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The Light in the East

Poland foretells the end of the Soviet empire, and the American century.

During the last week in August in 1980 a new kind of light appeared in Poland, illuminating the world scene in an unexpected way. An eerie sentence swam into my mind, the one that Winston Churchill wrote about 1914 when the pall of the parochial Irish crisis hung over the warm summer evening of the British Empire; and when the parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded into the mists and squalls of Ireland, "and a strange light began immediately, but by perceptible gradations, to fall and grow upon the map of Europe."

That strange light, in 1914, was the glimmering advent of World War I. This strange light, in 1980, reveals the fatal loosening of the Soviet order in the East. Like the advent of the Great War in 1914, this loosening is now well-nigh irreversible. It has been going on for more than a quarter-century, ever since the death of Stalin. Even in Czechoslovakia, even in Bulgaria, the circumstances of life are not what they were 20 or 30 years ago, and the portents of this unbinding, irregular and varied as they are, are far more significant than the existence of the serried rank of Soviet bombs and rockets and the launching of 1,000 ships by a people unaccustomed to the sea.

This loosening has occurred because of two elements. One is the death and the disappearance of Marxism everywhere in Eastern Europe, including the minds of the rulers of the Soviet Union. The other is the Russian national character. The Russians, unlike the Germans, are a disorganized people, in whose lives carelessness and rigidity, belief and cynicism exist side by side. Their rulers' communism has nothing messianic in it; it is, simply and brutally, an instrument to extend and maintain their national power. They have done practically nothing to establish their cultural influence in their subjugated satellite neighbors. They allowed trade with the West. As early as 15 years ago the lives of workers in Budapest or in Warsaw had far more in common with the lives of workers in Paris or Madrid than they had had before, and of course far more in common with the latter than with the lives of people in Kiev or Moscow.

Any historian worth his salt ought to know how unpredictable is the history of nations and of their relations. It may be that the dramatic element in the Polish events will fade, at least for a while, that the birth-struggle of the new trade unions will degenerate into dreary squabbles, that the events of August 1980 in Poland will be little more than another painful milestone, like that of 1970 or of 1976. It may be that things will get out of hand, and that the Russians will, after slow and cautious deliberations of their own, throw in their brute force—it has happened before in Polish history and it may happen again. But at least the historian (as any human being, in any human situation) can say, with more than reasonable certainty, not what is going to happen but what is not going to happen: Russia cannot digest a nation such as Poland; as a matter of fact she cannot even swallow her. The texture of history has changed and, with it, the structure of events. In the past the Russians dealt with a state. Now they face an entire nation. In the past history was politics, the relationships of the governing classes, underneath the quick-moving, dramatic surface of which the peasants and the workers were largely passive elements. This is no longer so.

If the Russians break into the Polish factory towns with tanks and flamethrowers, blood will flow; there may be a dreadful silence, for weeks, months, perhaps years. Then the real struggle will begin, and the Russians will have a flaring revolution on hand, an unending war of independence.

The Russians know this. This is why, no matter what happens in Poland in the short run, in the long run, in one form or another, the end of the Soviet order (which is not the same thing as the end of the Russian empire) is now conceivable and perceptible—if not yet altogether at hand.

What is also in sight is the end of the world order of the last 35 years, including the coming end of the American century. Finally, slowly, the century is beginning to move again. I write "finally" because this has been a very slow-moving century during the last 35 years. One—but only one—element in this evolution if Poland is the disappearance of Marxism from the minds of men and women, including the leadership of the Communist party. This death of Marxism (or rather, the recognition of the death of Marxism) has taken a long time. Marxism was bankrupt as early as 1914, when it was shown that nationality meant infinitely more than class consciousness, when the masses of French and German and British workers went to war with an orderly enthusiasm that threw the pale preachers of international socialism into confusion and dismay.

But when Lenin and his gang won the civil war if Russia, not at all according to Marx but at least in the name of Marxism, many intellectuals preferred to believe that Marxism was the wave of the future and the only rational explanation of the modern world. Again they were wrong. The real revolutionaries who came out of World War I were men such as Mussolini and Hitler. The wave of that time was not communist but the movement which is—still inadequately, following a Marxist phraseology—called fascism.

