For a long time I thought I knew how to evade the discourse of the Grand Idea. It began when I was in the Yugoslav People’s Army. The war was barely over, but victory brought no greater liberty to those who had suffered the Nazi occupation, and the brainwashing in the barracks grew more and more obsessive. I consoled myself that, once demobilized, I would no longer be forced to listen to this nonsense. In 1945, there were many of us in Yugoslavia (as in other Eastern European countries) who had realized what a chasm lay between the arguments we were hearing and the reality around us.
When I did return to civilian life, I quickly had to abandon hope there, too. Everyone around me bandied around the same depressing arguments so that any genuine thought naturally became subversive.
Youth, however, is incurably optimistic. I was 22 and clung to the hope of somehow avoiding the Grand Idea. After all, I had never been especially interested in politics or in the humanities, and by enrolling in the technical faculty I thought that as an engineer I would not have to endure these ideological arguments. I believed that, simply by the nature of things, the laws of physics would always remain exempt from this discourse. But I was wrong.
One April evening in 1946, after classes, as I was crossing the hall of the austere building that housed the technical faculty, a message on a poster stopped me in my tracks. The poster announced the inaugural lecture of a professor D.I., the title of whose talk was “Dialectical Materialism and Bohr’s Atomic Theory.” I suddenly understood: nothing and no one could escape the Grand Idea.
It was barely two months later, on July 8, 1946, that my lifelong friend Milenko and I swam the river that marks the frontier between Yugoslavia and Austria. As the sun rose behind the mountains the next morning, we set out along the road with our bundles. We had become pilgrims in search of liberty.
Upon arriving in the West, I believed that I had at last escaped the discourse of the Grand Idea. Unfortunately, I was once again to discover I had been mistaken. Sugared and diffused by its adaptation to the conditions of a free country, assuming the airs of a certain objectivity, the Grand Idea reigned supreme amongst the Parisian intelligentsia, the brave souls repeating its precepts like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. Its insidious character was highlighted by this milieu, where it was becoming more and more difficult to distinguish it from an authentically humanitarian debate.
By the end of the 40’s, however, I had finally realized that it was pointless to try to escape, and that I was going to have to confront it with reason. It was Goethe who said that liberty must be won over and over again every day. Never did his words ring truer in my ears.
If ideology, in the modern sense of the term, is an invention of the 18th century, totalitarian ideology appeared only in the 19th, as a radically new phenomenon. Neither Ricardo nor Adam Smith ever suggested that an existing society should be swept aside to give way to a fundamentally new society. Why did Marx then want to begin with the total destruction of the existing order?
Perhaps it was because Marx, being an educated man, could not escape the influence of the sciences of his time. After the initial faltering steps taken by the exact sciences during the Century of Reason, the first half of the 19th century saw the establishment of science as an edifice with unquestionable, impervious foundations. (There remained much to be discovered in physics, chemistry, and biology, but at the time what was known seemed solidly defined, forever.) Thermodynamics, mechanics, electricity, and optics increasingly appeared to be the branches of a single physical science conforming to a few basic laws. Then, during the second half of the 19th century, Mendeleev’s periodic table of the elements seemed to sweep away any distinction between chemistry and physics in favor of a unified, materialistic vision of the cosmos. The temptation to apply to society laws analogous to those observed in the exact sciences was considerable. To break down the tissue of humanity to its component elements, in order to erect a new structure of justice, seemed only logical to Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Pol Pot.
It seemed, also, that almost 2,000 years of Christian preaching had not brought us very far along the path of righteousness. Appealing for the voluntary conversion of man, Christianity had proved inefficient, whereas history has shown that man, left to himself, was prisoner of his passions and instincts. This was why it was necessary to create new social structures which would take man in hand and oblige him to accept the Good. After adhering to the Good for a certain length of time, custom would change the vile, imperfect brute into a New Man.
To bring into existence all these new structures, a new order of lay monks was to be founded, whose task would be to create the New Man—by knout, iron, and blood, if necessary. Only demiurges with steel nerves could belong to this order, obliged as they were to carry out the most thankless tasks today so that, tomorrow, humanity might be grateful.
Although discourse on the Grand Idea has been given up in all the countries where it became the religion of the state, it is still not quite dead in the West. This is because in the West it still deals with some future time and has not yet been subjected to the test of reality. The American, British, and Canadian intellectuals who dabble in it do so with the nostalgia proper to the end of an empire, for it has become the last wild dream of those who have seen their illusions torn too brutally from them.
From a purely logical point of view, socialist reasoning appears flawless. The ideas fit into a mental construct which we are forced to admire, although from an existential point of view the discourse of these Western Marxists leaves us essentially unsatisfied. It quickly becomes clear that while the discourse itself may be irreproachable, its basic premises are not. Its appeal consists precisely of dazzling its opponents by rigorous reasoning, which is nonetheless based on dubious maxims.
