Although not all academics are radical leftists, all radical leftists are academics, in the sense that they are accepted, and often feted, by the academy. I have long been struck by the extreme political views of many of the most successful academicians, views that, far from acting as a handicap, are a factor in their success. Nothing attracts university faculty as much as being allowed to participate vicariously in an unsparing denunciation of everything their lives really depend on; only then can they enjoy their SUVs in peace.
I was reminded of this the other day when I watched a partial reconstruction of a lost film by Eisenstein entitled Bezhin Meadow, “very loosely” based on a Turgenev story. The film’s plot is far indeed from Turgenev’s characteristic pre-revolutionary father-son conflict. The father, who incidentally has beaten his wife to death, is designated explicitly as a kulak. With a few other reactionaries he attempts to stop collectivization by burning grain and the kolkhoz gasoline supply. He and his friends are imprisoned, but only their evil can supply an appropriate conclusion to the film, so they escape and commit other crimes including martyring the heroic son, whereupon (the shots are a bit obscure) the good guys crush them under Soviet tractors. Meanwhile, these good people have made a “clubhouse” out of the local church. This is no mere act of secularization. The only thing we see them do there is desecrate its religious symbols; one burly peasant plays Samson in bringing down an altar. Resentment and violence against the church; resentment and violence against the “kulaks”–the new Soviet utopia is defined entirely by hatred. Yet shots abound of smiling youngsters, and the blond hero of the film, who could have stepped right out of a Hitlerjugend recruitment poster, displays some of the most sickening grins in cinema history.
Now for the jacket blurb:
BEZHIN MEADOW would have been Eisenstein’s most beautiful and lyrical film — had it been permitted to see the light of day. In one of cinema’s great tragedies, Eisenstein’s film was banned by Stalinist officials in 1937 and copies of the film were subsequently destroyed in a fire caused by German bombing in World War II. Only individual still images and film frames survived from the original footage. These, along with Eisenstein’s script and production records, guided Soviet researchers who painstakingly produced this 30-minute reconstruction of Eisenstein’s original conception.
Based very loosely on a pastoral tale by Turgenev, BEZHIN MEADOW is set in a Russian village during the Soviet collectivization programs of the 1930s. Eisenstein chose to dramatize that conflicted process by centering his story on a peasant boy who supports the collective and who dies at the hands of his counterrevolutionary father. This tale of martyrdom inspired the most lyrical work of Eisenstein’s entire career. The haunting still images which comprise this reconstruction are meticulously reproduced in this edition and do full justice to Eisenstein’s renowned visual style.
Since Khrushchev’s revelations back in 1956, good leftists no longer number Stalin among their heroes. Thus instead of condemning Eisenstein for this tasteless apology for mass slaughter, our commentator makes him a martyr to “Stalinist officials” who banned the film. My guess is that Stalin did it because even he couldn’t take that grinning kid.
Needless to say, a similar Nazi film, with the “kulaks” replaced by Jews (Jew Süss is a work of sublime delicacy next to Bezhin Meadow), would not have come in for similar praise. Leni Riefenstahl, whose films celebrate Hitler but not Nazi violence, was tainted; Eisenstein, whose films are dominated by images of resentful violence, is a “lyrical” genius hampered by Stalinist persecution.
What accounts for this? Why do campuses invite Noam Chomsky but not David Duke or even Pat Buchanan? It is a bit too easy to point to the difference between an ideology that is “essentially” exclusionary (“Germany for the Aryans/Germans”) and one that excludes others only “contingently” (“The kulaks cannot be permitted to thwart the will of the Soviet people”). What this difference really shows is how little all the righteous indignation against Nazism corresponds to any true moral awakening. This moral posturing is the foundation of the victimary world-view that we call “postmodernism”; we need to condemn the Nazis in order to inoculate ourselves against the Western sin of firstness. What really determines the status of our political pariahs is the resentment of the Others in the rest of the world. Now that the Middle East has revived Nazi antisemitism, the latter is becoming once again respectable, but it is still a long way from acquiring the continued viability of communist slogans and icons. Che Guevara posters are found all over the world; I doubt if there is much of a market for Himmlers. The crimes of the Left are no less vicious than those of the Right, but we cannot condemn them without arousing what we fear most, the resentment of the Others at home and abroad.
Postmodernism is a commemoration of Auschwitz for the wrong reasons, a cult of victims that ignores who they were and why they were killed. That is why it so enjoys squeezing tears out of the Holocaust but finds crushing “kulaks” under the treads of tractors “beautiful” and “lyrical.”
Real moral progress is very slow, and it may very well be that it does not occur at all. Systems of exchange improve, but those who inhabit them are never more than a catastrophe away from Hobbes’ state of nature. We rely ever more on the system and ever less on ourselves to defer the violence of our resentment. Let’s hope we never have to find out what would happen if the system failed us.