy of Jesse Jackson in both the 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns, and the support he received not only among blacks (not relevant for this argument), but among the white liberals and especially the academic community.
Another reflection of the persistence and influence of the adversary culture has been the successful frustration, attributable in large measure to the highly-organized pro-Sandinista lobby, of the efforts of the Reagan administration to sustain the anticommunist guerrillas of Nicaragua.
A third indication has been the virtually complete triumph of the moral equivalence school in public discourse—the belief that there are no moral distinctions worth making between the American and Soviet political systems, and that both deserve to be viewed with equal cynicism (though on closer inspection the upholders of this theory tend to be far more critical of the United States than the USSR). A recent version of the moral equivalence argument was made by J. Anthony Lukacs in The New York Times in March. According to Lukacs, the death sentence passed on Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini could be compared to the rage American veterans felt at the trampling of the American flag at an art exhibit in Chicago.
A fourth manifestation of the adversary culture may be found in its continued growth and entrenchment in towns controlled or dominated by radical-left groups. Usually these are campus towns—such as Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Santa Monica, Ann Arbor, Madison, Burlington, Amherst.
The recent movement to reform the curriculum in the colleges and universities so as to enhance its “non-Western” ingredients may also be seen as a reflection of this mindset. The “multicultural” or “cultural diversity” courses and curricula generally consist of materials conveying criticism of Western cultural values and political institutions from a Marxist, Third World, or militant feminist perspective—a viewpoint already available in many courses, but now made mandatory for everybody in the new programs.
How have these developments affected the political pilgrimage? While the pilgrimage of Westerners to the Soviet Union came to a halt after World War II, in the last few years a new generation of Westerners has begun to visit the Soviet Union in growing numbers. In the l980’s it has been primarily the longing for peace, and the hope that human contacts at the grass roots level will help to avert a nuclear holocaust, rather than the pursuit of political utopia, that brought well-meaning Westerners and especially Americans to the Soviet Union. (Others, in smaller numbers, go in pursuit of lucrative business contracts, but revealingly enough, trade itself is often justified less as a profit-making activity than as a means for promoting peace and mutual understanding.) Whether or not such hopes are more realistic than those that inspired the earlier generation of pilgrims is debatable.
China, ever since the death of Mao, has lost much of its political attraction. Stories of its embrace of capitalism have flooded the American media and sympathizers can no longer thrill at the high-minded regimentation its totalitarian morality produced, or be animated by the egalitarian fervor of the Cultural Revolution.
Communist Vietnam, while it had its champions during the war and played host to many prominent Western, especially American, visitors, never attracted large numbers of pilgrims. It remained quite inaccessible due to its distance and political controls. (The boat people also made a dent in its supporters’ enthusiasm.) Occasional Western delegations in the 1980’s were given the usual treatment. Among them was an American church group (composed of members of the Church World Service and United Methodist Committee on Relief) that was profoundly impressed by a model “re-education camp,” which it saw under circumstances reminiscent of the well-organized visits to Soviet, Chinese, Cuban, and Nicaraguan model prisons that I describe in Political Pilgrims.
Although Nicaragua has taken center stage in the pilgrimages of the 1980’s, Cuba under Castro has retained a fair amount of support in the same circles, even though it has remained one of the most repressive, intolerant, militaristic, and economically mismanaged of all Communist systems. It has also been a country that 10 percent of its population has preferred to leave (often under difficult and risky conditions) for both economic and political reasons. Such matters are overlooked by the sympathizers, perhaps in part because the Cuban regime, personified by Castro, never lost its outward self-assurance and never showed any hesitation in claiming moral superiority over the United States and other capitalist systems (of which Cuba remains the most vitriolic critic). Presumably, Castro’s charisma and durability play a part in cementing the loyalties of foreign admirers: an original revolutionary hero still at the helm and unwilling to dilute the revolutionary purity and idealism of his system by concessions either to “bourgeois freedoms” or capitalistic greed.
