The Captive Mind

After examining why Soviet Communism became attractive to intellectuals, Milosz examines four acquaintances of his that threw in their lot with the communists.  In these character sketches, we see the process and the attraction of the Soviet system those intellectuals and artists that survived the war.  Milosz utilizes the pseudonyms Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta to identify those men who found solace in the Soviet system.

The first is Alpha the Moralist who began his career as a semi-successful writer for right wing publications.  Alpha always desired to elicit an emotional response from his readers and he eventually found success when he composed a book examining Catholicism which led to prominence.  Interestingly, at this point Milosz emphasizes that initially the communists tolerated “intellectual Catholics” because they opposed the extreme right; however, when their usefulness deteriorated, these intellectual Catholics were first to the gulag system.  Though hailed as a catholic writer, Alpha was never a Catholic but from this vantage point he could create strong emotional and moral experiences for his audience.  During the war and subsequent occupation, Alpha along with other writers became prominent in the underground press agitating against the Nazi machine.  Even with Nazi occupation, the number of communist Poles was still significantly small as the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact exacerbated the Poles already virile hated for the Russians.  Thus when the Red Army reached the Vistula River outside of Warsaw, the Polish underground and the Home Army choose to fight and remove the Nazis in the hopes that if they secured the capital the Communists would leave Poland independent.  Tragically, the Home Army was decimated by the Nazi forces and the Red Army offered no support as the Soviets were determined to dominate the Slavic rivals.  The failure of the uprising and multitude of death that surrounded Warsaw was the rupture moment for Alpha; it moved him to support communism.  Like many intellectuals he believed that communism was a historical force that would dominate the world and choose to be on the side of history.  At first, Alpha basks in his new ideology as he lectures the people about the benefits of communist society to the peasants and workers, but he comes to realize that his past as a right winger and Catholic writer is suspect and he composes a scathing self criticism.  As a result, Alpha is placed in charge of propagating the party line against the church and his writing becomes contrived and predictable.

The sketch of Alpha reveals how history affects the thinking of an individual.  Prior to the uprising, Alpha remained a staunch supporter of Poland and the Polish government in London; however, the failure of the uprising, planned and initiated by the London Poles, and its devastation caused Alpha to re-think his support.  Alpha certainly was not a communist but when looking for alternatives between the liberal capitalism of the west and the Soviet communism of the east he placed his bet on communism.  He saw communism as an inevitable historical process.  However, this proved to be false and eventually became a another party writer spewing the center’s propaganda.

The Captive Mind

Chapter 3 of Milosz’s book is titled Ketman which he derives from Arthur Gobineau’s book Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia. In Persia, ketman is a term used to describe intellectuals who would publically support a tyrannical regime while internally arguing against it.  Milosz observed the same phenomena in the totalitarian east and thus adopted the term.


He noted that in the East, under the Soviet regime, the intellectuals act everyday as if they are in a play because the slightest change in body language can lead to imprisonment.  In the West, one is open and speaks their mind without hesitation which would shock those in the East that suppress their opinions.  Over time, the process of constantly watching body language and the act of suppressing ideas and opinions became automatic and eventually ones behavior.


Perceptively, Milosz observed that a society the forces one to keep emotions and thoughts hidden and suppressed prizes cunning and subversion.  What Milosz describes as the key attributes of the New Faith (Soviet communism).  I think this is an extremely important and accurate description of high level soviet politics.  Even among those who are their closest consorts, the soviet politburo kept their true thoughts an ideas suppressed as they utilized Machiavellian tactics to increase their own power.  We can see this type of political infighting especially after the death of Stalin as few Soviet watchers of the time saw Khrushchev emerging as the Soviets new leader.


Privately, a ketman intellectual enjoys bourgeoisie Western culture.  They know, understand, and appreciate the newest information that emerges from the West, but publically they must denounce these Western influences.  The intellectual serves in a unique role.  The people of the East have a respect for intellectuals and listen to their arguments carefully thus the Soviets manipulated them.  The Soviets say if you support us publically we will ignore some of your “questionable” actives.  The ketman then publically toes the party line which pleases the Soviets, and, in return, they are left alone privately to enjoy whatever culture they please.


A religious ketman is also a useful tool for the Soviet system.  The Soviet ideology state that members are atheists but there is still a large population of Christians especially in the Eastern Block.  Therefore, the Soviets would use religious leaders in a similar fashion to intellectuals.  They would be manipulated and used until the state no longer needed their influence.  Being publically of faith in the USSR meant that your fate was already decided – death or imprisonment.


When observing this society of people that are emerging in the East, Milosz points out that informing has become a “virtue.”  That is secretly telling the secret police about your neighbor, colleague, friends, child, and even spouse is seen as a positive in Soviet Union.  Now days, with the fall of the USSR, we take this as a known fact, but back in the 1950s this was not widely known in the West.  Now, in the former East, one can go certain record collections and look at the files accumulated about an individual and, in some cases, learn of those who informed on you.  While this has important ramifications for the present, in the 1950s, Milosz believed that this type of behavior destroyed the natural brotherhood one has for his fellow man.  Informing milieu where only the craftiest could win.


The last couple paragraphs of Milosz has an interesting discuss on how many of the intellectuals in East enjoy acting in the Soviet society in that it fills a type of void.  He uses the example of a painter who enjoys painting a bucolic scene ordered by the state, but if the state, were removed this painter would be lost for ideas and unable to uses their inner creativity because it was never properly formed.  Thus this artist and intellectuals find reprieve in the state because they are told how to use their talents or as Milosz stated, “they are afraid of freedom.”


The man of the East believes he is empty so he accepts anything even if it is bad in order to find himself.  He is too fearful to take a chance on the wisdom of the past and the talents given to him by God.  They enjoy being a tool for the state because it fulfills them and they did never fail because the state will always support them.

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.