The Captive Mind

Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind has been on my reading list for about a year now.  I want to read this book because every historian of Europe or the Cold War that I respect has mentioned this book at some point.  Milosz is a fascinating character as he is more known for this book about communist intellectuals than his first love and passion poetry.  As stated, this study is about communist intellectuals and how they slowly came under the influence of Stalinism after the Second World War and we can trust Milosz’s interpretation of this because he himself was a central European intellectual that for a time worked for the Polish communist government.

In the preface, Milosz points out that after the WWII the intellectuals of Poland and central Europe knew that their country needed something new.  Most, especially in Poland where Poles and Russians are long time enemies, saw the concept of socialism as beneficial, but not Russian communism.  However, the Poles had little choice in their nations outcome after the war.  Poland was simply “liberated” by the Soviets and left within the USSR’s sphere of influence.  Even though the Polish government in exile was located in London advocating for the Polish self-determination both Roosevelt and Churchill understood that Poland stood little chance due to military realities on the ground.  Therefore, at Yalta, they practiced realpolitik did not resist Stalin’s demands to establish a Soviet buffer zone out of Central and Eastern European nations.

When discussing Stalinism, Milosz describes it as a “New Faith” which I decidedly agree with.  It has been my understanding, and I actually had this debate during my graduate studies, that communism came to replace religion within the Soviet Union.  If you look at the state funerals of Lenin and Stalin and the preservation of their bodies for idolization they seem to be saints whose bodies were buried and preserved in churches.  If you look at the fact that statues and pictures of Stalin and Lenin remained ubiquitous throughout the USSR it reminds me of religious icons.  The Soviets even replacemened church holidays with secular/worker holidays. I think all of these examples reveal that the leaders of the Soviet Union saw communism as a faith and Milosz description of communism as a “New Faith” is completely accurate.

One of most important points Milosz makes is in his analysis of Social Realism.  Many today think of this as just as an aesthetic art form, but, according to Milosz, it is much more.  To become an artist of social realism, Milosz argues that the artist must accept the entire Leninist-Stalinist doctrine as no artist would willingly work in a style imposed on them by the state unless they agreed with the state’s philosophy.  Milosz recognizes that many artist became social realist because they became recognized for their work. In the old capitalist system, they remained poor and on the fringe of society because society did not recognize their work, but under communism, if they renounced their artistic style and worked in social realism, the state would make their name famous.  Thus we can see that instead of killing or imprisoning artist immediately, they first tried to co-opt them into system.  Milosz states that this takes away the most important aspect of art – the artist ability to see the world through their own world view.

An interesting feature of this work is that while Milosz attacks the conformist attitude of artists and intellectuals, he also notes that one is pressured to conform in the west too.  If you think about that, especially when you think of kids, you know the pressure to conform to the attitudes and activities of the peer group is strong.  Even parents feel something is wrong with their children if thy are unwilling to conform.  Yet the qualifier is that in the west one can resist the pressure to conform without being guilty of a mortal sin.  Resisting the conformity of the Soviet Union led to prison and in some cases death.

Milosz’s main objective in this book is to examine the intellectual of Central Europe and demonstrate how the human mind functions in the Soviet Block.  He notes that all civilizations will accept strange laws and behaviors as perfectly normal, but no where was the rule of law so warped and twisted as it was in the Soviet Union which attempted to, “mold the lives of eight hundred million human beings.”  I am really looking forward to reading this book especially since the preface was so enlightening.


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