Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Nina Karsov, the head of a London-based company, Kontra, which has been publishing Polish and Russian books since 1970, including the Collected Works (19 volumes in print, but more are planned) by Józef Mackiewicz, a great Polish novelist and political writer (1902-1985).
Mackiewicz’s analytical work, The Triumph of Provocation, written in 1962, and now published in English by the Yale University Press, examines the history and nature of Communism as it developed in the Soviet Union and in Poland. His unique interpretation of the differences and similarities between Communism and Nazism is highly relevant to debates about these two systems and to major contemporary issues which are of particular importance to the U.S. and Europe.
FP: Nina Karsov, welcome to Frontpage Interview. Could you please say a few introductory words about Józef Mackiewicz?
Karsov: Mackiewicz was the first author to write books about two chilling episodes of the Second World War. These were The Katyn Wood Murders and Kontra, a novel about the Allies’ handing over of Cossack troops to Stalin after the war.
In May 1943, he travelled to Katyn to witness the exhumation of the bodies of Polish officers murdered there by the Soviets. By chance, in the autumn of the same year, he witnessed a massacre of Jews in Ponary and later described this in an account entitled: “Ponary-Baza” and in the novel Better Not to Talk Aloud.
In 1952, a U.S. Congressional Select Committee which investigated the Katyn Forest Massacre heard Mackiewicz in his dual capacity of witness and expert.
He is the author of several novels; these form a cycle which spans the first half of the twentieth century. He also wrote short stories, political books and essays. Milosz considers him one of the greatest Polish prose writers of the century.
Unfortunately, only four of his books have been published in English: The Katyn Wood Murders, Road to Nowhere, a novel on life in Lithuania as it was being converted into a republic of the Soviet Union, In the Shadow of the Cross, on the conciliatory policies of John XXIII toward Communism, and now The Triumph of Provocation.
FP: When and where did Mackiewicz live?
Karsov: He was born in St Petersburg in 1902. He fought as a Polish volunteer in the Soviet-Polish war of 1920 and later studied at Warsaw University. He worked in Wilno (now known as Vilnius) as a journalist until the Red Army drove him west in 1945. As an émigré, he lived briefly in Rome, then in London, and finally in Munich, where he died in 1985.
FP: So what are your thoughts on The Triumph of Provocation? Why is it important and what does it offer that is unique and profound?
Karsov: One of the most important subjects of this book is the perception of Communism by the Western democracies, in other words by “deaf and dumb blind men”, as Mackiewicz called them after Lenin. Of particular significance is Mackiewicz’s analysis of the West’s wishful thinking reaction to a sequence of perestroikas: beginning with “Operation Trust” in the 1920s, followed by the “de-Stalinisation” initiated by Khrushchev (the book was written in 1962, and Mackiewicz died in 1985, so he did not analyze Gorbachev’s “de-Communisation”). Despite the West’s hopes and predictions, which were actually based on masterful deception by the Soviets, Communism remained fundamentally the same. The term “provocation” in the title of this book covers every ruse Communists might devise to provoke a credulous response.
When dealing with an internal crisis, every dictatorship makes concessions of some sort, adopts a liberal attitude or invites “oppositionists” to share power. And it does this not to undermine its own rule, but to strengthen it.
Mackiewicz’s theory of anti-Communism rejects the view, generally accepted in the West, that the Soviet Union was a historical successor to old Russia and that it was a typically Eastern creation, just as Russia itself was always supposed to be a creation of the East (“Asia”). Mackiewicz explains that this portrayal misrepresents the nature of old Russia, which was no different from any other country in Western Europe, and had nothing in common with the Soviet Union.
It was the Bolshevik Revolution which brought about changes in Russia and overturned the existing order. It abolished the old class-based culture, and “rescued” the masses from illiteracy but only to the level of pseudo-culture. A law dispensed with questions about God and Truth. In the old Russia a spy or informer was despised even by those who used his services, whereas in the Soviet Union denunciation was raised to the level of a civic virtue. Doubt became punishable, and where there is no doubt there can be no reflection and, therefore, no spirit of inquiry.