Thus, among American or Western European intellectuals on the left it never became quite acceptable to take a strongly critical stand toward the Cuban system. As the exiled Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas observed, “it is not fashionable to attack Fidel Castro; that would not be progressive.” Not only that: “It is difficult [in the West] to get ahead as an enemy of a regime like Cuba . . . I encounter this in academic circles everywhere. At Harvard I was asked not to talk about politics during a lecture. In the meantime communist writers like Cintio Vitier and Miguel Barnet were given free reign to talk of nothing else.”
Jesse Jackson is among the friends of Cuba. His attitude toward it is, as Fred Barnes put it, “similar to Shirley MacLaine’s [attitude] toward China in the 1970s, or the Webbs’ toward the Soviet Union in the 1930s. . . . Jackson visits the schools on the Island of Youth and finds them ‘creative.’ In truth they are the essence of totalitarianism, where Cuban children are leached of what a pro-Castro American tells me are their ‘backward attitudes.'”
Curiously enough, church delegations and groups are prominent among the last-ditch supporters of Cuba. A spokesman for a delegation of Methodists said, “We saw . . . a country where the great majority of people believe that they are the masters and beneficiaries of a new society . . . we were inspired. Cubans are characterized by . . . a burning desire for the rest of humanity to gain the freedom that Cubans have so recently won . . . We returned hoping that our communities can lead America in developing humility we need to learn from Cuba.” Methodist bishops were persuaded that in Cuba those who are imprisoned have opposed policies designed to remove inequalities, and found such grounds for imprisonment far superior to those prevailing in countries like Chile or Brazil where, they averred, it was those in favor of social justice who were sent to jail.
The National Council of Churches study guide praised the Cuban educational system: “Permeating Cuban educational practice is the concept that a new type of society will develop a new type of human being . . . [who] regards work as the creative center of life and is bound to others by solidarity, comradeship and love.” Another publication of the National Council of Churches concluded that “at home Cubans have found a new dignity . . . Internationally, the island nation . . . has been adopted as a symbol of revolutionary hope and courage by the Third World.” Further south, the Archbishop of Sao Paulo assured Castro on the 30th anniversary of the revolution that he was “present daily in [the archbishop’s] prayers” and that “Christian faith discovers in the achievements of the revolution signs of the kingdom of God.”
The enduring support for Cuba has also found expression in the sympathetic (though not totally uncritical) report of a delegation organized by the Institute for Policy Studies to reassess prison conditions on the island. Cratifyingly, the participants “encountered a very strong sense of mission in most prison officials. They expressed great faith in their system and . . . seem determined to work increasingly on their plan for re-education and for incorporation of the penal population into work and free society. . . . The regular prison facilities we saw were all clean and hygenic, and we heard no serious complaints in this regard; we heard no complaints about the use of instruments of torture . . . neither did we find any policy of extrajudicial executions or disappearances.” Such statements call to mind the laudatory observations of the Webbs visiting the Soviet Union in the 1930’s. They noted that “the [prison] administration is well spoken of and is now as free from physical cruelty as any prison in any country is ever likely to be.” Debra Evenson, a professor at the law school of DePaul University in Chicago, could not stomach even such restrained criticism of Cuban prisons as was presented by another member of the IPS delegation, Aryeh Neier (in The New York Review of Books), and in a vigorous rejoinder assured readers of the Cuban prisons’ superiority over American ones.
These exchanges and the prison report preceded by just a few months a 137-page report of the Americas Watch Committee that offered renewed evidence of the human rights violations and overall repressiveness of the Cuban system.
No matter how devoted the remaining supporters of Cuba have been, the major setting of the pilgrimages and political tours shifted by the 1980’s to Nicaragua. “Political tourism” may better describe the new phenomenon, since visits to Nicaragua have been for the most part highly standardized, conducted group tours of sympathizers rather than journeys of discovery by distinguished individuals.
A new feature of the visits to Nicaragua has been the phenomenon of volunteering to work on various projects such as picking coffee beans or construction. (This type of visit had few precedents in the Soviet Union, but was modeled on the Venceremos Brigade program of Cuba, which brought in sympathizers to cut sugar cane.) Some Americans and Westerners also live more or less permanently in Nicaragua, while others are content to spend a few weeks there on various projects.
