Sam Seitz

I have recently been examining the rise of communism in Eastern Europe. As part of this study, I have read a number of fantastic books from Eastern European thinkers, artists, and politicians, and they have offered a very rich account of life in communist Eastern Europe. This past week, I finished reading Under a Cruel Star by Heda Margolius Kovály and The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz. Kovály’s book recounts her life under German occupation up through the Prague Spring. While the book is largely an autobiography, it offers great insights into life in Eastern Europe. Kovály, having lived through Nazism, is far from convinced that totalitarian communism is the right system for her country. Her husband, however, is a committed communist, and thus she becomes deeply involved with the state. After her husband is falsely accused of treason in the infamous Slansky Trial, she and her son are persecuted by the state and come close to death. The regime eventually moderates after the death of Stalin, but by this point her wounds are too deep, and Kovály continues to struggle against the morally vacuous “people’s republic.” In many ways, then, Under A Cruel Star represents Kovály’s attempt at explaining both the depravity of the communist Czechoslovak state as well as the ways in which it exerted its influence to insidiously shape public opinion and ensnare good-meaning people like her husband in its nefarious system. Miłosz’s work is similar in that it attempts to explain how communism was able to so successfully consume Polish civil society and lure so many of the Polish intelligentsia into its depraved philosophy. Miłosz’s book is split between a theoretical examination of communist civil society and detailed case studies of four intellectuals and artists he knew personally. His analysis is largely ad hoc and meandering, but it nevertheless comes off as rigorous and informed simply because Miłosz’s personal experiences with communism make his commentary beyond reproach.

These two books focus on one central question: Why did so many liberal intellectuals who knew about the horrors of Stalinism still willingly imbibe the ideology? Why did Kovály’s kind-hearted husband become a pawn of Gottwald’s depraved state? Why did Miłosz’s intellectual acquaintances allow themselves to be consumed by communist propaganda? These two books suggest that intellectuals were attracted to communism for three central reasons. First, many were naturally sympathetic to communism, especially after living through Nazism, and they hoped to positively shape the development of communism from the inside. Second, by becoming members of the Party, intellectuals could increase their influence by sharing the same core worldview as individuals in professions quite divorced from academia and art. Third, the Party imposed heavy costs on those who failed to conform. These three factors, along with the communists’ putative tolerance of diversity in the late forties, made the Party a very seductive institution capable of co-opting many intellectuals who otherwise would have likely recoiled from Stalinism.

The natural sympathy many intellectuals held for communism was a product of both their experiences under Nazism as well as the alluring intellectual lodestone of the “scientifically verifiable” theory of dialectical materialism. As Miłosz explains early in the book, World War Two had utterly discredited far-right politics, and the communists exploited this to woo liberal thinkers from across the political spectrum.[1] It’s important to remember, after all, that most political parties during that period accepted a fair degree of state intervention. Even Adenauer’s conservative CDU in West Germany fully supported strong welfare programs and state control of key industries. Thus, communism as an ideology did not appear as radical as it does today. Despite their support of communism, many in the intelligentsia still feared the Stalinist model of the U.S.S.R. Instead of deterring them, though, this fear inspired them to join the government to try to “set up a social order which would be new, but would not be a copy of the Russian regime.”[2] This drive to shape the system for the better characterized Kovály’s husband’s motivations in Under A Cruel Star. He was convinced that the Czechoslovaks could “build a better and fairer… and freer society” as long as good communists like him were put in the right positions.[3]

Intellectuals’ desire to join the system can also be attributed to what Miłosz calls the Murti-Bing pill, a fictitious, mystical pill of contentment that people took to escape the chaos and confusion in their lives. Importantly, Miłosz argues that no one was forced to swallow the pill. Nevertheless, nearly everyone willingly consumed this pill to escape the “misery or destruction” of the post-war period.[4] In other words, communism offered a concrete hope for people to grasp on to, and people latched on enthusiastically. This pill was particularly potent for intellectuals, as they could alleviate their fears and insecurities by taking solace in the hyper-rational dialectic methods of communism. As Kovály humorously summarizes, communism purported to be a scientific truth: “Why do wars happen? See pages 45 through 47! What causes economic depressions? See page 66!”[5] Communism’s veneer of scientific credibility soothed nervous intellectuals like Borowski, who felt it “treated man realistically,”[6] and Putrament, an orthodox adherent of the “logic of history,”[7] convincing them that there was a clear empirical basis for their actions. And many threw themselves “into the flame for the glory of mankind” because they convinced themselves that their system, the so-called Imperium, was the only true path forward.[8] Intellectuals were also willing to trust the Party because the early wave of communists appeared to be liberal, tolerant, and humane. They hardly seemed to be the hardcore Stalinists that so worried the intelligentsia, and thus they were naively accepted.

