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Evil and the Postmodernist

Monday, December 1, 2003

Igal Halfin.
Terror in My Soul: Communist Autobiographies on Trial.
Harvard University Press. 352 pages. $45.00

Where did Auschwitz come from? And Pol Pot? And Rwanda? Mass death, orchestrated death, demands explanation; explanation offers order. However mindless or unimaginable genocide may be, we seek meaning, solace, even salvation in structure — organizing the craziness, the absurdity, into some sort of framework, piecing together an explanation or thesis that takes into account the historical, political, cultural, and economic factors underlying the evil at the heart of it all. Indeed, the more evil, the more bodies, the more we want to know — the more we need to know — the etiology of the crime. This is how we protect ourselves, or hope to protect ourselves, from the animals, the monsters, with their Zyklon-b and their gulags and their child-warriors whose only job is to mow down human life.

As Igal Halfin aptly notes in Terror in My Soul: Communist Autobiographies on Trial, the origins of the Great Purge, perhaps more so than those of the Holocaust or the killing fields, remain something of a mystery. We know why the Soviet Union executed, from 1935 to 1938, hundreds of thousands of its most devout communists: to rid the workers’ work in progress of subversive elements. What’s confusing is how the regime wound up at this particular why — that is, how a socialist dictatorship that had been aggressively defended by so many intellectuals wound up putting those intellectuals to death, how so many thinkers, writers, academics, and party faithful who had celebrated the dawn of the Soviet era acquiesced or, in many cases, took part in the systematic disembodiment of the Russian intelligentsia. Unlike other crimes against humanity, the Great Purge was not so much one power, state, or clan imposing its brutality on a helpless mass as it was a self-empowered elite effecting its own destruction. How did this happen?

Alas, the answers to these questions — very good questions, questions Halfin deserves credit for raising — are nowhere to be found in Terror in My Soul. While the book promises to make sense of one of the most horrific, and most bizarre, chapters in socialist totalitarianism, the unfortunate, unavoidable fact of the matter is that it’s little more than a series of confusions and unverifiable statements wrapped up in an irritating postmodern garb. By now, this particular recipe, this latest iteration of the emperor’s new clothes, is well known: Take an engaging idea or motif, some curious or colorful notion or point (or semi-point), and weave that semi-point into a full-blown argument that’s not actually an argument but a tortuous trek to nowhere — the yellow brick road minus the Emerald City.

In this case, Halfin’s idée centrale, stated not so clearly in his introduction, is that language matters. “Although it is widely assumed that a subject controls what he says by knowing what he means, I suggest, by contrast, that what is often said of the economic and social activity of man can also be said of language: namely, that Communist discourse had unintended consequences,” he writes. “Neither the producers nor the consumers of this discourse could have fully known the implications of what they were saying and doing.” Halfin concludes that “once entrenched in the tissue of power, messianic dreams that structured the Communist discourse and provided it a frame of moral reference that set standards of conformity could not be easily curbed, even when some of their horrific implications asserted themselves with a vengeance.”

The bottom line is that people in the Soviet Union said and wrote things in the 1920s and early 1930s that enabled the regime in the mid- and late 1930s to put those same people on trial for crimes against the state and, ultimately, to kill them.

This is pretty provocative stuff — imaginative, daring, troublingly reminiscent of Hannah Arendt’s discussion of European Jews shuffling sheep-like into the gas chambers. It’s not necessarily groundbreaking: Benjamin Whorf’s linguistic relativity, which Halfin neglects to cite, encompasses many of the ideas in this book, as do many of the themes and questions dealt with by Noam Chomsky, ordinary-language philosophers, and other analytic philosophers in the United States and Britain. But it’s bold insofar as the particulars are concerned: Superimposing a linguistic theory about the relationship between word and thought on Stalinist Russia leads us into some complicated corners. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that so many Marxists, determined to extirpate their “bourgeoisness,” to transform their souls and prove themselves members of the communist elect, could construct a vocabulary that would facilitate their undoing. It’s nearly impossible to conceive of “free agents” so consumed by ideology that they were unaware that these symbols would — in an organic, almost literal sense — eventually turn on them. Were they simply blind? Or were they somehow determined to expose themselves and all their ideological impurities for the secret police and their puppet judges to see, to denounce their thoughts and ideas, their “autobiographies” — not to save their skins but to save some classless utopia from their own subversion, an invisible subversion that couldn’t be bleached away or dissolved into the rapids of the recent past but instead had to be repeatedly, violently vomited out of their systems?

 

Unfortunately, Terror in My Soul never gets into all that. The great irony of this book is that Halfin, an associate professor of history at Tel Aviv University, is so mired in the language he uses to describe the language that’s used that we never learn much about a) the nature, meaning, or grammar of this new-fangled communist-speak or b) the all-important connection between this language — the books, articles, and speeches that came out of this period — and the Great Purge. There’s lots of rumination about the “hermeneutics of the soul,” the “poetics of the traditional Communist autobiography,” “eschatological metaframeworks,” and, of course, “discourse” — communist discourse, official discourse, party discourse, and so on. But there’s scant attention paid to making the case that words — spoken, written, or otherwise — somehow fostered murder.

To be fair, there are some promising passages here. Halfin’s chapter on the oppositionist soul, for example, offers some insight into the intersection between language, psychology, and ethics in early Soviet life. At the heart of this junction was a crucial tension pitting the proletariat against the intelligentsia. Halfin’s discussion of the Soviets’ effort to transcend these differences and forge a New Man by way of collectivization, five-year plans and the “debunking” of Trotskyist ideology is brief but helpful. As he sees it, the great schism that separated the proletarians and the intellectuals was resolved only after the thought police had moved beyond “verifying” consciousness via class and adopted a more sophisticated weeding out focused less on birth or background and more on acquired mannerism, behavior, dialect, and speech pattern. “Strange facial expressions, lip-biting, brow-mopping, and stammering were the sure signs of counterrevolutionary students,” Halfin writes. “‘I do not know this person,’ admitted many an interogator. ‘But I can tell by his eyes he is an enemy of the people.’”

Other observations — you might call them “moments” — also raise some important questions: Halfin’s suggestion that Soviet life was defined not so much by ineluctable scientific-legalistic forces à la Marx as by a peculiar communist-authoritarian morality; his discussion of Emmanuil Enchmen’s theory of new biology; his analysis of Bolshevik attitudes toward sex and the connection between sex and “heterodoxy”; and his particularly thoughtful section on the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of “verifications” of Soviet souls that took place prior to the Great Purge.

But these are only moments, and in a way these moments (or semi-semi-points) underscore what this book really is — not so much a thesis or argument or even an exposition of some hitherto unexplored school of thought as a series of mildly intriguing pensées stitched together by a hopelessly convoluted mesh of words and neologisms that doesn’t illuminate or clarify but distracts and annoys.

What to make, say, of this passage from Halfin’s section on the mind-body problem? “Different as the theoretical vocabularies proposed by physiologists were, they converged in a depreciation of mentalism,” he writes:

Suspicious of any romanticization of consciousness as a self-transparent and omnipotent mystical entity, scholars construed it entirely in terms of reflex theory. Stripped of its position as the epistemological tool that organized reality, consciousness was reinterpreted as a property of well-organized matter, a token of the fact that a given neural system was sophisticated enough to account for its own functioning. The only remaining affinity between the sociological and the reflexological notions of consciousness was self-referentiality.

There’s probably something here, some grain of an idea that merits closer attention. But what? This book is so given over to the vernacular of critical theory — a vernacular whose recurring turns of phrase and style of expression leave the misleading impression of coherence or organization — that it’s nearly impossible to make much sense of it.

And what about this tidbit toward the end of the book?

Communist autobiographical confessions cannot be regarded as accurate descriptions of a consistent life. Such a view is predicated on the assumption that one’s moral essence remains the same through time and circumstance. By contrast, this study shows the Communist self to have been structured around a discontinuity, not a locus of a preexisting moral identity but something constantly in the making. Only by treating the historical actor not as a stable ethical persona but as an agent and product of an ever-changing official moral discourse can we reconstruct the actual dynamic [that] led to the Great Purge.

This means — I think — that in the Soviet Union ethical norms changed over time and that it is therefore difficult, indeed unfair, to evaluate a “historical actor’s” ethical conduct on the basis of any single set of principles. The suggestion that a strictly “moral” society was defined in part by its moral relativism is eyebrow-raising enough. The larger problem here is that there’s so much imprecise language: What, for example, is “a discontinuity” as against a “preexisting moral identity”? And how does one define “official moral discourse”? Readers may be left feeling as if Halfin has (sort of) touched on a (possibly) engaging notion or premise but opted out of much, if any, serious explication. In fact, the whole book smells a bit unserious: There’s no index, for one thing. And, at times, Halfin seems more taken with “sexology,” semiotics, and literary criticism, with all its poststructuralist, neo-Marxist, anti-rationalist overtones, than with history.

 

All this, of course, is to our great detriment. A book like Terror in My Soul, at its best, offers hope that we might better understand the awful, mind-controlling grip that once was totalitarianism. For now, readers would be far better off with Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn (or Isaac Babel or Osip Mandelshtam). Stalinist Russia is simply too repugnant, too evil, to be dealt with by those infected with the latest strain of Left Bank silliness. After all, this is a particular species of hell, or ideology, that most Westerners, and certainly most Americans, simply cannot grasp. We are so unburdened by history and so driven, or determined, by prevailing beliefs about individuality, natural rights, private property, liberty, and the like that we simply cannot comprehend on any meaningful emotional or visceral level what it means for human beings to surrender themselves to an idea. Not a way of life or a constitution or a government but an abstraction, like a floating construct or cathedral that is beautiful and just only in the eyes of a handful of theorists and ideologues — an abstraction so ridiculously, so completely, divorced from reality that the idea of giving one’s life to defend it could only be described as ludicrous and depraved.