Theodore Dalrymple writing in the City Journal:
In the days—simultaneously not so very long ago and in the ancient past—when communism seemed a permanent feature of the political landscape, I traveled extensively on the other side of the looking glass that divided the world into two opposed camps. I did not take with me as literary guide and compass to my travels one of the Marxist-Leninist “classics”: not because the works of Marx and Lenin failed to explain anything I found through that looking glass, but because the explanation they offered was all too obvious and self-evident. If it was difficult for a visitor to find anything to eat impromptu in Moscow, Havana, Tirana, Bucharest, or Pyongyang, it took little effort to understand the connection of this difficulty with the vulgar anti-commercialism of Saint Karl and Saint Vladimir. Indeed, it would have taken all the ingenuity of the cleverest academics not to have understood it.
I took with me instead a work by a nineteenth-century French aristocrat, the Marquis de Custine. First published as a series of letters in 1843 under the title La Russie en 1839, the book has since appeared in a multiplicity of formats and abbreviated versions, with various titles in English, suggesting that even its translators and most fervent admirers do not consider it a flawless work of literary art. And yet this travel book is undoubtedly a masterpiece, a work of such penetration and prescience that it is worth reading more than a century and a half after its composition, not only for its antiquarian or historical interest but because of the incomparably brilliant light it sheds on one of the most important phenomena of the last hundred years: the spread of communism throughout the world. Writing before the development of modern “scientific” sociology, whose achievement has been to obscure by means of statistical legerdemain the importance of human consciousness, Custine analyzed Russian society by reference to the psychology of the individuals who made it up. His work is a supreme example of the subtle interplay between the abstract information about a political system and the imaginative entry into the worldview of the people who live in it that is necessary for the understanding of any society.
Custine’s book is a prolonged meditation upon the effect of a particular political regime and its institutions upon human character, thought, and action—and, by implication, a meditation upon the dialectical interplay of political conditions and human character everywhere. As Custine well understood, the effect of czarism upon the Russian psyche was pregnant with significance for the future, not just for the Russians themselves but for the whole world, because Russia was destined to play so large a part in the world’s history.
For when you read Custine, you realize that the spread of communism was not of an ideology alone but of an entire political culture: the culture of Russian despotism, which paved the way intellectually, and served as a practical exemplar, for Marxism’s millenarian totalitarianism. Without the prologue of czarist despotism, Marxism would not have triumphed in Russia. And without the Russian Revolution, whose “success” so many foreigners strove to imitate, far fewer Marxist regimes would have been set up throughout the world, and none in Eastern Europe. As Stalin’s literary commissar, Zhdanov, might have put it, the communist regimes that proliferated in the twentieth century were Russian in form but Marxist in content—just as approved literature by non-Russian-language authors in the Soviet Union was supposed to be national in form but socialist in content.
Custine visited Russia for only three months; he spoke no Russian (though the Russian upper class of the time spoke French fluently and even preferred to converse and think in that language). While he had read books about Russia, he was in no sense a scholar of Russian affairs. Yet the book he wrote after so short a sojourn in the country was infinitely more valuable than those written by men with a vastly more detailed knowledge of Russia than his. On reading La Russie en 1839, the exiled Alexander Herzen declared it the best book ever written on the subject and lamented that only a foreigner could have written it.
A third of Custine’s long book concerned only his first few days in Russia, when his impressions were no doubt at their most intense, as travelers’ impressions always are on their first arrival: but even had Custine returned to France after those few days and written nothing more than the first third of his book, he would have provided more insights into Russia, and hence into the subsequent fate of an all too considerable proportion of humanity, than any other writer of the nineteenth century.
How was this feat possible? What distinguished Custine from so many other observers? What were the methods and underlying assumptions that enabled him to penetrate so deeply in so short a time?
