September 1, 2021
Nathan Pinkoski, Research Fellow and Academic Director at the Zephyr Institute, and I discuss François Furet’s terrific book The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism of the Twentieth Century—first published in English in 1999. We talk a bit about Furet’s biography—he’s regarded as one of the greatest historians of the French Revolution. Like many French intellectuals who came of age in the years after the Second World War, Furet became a communist during that period and then became disillusioned shortly thereafter. The book is not a straightforward history of communism, but an account of the communist idea and how it managed to attract so many disparate figures into its fold. This gives Passing an Illusion a very distinctive character—it’s by turns philosophical, political, and historical and includes wonderful miniature biographical sketches.
Nathan and I examine Furet’s account of the revolutionary passions that provided the fuel for the grand ideological movements of the twentieth century: bourgeois hatred and bourgeois self-hatred. We turn next to Furet’s account of ideologies and ideological governments which he argues are novel, twentieth century political phenomena. Nathan suggests that Furet roots the unprecedented character of these movements in their prioritization of action over thought. We also spend some time discussing the crucial role that anti-fascist discourse played in raising the world-wide reputation of communism to its greatest height.
We end with some thoughts of the continuing relevance of Furet’s book. In the final chapter of the book, Furet notes, “The end of the Soviet world in no way alters the democratic call for another society, and for that very reason we have every reason to believe that the massive failure of Communism will continue to enjoy attenuating circumstances in world opinion, and perhaps even renewed admiration.” Listeners should be sure to check out Nathan’s essay “The Strange Rise of Bourgeois Bolshevism” (indebted to many aspects of Furet’s analysis) which appeared as the lead essay in Law & Liberty’s Forum series in May of 2020.
August 6, 2021
In this episode I speak with Clare Cavanagh, Frances Hooper Professor of Arts and Humanities and Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Northwestern University. She’s the author of a forthcoming authorized biography of Czeslaw Milosz and a prize-winning translator of the poets Adam Zagajewski and Wislawa Szymborska. Her essays and translations have appeared in publications including The New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, and Partisan Review. Some of her recently taught courses include What is Lyric Poetry? ; Gender and Revolution in Soviet Russian Culture; Heart of Europe: Poland in the Twentieth Century; Poetry and the Cold War; and 19th Century Russian Poetry.
Clare and I discuss three poems by Czeslaw Milosz: “You Who Wronged”; “Child of Europe”; and “Mittelbergheim.” These poems are from an early collection called Daylight, some which were written when Milosz was working as a cultural attaché for the post-war Polish government. Clare calls Daylight a “book of struggle” where Milosz is asking questions about his audience and his own perspective and role as a poet. He writes about the falsification of history and the corruptions of ideology. We draw some connections between the poems and the arguments elucidated in his famous book The Captive Mind. Clare also offers her thoughts on Milosz’s conception of the role of poetry broadly speaking.
We conclude our conversation with some recommendations for listeners on where one might start to engage with Milosz’s vast body of work. Clare also shares some of her experiences in meeting Milosz in Krakow and her impressions of him.
July 12, 2021
In this episode I speak with James Pontuso, the Charles Patterson Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs at Hampton Sydney College, about Václav Havel’s trilogy revolving around the remarkable character Ferdinand Vaněk.
We discuss Havel’s life as a playwright, dissident, and statesman and the immediate context in which these plays were written—the “normalization” regime in post-1968 Communist Czechoslovakia. Havel wrote the first play Audience in the summer of 1975 to amuse his friends during gatherings at his cottage in the country. Despite this modest beginning, not only would Havel go on to write two more plays about Vaněk, but three other authors would also make Vaněk a character in their one-act plays. Havel once picked up a hitchhiker, who, without knowing whose car he had entered, began quoting lines from Audience. The plays would go on to be performed in theaters around the world.
The character Vaněk is a writer who is known to have taken oppositional stances in his home country. He is often frustratingly shy and somewhat reticent to share his opinions. In each play he speaks much less often that his interlocutors do, who in each case need something from Vaněk. While Vaněk engages them awkwardly and at a distance, he does so with genuine sympathy—yet he also makes it clear there are certain lines he will not cross. Jim and I talk about the kind of moral responsibility that Vaněk seems to embody. We also discuss Havel’s plays more broadly and the tradition of absurdist theater. The plays are genuinely philosophical in their treatment of themes like friendship, virtue, and responsibility. They are also by turns very funny and sad.
