There are different Americas. The great America – the America viewed through European eyes with a mixture of snobbish patronizing indulgence and sheer envy is …
It is what Trump is. He could be said to personify it. His characteristics are those of great America: big, extroverted, ambitious, successful, rich, energetic, restless, generous, proud, adaptable, happy – all admirable qualities. Also … candid to the point of seeming naive, and – okay – boastful, not highly articulate in that he spins no fine phrases, and (many snort) “vulgar”. His candor is not naive; it would lay him open to being taken advantage of had he not been well schooled in the hard-bargaining world of American and international business. His boasting is fully justified: he is a winner. He says what needs to be said, as his tens of thousands of fans appreciate. As for vulgarity – it does no harm. Great America and its personification, Donald Trump, combine energy, high achievement, vision, and generosity that enormously benefit thousands, even millions of others. If the opulence Trump lives in proudly, his delight in showing off his achievements, his loud trumpeting of triumph with every success, is vulgar, then vulgarity is a “yuge” virtue. The fictitious characters whom he most resembles are Ayn Rand’s heroes in Atlas Shrugged. The John Galts and Dagny Taggarts who invent and build and drive and ever improve the engines of civilization.
Another America – more an anti-America – is personified by … Oh any of those sour pious busybodies who think they know best how everyone else should live their lives and want to force them to do as they say. Think current Democratic administration. Or Bernie Sanders. Intellectuals whose opinions were early in their lives pickled in Leftist theory. They are morally vain, needing to feel they are good rather than actually make good. Beings whom Trump would describe as “low energy people”. They make much of “compassion”, not noticing how much condescension there is in their compassion, and how much contempt in their condescension. Their college-age children need safe spaces, “trigger-warnings”, protection from challenging opinions. What words and phrases describe them best? Physically enervated, psychologically etiolated, smug, puritanical, introverted, dogmatic, envious, snobbish, acrimonious, precious, dishonest, hypocritical …Their model fictitious characters are Pajama Boy and Julia, for whom government needs to be an all-sustaining provider and a protecting nanny to the people.
If great America could come to power next year to guide the destiny of the country and shine a beacon light to the world, after 7+ years of stagnation under the debilitating and impoverishing ideologues of the Left, our civilization – now in decline – might be saved.
Or is that America lost and gone? Is Trump a relic of an unrecoverable past?
Margaret Thatcher interrupted the decline of Britain, the decades long rule of the Left. She tried to turn her country into a share-holding, property-owning nation. A free enterprise nation, where capitalism opened the way for everyone to become prosperous. She did what she could, but could not complete the transformation. The Left returned, though it might also call itself “Conservative”.
So even if Trump does become president, and those engines start up again, how far can he take America into a prosperous future? Generations of Americans have now been indoctrinated in schools and colleges to be socialists. Will the country have one last burst of glory, and then sink into welfare mediocracy? Is that the best that can be hoped for?
Jillian Becker April 15, 2016
This is a revised version of an essay by Jillian Becker first posted on February 6, 2011, under the title A cure for religion:
Is religion one of the most frequent causes of death after heart disease, cancer, and road accidents?
Surely this is a disease that is curable?
We have heard of Muslims who went to a university in the West and there encountered Enlightenment literature. They were stunned by what they read. They became secularist, possibly atheist. The rumor may be untrue, yet it seems highly possible. Even probable.
If the West only took the trouble to teach its values to the peoples who live in darkness – those billions of Others – it might in time achieve what wars have failed to: the subduing of the barbaric hordes, the ending of their persistent onslaught.
During the Cold War, America spoke to the Communist bloc through Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. The effort was made to tell the enslaved peoples that what their masters would have them believe was not true. Those broadcasts helped to bring the Wall down. Why is no such effort being made to give new ideas to the Muslims? Vast numbers of them are taught nothing but the Koran – or rather, have it beaten into them. For many of them it is in a language (Arabic ) that they don’t understand. And even if they know the language, much of what they learn to recite by heart is incomprehensible. Those suras that are intelligible are full of evil counsel and absurdity: “kill the infidel…”, and a lot of solemn drivel about Djinns. Why doesn’t the secular West give them something better to think about?
Teach them to question ideas rather than dumbly accept them.
Teach them that freedom makes for a happier life, tolerance for a longer one.
It might be argued that many Muslims who live in the West are aware of Western values and ideas and still reject them in favor of Islamic dogma. True. And we may assume that there will always be some who cannot be cured of religion. But the probability is that there are many who can be, if only they were better informed.
Yes, we are urging “proselytizing” and “conversion” on a massive scale: not from one religion to another, but from religion to reason. (To oppose one religion by another – to think of Christianity, for instance, as a cure for Islam – is to misdiagnose the disease.)
It must be worth trying. A start could be made with young Muslims who are already in the West with a positive program of teaching the utility of doubt and moral necessity of critical examination.
No more giving in to Muslim demands for the separation of the sexes, for special facilities in schools and work-places, for courts to take account of their “cultural traditions” such as honor killings and wife-beatings and the sly deceptions involved in “sharia compliant finance”.
