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Josef Škvorecký

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In October 1981 Skvorecky participated in an international conference held in Toronto, on the subject of "The Writer and Human Rights". The participants included Margaret Atwood, Stanislaw Bardnczak, Joseph Brodsky, Allen Ginsberg, Nadine Gordimer, Susan Sontag, Michel Tournier, and many others. Skvorecky's speech was a disturbing reminder that "human rights" can be and have been abused by regimes of the left as well as of the right. To some left-leaning members of the audience, it was not what they had come to hear.

FRANKLY, I FEEL frustrated whenever I have to talk about revolution for the benefit of people who have never been through one. They are — if you'll excuse the platitude — like a child who doesn't believe that fire hurts, until he burns himself. I, my generation, my nation, have been involuntarily through two revolutions, both of them socialist: one of the right variety, one of the left. Together they destroyed my peripheral vision. When I was fourteen, we were told at school that the only way to a just and happy society led through socialist revolution. Capitalism was bad, liberalism a fraud, democracy bunk, and parliamentarism decadent. Our then Minister of Culture and Education, the late Mr. Emanuel Moravec, taught us this, and then sent his son to fight for socialism with the Hermann Goering SS Division. The son was later hanged; the minister, to use proper revolutionary language, liquidated himself with the aid of a gun.

When I was twenty-one, we were told at Charles University that the only way to a just and happy society led through socialist revolution. Capitalism was bad, liberalism a fraud, democracy bunk, and parliamentarism decadent. Our then professor of philosophy, the late Mr. Arnost Kolman, taught us this, and then gave his half-Russian daughter in marriage to a Czech Communist who fought for socialism with Alexander Dubcek. Later he fled to Sweden. Professor Kolman, one of the very last surviving original Bolsheviks of 1917 and a close friend of Lenin, died in 1980, also in Sweden. Before his death, he returned his Party card to Brezhnev and declared that the Soviet Union had betrayed the socialist revolution. In 1981 I am told by various people who suffer from Adlerian and Rankian complexes that the only way to a just and happy society leads through socialist revolution. Capitalism is bad, liberalism a fraud, democracy bunk, and parliamentarism decadent. Dialectically, all this makes me suspect that capitalism is probably good, liberalism may be right, democracy is the closest approximation to the truth, and parliamentarism a vigorous gentleman in good health, filled with the wisdom of ripe old age.

There have been quite a few violent revolutions in our century, most of them Communist, some Fascist, and some nationalistic and religious. The final word on all of them comes from the pen of Joseph Conrad, who in 1911 wrote this in his novel Under Western Eyes:

...in a real revolution — not a simple dynastic change or a mere reform of institutions — in a real revolution the best characters do not come to the front. A vio- lent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and of tyrannical hypocrites at first. Afterwards comes the turn of all the pretentious intellectual fail- ures of the time. Such are the chiefs and the leaders. You will notice that I have left out the mere rogues. The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane, and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement — but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims: the vic- tims of disgust, of disenchantment — often of remorse. Hopes grotesquely betrayed, ideals caricatured — that is the definition of revolutionary success. There have been in every revolution hearts broken by such successes.

I wonder if anything can be added to this penetrating analysis? The scenario seems to fit perfectly. Just think of the Strasser brothers, those fervent German nationalists and socialists: one of them liquidated by his own workers' party, the other having to flee, first to capitalist Czechoslovakia, then to liberal England, while their movement passed into the hands of that typical "intellectual failure", the unsuccessful artist named Adolf Hitler. Think of Boris Pilnyak, liquidated while those sleek and deadly scientific bureaucrats he described so well — who were perfectly willing to liquidate others to bolster their own careers — bolstered their careers, leaving a trail of human skulls behind them.

Think of Fidel Castro's involuntary volunteers dying with a look of amazement on their faces in a foreign country where they have no right to be, liquidating its black warriors who for years had been fighting the Portuguese. Think of the German Communists who, after the Nazi Machtübernahme (the grabbing of power), fled to Moscow and then, broken-hearted, were extradited back into the hands of the Gestapo because Stalin honoured his word to Hitler; the Jews among them were designated for immediate liquidation, the non-Jews were sent to Mauthausen and Ravensbrück.