We hope you enjoy the episode. Be sure to check out Jim’s book Václav Havel: Civic Responsibility in the Postmodern Age. And Theater 61 Press has a very nice edition of the trilogy called The Vaněk Plays.
June 18, 2021
In this episode I speak with Daniel J. Mahoney, Professor and Augustinian Boulanger Chair in the Department of Political Science at Assumption University, about The Opium of the Intellectuals by the great French political thinker Raymond Aron. Dan argues that Aron was the leading French political thinker of the 20th century. Aron’s expertise transcends our intellectual subdivisions—he wrote substantial works in the fields of political theory, philosophy, international relations, political economy, and sociology. He also was an important contributor to political debates in France as a columnist over the course of his long career as a thinker and writer.
The Opium of the Intellectuals was first published in France in 1955 and was directed not at out-and-out Communists but at sympathizers and fellow-travelers. Dan explores Aron’s critique of the “Myth of Revolution”—revolution, Aron suggests, is not an instrument of emancipation and it eliminates pluralistic institutions. Aron, who knew Marx much better than the self-described Marxists in France, argued that the incoherent mixture of historical inevitability and revolutionary voluntarism was there in Marx from the very beginning. Aron argued again and again that history has meaning but not in the Hegelio-Marxist sense. For him the absence of historical determinism was a sign of hope.
Aron was a great critic of the existentialist philosopher Sartre and his followers. “The doctrinairism of the existentialists,” he wrote, “is particularly revealing. It presents, exaggerated to the point of caricature, the intellectual errors which paralyze all political thought. The existentialists begin with an almost nihilistic denial of all human or social constancy, only to end with a dogmatic affirmation of ‘a single truth’ in an area where the truth cannot be single. The critique of dogmatism is at the same time a critique of nihilism.” Thus one of Aron’s key lessons in the book is that the ultimate source of fanaticism is nihilism—not a devotion to the idea of truth.
We conclude with a discussion of Aron’s response to his critics called “Fanaticism, Prudence, and Faith,” an essay which is included as an appendix in the English edition of Aron’s book which Dan edited.
June 5, 2021
In this episode I speak with renowned China scholar Perry Link, the Chancellorial Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California, Riverside, about his now classic 2002 essay “China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier.”
We discuss the origins of the essay and its initial reception, as well as Professor Link’s blacklisting and why this was actually a kind of liberation. We dig into the system of psychological control and censorship that the Chinese Communist Party relies on and contrast that with the more mechanical, ideological training that has been used in other totalitarian regimes. Link explains how the vagueness of the ideological rules and arbitrary application of those rules are essential aspects of this system of control. We talk in depth about his anaconda metaphor and what it communicates about the character of the repression.
Professor Link and I also discuss the repression of the Uyghurs in East Turkistan. Link explains what the leaders of the Party might be thinking in order to justify their actions. We end with a discussion of the great dissident Liu Xiaobo—Link has recently completed a biography with Wu Dazhi tentatively titled Long March Toward Freedom: The Life, Times, and Thought of Liu Xiaobo.
May 7, 2021
In the inaugural episode of Enduring Interest, I speak with Jacob Howland, McFarlin Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Tulsa, about Yevgeny Zamyatin’s great dystopian novel WE.
Jacob and I talk about Zamyatin himself—his early commitment to the Bolshevik cause in the early 1900s and his disillusionment following the revolution of 1917. The novel was written in 1920 but was suppressed in Russia. Zamyatin managed to smuggle the manuscript out of the country and it was first published in English translation in 1924. Tune in to hear an excerpt from the author’s shockingly candid letter to Stalin protesting the suppression of his work.
Jacob argues that Zamyatin’s “fertile and poetic imagination” enabled him to write a subtle and dense book that sketches the conflict between the mathematical, thumotic soul and the poetic, erotic soul. Zamyatin saw that the militant, rationalizing impulse at the core of totalitarian politics distorts and destroys the obstacles in its path. D-503, the novel’s main character, is transformed by erotic longing and his act of writing—both lead him down a path of self-discovery.
Our conversation takes some interesting turns. Other authors discussed include Plato (lots of Plato!), Dostoevsky, Marx, Havel, Milosz, Huxley, and Orwell. Jacob judges WE to be superior to both 1984 and Brave New World. Enjoy!