Utopians are silly people until they arm themselves; then they instantly become murderous silly people, capable of committing hideous crimes to create the world of their dreams. Their obsessions made life in the 20th century miserable for large sections of humanity, as William Pfaff explains in his new book, The Bullet's Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia.
At age 76, Pfaff has summarized what he's learned as a political journalist and a student of ideas and history. Tragedy is central to human existence; always has been, always will be. Modern Utopians want to deny that truth and create a tragedy-free world through violence: "Utopianism defies tragedy -- and fails." But that hasn't prevented it from inspiring several kinds of totalitarianism.
Pfaff moves restlessly around his topic, stopping frequently at the lives of famous idealists who succumbed to some form of the same fallacy, among them T.E. Lawrence, Gabriele D'Annunzio and Andre Malraux.
Lawrence of Arabia seldom gets mentioned in this company, but as the leader of the Arab Revolt in the First World War, he wrapped his battles in an aura of glamour that excited the hearts of would-be revolutionaries. Whether he did anything for the Arabs remains an open question, but his influence lives wherever some addled Western intellectual carries support for the Arab cause to the point of sympathizing with suicide murderers.
D'Annunzio in Italy and Malraux in France were intoxicated by dreams of revolutionary struggle, D'Annunzio on the right and Malraux on the left. A popular poet and novelist, D'Annunzio at one point raised a private army and captured territory for Italy -- in peacetime. He helped inspire the career of Benito Mussolini, a journalist who, like his imitator Hitler, became a dictator by adding nationalism to socialism.
Malraux, in his novels, did all he could to depict communist revolution as noble, meanwhile creating a fictionalized version of his own exploits as warrior and philosopher. To Pfaff he was an "aesthete" (his books on art remain his most solid accomplishment) who contributed to the "confusion of self-aggrandizing fantasy with reality."
The brutality of revolutionary movements was made possible, Pfaff persuasively argues, by the First World War, a spiritual as well as political turning point. It wasted so many lives in an atmosphere of squalor that it seemed to prove civilization dead. The would-be saviours of humanity didn't hesitate to demand the destruction of all social institutions.
Earlier, Joseph Conrad warned that revolution would bring a collapse into moral barbarism. But the 1920s revolutionaries set that idea aside; if civilization had already committed suicide in the trenches of France, the task now was to build a shining new world on the ashes of the old. This would involve, unfortunately, more destruction and much more killing.
W.H. Auden, communism's friend during the Spanish Civil War, wrote that people like himself had to accept the guilt for "the necessary murder." Later he realized that he was merely posturing, demonstrating his imagined toughness with a few careless words. He burned with shame and expunged that phrase from his poetry.
Not so Bertolt Brecht. As Pfaff notes, he expressed similar but slightly more complicated thoughts in The Measures Taken, a 1930 play that Arthur Koestler (who lived within communism and then denounced it) called the most revealing work of communist art. It's about three agents justifying to their superior the murder of a fourth comrade. Through his actions, the man had weakened their position by committing four crimes: pity, loyalty, dignity and righteous indignation, all violations of the true communist's code. The superior endorses the murder: "He who fights for communism has of all the virtues only one: that he fights for communism." The chorus in the play, speaking for Brecht, intones: "Sink into the mud, embrace the butcher, but change the world: It needs it." For the future freedom of mankind, they eliminated their colleague's freedom and his life as well.
Brecht knew many would find his frankness repellent, but he also knew there was something perversely attractive in this blatant inhumanity. A total lack of "sentimentality" established the romantic revolutionary as a superior being, set apart by his radical severity from the mass of weak, soft-hearted humans.
That play is not among Brecht's most famous, but it's not dead by any means; only last month it was performed by University of California students at Berkeley. No one has figured out how to drive a stake through the heart of the 20th century's most monstrous ideas; they live on, plaguing the 21st.