It is all an old, old story. The revolution — if you don't mind another cliché — is fond of devouring its own children. Or, if you do mind, let me put it this way: the revolution is cannibalistic. It is estimated that violent Communist revolutions in our century have dined on about one hundred million men, women, and children. What has been gained by their sumptuous feast? Basically two things, both predicted by the so-called classics of Marxism-Leninism: the state that withered away, and the New Socialist Man.

The state withered away all right — into a kind of Mafia, a perfect police regime. Thought-crime, which most believed to be just a morbid joke by Orwell, concocted when he was already dying of tuberculosis, has become a reality in today's "real socialism", as the stepfathers of the Czechoslovak Communist Party have christened their own status quo. The material standards of living in these post-revolutionary police states are invariably lower, often much lower, than those of the developed Western democracies. But of course, the New Socialist Man has emerged, as announced.

Not quite as announced. Who is he? He is an intelligent creature who, sometimes in the interest of bare survival, sometimes merely to maintain his material living standards, is willing to abnegate the one quality that differentiates him from animals: his intellectual and moral awareness, his ability to think and freely express his thought. This creature has come to resemble the three little monkeys whose statuettes you see in junk shops: one covers its eyes, another its ears, the third its mouth. The New Socialist Man has thus become a new Trinity of the post-revolutionary age.

Therefore, with Albert Camus, I suspect that in the final analysis capitalist democracy is to be preferred to regimes created by violent revolutions. I must also agree with Lenin that those who, after the various gulags (and after the Grand Guignol spectacle of the Polish Communist Party exhorting the Solidarity Union to shut up or else the Polish nation will be destroyed — and guess who will destroy it), still believe in violent revolutions are indeed "useful idiots".

In the Western world, such mentally retarded adults sometimes point out, in defence of violence, that capitalism is guilty of similar crimes. Most of these crimes, true, have occurred in the past, often in the distant past, but some are happening in our own time, especially in what is known as the Third World. But to justify crimes by arguing that others have also committed them is, to put it mildly, bad taste. To exonerate the Communist inquisition by blaming the Catholic Church for having done the same thing in the Dark Ages amounts to an admission that Communism represents a return to the Dark Ages. To accuse General Pinochet of torturing his political prisoners, and then barter your own political prisoners, fresh from psychiatric prison-clinics, for those of General Pinochet is—shall we say—a black joke.

Does all this mean that I reject any violent revolution anywhere, no matter what the circumstances are? I have seen too much despair in my time to be blind to despair. It's just that I do not believe in two things. First, I do not think that a violent uprising born out of "a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object" which "evinces a design to reduce" men "under absolute despotism" should be called a revolution; because when such a revolution later produces another "long chain of abuses and usurpation" and people rise against it, to be linguistically correct we would have to call such an uprising a "counter-revolution". In our society, however, this term has acquired a pejorative meaning it does not deserve.

Second, I do not believe that any violent revolution in which Communists or Fascists participate can be successful, except in the Conradian sense as quoted above. Because, quite simply, I do not trust authoritarian ideologies. Every revolution with the participation of Communists or Fascists must eventually of necessity turn into a dictatorship and, more often than not, into a state nakedly ruled by the police. Neither Fascists nor Communists can live with democracy, because their ultimate goal, no matter whether they call it das Führerprinzip or the dictatorship of the proletariat, is precisely the "absolute despotism" of which Thomas Jefferson spoke. They tolerate partners in the revolutionary effort only as long as they need them to defeat the powers that be — not perhaps because all Communists and Fascists are radically evil but because they are disciplined adherents of ideologies which command them to do so, since that is what Hitler or Lenin advised. The Fascists are more honest about it: they say openly — at least the Nazis did — that democracy is nonsense. Lenin was equally frank only in his more mystical moments; otherwise the Communists use Newspeak. But as soon as they grow strong enough, they finish off democracy just as efficiently as the Fascists, and usually more so.

