The Captive Mind

Chapter 2 of Milosz’s Captive Mind is titled Looking to the West and examines how Central and Eastern Europeans see the West.  Milosz states that those in east see the West with both despair and a mix of hope, and that this mostly a product on the WWII.  The war not only destroyed their economies but also the East’s values system which seemed, prior to war, unshakable.  This is because man sees his world as natural and cannot believe that one day someone will show up on his street with a gun and start executing people or (if we think more recently) that nine men will fly planes into sky scrapers.  However, man adapts and begins to shift his understanding of what is important – a corpse on the street no longer attracts attention because corpses become ubiquitous and asking questions can make one a corpse.  Ultimately, what Milosz is saying in the beginning of this chapter is that the war fundamentally changed society’s value system.  That the city becomes a jungle, man changes his name, and killing cause no moral qualms.  So, Milosz asks a philosophical question –  is the world that existed before the war, or after the world natural?  Answer: They are both natural as they are both within the realm of human experience.  Man is plastic and malleable and can change instantly to suit his new surroundings.  Yet, the man of the west has never had to go through these experiences which demonstrates how relative mans judgments and thinking are.

Milosz states, that after the war, the man of the East also viewed the man of the west as inferior because they did not have the knowledge of war and did not understand that man is malleable; that his “natural” world is a façade that could disappear at any moment.  Furthermore, the man of the East believed that those in west waste the talents of intellect and artist.  They work hard and produce wondrous works but never achieve the fame, recognition and wealth.  They find it ridiculous that those of middling intellect may become rich and famous through accident.  Thus the observation is that the West does not adequately reward those who work hard.  However, in defense of the West, Milosz notes that though the avant garde artist may not directly influence the rabble, he does influence that newest fashions and design that are made for mass consumption and that they therefore do have some prestige.

In discussing the East’s relation with the West, Milosz points out that the East, specifically the center, do use and distribute western culture, but only that part of culture that suits the center.  Those in power denounce the west and the cosmopolitanism that the West produces, but the center will, in actuality, pick and choose parts of western culture to bring to the East.  Science and engineering topics are almost always imported as the center must maintain its technological might.  Yet in other ways the center will bring western culture, – music and art – that it finds suitable for the mass consumption or whatever supports the centers worldview, and the rest will remained banned.  Most of the Western cultural ideas allowed into the Soviet was that produced before WWII.

Prior to the war, Eastern European intellectuals were irritated by the West’s refusal to place Eastern Europe with in the concept of Europe, and in this case, they felt some solidarity with the Russia who have long been the scion of Western Europe.  In terms of cultural influence in the East, prior to the war, there was the West, and though it was disappointing that Eastern culture was not as influential as Western culture, it did exists.  Authors, poets, painters, and others were able to produce what they wanted with no fear of state repercussion, but, under the Soviets, those in the East have no ability to produce their culture even if certain critics consider it to be inferior.  Here again Milosz emphasizes the negativity of the Soviet Union for intellectuals.

Milosz concludes that the Eastern intellectuals’ relationship with the west is complicated.  The West does not fully understand the East and the Soviets governing style sufficiently enough to understand the problems.  Therefore the Eastern intellectual must continue to work for the center until it falls and then hope that the west will understand.

From my understanding of this chapter, Milosz is showing why the post-war did West not understand the East.  The average Western man did not experience war in his neighborhood and therefore has a difficult time grasping the reasoning of those in the East and their support of the Soviets.  Furthermore, Eastern intellectuals at the time believed that Western intellectuals, painters, writers were treated as second class citizens in the West – they had no prestige or power.  Thus, seeing this, it made more sense for those with these talents in the East to stay and support as system they did not support so they could be respected for their talents and intellect.  They believed that staying in the repressive East and being respected was better than being disrespected in the democratic West.

The Captive Mind

In the first chapter of The Captive Mind, Milosz frames his discussion of intellectual submissiveness towards the Soviet regime by discussing the Murti-Bing pill.  Milosz derives this pill from a pre-WWII novel by Stanislaw Witkiewicz, a Polish writer.  The Murti-Bing pill, when taken, eases the consumer worries and makes them complacent about the larger problems existing in the world.  In the novel by Witkiewisz, as Sino-Mongolian hordes invade the western Europe, the takers of the pills are so apathetic and nonchalant that they welcome the invaders and give them control.  For Milosz, the Soviets are the invaders and central European intellectuals are the phlegmatic people on Murti-Bing allowing their nation to be overrun.

As previously discussed, Milosz sees Soviet communism as a “New Faith” and, by believing in this “New Faith,” central European intellectuals were able to gain fame and live in relative ease as long as they toed the line.  Those who selfishly adopted Russian communism and rejected liberal ideas were able to gain recognition but Milosz finds fault with them.  He admires all revolutionaries whether right or wrong but distrusts those who adopted themselves to the newest movement. This is a concept that I can support especially in today’s political world.  With the 24 news cycle in perpetual motion, politicians desire and attempt to espouse the newest populous rhetoric even if it stands in direct contrasts to their past statements.  This blatant hypocrisy in the modern political system is the most repugnant aspect of the system. Every politician today is hypocrite and demonstrates to me that our political leaders of have no moral grounding.  Though I am disparaging of politicians, I do not believe them to be socialist, communist, fascist, or Stalinist.

I think the most important observation that Milosz makes in this first chapter is on the role of religion in society.  Milosz points out that from Rome to the revolutionary period (the late 18th century) man had stable frame of reference – religion.  With the majority of the population attending or partaking in Christian religious practices, the noble, the blacksmith, and the peasant all had a common frame with which to view the world.  This more or less allowed for society to remain rather stable, but the advent of modernization resulted in a decline in religiosity and  the proliferation of multiple frames of reference.  Religion became replaced with new philosophies and concepts many of which were inaccessible to the common man.   This is a great observation.  Here Milosz is pointing out that even though Christianity made some rich and left others poor, it still acted as a great leveler in society – at least intellectually.  With everyone seeing and understanding the world through the same concepts, men throughout the world, no matter their wealth, language, or profession could see the world the same, but with modernization and the decline in religiosity, intellectuals and their philosophies became more esoteric and were they were longer able to see eye to eye with the everyman.

But, as Milosz sees it, a Marxist society, a very modern concept for organizing peoples, provides a new frame reference as anything and everything produced and disseminated in a Marxist society is presented through the Marxist frame of reference.  Therefore, if every newspaper, magazine, and book presents the same worldview, the cab driver, the doctor, and the professor are all going to see it the same; theoretically Marxism as acts as societal leveler.  However, we know from history, that Soviet communism produced winners and losers and no great leveling of society occurred, but at the time after WWII, when Europe was in shambles, socialism seemed appealing but not the communism of Russia.  In Western Europe, a vast social program was emplaced and functioned well until the 1970s but in central and Eastern Europe, Russian communism was forced upon the people and was colossal failure.

The final phase after accepting the Murti-Bing pill was for intellectuals to dismiss their nations and left the advocates of the “New Faith” feeling guilty.  After years of developing a love and passion for one’s country, the central/eastern European intellectual had to denounce it in favor of the center (Moscow).  National songs, books, poems, and music, that could not be co-opted by the regime, became illegal and holding these became a state crime.  Thus to get the support and fame of the center, the intellectual renounced his homeland in favor of an ideology perpetuated by Moscow.

While not of the information in chapter one was new to me, I found extremely informative in they way that the Soviets worked to entice intellectuals into supporting communism.

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.