Of course, these intellectuals were not morons. Many began to notice the problems inherent in the system and the false promises of the state. Yet, when cracks in the system began to appear, the intelligentsia simply embraced Ketman, a technique in which the intellectual publicly and resolutely voiced support for the system even as he began to notice increasing irregularities.[9] Miłosz traces Ketman back to the ancient Middle East, where religious pioneers had to navigate the complex set of theocratic rules and regulations governing spiritual life. In many ways, the communist state was similarly bureaucratic and ossified: One had to strictly subscribe to Party doctrine or suffer persecution. So, to accommodate this system, Eastern European intellectuals and artists rediscovered Ketman to carefully mask their true beliefs. By practicing Ketman long enough, however, the intellectual “could no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates,” thus becoming the devoted communist the Party always wanted.[10]

Joining the Party not only improved the intellectuals’ sense of moral self-worth but also increased their perceived influence and allowed them to move from “alienated” intellectual to member of the masses.[11] By granting the intelligentsia a platform and providing them with a “single language of ideas,” the Party allowed them to reach the masses directly.[12] By sharing the same communist philosophy, “A day laborer and a historian c[ould] reach an understanding on this basis of common reading.”[13] In this way, the communists created a system that made integration inevitable, as only by subscribing to Party philosophy could intellectuals interact with the public of which they had so longed to be a part. Joining the Party ensured that the intellectual was no longer looked disparagingly upon by the productive businessmen and aristocrats; he was now useful, and he felt as if he finally belonged.[14] This motivation is a recurring theme in Miłosz’s character case studies. For example, he explains Andrzejewski’s willingness to accept communist ideology and sacrifice his Catholic faith by highlighting the fame that accrued to him through his subservience to the Party.[15] The Party exploited Andrzejewski’s Catholic past to attack Vatican spirituality, but Andrzejewski carried on because “now he could count on reaching a tremendous public.”[16]

Finally, the material costs of shunning the Party cannot be ignored. As Under a Cruel Star vividly demonstrates, those out of favor with the Party were harshly suppressed. After Kovály’s husband was arrested, for example, his family was harassed by the secret police,[17] shunned by civil society,[18] pushed to the cusp of starvation by unemployment,[19] and deprived of medical care to the point that his wife nearly died.[20] By materially punishing all who failed to conform, the Party was able to coerce even the most free-thinking individuals into either toeing the party line or attempting to flee. After all, one can resist only so long as one has the money and food to survive. By depriving intellectuals of material support and academic freedom, the Party managed to eventually bend most of the intelligentsia to its will.

For anyone interested in Eastern European history, communism, or just the power of ideas, these books are definitely worth reading. Both are far too nuanced and complex for me to do justice to them in this short review, but I can assure you that they are both powerful and provocative reads. What is perhaps most fascinating about these two pieces is their relevance to contemporary society. To be sure, nobody in the West is living under the heel of Stalinist communism. However, Western society is being incredibly strained by populist forces, and this destabilization is not dissimilar to the kinds of pressures that existed in 1940s Eastern Europe. It is tempting to buck the system and latch onto ideologies that promise peace and security through allegedly demonstrable and “common-sense” approaches. Often, though, these promises are nothing more than politically expedient lies. But they are still dangerous because people want to believe them. Much like the intellectuals of Eastern Europe, people today are happily downing their Murti-Bing pills. Even as they accept ever more extreme ideologies, they are totally oblivious to the damage and risks they are creating. These two books serve as a wake-up call to all of us. And given the state of the world today, there is no time to waste.


[1] Miłosz, viii and 98.

[2] Ibid., x.

[3] Kovály, 79.

[4] Miłosz, 6.

[5] Kovály, 56.

[6] Ibid., 124.

[7] Ibid., 158.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Miłosz, 54-56.

[10] Ibid., 55.

[11] Ibid., 8.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 9.

[15] Miłosz, 109.

[16] Miłosz, 107.

[17] Kovály, 114-115.

[18] Ibid., 117.

[19] Ibid., 119-121.

[20] Ibid., 134-135.