We have arrived at our ways for sound reasons, so let’s stick to them. Away with “multicultural” sentimentality and hypocrisy!
We’d like to teach the world to think. We’d like the Western powers to have a shared policy of continually lecturing the billions who live in darkness.
Okay, hectoring them.
Let’s seize them by the ears and say, “Now listen here … !”
But who will do this? Those who are in a position to do it, political leaders, educators, the media, prefer to denigrate Western values. They despise the world-shaping, civilization-advancing achievements of their own culture. Many of them not only scorn their inheritance, but hate it.
They hate and mock the “dead white men” of the great “patriarchy” who bequeathed it to us.
Jillian Becker February 15, 2016
This is a repeat of an essay by Jillian Becker, first posted on April 29, 2011.
The rise of enthusiasm for Socialism in America, demonstrated by the great numbers of enthusiasts flocking to hear Bernie Sanders, the Democratic candidate for the presidency, preaching it, prompts us to post the essay again.
It is human nature to be selfish. If we weren’t selfish we wouldn’t survive. If we didn’t eat when we were hungry, warm ourselves when we were cold, seek cures for our illnesses, defend ourselves (and our children and our life-sustaining property), we’d die out pretty damn quick. Or rather, we would never have come into existence as a species at all.
We are most of us capable of sympathy with others, and we often willingly give away a thing we own to another person. Some are altruistic. A few will even give up their lives to save the lives of others. Nevertheless, we are all naturally and necessarily selfish.
Christianity and Communism require human nature to change. As it can’t, Christianity’s commandments to love our enemies and forgive those who do us harm turn many a person of good will and high aspiration into a hypocrite if not a corpse. Communist theorists have never settled the question of whether human nature must change so that the Revolution can take place, or whether the Revolution must take place in order for human nature to change. Of course it will never change, but there’s no stopping the collectivist dolts arguing about it.
Capitalism works well because it is in tune with our nature. Adam Smith called it “the natural order of liberty”. Everyone selfishly desires to provide for his needs. To pay for what he wants from others – services and goods – he has to provide something that others will pay him for. Millions do it, and the result is prosperity. Capitalism is an abstract machine most beautiful to behold in the wonder of its workings. When individuals have the incentive to achieve, acquire, and enjoy something for themselves, they’ll go to great lengths to afford it. They’ll compete with each other to provide what others want, toil to make it the better product, and set the price of it lower. The best is made available at the least cost. Everyone is both a taker and a giver, and everyone benefits. True, not everyone’s effort always succeeds, but nothing stops anyone from trying again.
Of course capitalism isn’t a remedy for every ill and discontent. But a capitalist society offers the best chance to an individual to make the best of his condition – being alive – which presents him with a tough challenge – to stay alive for a few score years, and make those years as good as his energy, cunning, and adaptability to conditions outside of his control (plus his statistically likely share of luck), can help them to be.
In a capitalist society no one has a fixed place, whether below, in the middle, or on top. A person can rise, sink, or stay. A truly capitalist society is necessarily a free society in which no one is prevented, by some ruler or ruling clique, from bettering his lot, striving, succeeding, or failing.
Capitalism is the enemy of that God of whom all the children in the British Empire used to sing at morning prayers in school assemblies before the Second World War:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small;
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them high and lowly,
He ordered their estate.
The children were being taught to be content with everything as it was, trusting that God the ruler up there, all wise, permanent and unchallengeable had ordained how everyone had his fixed place and should stay in it, and because He had ordained it, it must be perfect. The recognition that such a God was an indefensible authoritarian, a whim-driven cosmic dictator, an unjust and arrogant tyrant, came – perhaps unconsciously – to the choosers of Anglican hymns only after a few of the earth’s dictators had been trounced in a prolonged and terrible blood-letting.
But then Socialists took over from God. They decided what was best for humanity. They established the Welfare State. No rich men in castles, no poor men at gates. The State would provide every citizen with depressing accommodation, dull food, health care if he were judged worthy of being kept alive, indoctrination in schools. Though the Socialist State is a slave society, the citizens are not called slaves but Social Security Recipients, National Health Patients, Students, Workers. The belief of their rulers is that they’ll be content because the State provides them with “everything”; they’ll be grateful for the food however poor, the unit in the tower block however depressing, the bed in the hospital however filthy, the indoctrination however boring. The great thing about it, to the collectivist mind, is they won’t have to strive to keep alive. And no one will have cause to pity or envy anyone else, since no one will have less or worse, or more or better – except of course the rulers up there, all wise, permanent and unchallengeable who ordain that everyone else has his fixed place. They reserve plenty, choice, comfort, luxury, information, and power to themselves.
The recognition that such a State is counter to the human instinct for freedom – call it “selfishness “ if you will – should have come to every sane adult the world over when the Soviet Empire crashed. The idea of Socialism should have died then. But if it did, it was only for a short time. Like the Christian God, it rose again, and lives now in the White House, an administration indefensibly authoritarian, whim-driven, unjust, and arrogant.
