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?