Custine displayed a remarkable talent for extracting the social and psychological meaning of small events that to others might have seemed insignificant. For example, on his arrival in Saint Petersburg, border guards and customs staff subjected him to a minute and pointless examination the like of which he had not remotely experienced anywhere else, though he was a well-traveled man. “Each of these men discharges his duty with a pedantry, a rigour, an air of importance uniquely designed to give prominence to the most obscure employment,” he noted. “He does not permit himself to say so, but you can see him thinking approximately this: ‘Make way for me, I am one of the members of the great machine of the State.'” Unlike less reflective observers, Custine asked why the Russian officials should have behaved with such a manner, keenly aware that men inhabit a mental and not just a physical world and that their conduct is determined by their thoughts about the world as they have experienced it. He surmised that these border officials had been deprived of all true discretion and were deeply fearful themselves of the power to which they were subordinate. Custine described them as “automata inconvenienced with a soul”: a description true, perhaps, of all bureaucrats fearful for their jobs but truest of all where power is both arbitrary and completely centralized, as it was in Russia. Their conduct was the revenge of men constrained to behave like machines: a revenge not upon the author of their servitude, of course, for that was impossible at the time, but upon those who fell within their extremely limited power.
No doubt Custine’s family history and upbringing had heightened his acuity. His grandfather was a liberal aristocrat who became a general in the revolutionary army, but whom the Jacobins guillotined as not sufficiently devoted to the cause. Custine’s father went to the guillotine for having tried to defend him. Custine’s mother, imprisoned as an enemy of the people for having tried to defend her husband, narrowly escaped execution herself, largely because one of the revolutionary fanatics who arrested her fell in love with her. Astolphe de Custine was brought up for a time by a faithful servant, living in penury with her in the only room of the Custine home that had not been looted and sealed off by Jacobin zealots and thieves. Such a background was likely to produce a man aware of the deep subterranean currents in life and not easily deceived by appearances. The evils of envy and hatred masquerading as humanitarian idealism had darkened his life from its outset, stamping him as a man quick to search for the reality behind the expression of fine sentiments.
He needed all his shrewdness to penetrate behind the veneer of Russia. He frequented mainly upper-class circles, traveled comparatively little, and studied no statistics. Accused of having visited Russia for too short a time to have drawn conclusions, he replied, “Il est vrai, j’ai mal vu, mais j’ai bien déviné”: which might be translated as, “Yes, I have seen little, but I have understood much.”
Custine grasped that the propensity to deceive and to be (or to pretend to be) deceived lay at the heart of Russia’s evident malaise. The maintenance of despotism depended upon this universal vocation for untruth, because without the fiction that the despotism was necessary, that it conduced to the happiness and well-being of all, and that any alternative would be disastrous, the subject population would cease to be controllable. The inability to speak even the most evident truth perverted all human relationships and institutions. And of course the lie came to be the foundation of all twentieth-century totalitarian regimes, without which they could not survive. “The political system of Russia,” wrote Custine, “could not withstand twenty years of free communication with Western Europe.”
Unlike so many gullible intellectuals of the twentieth century who visited communist countries in the spirit of religious pilgrims, Custine understood only too well both the techniques and the meaning of the attempts to deceive him. “Russian hospitality, bristling with formalities . . . is a polite pretext for hampering the movements of the traveller and limiting his license to observe,” he concluded. “Thanks to this fastidious politeness, the observer cannot visit a place or look at anything without a guide; never being alone he has trouble judging for himself, which is what they want. To enter Russia, you must deposit your free will as well as your passport at the frontier. . . . Would you like to see . . . a hospital? The doctor in charge will escort you. A fortress? The governor will show it to you, or rather, politely conceal it from you. A school, any kind of public establishment? The director, the inspector, will be forewarned of your visit. . . . A building? The architect will take you over all its parts and will, himself, explain everything you have not asked in order to avoid instructing you on the things you are interested in learning.” No wonder, he added, that “the most highly esteemed travellers are those who, the most meekly and for the longest time, allow themselves to be taken in.” No visitor to a communist country could fail to recognize the description.
