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Retreat from the Finland Station: Moral Odysseys in the Breakdown of Communism
by kenneth murphy
free press, 415 pages, $24.95

The title of Kenneth Murphy’s work is an obvious allusion to Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, first published in 1940. In that milestone study Wilson traced, in the words of his subtitle, “the revolutionary tradition in Europe and the rise of socialism,” from its beginnings in the eighteenth century up to the fateful moment in April 1917 when Lenin disembarked from the sealed train at St. Petersburg’s Finland Station. In this present book, Murphy undertakes to “biopsy that idea [of socialism] in its decline and fall in Europe,” and to do so using Wilson’s method. Wilson had traced the growth of socialism by examining in their historical and cultural background the lives of these major figures upon whom the idea had a considerable impact, those who developed the idea, grasped it as a faith, and transmitted it to succeeding generations: Vico, Michelet, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, and others.

Murphy begins his study historically at the point Wilson ended his—with the revolutionary seizure of power in 1917, when the concept of socialism was pressed into large political service in Russia. In suitably brief compass he rehearses the familiar events of 1917 that led to Lenin’s rule and, later, to Stalin’s succession, when the utopian dream turned into the bloody nightmare. It is at this point, when the beliefs of the Communist faithful and sympathizers are challenged, that Murphy’s study becomes charged and exciting. The original part of his work begins as he analyzes how a gradual disenchantment with socialism in practice seeped into the minds and lives of the figures he has chosen as representative: Andre Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Milovan Djilas, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and others.

Here he copes with questions that have puzzled and plagued analysis of Communism for decades. Why did so many distinguished intellectuals and artists become members of a Party, and/or apologists for a system, whose vast and continuing brutalities were revealed anew at irregular intervals during the greater part of this century? Why did some shed their illusions even as others, like Jean-Paul Sartre, continued on the path of willful self-deception? And having shed their illusions about socialism, how did the disenchanted look back and assess their participation in the Communist movement?

For Murphy’s purposes, Andre Gide is a particularly enlightening example. With a carefully developed reputation as an individualist of rectitude and integrity, Gide’s enlistment in a cause that violated some of his long-declared principles presents the case sharply. Born in 1869, Gide was not a young man swept up by youthful enthusiasm and exuberance but already a seasoned writer and polemicist when he wrote, “I would like to cry aloud my sympathy for the Soviet Union and hope that my cry might be heard and have effect.” Gide had come to this, writes Murphy, because this ardent advocate of individualism and liberty had found that liberty in itself was not sufficient, that it must be joined to something beyond. “Yearning for that wrenching sense of moral obligation, Gide turned to Communism.”

In the mid-thirties, the time of the Popular Front, the French Communist Party found it useful to provide public forums where Gide’s cry could indeed be heard. Then, in 1936, having decided to experience the Communist experiment first-hand, Gide travelled to the Soviet Union, where he was officially and warmly embraced. Nevertheless, he became deeply disillusioned with what he saw there-servility and conformity, tawdry surroundings, lack of privacy, high privileges for some and crushing poverty for the rest. Returning to France, he published Retour de U.R.S.S., a brief but sharp indictment of the Soviet system. The book provoked an immediate and electrifying response: Gide had committed rank political heresy. But what Gide criticized harshly was the existing Soviet state and its dictator, Joseph Stalin; he still placed hope in the idea of socialism. His was a judgment that was to become increasingly common. What was at fault was not Communism but its perversion in the Soviet Union.

Murphy’s account of Gide’s political odyssey is meshed with his assessment of the man and his art, which is both shrewd and severe. For example, he writes: “To learn of Gide’s life is to build a picture of a man shut up in a daydream world, protected by all the authority of a superb culture, tortured by self-pity and not by pity for mankind. To fall eventually for the socialist dream was almost natural.” And rejecting the charge of vacillation so often brought against Gide, Murphy says, “Conscience was the instrument by which he lived and worked; and the hypnotic effect of his disillusion with Communism is that sense that we are watching not a free man but a technician or tester of freedom.” Gide’s admirers, whose numbers nowadays seem to have diminished, might reject these judgments, but except for the comment about Gide’s fall for socialism seeming almost natural, they are penetrating and persuasive.