During the second phase of World War II the prestige of communism revived because Russia emerged as one of the victors of the war. Then all kinds of people including obsessed anti-communists—believed that the great revolutionary wave of the world was communism. They failed to see that the great Stalin himself had nothing to do with Marx; that he was a crude nationalist; that, unlike the wake of World War I, what followed World War II in Europe was wholly unrevolutionary; that communism was installed in Prague, Budapest, etc., not by revolution but throughthe presence of the Russian army.

During the last 40 years there have been plenty ofMarxist and neo-Marxist intellectuals in the West' filling the floppy pages of their journals and reviews and screeching at each other as if the aviaries of their birdy brains were on fire. In certain countries of Western Europe the disappearance of fascism allowed the Communists to have the monopoly of a (largely verbal) radicalism. Until the recent appearance of groups of terrorists the Communists seemed to represent the only alternative to the existing order (or disorder) " their states. In the end they gave that up too: just look at the advertisements in the French or Italian communist newspapers. They are rotten bourgeois to core.

The amazing and disheartening condition, however, was this: Marxism was dead, and yet the Soviet Union was more powerful than ever. Consequently many half-baked people, especially in Asia, Africa, and America, decided that they were Marxists. But now the events in Poland have revealed not only that Marxism is dead but that the corpse is dried up. These hard-headed Polish strikers no longer burn with hatred for the symbols of Marx. In 1956 the first the Hungarian revolutionaries did was to pull down the statue of Stalin (it was not reerected). In 1980 the crowds of Polish workers laughed at the busts of Marx and at the statues of Lenin: they gave about as much thought to the fact that the Gdansk shipyard is named after Lenin as an Irish Catholic janitor in New York would give to the fact that he is assigned to a public school bearing the name of Erasmus or John Dewey.

But this article is not about the failures of Marxism, ludicrous as they are—of almost everything that Marx had predicted the very opposite happened in the century after he died—except to point at the two greatest enormities in his hoary scheme of history. He wascompletely ignored the existence of nations (while he stupidly preoccupied with the existence of states) at the very time when nationality emerged as the principal factor in history, and he proclaimed the industrial working class as the main agent of the new dispensation of revolution when, in reality, the working have been the least revolutionary and the most conservative, the least internationalist and the nationalist, elements in the world.

This should not have been surprising. Working men and women have no time and no particular inclination to think about revolution. They have, except for the few would-be intellectuals among them, no appetite for it. And thus it was that the working classes in the most industrialized and capitalist societies proved to be the most reliable, the most solid, the least revolutionaryelements of their states. This was, by and large, a good thing, but there was a negative element within this condition too. The German workers followed Hitler. The Italian workers followed Mussolini. Masses of American workers favored men such as Joseph McCarthy, and they would demonstrate, on occasion, in favor of General MacArthur and Richard Nixon. The resistance to Hitler and Mussolini began among what remained of the most tradition-bound, indeed reactionary, men and women of the old-fashioned classes. Even in Eastern Europe the revolutionary tendencies in 1956 started from the top, not the bottom: from the restlessness of certain intellectuals who for once rejoiced in the fact that their words found a powerful echo among the workers in their suppressed nations.

What has happened in Poland now is different. In 1970 and in 1976 and in 1980 the real movement began among the working classes—acting in accord and in alliance with a strong remnant of honest intellectuals. In 1980 the Polish workers revealed a political wisdom and maturity that often had been wanting in the past, and their leader, the shipyard worker Lech Walesa, has emerged as the most extraordinary European personage since Charles de Gaulle, Their view of the realities of Europe is light-years ahead not only of the Marxists and neo-Marxists in whose deadened orbs the light can no longer penetrate; they are light-years ahead of the new philosophes in France who bloviate profitably about the failures of Marxism, 60 years too late—as well as of the American neoconservatives who think that what the United States needs is more nuclear rockets and more military bases, preferably in the Middle East.