In Eastern European totalitarian countries, ideological discourse takes place within a very closed circuit, distinguished by three poles of attraction: the governing body, the great witch doctors of Marxist philosophy, and the ideological press. It is the rulers who start the ball rolling, usually only when pushed by the force of events. After this the professors of Marxism are required to adapt the ongoing praxis to the canons of the Grand Idea, while the journalists are given the job of making the whole thing comprehensible to the general public—as if the people had any real interest in the ideological orthodoxy of their rulers. Naturally, it is common knowledge in Eastern Europe that no one is really interested in ideological discourse, but we must not forget that totalitarian societies are fictional worlds where everything must be done as if—as if the people could really vote, as if power really devolved from them, and as if the judiciary were really able to render judgments independently—in short, maintaining the illusion of real life as known to memory, instinct, and common sense.
The almost total schism between the discourse of the rulers and the ruled may be admirably illustrated by a phenomenon both linguistic and sociopolitical. In the popular speech of Eastern Europe, the pronoun They serves to designate the leaders of the Communist Party. When a citizen of Romania, for example, says “They do what they want,” there is no doubt in the mind of any other Romanian as to whom he means by They.
Curiously enough, this ideological white noise may give Western observers the impression of an intense exchange of ideas between the citizens and their government. To sustain the illusion of a living ideological discourse, the government is continually organizing meetings, discussions, and “spontaneous” demonstrations. The whole thing amounts to a sort of monumental avant-garde theater, where the public plays the role of a troupe of mimes while the producers take the part of spectators—confirming, in a way, Carl Sagan’s words that “life exists for the cosmos to experience itself.”
Ever since the October Revolution, the proponents of the totalitarian argument have had their eyes fixed firmly upon the US—to catch up with America and leave it behind is their dearest dream. They seem to be hoping that America’s development will simply stop so that their own may draw even with it. Was it not Khrushchev who announced to the British ambassador in 1962 that Britain would soon be communist? And was not the Soviet Union supposed to attain communist utopia sometime during the 1970’s, also according to Khrushchev? During the first oil crisis in 1973, was it not Pravda that announced the onset of the end of capitalism?
To understand the power of the Marxist dream, we might try to imagine it in terms of Puvis de Chavannes’ bucolic frescoes. Attracted to its rosy glow, we find names as celebrated as Romain Rolland or Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie, along with myriads of others. To understand what was to become of the discourse of the Grand Idea during the revolution, we must know that in the minds of its protagonists, the revolution corresponded to the creation of the world in the Old Testament: it was to be the birth of a new world out of chaos and the separation of good and evil out of a molten volcanic mass. The arguments which accompanied this upheaval were all-encompassing—grandiose, heroic, pathetic, generous to some and merciless to others, filled with folly and audacity. For those who created it, the revolution was a time charged with an extraordinary historical intensity, all the more for being history’s last event.
With the seizure of power and under the pressures of reality, the discourse was to change considerably. Its new leaders, previously masters only of the polemic, found themselves confronted with the difficulties inherent in any state apparatus, especially the complex problems of economics. They realized at once how impossible it would be to make good on all the promises offered with such assurance earlier. From that moment on, they were to feel themselves threatened, afraid of the rage of the people. To guard against this danger, either real or imagined, the discourse of the Grand Idea was enriched with a whole panoply of “enemies of the people”—”speculators,” “traffickers,” “saboteurs,” “bearers of false rumors” (which, most of the time, were perfectly true), and other subversive elements. Thus the infernal cycle began: the limitation and repression of liberty that was to swell the ranks of the malcontents, in Yugoslavia, the USSR, Czechoslovakia, of those disillusioned with the revolution which the authorities felt obliged to save by taking still more coercive measures against the “enemies of the people,” and so on, indefinitely . . .
We are now witnessing the last phase of the Eastern European totalitarian state, with the governing bodies in Poland, Hungary, or Yugoslavia no longer demanding of the governed to believe in the discourse of the Grand Idea, but simply to maintain the pretense of doing so. Faced with a double image of the world and impelled by instinct for self-preservation, the man of “real socialism” creates econd image of himself as well, so he can go on living as if . . .
Strangely enough, there was initially some truth in the discourse of the Grand Idea, when it promised to release the creative forces of literature, the sciences, and the fine arts. But their liberation was short-lived: after a brief period of euphoria, the creative forces themselves soon began to appear as a threat to the New Order all over Eastern Europe.
The Bolshevik Revolution illustrates this process clearly. Chagall, Kandinsky, Malevich, Soutine, Mayakovsky, Mandelstam, and many others now forgotten fled to the West, committed suicide, or vanished in the Gulag. And how many other unknowns were simply swallowed by the maw of the revolution? How many lives and promises were wrecked? How many pictures were never painted, how many books never written because the revolution was afraid? And what was the revolution afraid of? Of counterrevolutionaries? Bomb-throwers? No, it was afraid of men who painted pictures or wrote poems, of thinkers and composers. These were the very men, moreover, who had prepared the way for it, and who later welcomed it as the time of “sunrise promises.”
