Love and Revolution: My Journey through an Epoch
American radicalism is a standing puzzle to the European. It is at once more violent and more innocent than its Old World counterpart, more flamboyant in its rhetoric of denunciation, yet at the same time so optimistic as almost to resemble a hymn of praise for life as it is lived. Moreover, it seems from the start to have been infused with a paradoxical certainty that while mankind’s past history has been a mess, the future is certain to be agreeable. The best is yet to come—especially in the United States. Goethe thought the Americans were fortunate in not being weighed down with memories, and monuments, of past failures. Others have been irritated by their habit of taking it for granted that Europe’s past was but an antechamber to America’s present. There have even been subversive hints to the effect that this is an illusion they share with the Russians.
Certainly the Russian Revolution has meant different things to Americans and Europeans. In Europe it was seen as the fulfillment of gloomy forebodings which had haunted the ruling classes since at least the abortive uprisings of 1848, if not since 1789. It was close at hand and dangerous; it was also easy to understand, though even Socialists for the most part disliked the form it took. There was nothing totally strange about it, though much that was repellent. To Americans it came as a surprise for which their experience had not prepared them. The fall of tsarism was indeed welcomed; all the rest—Lenin, Bolshevism, and the talk of world revolution—seemed mere fantasy: a spectacle remote and vaguely terrifying, but not dangerous, since America was happily immune to such infections. Even the handful of American Communists did not really believe they could pull off a revolution: most of them were too busy learning English and integrating into American society to entertain such illusions. At most they thought the distant volcanic eruption might lend some significance to their own burrowings. For the rest, the Bolsheviks and their doings made a splendid subject of conversation. This no doubt explains why Communism at one time was fashionable in Hollywood and in café society generally. It involved no commitment beyond the voicing of advanced opinions on Lenin (a learned bore), and no danger of the Red Army marching in. It was an age of innocence, and the memoirs of Max Eastman are a monument to its vanished glories.
For gone they are. Today one can no longer talk of Communism without having actually read Lenin; just as one cannot in good conscience discuss current topics without some understanding of Russian history, Soviet politics, even—dreariest subject of all—Soviet economics. Happy the age that has no need of such pedantry! Around 1920 one could “take a stand” on the Revolution in total ignorance of what was involved. A great many people did, and the bleached skeletons of their former selves are all around us, in the shape of lengthy …
This article is available to 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 all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.