The Search for a Third Way
Our Own People
Men in Prison
The faster political evolution proceeds, the commoner becomes a sinister mutation in young men and women: polymorphism of the personality. In Japan, we read, it is frequent for a man in his late twenties to have been successively a docile pupil and son, a national-revivalist fanatic, an armored student stamping through the gas clouds for Marx and Mao, a whiteshirted executive soothing the computers of a new electronics corporation. In West Germany, similar quick-changes of the personality can be observed as the authoritarian, libertarian, contemplative, and engaged modes of life are buttoned on, paraded, and then exchanged. The mutation is defensive: what value, it is implicitly asked can consistency of personality have in a century constructed like an evening of ancient music hall?
To the impassioned revolutionaries of the first years after 1917; such adaptability would appear—had they survived—as merely a development of the craft of groveling fostered by fascism and Stalinism. But their own fate, so often inner emigration followed by defection or death, certainly did not suggest that upright consistency was best suited to ensure the survival of the species. Revolution is a trade in which many have their hour, but very few indeed have their decade, and the hour of revolution is also an indiscriminate rallying together of all kinds of rebels whose real part is soon played. For such people, the next twenty years in the Party were bound to be an anticlimax to the few days in which they shook the world. To have mattered and minded in the international Communist movement in 1920 often meant, for those whose allegiance was really to the revolution rather than the Party, death or defection by 1940. Elisabeth Poretsky’s husband, the Soviet agent “Ludwik,” was offered the chance of going back to normal political work after nearly ten years in intelligence. “What Party work?” he asked. “What Party, come to that?”
All three men whose lives are recorded in these books, “Ludwik,” the German Communist Heinz Brandt, and the libertarian revolutionary Victor Serge, succumbed to the centrifugal force of Stalinism and retreated to the West. All refused to play the chameleon, and fought in their various ways for a purification of the revolution which, they believed, they had not abandoned: it was the revolution which had abandoned them and with them, its proper nature.
One day, a historian bored with period controversy will try to discard both their arguments and the reproaches of those who called them traitors by suggesting that a revolutionary may be judged by the intensity of his contribution rather than by its duration. These men would have found such harlequin fatalism about human effort disgusting. They paid hard for their decision to carry on the struggle. Serge lived in poverty and exile until his death in Mexico in 1947. Heinz Brandt was kidnapped back by the East Germans and released only three years later. Ludwik was murdered by NKVD agents in Switzerland, within months of his break with Moscow.
Heinz Brandt, who now…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.