For the whole elaborate charade of despotism to work, for the pretense that the despotism is both indispensable and conducive to the welfare of all, everyone must appear to believe in it—including the despot himself. The czar, as a consequence, remains trapped in a permanent state of fear and irritation, because he knows that he is not in fact omnipotent, but he cannot acknowledge openly this obvious fact and he cannot permit anyone or anything else to question the pretense on which his authority depends. “Subjecting the world to his supreme commands,” Custine says of him, “he sees in the most insignificant events a shadow of revolt. . . . A fly that buzzes unseasonably . . . humiliates the Czar. The independence of Nature seems to him a bad example.” Any rebellious behavior on the part of the meanest of his subjects assumes a disproportionate importance and must be ferreted out and put down. So the czar, through an army of spies, must keep an eye on everyone. He is “both eagle and insect, soaring above the rest of humanity and at the same time insinuating himself into the fabric of their lives like a termite into wood.” His position compels him to be paranoid: “an Emperor of Russia,” wrote Custine, “would have to be a genius . . . to keep his sanity after twenty years of ruling.” Such, of course, was precisely the problem all communist dictators faced.
If the czar is all-powerful, he is of course responsible for everything: therefore nothing untoward can happen in the country without the imputation of the czar’s ill will. But in that case, how is the imputation of omnipotence to be reconciled with that of perfect benevolence? If something terrible happens to innocent people, either the czar must not be omnipotent or must not be benevolent. The only way to square the circle is to lie oneself and be deceived when others lie in similar fashion: to see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil, even when evil abounds.
For example, shortly after his arrival in Russia, Custine went to the annual festival at the palace of Peterhof, a festival of such magnificence that it took 1,800 servants to light 250,000 lamps for it. Visitors reached the palace by boat from Saint Petersburg, and one boat had sunk in a storm on the way to the festival with the loss of all its passengers and crew. But because “any mishap [in Russia] is treated as an affair of State” in Russia, and because “to lie is to protect the social order, to speak the truth is to destroy the State,” there followed “a silence more terrifying than the disaster itself.” In Russia, people of the highest social class—as were the boat’s passengers—could disappear not only without a trace but without comment. Who in such a country could ever feel safe?
The silence encompassed not only current events, but extended back into history. A Russian nobleman, Prince Peter Koslovsky, had warned Custine before his arrival in Russia that in his country “despotism not only counts ideas and sentiments for nothing, but remakes facts. It wages war on evidence and triumphs in the battle. . . . [The Emperor’s] power is more far-reaching than God’s, for God makes only the future, while the Czar remakes the past.” Custine’s experience repeatedly proved this insight true. No previous czar was ever mentioned in conversation, he learned, to avoid the suggestion that the present czar was not immortal. For this same reason, Custine noted that Russians did not dare look at the palace in which the czar’s father, the emperor Paul, was murdered: for “it is forbidden to recount, in the schools or elsewhere, the story of the death of the Emperor Paul.”
When a man fell from grace, he not only ceased to exist, he ceased ever to have existed. “M. de Repnin governed the Empire and the Emperor. M. de Repnin has been in disfavour for two years and for two years Russia has not heard this name spoken—this name which two years ago was on every tongue. No one dares to remember him or even to believe in his existence—either his present existence or his past existence. In Russia, the day a minister falls, his friends become deaf and blind. A man is buried as soon as he appears to be in disfavour.”
Communist regimes went yet further in the creation of unpersons, of course, striking them out of photographs and encyclopedias (on the fall of a formerly prominent Soviet personage, the publishers of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia would send out substitute entries to paste over that unpersonage’s entry). But the precedent had been set many years before.
Custine appreciated only too well the violence that this remaking of history did to the minds of men, and the consequences it had for their character and behavior. In order not to look at the palace in which the emperor Paul was murdered, a person had to know that he was killed there; but his whole purpose in not looking at the palace was to demonstrate in public his ignorance of the murder. He thus had not only to assert a lie but also to deny that he knew it was a lie. And all officials—the emperor included—had likewise to pretend that they did not know they were being lied to, or else the whole edifice of falsehood would have come tumbling down.