There are those who often talk about many similarities between Soviet foreign policy and that of tsarist Russia, forgetting that foreign policy is, in general, determined by geographical position. Soviet policy was not, however, a state policy; it was a policy of conspiracy against other states, and this is what set it apart from the old Russia. So it was not Russian imperialism which used international Communism but international Communism which used the methods of Russian imperialism whenever it was convenient.
People would sometimes ask “How come Communism took root only in Russia?” Mackiewicz retorts with: How come the cradle of European romanticism, the nation of “poets and thinkers,” allowed Nazism to come to power? Nazism was obviously a repugnant phenomenon, but there is no basis for the claim that Nazism reflected a specifically German mentality. Bolshevism is also repugnant, but there is no basis for the claim that it could not rear its head and prosper elsewhere and that the teachings of Marx were corrupted by certain purely Russian characteristics.
The idea that Bolshevism is a product of “Asia” was spread in the Third Reich by Dr. Alfred Rosenberg, who convinced Hitler that “Bolshevism replaced the old ruling class with a new class of Caucasian-Asiatic descent.” In fact, the Asiatic provinces of Russia carried on fighting Bolshevism longer than others, up to 1927.
Mackiewicz points out that Lenin’s ideological inspiration came from Western Europe rather than Russia. Lenin was opposed to all of the typically Russian, non-Marxist revolutionary parties; so Marxism went from the West to the East, rather than the opposite.
The main instrument of subjugation of other nations, was not, as under the Tsarist rule, Russification, but the opposite, that is to say, Communism was instilled through each nation’s own language and its suitably distorted, or adjusted, history, literature and tradition. Nationalism is an instrument of Communisation, and not, as most people believe, a bulwark against Communism. So only anti-Communist Internationalism would have been able to counter International Communism, that is, the system which ruled in Russia after 1917 and, when Mackiewicz wrote The Triumph of Provocation, controlled almost half of the planet.
Trying to explain Communist expansion by invoking “Russian imperialism” or “neo-colonialism” misses the point. Imperialism brings obvious material benefits to the imperialist, as in Imperial Russia, or any other colonial power, but the Soviet “parent state” did not benefit materially from exporting Communist ideology. The standard of living in Russia was usually much lower than in the so-called satellite states. But these states were crucial in spreading Communism, particularly through disinformation.
Mackiewicz criticised Polish and other émigré leaders for their misguided interpretation of Communism. He also claimed that if Pilsudski had supported the Whites in 1919-20, Bolshevism would have been crushed. Unfortunately, Pilsudski thought that “the Reds” were less of a threat to Poland than “the Whites”.
FP: How does Mackiewicz perceive Communism and Nazism as being different and yet similar? And how are his observations significant and relevant for us today?
Karsov: Mackiewicz answers the question about the difference between Communism and Nazism most succinctly in his novel Better Not to Talk Aloud:
“I do not agree that the Germans are the worst enemy. The Bolsheviks are worse, because they are more dangerous to any nation. For the simple reason that no Pole can simultaneously be a German. But every Pole can simultaneously be a Communist. We fabricate reality, on occasion putting an equals sign between the German and Soviet occupations. The German occupation makes heroes of us, while the Soviet one makes filth of us. The Germans shoot at us, and the Soviets take us with their bare hands. We shoot at the Germans and lick the Soviet asses. There is thus no equivalence, but the opposite.”
And in The Triumph of Provocation he said:
“At the peak of the Cold War, one could have compared Stalin to Hitler, but never the other way around. Had one said that Stalin was always worse than Hitler, one would have turned upside down the whole hierarchy of saints and devils in the new chronology, and the whole meaning of the last war and of the postwar arrangements would have been thrown into question. And so one is allowed to blame Stalin for the treaty with Hitler, but it is unthinkable to blame Hitler for the treaty with Stalin; it is permissible to compare Soviet labour camps with Hitler’s concentration camps, but the reverse comparison is unthinkable. History tells us something else, however.”
