The late Ernest Gellner, a life-long anti-communist, deplored the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Here he explains his regrets-for those in the east who have had their moral universe shattered, and for those in the disorientated west who have jumped to the wrong conclusionsby Ernest Gellner / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
The manner of the dismantling of the Russian revolution may come to be seen as a disaster comparable only with the revolution itself. I do not wish to be misunderstood. I write as a life-long anti-communist and anti-Marxist. For a person of my age and background, I belong to what sometimes felt like a small minority of people who never passed through a Marxist phase. As a schoolboy in wartime England I was powerfully influenced by Arthur Koestler and George Orwell; later, Karl Popper made the strongest impact on me in philosophy, and Raymond Aron in sociology. The toolbox of the halftrack I drove to Prague for the victory parade in May 1945 contained four books: Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Orwell’s Animal Farm, the now forgotten but then widely discussed Managerial Revolution by James Burnham, and Cyril Connolly’s Unquiet Grave.
Yet I deplore the disintegration of the Soviet Union; not because I ever sympathised with the ideology which had inspired it, but because of concerns about the need for continuity. Marxism had provided the societies under its sway with a moral order-a set of moral values which helped people to orient themselves. They knew what the rules, the idiom and the slogans were. These added up to a system you could understand and adjust to, whether or not you approved of it. An east European living under communism who confronted a person from the free world had a measure of dignity: deprived of many civil liberties, and a western standard of living, he nevertheless belonged to a rival civilisation-one which stood for something different. It had not been doing very well, by its own standards or by most others. But that had not always been obvious and no single individual had been personally dishonoured by the historic mistakes which had led to communism. Today, a typical east European is simply a very poor cousin. If he is an intellectual, his best prospect is temporary or permanent migration. East Europeans do not represent a failed, but important, alternative; they represent failure by the standard norms.
Meeting them, you feel a certain embarrassment-a bit like what you might feel in the presence of a person suffering from a disfiguring physical ailment. In the past, he could decently hide it by his clothing; but now, for some reason, he is obliged to lay it bare, and you are obliged to observe it-and he knows it. Imagine you were living in a Catholic country, without being a believer in any way. Over the years, as a matter of courtesy, you have developed a habit of referring with respect to your neighbours’ beliefs and practices. In formal discussions, you do not hide the difference between your convictions and theirs; but in everyday life, “in front of the children,” you subscribe to the polite convention of equality-in-difference. Then, one day, there is an internal crisis in the Vatican and the Holy Father declares that the Catholic faith must be abolished; it was based on an error. This is the predicament of former communists.