The Christian Science Monitor estimated in 1987 that “1,500 Americans are living and working in Nicaragua . . . Since the Sandinistas came to power in 1979 about 40,000 Americans have gone to Nicaragua for humanitarian or political work.” The motives of these people were summed up by a member of a women’s brigade intent on building a school: “Going to Nicaragua is a direct act of conscience in opposition to our government’s aggression and in solidarity with the Nicaraguan people.” Elsewhere the volunteers have been characterized as people being “just fed up—not only with societies where they felt waking up every morning but with the whole postcountercultural web of second thoughts and rationalizations that’s left Westerners . . . helpless . . . [F]or many of the North Americans and Europeans alike coming here has turned out to be the beginning of the long way back from 20 years of lockstep faith that nobody can ever really do anything anyway, and nothing good can last.” The attraction of Nicaragua is also associated with a “renewal of belief in the possibility of a revolution not foreordained to be the cat’s paw of either superpower rivalry or homegrown despotism.” In other words, Nicaragua is the new antidote to the post-1960’s loss of illusions.
In a single year, according to a Nicaraguan government official, 100,000 foreigners visited Nicaragua, of whom 40 percent were American. As the 1986 article quoting these figures pointed out, most of them did not come “to see the natural beauty but to get a look at the Sandinista revolution. Most of them . . . are connected with churches, unions and universities, groups generally sympathetic to the Sandinistas.”
Sympathy toward the Nicaraguan Marxist-Leninist government has other manifestations besides the mass political tourism. The Boston City Council proclaimed (in 1988) November 3 “Ernesto Cardenal Day” in honor of the minister of culture, also a poet and priest. Burlington, Vermont, and Berkeley, California, are sister cities of Managua. Across the nation support groups, foremost among them those connected with churches, have collected substantial amounts of money and supplies. In 1987 there was a national campaign aimed at collecting $60 million (on top of another $40 million already raised in 1986). At the anti-inauguration concert held in Washington to protest the Bush presidency, Kris Kristofferson sang an ode to the Sandinistas that included the lines, “You have lived up to your name . . . May your spirit never die! Hold a candle to the darkness! You’re the keeper of the flame!”
Daniel Ortega, on his visit to New York City, was honored at a reception at the Riverside Church (then presided over by the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, himself a pilgrim with North Vietnamese as well as Nicaraguan credentials), and basked in the admiration of the assembled celebrities, who included Morley Safer, Betty Friedan, Eugene McCarthy, Bianca Jagger, and Bernardine Dohrn, former Weather Underground activist. Ortega also addressed the congregation of the Park Slope Methodist Church in Brooklyn.
The misconceptions about the Nicaraguan political system and its representatives are impressive both on account of their persistence and repetitiveness, and because of the extraordinary resemblance they bear to those widespread at earlier times regarding other Communist systems. There is a willful, cheerful determination to overlook both the conflicting evidence of the nature of this political system and the lessons of history.
According to Alice Walker, Nicaragua “is a writer’s paradise.” For a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (and a frequent visitor), the Nicaraguan government is “honestly committed to the poor and could be a model to other Latin American countries.” A writer for The Village Voice reported that visitors to Nicaragua experience “a renewal of faith . . . [W]hat Nicaragua gives back to the Internationals [the volunteer workers] is hope.” A minister from Atlanta found that the Sandinistas “have done some things that as a Christian I value very highly. They conducted one of the most sensational literacy campaigns in history . . . it is consistent with Christian values to spread health care to rural areas. They have given land to peasants. As a Christian I applaud that.” Even Vanity Fair found much to praise in Nicaragua, including its first family. Rosario Murillo, spouse of Daniel Ortega, was said to possess “the charm of a revolution peopled by the young, the brave and the good looking.” (The reader may juxtapose this observation with those of Julian Huxley, who paid similar tribute to the “fine physique” of the Russian people he observed; apparently all were “solid, robust, healthy” and approximating the Greek ideal of bodily perfection.) But there was more than charm to Ms. Murillo—”the dreamy poetess who oversees her fiefdom with an unyielding eye; the egalitarian revolutionary who revels in Ralph Lauren, the First Lady of a modest little country”—she was also characterized as “halfway between La Pasionaria [the Spanish Stalinist Communist of the 1930’s] and Bianca Jagger.”