At the time when any suggestion of war against Communism was condemned, Mackiewicz argued that it would be difficult to imagine anyone describing the war against Hitler as a crime. Many people would be surprised to hear that Mackiewicz’s view on war corresponds with that of Ghandi. The eminent Polish ethicist, Henryk Elzenberg (1887-1967), discussing the teachings of Gandhi on non-violence, said that, for Ghandi, there are things worse than war and there are situations in which a moral person ought to choose war, as a lesser evil, because there are two things worse than war, namely, cowardice and passive sufferance of opprobrium or of obvious injustice.
FP: What do you think Mackiewicz would have made of Gorbachev’s Glasnost’ and the fall of the Soviet Empire – but the KGB still being in power, albeit in new clothes and with different rhetoric? Would Mackiewicz’s theory reveal that some kind of secret ploy took place?
Karsov: I would never dare to presume what Mackiewicz, or anyone else who is no longer alive, would think or say. However, if I understand Mackiewicz’s thoughts correctly, it is difficult to imagine that he would have shared the universal euphoria at the alleged fall of the Soviet bloc (he would not have called it an “empire” for the reasons which I mentioned earlier) or believed that “the wolf has become a vegetarian.”
Mackiewicz held that objective knowledge can be attained only by comparisons. We know that there aren’t many historical examples of regimes which relinquished power voluntarily, and Mackiewicz presented ample evidence that Communism – which, unlike any other political system, is both total and totalitarian – was never interested in any true compromise, but only in the shrewd application of the tactics of compromise. He did not live to see how Gorbachev had succeeded in persuading Western political leaders to endorse his agenda, but, in 1981, he updated his Triumph of Provocation adding a number of comments. He said, for example: “On June 20, 1981, the leader of the Opposition in Communist Poland, the world-famous Lech Wałęsa, declared on state television that the opposition Solidarity movement was striving for peaceful cooperation with the (Communist) government, which must be strong and have the right conditions to govern the country.” And: “the Polish October (1956) became virtually a model for the subsequent manipulations of this nature in the years 1980–81.”
The “Round Table” arrangements in Poland, and “revolutions” (significantly, always revolutions, but not counter-revolutions!) in various colors carried out simultaneously elsewhere, seem to have confirmed Mackiewicz’s view.
FP: Can you summarize for us Mackiewicz’s main message and the crucial lessons it teaches us about our totalitarian and terrorist enemies.
Karsov: It seems likely that, if he had observed the incremental, but rapid, erosion of our liberties and the amassing of state powers over the individual in the West, Mackiewicz would have wondered – but let me emphasize that this is an extrapolation of his teaching – whether we were not approaching a global catastrophe, that is to say, the total victory of authoritarian and totalitarian power, albeit without starvation or labor camps. One of his main messages might be, therefore, to warn us against a collective way of thinking and a tendency toward uniformity and conformity because – if one adds modern technological advancements to the concoction of collective thinking and the accumulation of state powers – the dangers are obvious.
Communism is generally considered a system which is defined primarily by the centralized economy, the monopoly of the political process and mass repression, and people do not always see that the essence of this system is a sense of world mission. Many people think that Communism represents everything that is abhorrent to human nature, but one might ask, to quote another twentieth century Polish writer, whether Communism, or an authoritarian and totalitarian system, is not, in fact, a system which suits mankind best, precisely because of characteristics inherent in human nature.
This system readily adapts to circumstances, but this does not mean that its nature changes: it simply learns, often by studying its critics diligently, how to improve the chances of the final victory. China, for example, has gleaned that her Communist system would benefit by the adoption of the free market economy (interestingly, Gorbachev refused to abolish the centralized economy) – and it has certainly done so, with the party remaining supreme. We ought to remember that, although we do not pay much attention to China’s expanding military and technological power, Communism is flourishing there and in some other countries. When Khomeini took power in Iran, few people realized that he was implementing Lenin’s program in the guise of a religion.
Certain books are always relevant because they were written by wise and talented men. Mackiewicz says things which were never said before him and no nuance of the word “provocation,” as used by him, is obsolete. I firmly believe that he is a writer whose work will become even more pertinent in future.
FP: Nina Karsov, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
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