The need always to lie and always to avoid the truth stripped everyone of what Custine called “the two greatest gifts of God—the soul and the speech which communicates it.” People became hypocritical, cunning, mistrustful, cynical, silent, cruel, and indifferent to the fate of others as a result of the destruction of their own souls. Moreover, the upkeep of systematic untruth requires a network of spies: indeed, it requires that everyone become a spy and potential informer. And “the spy,” wrote Custine, “believes only in espionage, and if you escape his snares he believes that he is about to fall into yours.” The damage to personal relations was incalculable.
If Custine were among us now, he would recognize the evil of political correctness at once, because of the violence that it does to people’s souls by forcing them to say or imply what they do not believe but must not question. Custine would demonstrate to us that, without an external despot to explain our pusillanimity, we have willingly adopted the mental habits of people who live under a totalitarian dictatorship.
Custine could wring meaning even from stones: a great interpreter of the meaning of architecture, he caught from the buildings and streets of Saint Petersburg another deep glimpse into the Russian soul. The city, to which he did not deny a certain beauty, was to him the physical embodiment of despotism. It was founded as the imperial capital not for the benefit of the Russians, as the natural expression of their economic or social activity, but as a permanent bulwark of the czarist regime in the Baltic against the Swedes. The very selection of the terrain—a freezing swamp—for the construction of a city by the fiat of the czar was an expression of contempt for humanity, for in such a place construction necessarily entailed the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men. Custine noted that the stucco that veneered Saint Petersburg’s grandiose government office buildings—”temples erected to clerks,” he called them—was a material peculiarly unsuited to the Russian climate, such that it took thousands of workmen to restore the crumbling stucco in the three-month plastering season every year, large numbers of them meeting death in the process because of the flimsy scaffolding on which they worked. Only where human labor—and life itself—ostentatiously counted for nothing could such a system of building maintenance have been envisaged, let alone tolerated.
Custine noted that the streets of Saint Petersburg were much too wide for the city’s population and that the vast public spaces were bound to make a man feel overwhelmed and insignificant. In such vastnesses, no assembly would constitute a crowd unless it were scores of thousands strong. And this was the political purpose of such spaces: for in Saint Petersburg, as Custine wrote, “a crowd would be a revolution.” Intimidating gigantism of this kind—a constant feature of communist town planning, from Bishkek in Kirghizia to Bucharest in Rumania, from Pyongang in North Korea to Minsk in Byelorussia—discouraged spontaneity, the enemy of all despotism.
But if no crowds could spontaneously gather, organized parades often filled the vast public spaces. “The taste for [military] reviews is pushed in Russia to the point of madness,” Custine wrote. “I am not moved to laughter; puerility on a vast scale is to me an appalling thing. . . . [I]t is only with blindly submissive peoples that a ruler can demand immense sacrifices to produce trifles.”
So I witnessed in North Korea, when a parade of hundreds of thousands of people—men, women, and children—marched past the despot, for no better reason than that there were delegations of foreigners in the city. They had been rehearsing the parade, so a diplomat told me, for six months beforehand, often until two or three in the morning. The military order of these ranks of civilians was terrifyingly impeccable: they performed maneuvers with the precision of a machine. But their faces were blank with exhaustion and permanent terror. Their immense sacrifices had been made toward their own complete subjugation as human beings, while the despot smiled at and waved to them, as if he imagined the whole event were a spontaneous demonstration of their affection for him.
Custine would have understood. “This member of the machine,” he wrote of a Russian official, “functioning according to a will which is not his own, lives as much as the movement of a clock. . . . One asks oneself what [such men] can do with their excess of thought and you feel uncomfortable at the idea of the force that had to be exerted against intelligent beings to succeed in making them only things.”
