The end of the Soviet Union has released a flood of new histories of Russia and communism. Edward Skidelsky recommends two-one describes the tragedy of an idea, the other of a peopleby Edward Skidelsky / March 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Published in March 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
Tragedy is a compound of two elements: engagement and distance. This explains why the tragedy of an individual’s life is revealed most powerfully at the moment of his death. The memory of the life is still sufficiently vivid to engage us. But already a certain distance is placed between us and him. We no longer feel stirred to censor or correct, to applaud or wag a finger. Detachment-the necessary condition of tragic or indeed any form of contemplation-is born.
What is true of individuals is also true of nations and ideas. Only now, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its animating idea, communism, has it become possible to view the history of both as tragic. Until now, writers have been forced to position themselves on one or another side of a political conflict: red or white. To be a red is, by definition, to renounce tragedy as a means of understanding the world. Even Trotsky, who might have written a tragic history of the revolution, was incapable of it. He was incapable of seeing the embryo of Stalinism in the original aspirations of the revolutionaries; doctrinal orthodoxy, as well as personal vanity, proved too strong. He had to resort to the implausible supposition that an originally “progressive” revolution was somehow hijacked by malevolent reactionary forces; a melodrama, maybe, but not a tragedy.
But the whites also proved incapable of writing a tragic history. To them, Marxism was merely a set of errors, the Bolsheviks a gang of criminals, the revolution a series of crimes. They were not entirely wrong: Marxism was erroneous; the Bolsheviks did commit terrible crimes. But to reduce the history of communism to a series of errors and crimes is to render it unintelligible. This is why the best books written about communism in the past, the only ones to approach the level of tragedy, were by apostates such as George Orwell and Arthur Koestler. Alasdair MacIntyre (another apostate) is right when he says: “Those for whom the project of the revolutionary liberation of mankind from exploitation… is an absurd fantasy disqualify themselves from writing about communism in the same way that those who find the notion of the supernatural redemption of the world from sin an outmoded superstition disqualify themselves from writing ecclesiastical history.”