Throughout his book Murphy is profligate with ideas, and in the case of Koestler he seems to have more ideas than he can use”at least use coherently. “Koestler does not appear to know his own mind. He is all over the place.” And Murphy seems, at first, constrained to follow him. There were many sides to the cosmopolitan Hungarian, and in exciting times he lived a very active life. As a correspondent, he worked in the Middle East, Palestine, Paris, and Berlin during years of turmoil. According to his own testimony, reading Marx, Engels, and Lenin blew away dusty confusions and replaced them with lucid certainties. He became a Party member in 1931, infatuated with conspiracy. But his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, put forth in The Spanish Testament, undermined his certainties and led, eventually, to what has long been regarded as a classic study of Communist faith, the novel Darkness at Noon. Murphy describes this as a powerful book but not an imaginative work of the highest order, comparing it unfavorably with Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, admittedly a very high standard. After this climactic achievement, Koestler’s power dwindled. His attack upon Communism extended into an attack upon belief itself, and by implication upon Koestler’s own earlier self for the attachment to Communism.

As in the case of Gide, Murphy offers succinct evaluations of Koestler and his work. “Koestler cannot, as Dostoevsky did, discern the psychic causes for converting to the revolutionary faith. Yet the sense of strain and rupture speak more eloquently of dislocation and frustration than anything Gide ever wrote.” And again, writing of Koestler’s definition of liberty, which he continued to proclaim throughout his life, Murphy says:

Koestler hated the imposition of restraints upon anyone at anytime under any conditions. Lift restraints, and all will be well. The search for something less philosophically muddled in Koestler’s work is unrewarding. He used words not to describe but to inflame, and became a master at it.

Again, a severe but balanced and persuasive summing up.

Murphy follows the same method in his analysis of Ignazio Silone, before he turns to those he labels “enemies of the people”: Milovan Djilas, Imry Nagy, the Khrushchev of the Secret Speech that revealed Stalin’s monstrous crimes, Alexander Dubcek, and, notably, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Much of this will be familiar territory for many readers, but it is Murphy’s intention to show how the doubts and revulsion of ex- Communists and sympathizers like Gide, Koestler, and Silone were echoed in the Soviet empire itself. He follows the process of the disintegration of Communism up to Gorbachev and his fall from power. On the question of whether Gorbachev was a true believer or, rather, a subtle manipulator of Communist ideology, principles, and slogans, Murphy has no doubts.

And so the Communist faith withered. But Gorbachev’s faith did not. Mounting chaos only drew him back into the Leninist fold. If socialism failed, if perestroika and glasnost failed, it wasn’t because the dream was defective, or the faith utterly flawed; it could only be because ordinary men and women had failed the faith. A purer and purer faith is what he called for.

Gorbachev’s wish had been from the beginning to work his way back to the supposedly pure socialism bequeathed to Russia and the world by Lenin and Bukharin. As he stumbled, however, he proceeded with the tool of faith alone.

The evident confidence with which Murphy makes large judgments constitutes much of the attraction of this study, but occasionally it leads him to make statements that are at least contestable. And for someone who dissects the writings of others with such skill, his own lapses can be disconcerting. He asserts, for example, that “the claims of a prophet are counsels of perfection, and perfection implies uniformity.” Putting aside what “claims” means in this sentence, it is an ethical commonplace that not every act, person, or thing is perfect in the same way. No uniformity is implied. He declares that Koestler “had the satirist’s satanic genius.” Would that every satirist had genius, satanic or otherwise. He asserts that “the true ex-Communist can never be a whole personality.” Well, that covers a large and questionable territory. He writes that Silone’s “grave manner removes the sickliness from piety.” Some piety is clearly sickly but just as clearly, not all piety is. Of Gide he says, with a hyperbole that even his claim of being consciously hyperbolic cannot justify, “He loved every manifestation of art and beauty as deeply as anyone at any time.”

Edmund Wilson had written, “All of these ideas which Michelet found in Vico were not of course new to Michelet.” In an oddly unsuitable echo of Wilson, Murphy writes, “All of the ideas to be found in Koestler were, of course, not new to [i.e., with] him.” He says on one page that Solzhenitsyn has no face, that it is blank, and on the next page that it is the face of a prophet. These are but a few examples, not of course seriously damaging to the work overall, but sufficiently annoying to make one wish Murphy had written with less “color” and more precision.

Be that as it may, Murphy has accomplished the important task he set for himself. He has shown how the utopian desire and the Communist claim to produce equality in society inevitably clashed with the principle of liberty, how the barbarous means used to coerce equality destroyed the proclaimed ends, and how intellectuals and artists attracted to the utopian ideal were repelled by the actual results. He acknowledges that he could have selected a totally different set of representative figures and that his is far from the full story, yet the inevitably partial narrative he offers is a welcome addition to the postmortems on the Communist corpse.

James Finn is Senior Editor of Freedom Review, a bimonthly publication of Freedom House.

Image by Aaron Zhu via Creative Commons. Image cropped

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