There are many stories from the late 1930s of European and American intellectuals being taken on stage-managed tours of the Soviet Union, nearly all of them returning to their home countries with glowing reviews of what they had seen. An exception was the novelist Andre Gide’s account, Back from the USSR, where he claimed that artistic and other freedoms were in even worse shape there than in Hitler’s Germany.

In one of the most remarkable comments I’ve ever come across, the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir recalled the impact of Gide’s book on her own circle of Communists: “We had never imagined the USSR to be a paradise, but we had also never seriously questioned the construction of socialism. It was inconvenient to be required to do so at the very moment that we felt disgusted by the policies of the democracies. Was there nowhere on earth where we could cling to hope?”

In the margins where I found this remark, I simply scribbled the word No.

After that, there are really only questions: how can we keep ourselves from being members or followers of any group who never “seriously question” those allegiances? How can we keep ourselves from imagining that any affiliation or philosophy can be a final place for us to rest and never be challenged again? (Because if de Beauvoir was this ignorant about the group she belonged to, how well-informed could she have been about those she disagreed with?) How can we keep ourselves from seeking some kind of dogma—whether political, religious, or cultural—not to help up think and intuit, but to shut down reason and intuition? How can we keep ourselves from being so desperate for some sense of completion, reassurance, and belonging? How can we keep ourselves from holding one set of beliefs that can only be expressed in clichés and catchwords and slogans, only (and I’ve seen this too many times) to swing to the other extreme and embrace another set, merely, of insulated thoughts and vocabulary?

In the case of de Beauvoir, how was she unable to see that while democracy is not perfect, no version of Communism actually put into practice is anything beyond a horror? And in the case of Americans both right and left, why do we find the many and endless sins of our country either something to only deny and play down, or something to only focus on? The right wants to apologize for nothing, while the left wants nothing but apologies; but no individual life is this simple, and so why should an even more varied and complex national life be any simpler?

How can we come cleave to our most important beliefs and ideas, and continue to derive meaning from them, while at the same time refusing to diminish the beliefs and ideas of others? How can we come to find meaning not in some perfect ideology that wipes all others away, but in the mess and mix of them all? How can we come to find meaning not in the desperate search for safety, but in the realization that we are not safe, and never will be?



18 thoughts on “We Are Not Safe and Never Will Be

  1. You are absolutely right – we are never safe. Not least from natural disasters, new plagues, our own aggression and greed. Once you accept that premise, it’s a much easier world to negotiate. It is so naive to think that we have ever been safe.

  2. Indeed, how we interpret natural disasters & all else you mention is of prime importance as well. We tie our hands doubly by imagining first we’re safe from such things, & that after they happen that we can understand the Big Picture of Why they occurred.

  3. Thanks for following my blog recently, for some reason I don’t find many writers around here, so I’ll be looking around yours as well.
    Cheers mate!

  4. In fairness to Simone de Beauvoir, at the time Andre Gide visited Soviet Russia I don’t think she (or any of her circle?) had direct experience of “any version of communism actually put into practice”.

    Communism for Western intellectuals at that time existed in the realm of potential, as an idealist abstract.

    When evidence of the horrors of Stalinism became incontrovertible, some Western communists and communist sympathizers clung to the abstract as a worthy ideal still, but many turned away, disillusioned.

    Hindsight is a fine thing.

    Let’s hope those of us on the other side of the C20th idealist experiments can benefit from hindsight.

  5. Thanks for this Elly. I see what you’re saying, since hindsight is so easily 20/20. But by the time of Gide’s piece, 1937 I think, Stalin’s famine at least had already taken place, & many show trials; all while American journalists won the Pulitzer Prize reporting that the famine didn’t exist, etc. There seems to have been a good deal of willful ignorance from the European & American left; somewhere I read of George Bernard Shaw pretty much giving Russia a free pass for whatever, all while criticizing the British government for everything he could. But I hope it’s clear I’m not condemning the left, since I’m more that than anything, just tendencies like SDB’s of idealism without reflection, etc.

  6. All true, however, having said that, we need to realize, that Russia is no longer the Russia of Josef Staling & Nikita Chrustjov. Now, Russia has regular politicians in charge of its nation, who have fairly decent human standards. Vladimir Putin has justly invited — not forced — Russians abroad to join Russia, by means of democratic procedures, referenda. He talks with other nations like a human being, admits defeat if necessary. The USA and EU need a good, friendly relation with Russia, not a military competition.

  7. All points well taken, but I’m don’t think I mentioned modern Russia at all. More about the general tendency, regardless of country or time, to seek belonging (& join in condemnation) of things we don’t really understand.

  8. I also wonder why we think we should be safe. The circle of life is pretty obvious, particularly to indigenous people, and most of them have no expectation of safety – just a life lived well. Perhaps we still have much to learn from our ancestors…that would sound much better said by Yoda. 😆

  9. I get what you’re saying, and I’m no big fan of de Beauvoir et al. The thing is, we now KNOW the horrors that had occurred. It might be true that intellectuals, leftists, journalists at the time were guilty of “wilful ignorance”, or “idealism without reflection”. Or it might be they were inclined to dismiss dark rumour as “fake news” or “propaganda”. After all, they knew the French Revolution included the Terror, but despite its horrors by and large revolution had brought benefit. They knew from refugees the Bolshevik violence – but for them that couldn’t have predicted the violence that persisted.

    At that time the most evident horrors were closer to home, in the rise of fascism. Even then, people didn’t recognise the full horror, the death camps, the extermination programs, until AFTER Liberation when reporters accompanied troops into Bergen-Belsen.

    To my mind this is where “fake news” is really troubling. We now live in times where it’s getting EASIER to dismiss information that flies against our own prejudices and hopes as “fake news”. It’s becoming (become?) the DEFAULT position to dismiss anything potentially too disturbing as false.

    In my case, I like Hillary. What if history proves Hillary really IS a scheming psychopath, guilty of all she’s accused of? What if all those people who think Trump’s s great guy find, when the day is done, that the worst “slanders” against him were true?

  10. I am reminded of two other writers who turned against the Stalinist version of Communism, both heroes of mine. Albert Camus and George Orwell. Both saw the truth clearly and was willing to risk everything to tell the world what crap the Stalinist ideology was.

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