Whether describing a building or a social institution, Custine never lost sight of, for him, the key question: what was its effect upon the minds of men? For Custine, man was above all a thinking, conscious being: not even despotism could negate that. Without understanding the thoughts of the population, you could understand nothing about Russia, and its future would remain inexplicable to you. But, on the basis of his understanding of the Russian character, Custine could prophesy that within two or three generations a violent cataclysm would occur that would spell not liberation but a renewed and more terrible form of despotism, for men with souls molded by czarism would have no vocation for freedom. The turmoil that Russia has experienced in escaping the legacy of communism would not have surprised Custine in the least, nor would he have expected a happy outcome at any time in the foreseeable future.
Another traveler, Custine’s younger, but more eminent and scholarly, contemporary, Alexis de Tocqueville, took with him the same methods and the same assumption that no society can be understood without reference to the psychology of its members, and he famously produced classic accounts both of America and Britain. He, too, analyzed societies by reference to the interplay between political arrangements and the minds of men. These two men shared not just similar assumptions but a similar background. Both were scions of the French aristocracy, with reason to dislike the excesses of the French Revolution and its rhetoric. Both had a visceral mistrust of democratic government, but both came—with qualifications—to admire it, Tocqueville because of the positive example of the United States, Custine because of the negative example of Russia. (It is even possible that Custine chose Russia as a destination because the first volume of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, published in 1835 to immediate acclaim, stated that Russia seemed destined, along with the United States, to hold sway over half the world.) Before visiting America, Tocqueville, trained as a lawyer, had served as a judge; after his return, he served in France’s Chamber of Deputies and became, briefly, foreign minister in 1849.
Where Custine had studied the effect of despotism upon the human psyche and character, Tocqueville studied the effect of political liberty and legal equality upon them. Liberty had certain disadvantages, he thought, but the price was worth paying (the mirror image of Custine’s conclusion that any good that the czarist regime did was bought at far too high a cost). In many respects, freedom’s consequences were the opposite of despotism’s. Men became honest when they had to deal with one another on the basis of legal equality, rather than sly, underhanded, and dissimulating, as they were under despotism. When a man’s reputation depended more upon his activity than upon his position in a social hierarchy, conferred at birth, as in Russia, he was inclined to virtue without any obvious external compulsion. In addition, the comparative absence of governmental interference in his life rendered him energetic, enterprising, and thoughtful in pursuit of his own economic interests.
For that reason, a society of free men could organize itself to produce impressive public works without the coercion applied by Peter the Great and his successors—provided only that the public works were of genuine public utility and not merely the whim of one man. The interests of the individual and those of the political power—which is to say, the chosen representatives of the community at large—were united by a thousand small bonds.
But it was from this initial identity of interest that a potential danger arose. By small degrees—though this was only a possibility, not an inevitability—men might cede their independence to a government that represented them, that was believed to have their interests at heart, and that was (after all) composed of men very like themselves. In a passage that united prophetic with psychological insight, Tocqueville (who rightly foresaw that democratic government was destined to spread widely, if not throughout the entire world) described the future soul of man under a seemingly benevolent and democratic government that willingly labored for the happiness of the people “but chose to be the sole agent and only arbiter of that happiness.” Such a government would “supply [the people] with their necessities, facilitate their pleasures, manage their principal concerns.” What would remain, but to “spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living”? When this came to pass, “the will of man will not be shattered, but softened, bent and guided.” Men will not be forced to act, but prevented from acting; the government will not destroy, but prevent a full human existence. It will not tyrannize, but “enervate, extinguish and stupefy a people.”
And this is exactly the condition to which a part of the population had been reduced under irreproachably democratic governments. Living in subsidized housing, its children educated free of charge and its medical bills paid (all for its own good, of course), with an income sufficient to guarantee both enough food and perpetual entertainment in the form of television, all its “principal concerns” are “managed,” just as Tocqueville said they would be, and it is thus spared “the care of thinking and all the trouble of living.” This is the welfare-dependent population among which I work: so enervated and stupefied that it cannot cook for itself even when it has nothing else to do but eats only pre-cooked food, and so enervated and stupefied that when trash appears in its own front yard, it cannot summon the initiative to clear it away by itself but—if it notices the mess at all—summons officialdom to do so on its behalf.