And so ideas matter, after all—ideas, not ideology. The end of ideology has come, but not as some of the American neoliberals and neoconservatives have envisaged it. The death of Marxism and of communism is no longer a condition, glimpsed beneath the police bureaucracy of the Soviet Union or beneath the shameless opportunism of the new Chinese rulers. It is a fact, and it is a principal fact in the world order of this day, because the Russians themselves know it. During the 20th century, unlike during the 19th, ideas move slowly but they do move, and finally the recognition of their condition has reached the innards of the monster which may thrash about for a while but which no longer can recover its messianic prestige and its Byzantine power.

At the end of the last world war there remained only two great powers in the world, the United States and the Soviet Union. This was an unnatural situation, for two reasons at least. In spite of the prattle about One World or about Spaceship Earth, this world has proved too large for two superpowers (let alone one) to dominate it—because of many things, foremost among them the nationalism that Marxists as well as American internationalists failed to recognize even though it was before their very noses. Twenty years ago the US and the USSR had enough hydrogen bombs to blow up the world; yet Americans were defeated by Cubans, by Indochinese, even by Iranians, that most corrupt and degenerate of the peoples of the Middle East. The Russians, naturally much less scrupulous than Americans, failed to impose their will on Yugoslavia or on Egypt or even on Afghanistan; they could not digest their Eastern European satellites, and they have had to swallow the jabberings of their communist comrades in Western Europe.

This was the other condition for their weakness: the two superpowers, the US and the USSR, in 1945 represented ideologies that seemed modern, whereas in reality they were woefully antiquated. About the decay of communist internationalism 1 have said enough. About the degenerated nature of American internationalism I shall only say that it has nothing to do with capitalism (in reality the United States, like all other states during the 20th century, has become a socialist bureaucracy, differing from other states in degree but not in kind) but with the fact that American internationalism was founded on Wilsonian ideas (Franklin Roosevelt as well as Herbert Hoover, John Foster Dulles as well as Dean Rusk, Johnson, Nixon,

McGovern, Carter, Anderson, the Rockefellers have been, all, avowed Wilsonians)—ideas that rested on a fundamentally shallow and insubstantial view of human nature and of history.

It was not because of the strength of its ideas, it was because of the living example of this country—a prosperous and powerful and orderly and relatively free society—that the 20th century has been the American century throughout the world, until now. It was not because of the failure of its ideology, it was because of the increasingly obvious evidence of its living example—the misery and brutality of Soviet existence—that the 20th century has not become the Russian century, and that the emulation of Russia, unlike the emulation of America, has had few attractions, indeed, that it has been repellent even to her neighbors.

The power of both the United States and of the Soviet Union is still very great; but their prestige is largely exhausted. Power is, of course, more important than prestige—but only in the short run. In the long run the two elements are inseparable; and a nation (like a person) whose prestige has been badly eroded will not be able to recover once the first serious diminution in its power occurs. This is the principal danger besetting the rulers of the Soviet Union, The extent of this danger is less for the United States whose prestige, no matter on what grounds, athwart the world is still considerable, and which still has considerable forces of recovery—but only if it faces its own problems honestly, if it turns inward, if it dedicates itself to the restoration of decency and order in its national life shedding the deceptions of its own ideology, which admittedly is not an easy task.

In any event, the greatest dangers besetting the USSR and the US are now internal rather than external. The Soviet Union faces the slow—very slow—' erosion of belief in its own governing system among its population, an illness which is chronic, though not yet acute. Even more chronic—though not yet acute-^ is its problem with its nationalities which now comprise more than half of its population. The Soviet Union is a multinational state; but then, so is the United States, albeit in different ways.

At the end of an age—and we are now living through the end of the modern age, of which the creation of the United States was a singular result—the dissolution is such that phenomena of its beginnings appear again, just as in the life of a man some of the phenomena of senility, mental and physical, are reminiscent of his infantile state. On the southern edges of the United States Caribes, Mexico-Indians, and Cubans appear. Within and beyond the enormous borders of the Soviet Union the Mongol, the Tartar, the Moslem presence grows heavier. On the southern edges of Europe, too, the conditions that had begun to Wane 400 years ago reappear: the southern shores of the Mediterranean are now solidly Arab, the fingers of Arab rulers reach into Malta, and modern Turkey is reverting to Islam. (This is why the present rulers of Israel—this unique exception, the American-sponsored establishment of a largely Western-type state in the Near East at the time when the Western presence in Asia and Africa was ending—should ponder the history of the Crusader kingdoms that disappeared before the end of the Middle Ages.)

