Search This Blog

Sunday, 11 January 2009

The Soviet Union of Emotions

The history of the Soviet Union was about many things, not least a story of totalitarianism and of a failed dream in the equality of humanity. We may be equal but Soviet state socialism was not the way to realise that dream.

Perhaps it was also a failure of our flawed belief in the dualism of rationality of the mind and the passions of the body. It is a belief that has permeated our philosophy, our institutions and our behaviour for several millenia. Perhaps it is the failure of a system that was founded on ideas and policies that denied our emotional selves and which was rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of what that emotional self was.

The Soviet Union was an attempt to run a society by laws discerned by reason, freed from bourgeois morality for the improvement of all. Many of its leaders spoke of the 'scientific' application of reason at the service of socialism. It was also on occasion barbaric in its application of that reason, exterminating millions of its own citizens in the belief that it was protecting the whole.

Though not a Soviet citizen himself, Arthur Koestler wrote about this inhuman application of reason in his novel, 'Darkness at Noon'. For those that don't know, it is the story of the arrest of a senior revolutionary figure, Rubashov, of an unnamed government and country who is arrested by his own side and charged with counter-revolutionary activities. This event in the book happens during a period of show trials akin to the Soviet show trials of the 1930's and indeed the novel itself is set in 1938.

Rubashov is required to confess fully to all crimes even though he did not commit them. Physical torture was considered inappropriate for him although some force is used. The key to his confession was to use logic and reason to make him confess to the crimes, because it serves the higher purpose of protecting the Party and its regime, which ostensibly is there to protect society as a whole.

Therefore, for the good of the Party and the Revolution he must confess to falsehoods and betray himself as he himself has betrayed others. His submission is total and he is executed, following reason to its conclusion and his own destruction.

Reason has no inherent compassion and knowing this, he accepts his fate.

Though a novel, and one written by someone not living in the Soviet Union, Koestler was a Communist and knew some of those executed at those Moscow show trials of the Thirties. He had been imprisoned himself and lived with threat of execution for being a Communist captured by Franco's fascists in the fall of Malaga in 1937. In other words, his novel clearly has some understanding of what was going on in Soviet Russia and of the real life equivalents of the characters that he describes.

This is not to say the history of the USSR was a history of an emotionless people, or a people whose emotions were entirely subsumed by the requirements of the revolution. Barbara Rosenwein describes 'emotional communities' existing within the medieval period and I think the term holds true throughout history as a whole.

In other words, the peoples of the Soviet Union not only experienced a wide range of emotions but lived within a range of emotional communities that had lots of different dynamics going on. Obvious examples would be families and lovers or friends and colleagues displaying different kinds of love and affection, or scientists and workers displaying pride in their Stakhanovite labours in the cause of Soviet progress.

But central to the ideology of Soviet state socialism was the inhuman logic that everything, including our private lives and our public relationships, our various expressions of emotion, everything was to be in the service of building a Communist ideal. This was the ultimate expression of logic and reason separated from emotion. There was to be no compassion in a society that was willing to slaughter or sacrifice so many in the cause of its survival.

And yet it failed. Reason alone did not triumph. Was this a flawed application of reason? Or did the dualistic model of reason separate from emotions provide the best framework for advancing mankind and creating the new 'Socialist Man'?

The USSR failed mainly through economic collapse, partly from external pressures, but mostly from internal ones. The system was riddled with flaws as people responded differently from the way reason as expressed through their economic model expected them to. An inhuman reason failed because amongst other things, it gave no account to emotional lives, and because it did not understand that reason itself is not separate from our emotions. By believing it was necessary to eliminate emotions like compassion from the 'scientific' reason behind its policies, it alienated itself from its population.

Cognitive scientists have shown that emotions involve reason, and that reason involves emotion. In ignoring this, the Soviets were setting themselves up for a fall as their system could never do what it originally aimed to do, to create a perfect human society based on an emotionless reason that subsumed all to the greater progress of the whole. Individuals may sacrifice themselves to the whole but their reason is often guided by powerful emotional forces in those moments.

The dualism of reason and passion is a mistake and no society can be guided by separating what is ultimately inseparable.

In believing that man could live on a flawed notion of reason alone misunderstands our human nature and the nature of reason, and ultimately leads to an inhuman world. Though hopefully an impermanent one as it collapses on its own contradiction. A bitter irony for Marxists who believe that all societies and their economic systems would do just that until communism was finally reached.

No comments: