I am currently reading Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War (Fearghal McGarry, 1999), an intriguing account of the Irish volunteers who fought on both sides of that savage conflict. The author's own sympathies are pretty obvious (as signalled by his use of those loaded terms, "progressive" and "reactionary"), but for the most part he is fair and objective.
The book has set me thinking about what makes somebody a socialist, communist, conservative, fascist, or otherwise. It's probably fair to say that most people-- in terms of world history-- have had their loyalties decided by where and when they were born. (Secularists never tire of making this point about religious belief.) Moments like the Spanish Civil War or the Irish Civil War-- moments where people born in the same country, and even the same background, make radically different choices of allegiance-- seem rather rare in the grand scheme of things.
But they do happen. In the Spanish Civil War, Irishmen-- often Irishmen who had fought side by side in the War of Independence-- fought against each other in a conflict whose savagery and ruthlessness is shocking to read about.
McGarry tries to probe, from the records available to him, the motives of the men who volunteered. But they are rather inscrutable. Indeed, it occurred to me while reading the book that nearly all choices of ideology or belief system are rather inscrutable-- even our own.
I believe that they are, to a great extent, visceral. It is a deep-seated attraction, or a deep-seated aversion, that makes most people partisans of one cause or another, one world-view or another. This is easily seen when people of strongly contrasting beliefs engage in debate. Pretty soon you realise that they could fire salvoes at each other all day long without either conquering the other. Their bases are hidden far, far away from the battlefield. It is often said that "you cannot reason someone out of a position they haven't been reasoned into". True enough; but I think only one in five hundred people are reasoned into any fiercely-held position.
This is true of me as much as anybody else. Not so long ago I came upon this quotation from Malcolm Muggeridge: "I'd rather be wrong with Dante and Shakespeare and Milton, with Augustine of Hippo and Francis of Assisi, with Dr Johnson, Blake and Dostoevsky than right with Voltaire, Rousseau, the Huxleys, Herbert Spencer, H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw." That's exactly how I feel. It's not that I'm not intellectually convinced of the truth of my beliefs. But if I lost my faith tomorrow (God forbid), I would not join the ranks of the New Atheists. I would probably crawl into a hole somewhere.
But reading about Irish radicals like Frank Ryan made me remember a time when I was drawn, viscerally and imaginatively, to the radical left. This was in my childhood and my teens. Photographs and posters from the Russian Revolution always appealed to me. I liked the hats and coats that the Russians of that time wore. I liked the graininess of the photographs. I liked the Social Realist style of the posters. I liked the exciting sensation of history being begun again. (Even now the famous words of Lenin at the Second All-Soviet Congress after the Revolution-- "We will now proceed to establish the socialist order"-- gives me a thrill, even though I know Lenin was an evil mass murderer and the Bolshevik Revolution was a disaster of the first magnitude.)
Even as a child, I intuited the whole aesthetic of the Soviet worldview-- its romance of the machine, its prolixity, its rather dour earnestness, its utopianism. It all seemed clean and straight and cool and pleasingly straight-edged. Today, when the idylls and atmospheres that thrill and animate me are almost the very opposite, I can still identify with those who are starry-eyed for radical socialism.
(Not that I was ever a Marxist. When I was in college, I even boycotted the lectures of a particular lecturer because he was some kind of Marxist. At the time, I considered that Marxists had split and therefore retarded the left in the twentieth century. And, although I considered myself a socialist, I had no time at all for the liberalism and political correctness that always seemed to be associated with it. To me, socialism was about restricting working hours and funding libraries and parks and swimming pools.)
The idyll of the modern (or postmodern) "progressive", however-- the idyll of a society where tolerance, for its own sake, is the highest ideal, and where history and spirituality and sexuality are played with in a non-threatening, sandpit environment-- is entirely repulsive to me. I can't even begin to sympathise with the vision of a modern leftist liberal, or a libertarian, or a left-wing nationalist, or a socially liberal conservative, or a feminist. Whenever any of their adherents paint a picture of their good society, I am reminded of the words of Max Beerbohm:
So this is Utopia, is it? Well
I beg your pardon, I thought it was hell.
But thinking about all this makes me even more convinced that Catholics should do all they can, not only to evangelize using the tools of reason and argument, but to excite the imaginations of the unconverted.
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