The end of the modern age has come. The main problems of the United States are now internal. The Soviet Union, too, will be compelled to turn inward, all Or the external evidence to the contrary, their monstrous armament, their hydrocephalic navy notwithstanding. There is something that is not only dangerous, but ludicrous, about these reciprocal armament debates, in this heaping up of rockets and missiles and satellites on both sides. We planted the American flag on the moon; and the erosion of our power and prestige has been precipitous ever since. We cannot impose our power on Cuba, or on the screaming masochists of Iran. What is much worse, we cannot control—indeed, we have not even made up our minds what to do with—the rising invasion of the United States from the South.

So far as Europe goes we must consider the eventual ending of our military presence in the middle of the Continent, always apace with the eventual loosening of the so-called Warsaw Pact. The tightening of our resources and the control of our destinies will, sooner or later, require this; and if the price of the increasing independence of Eastern Europe from the Soviet model is the Scandinavianization of the two Germanies, so be it. There is not much we can do about it, at any rate, if that is what the peoples of Europe want for the purposes of their own security.

But this increasing independence of Eastern Europe must be accompanied by our recognition of the security of the Russian state. This is not merely a quid pro quo proposition (though that is the kind of proposition the Russians have always understood best). It is f in the interest of the United States to witness the break up of the Soviet Union proper. The breaking up of great empire has always produced the greatest angers. Moreover—and contrary to the silly ideas of liberals and intellectuals—what remains of our is threatened less by violence than by safety. We should not take too much comfort from the of Russians being gunned down by Afghans. The flood of Islam is rising; this, and not the presence of Russians, dominates the scene in the Near and Middle East. It is in our interest—and, in the long run, that of the Russians—to see a Europe re-formed, dependent on its own resources (as we must depend increasingly on our own), which will bring the Russians closer to being Europeans, a revitalization that has now begun in Poland and that, unlike the superficial Americanization of the world, may indeed be the last chance of Western civilization—which is the only civilization that we know.

A he English novelist Jean Rhys wrote that "a novel has to have shape and life doesn't have any." Perhaps. But history does; it is full of symbols and correspondences. The Russian-American world order began to form 40 years ago, during World War II, which began on September 1, 1939, in Danzig, and in Poland. The beginning of its end may have begun taking form in Danzig, which is Gdansk now; and the leader of those events, Walesa, was born in 1944, in that most tragic year in the tragic history of Poland, the country which was a helpless victim of events then, and which may be the forerunner of great historical developments now.

Around 1910 the great French Catholic visionary and poet Peguy wrote: "The true revolutionaries of the twentieth century will be the fathers of Christian families." He meant that the bourgeois state of France and the West was so rotten and corrupt that to be a Christian will take extraordinary courage, it will require standing up against nearly everything in the modern world. How, when the institutions of the West, including even some of the hierarchies and the bureaucracies of the Catholic church, are infested with opportunists in whose minds the flame of conviction has flickered out, Walesa, with his six children, is the "true revolutionary"—as was de Gaulle, the student of Peguy, who in 1940 rose in solitary revolt against the dreadful tide, against the corrupt surrender of France.

During the war Hitler said to his court: "There are three powers in Rome: Mussolini, the king, and the pope, and of the three the pope is the strongest." He was right, even though the pope was not sure of his strength. The present pope, a Pole, may be more confident of it. We do not know. What we know is that now, in Poland, workers born under communism, brought up under communism, have decorated the Lenin factory with pictures of the pope and of the Virgin Mary, and not merely because of their tradition of nationalism (in 1849 the Polish nationalists, in their legion with Garibaldi, fought against the pope in Rome). Their demands have included more than the indexing of prices or increments in retirement pay; they have included the broadcasting of the Mass, and religious freedoms. On the floor of the Lenin factory they knelt by the hundreds and the priest came to place the body of Christ in their mouths. A new kind of light, unexpected and strange, has flared up in the East. 

This article originally ran in the September 20, 1980 issue of the magazine.