All this is rather abstract, however, and since individualistic Anglo-Saxons usually demand concrete, individual examples, let me offer you a few. In Canada there lives an old professor by the name of Vladimir Krajina. He teaches at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and is an eminent botanist who has received high honours from the Canadian government for his work in the preservation of Canadian flora. But in World War II, he was also a most courageous anti-Nazi fighter. He operated a wireless transmitter by which the Czech underground sent vi- tal messages to London, information collected by the members of the Czech Resistance in armament factories, by "our men" in the Protectorate bureaucracy who had access to Nazi state secrets, and by Intelligence Service spies such as the notorious A-54. The Gestapo, of course, was after Professor Krajina. For several years, he had to move from one hideout to another, leaving a trail of blood behind him, of Gestapo men shot by his co-fighters, of people who hid him and were caught and shot. After the war, he became an MP for the Czech Socialist party. But his incumbency lasted for little more than two years. Immediately after the Communist coup in 1948, Professor Krajina had to go into hiding again, and he eventually fled the country.

Why? Because the Communists had never forgotten that he had warned the Czech underground against cooperating with the Communists. And he was right: he was not the only one to flee. Hundreds of other anti-Nazi fighters were forced to leave the country, and those who would not or could not ended up on the gallows, in concentration camps, or, if they were lucky, in menial jobs. Among them were many Czech RAF pilots who had distinguished themselves in the Battle of Britain and then had returned to the republic for whose democracy they had risked their lives. All this is a story since repeated in other Central and East European states. It is still being repeated in Cuba, in Vietnam, in Angola, and most recently in Nicaragua.

In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, V. S. Naipaul tells about his experiences in revolutionary Iran. He met a Communist student there who showed him snapshots of Communists being executed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and then told him about his love for Stalin: "I love him. He was one of the greatest revolutionaries.... What he did in Russia we have to do in Iran. We, too, have to do a lot of killing. A lot.... We have to kill all the bourgeoisie." For what purpose? To create a Brezhnevite Iran, perhaps? To send tens of thousands of new customers to the Siberian Gulag? But obviously the bourgeois don't count. They were useful when they fought the shah, as the Kadets had been in 1917 while they fought the czar. Now they are expendable. They have become "Fascists", just like the Barcelonian anarchists denounced in the Newspeak of the Communist press decades ago in Spain, as described by Orwell in Homage to Catalonia. They have become nonpeople. James Jones once wrote, "It's so easy to kill real people in the name of some damned ideology or other; once the killer can abstract them in his own mind into being symbols, then he needn't feel guilty for killing them since they're no longer human beings." The Jews in Auschwitz, the zeks in the Gulag, the bourgeoisie in a Communist Iran. Symbols, not people. Revolutionsfutter.

When Angela Davis was in jail, a Czech socialist politician, Jiri Pelikan, a former Communist and now a member of the European Parliament for the Italian Socialist Party, approached her through an old American Communist lady and asked her whether she would sign a protest against the imprisonment of Communists in Prague. She agreed to do so, but not until she got out of jail because, she said, it might jeopardize her case. When she was released, she sent word via her secretary that she would fight for the release of political prisoners anywhere in the world except, of course, in the socialist states. Anyone sitting in a socialist jail must be against socialism, and therefore deserves to be where he is. All birds can fly. An ostrich is a bird. Therefore an ostrich can fly. So much for the professor of philosophy Angela Davis.

So much for concrete examples.

In his Notebooks, Albert Camus recorded a conversation with one of his Communist co-fighters in the French Resistance: "Listen, Tar, the real problem is this: no matter what happens, I shall always defend you against the rifles of the execution squad. But you will have to say yes to my execution."

Evelyn Waugh, whom I confess I prefer to all other modern British writers, said in an interview with Julian Jebb, "An artist must be a reactionary. He has to stand out against the tenor of the age and not go flopping along; he must offer some little opposition."

All I have learned about violent revolutions, from books and from personal experience, convinces me that Waugh was right.

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