Recent political tourists are just as certain as those of earlier generations that the citizens of the countries they hold in high esteem cheerfully accept all hardships in the joyous expectation of a better future and because of their appreciation of the good intentions of their leaders. Gerald Kaufman, a Labour member of the British Parliament, wrote, “the Nicaraguans accept all these hardships . . . because . . . most citizens realize that their government is doing its best in exceptionally difficult circumstances, that hardships and shortages are fairly shared.”
Presumably these curious perceptions of life in Nicaragua have much to do with the determination of the visitors—as was the case in the pilgrimages past—to accent the positive. A director of a theological seminary in California advised that it was desirable to try “to discard our U.S. ideological lenses . . . and enter into networks of trust.” He apparently was successful, since he concluded that “Nicaragua has achieved more freedom, justice and grass roots democracy than any of its neighbors (with the exception of Costa Rica) has achieved in five hundred years.” Salman Rushdie was among the prominent Western visitors who recorded their uniformly favorable impressions in a book celebrating the Nicaraguan government in 1987.
The churches are in the forefront of the support for Nicaragua and the organization of tour groups. In particular the Quakers, and their activist arm, the American Friends Service Committee (plus their offshoot, Witness for Peace), the National Council of Churches as a whole and the Methodists in particular, the Catholic Maryknoll, and the Sojourners (a leftist evangelical group) are the most dedicated to these efforts.
If the Reagan presidency helped nurture the sympathy toward Nicaragua and thereby stimulated the political tours, presumably the Bush presidency will continue to have a similar, though perhaps milder, effect of the same kind. Continued disenchantment at home is likely to remain the major cause of the Political Pilgrims‘ susceptibility toward systems that make impressive, idealistic claims and criticize the United States.
It remains to be seen what, if any, long-term effect the cessation of the guerrilla war in Nicaragua may have on its sympathizers and supporters. While in progress it provided the most satisfactory explanations (and excuses) for both Nicaragua’s dire economic conditions and the political repression. Since the fighting stopped, economic conditions have continued to decline precipitously, and civil rights have barely improved, either—conditions that may yet have some impact on the continued idealization of the system. The end of the guerrilla war has also made it more difficult to hold the United States responsible for the deep economic crisis.
The points made above imply that the favorable attitudes toward Nicaragua have important rational components, and that when those weaken the admiration will subside. Unfortunately, if history is any guide, that will not happen. The fervent support for the Soviet system reached its crescendo at a time when Stalin’s terror was at its peak, the show trials were enacted, and millions were starving. Likewise, the veneration of Communist China peaked under Mao’s insane campaigns, including the Cultural Revolution. In neither case were objective conditions a significant factor in shaping attitudes toward the countries and their political systems.
But in the event the Sandinistas’ appeal tarnishes with the passage of time, or the craving for novelty overpowers old loyalties, there will be other political systems or movements to be idealized on similar grounds. There are, for example, the radical-leftist guerrillas in El Salvador. Already they have attracted a vocal following that includes Hollywood actors such as Edward Asner, who hopes that they will win power, and who has it on good authority that “the rebel forces are now the most effective institution in El Salvador committed to health delivery.”
The continued outpouring of favorable sentiment toward the authorities in Nicaragua (and assorted anti-Western guerrilla movements elsewhere) suggests that time has stood still within the adversary culture. Its adherents have not reexamined their ideals and pondered their alienation in the light of the changes taking place in the socialist world in the 1980’s and especially since 1985, when Gorbachev came into power. They have managed to avert their eyes not only from the rising tide of revelations, which are providing a wealth of new information about the general malfunctioning of these systems and their intractable social problems, but also of the truly systematic failings of socialist economies.
Yet there is a limit to both self-deception and the impact of the skillful, organized deception Marxist-Leninist systems create for the benefit of those predisposed to admire them.
Among those estranged from Western societies it has taken several decades for the facts to sink in about the nature of the Soviet system. It may take even longer for the more general, and for some far more disturbing, idea to sink m that political systems inspired by Marxism-Leninism do not have it in their power to bring about the realization of the dreams of Western seekers of justice, social harmony, and personal fulfillment.