The change which occurred in the discourse of the Grand Idea after the seizure of power all over the world may well be described as fraudulent substitution. In the New Society, it became more and more embarrassing to speak of justice and humanity, for the New Glass was setting up its own privileges quite openly and shamelessly. The existence of concentration camps has been no secret to anyone in Russia ever since the 1920’s. This is why the Soviet revolutionary discourse has had to return incessantly to the time of the October “Revolution” and its deified founding father. What Soviet communism is doing, more or less, is taking refuge in the period of fictional purity and real hope. Unable to discuss the ideals in whose name the revolution was launched, the Soviets exalt a revolutionary moral code whose essence can no longer be explained. From being a means of building a new society, the revolution has been transmuted into its own raison d’etre, while its discourse on a more just and humane society has been relegated to the props department. This switching of categories has culminated in the first narcissistic revolution in history.
In 1931, posters in Moscow declared Already We Are Living Better, while at the same time in the Ukraine, which had once been the granary of Europe, a horrific, party-induced an administered famine was killing millions of people.
The new masters of Russia believed they could fashion reality as they chose, simply by seizing control of all means of communication and establishing a monopoly over the spoken and written word. In doing so, they committed the original sin of every totalitarian society—the suppression of dissent.
For only dissent permits us to see ourselves. Dissent is the other whom we see in the mirror, the other who, like a counter-discourse, is the only means of making our own discourse credible. In suppressing that, the discourse of the Grand Idea condemned itself to solitude—and to solitary stupidity.
Insistence is always a sign of stupidity, says Camus. And within that solitude, anything is possible. You can make your horse a senator or you can vote, unanimously, for a law proclaiming the memory of Comrade Stalin to be eternal (as did the Chamber of Representatives of the Hungarian People in 1953). Strangely enough, those who thought they could appropriate to themselves, in its entirety, the language of ideology, are now reduced to what Russians call wooden speech.
Up to a certain point, the fate of words is like the fate of men, for words are also born, and live. Men, however, are mortal, while words, like the phoenix, constantly arise from their own ashes. Ceaseless examination of meaning is to words what air is to humans. Without this questioning, meaning fades away. And when words are imprisoned in stultifying discourses, they revolt and start signifying the opposite of what has been imposed upon them. This is the point at which tyrants begin to tremble.
There is not much talk of liberty in the East, just as there is not much talk of rope in the house of someone who has hanged himself. Yet still They manage to denigrate it at every opportunity—a thing that unfortunately happens here in the West, too. In the East, however, They denigrate liberty because They cannot offer it, whereas here we have more of it than we know how to manage. To hear its foppish detractors talk, we might think that now, at the end of the century, liberty has become a luxury. They claim it represents nothing but the freedom to starve and They assert that everyone prefers to enjoy the certainty of filling his belly every day. To the poor They offer the exchange of their liberty for some soup and a bed, but woe betide those who accept the swap; they will find their soup watery and their beds hard. The scoffers also claim that liberty is a mere formality in the West, and authentic only in the East. If you believe Them, then people here are slaves who imagine themselves to be free, while people there are free and believe themselves to be slaves.
There is a certain kind of philosopher who seeks truth in books and racks his brains for abstract definitions of liberty, absolutely useless to the men in Kolyma. The kind of liberty dreamed of by Varlam Chalamov and his zek companions will always be truer than any erudite definition. For me, liberty has never been an abstraction, for there have been moments when I felt I could touch it, as a blind man caresses the face of a loved one.
I felt that most sharply on July 8, 1946, on the evening of a beautiful summer day. After weeks of preparation, Milenko and I had finally arrived at the Austrian-Yugoslav border. Before us flowed the Mura River, running cold, high, and fast. On the Austrian bank, a forest of stunted trees concealed an unknown world, almost within our reach. At our feet the river twisted past in long, muddy coils, but we had no time for reflection. We threw ourselves into the water and for an eternity struggled against the current, which kept forcing us back towards the Yugoslav bank. Just when I was beginning to think that the river was to be our grave, it took pity on us and cast us into a cove. Before setting out through the stunted forest, we took one last look at the green hills of our native land. We crossed the forest and reached a village whose people came out and stared at us in silence, with good reason. I wore a soaking wet suit and Milenko had no pants at all, the river having kept them as the price of our passage.
We spent our first night of freedom in a barn open to the north wind. In the farmyard below us, we could see strange half-timbered buildings, which reminded me of the paintings of the Flemish masters. Ursa Minor shone from a cloudless sky with the polestar at its far end. Our future could not have been murkier. We had neither money nor friends nor proper papers, and yet, the memory of that first night has remained one of joy and serenity. Several times I awoke and, remembering that Yugoslav police could no longer reach me, went back to sleep, my soul at peace.
The following morning, just as the sun was rising behind the mountains, we set out with our bundles. This was the beginning of our pilgrimage to that imaginary sanctuary called Liberty.