If I took Custine with me as a guide each time I traveled in the communist world, I could, with equal reason, take a short essay by Tocqueville on the subject of pauperism with me each time I go to work in my hospital in the slums—which is, in a certain sense, to travel abroad. For I work among people who are in effect paupers: and Tocqueville understood, as few modern writers do, that pauperism is above all a psychological, not an economic, condition. And he saw in the English system of social assistance to the poor the same insidious threat to men’s independence of character that he saw, only as a potentiality, in American democracy.
Tocqueville’s Memoir on Pauperism was published in 1835, shortly after the first volume of Democracy in America. He had visited England, then by far the most prosperous country in Europe, if not the world. But there was a seeming paradox: a sixth of the population of England were—or had made themselves—paupers, completely reliant upon handouts from public charity. This was a proportion greater than in any other country in Europe, even in such incomparably poorer ones as Spain and Portugal. In the midst of what was then the utmost prosperity, Tocqueville found not only physical squalor but moral and emotional degradation.
Tocqueville surmised that the reason lay in the fact that England was then the one country in Europe that provided public assistance, as of right, to people who lacked the means to support themselves. The reign of Elizabeth I had conferred this right, as a way of dealing with the epidemic of begging that followed the dissolution of the monasteries. In the past, they had provided essentially private and voluntary charity to the poor, on a discretionary basis.
At first sight, remarked Tocqueville, the replacement of discretionary charity by public assistance granted as of right appeared deeply humane. What, he asked, could be nobler than the determination to ensure than no one went hungry? What could be more fair and reasonable than that the prosperous should give up a little for the welfare of those with nothing?
If men were not thinking beings who react to their circumstances by taking what they conceive to be advantage of them, this system doubtless would have had the desired effect. But instead, Tocqueville observed the voluntary idleness to which the seemingly humane system of entitlement gave rise—how it destroyed both kindness and gratitude (for what is given bureaucratically is received with resentment), how it encouraged fraud and dissimulation of various kinds, and above all how it dissolved the social bonds that protected people from the worst effects of poverty. The provision of relief by entitlement atomized society: Tocqueville cited the case of a man who, though financially able to do so, refused to support his daughter-in-law and grandchild after his son’s death, precisely because public support was available to them as of right. Having paid his taxes, why should he do more? The provision of charity as of right destroyed the motive for human solidarity in the face of hardship, and undermined both ties of personal affection and the sense of duty toward close relations. Intended as an expression of social responsibility, it liberated selfishness. As Tocqueville grasped, the shift of responsibility from individual to collectivity had an enormous and deleterious effect on how people thought and felt, and therefore upon society as a whole. Where this shift had taken place, economic progress was perfectly compatible with squalor of every kind, and general wealth with degradation.
It wasn’t until the end of the twentieth century, with its unprecedented prosperity and its militant moral relativism, that Tocqueville’s prescience became clear. Until very recently in human history, sheer physical poverty has seemed much more a menace than any attempt to relieve it could ever be. But none of the social pathology of a modern British or American slum would have surprised Tocqueville, who foresaw it all 165 years ago.
Custine and Tocqueville analyzed the subtle interplay of culture, political regime, and human character in two very different—one might almost say, opposite—societies and came to similar political conclusions. Underlying their analysis was a shared understanding: that societies alien to them were comprehensible because there existed a fundamental human nature, in which they themselves shared, and that some political and social arrangements nurture all the excellences of which human nature is capable, while others might stunt and deform it. They did not aspire to the pseudo-scientific detachment that is the hallmark of so much modern social commentary: and they will therefore continue to be read long after the tabulators and statistical correlators are forgotten.