Selfish human nature with its instinct for liberty, its impelling desire to possess what is good for it materially and mentally, is the force that can and must defeat it.
Today in our Pages section (see the top of our margin), we post a review by Jillian Becker of How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman.
Here is part of it.
Bart D. Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God is a formidable challenge to Christian belief. It stands to his credit that he pursued his researches to the point where he changed from a believing Christian into an “agnostic”. (I put the word in quotation marks because I think the word as applied to religious belief is a cop-out, an intellectual bromide. If you do not believe there is a god, whether your unbelief is weak or strong, you are an atheist.)
An enormous amount of what he says fits with what is known and makes good sense. But in one vital area he goes wrong. He goes wrong because his perspective is Christian – even though he no longer thought of himself as a Christian when he came to write the book. He was not able to free himself sufficiently from the Christian viewpoint because he could not totally shrug off his Christian indoctrination.
Where is it that he goes wrong? ? He traces the vital beginning of the process of Jesus becoming God to the first, Jewish, followers of Jesus. That is the core of his thesis. And, interesting as his book is, generally well-researched as it is, it fails to make its case; because the author has not understood who the earliest followers of Jesus were and what they believed about him.
There is convincing evidence that the man whose Greek biographers called by the name Jesus (and we must call him that for want of knowing what his birth name was) did exist in the province of Judea between the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, and that he was a rabbi with a burning (fanatical, even insanely fanatical) desire to bring about a new Kingdom of God, like the one he and his nation believed had been the free and glorious kingdom of David and Solomon. He prophesied that the “Son of Man” – or the Messiah, the Annointed One – would come and effect this wonder, and he even came to believe that he was that “Son of Man”, that Messiah, himself.
Now let’s look at more of the probable story from a non-Christian (and unbelieving) standpoint.
Jesus’s gesture of attacking some Roman soldiers, along with a couple of his followers armed with two swords – one of them used to slice off a Roman’s ear – did not bring the result he expected. He had convinced himself such a move on his part would be the signal to God to start the series of earth-transforming miracles that would destroy the Roman Empire and bring back the freedom and glory of the Jewish people. The Romans arrested him, brought him to a cursory trial, and condemned him to death by crucifixion – the punishment prescribed for insurrection by Roman law. The punishment was duly carried out. (As Ehrman says, the body was probably flung on the ground somewhere to be devoured by birds and worms and scavenging beasts.)
His little circle of close followers, shocked, terrified, and grieving, fled from Jerusalem to save their own lives, but returned after a while and were to be found among the numerous sects and factions of perfectly orthodox Jews who lived there and carried out their obligations under the law in and to the Temple. They could not bear to give up their idea that Jesus was the Messiah. And as he had not succeeded in doing what a Messiah had to do, they trusted that he would soon return and complete his task. They even sent out missionaries to preach to dispersed communities of Jews and their hangers-on of “God fearers” that Jesus was the risen Messiah and he would return in glory to save the Jewish nation.
Now we come to the tricky bit. Did they then believe that Jesus had come back to life after his execution? Yes. So to them he was still alive? Yes. Did they believe that he had suspired not just in spirit, but in his body? Seems very likely that they did. And this would not have been strange among the Jews of the time. Every sect and party, every faction and movement, religious and political, except one – the Sadducees, the party of the royal priests – believed in the bodily resurrection of the dead. The general resurrection (the dogma ran) would occur at the end of days. But Jesus’s resurrection, his disciples believed, would be sooner than that – very soon. And they might well have pictured him returning in clouds of glory, descending from the sky and instantly causing the political liberation and resultant spiritual renewal of Israel.
Did they then believe that he was, or became after his death, or perhaps had always been God, or a god, or “the [unique] Son of God” – no. If they had believed any of that they would no longer have been Jews. But doesn’t the idea of his return in clouds of glory and descending from the sky imply divinity? Yes. And Ehrman argues well that there was precedent in the Jewish religious annals for an orthodox belief that (a) there were beings other than God himself in the divine sphere who were thus themselves divine – angels, seraphim, cherubim; and (b) that men had been raised to the sphere of divinity and – it could be argued – shared in the aura of the divine. It is even true that the Hebrew word for God – Elohim – is a plural. And that Psalm 82 speaks of creatures on earth being “gods”. He cites the (apocryphal) books of Enoch and The Wisdom of Solomon for the strongest evidence to support his contention that, while Jehovah was believed by the Jews to be the chief God, there were many lesser gods in Jewish scriptures.
Fine. But now we come back to what the followers of Jesus believed. First of all, who were they? At one point Ehrman calls them “illiterate peasants”. Well there he is probably wrong. For one thing, Jewish boys (most if not absolutely all) were taught to read so that they could read aloud a portion of the law when they turned thirteen. Secondly, there is nothing to say that either Jesus or his followers were uneducated men or even poor men. (The Christian tradition that Jesus was a carpenter and the apparent son of a carpenter has no basis in any discoverable historical fact. The family could have been well-to-do. There were means to support him as a rabbi – a voluntary teacher of the law – in his last year or two.) The disciple Matthew (not to be confused with the name attached to one of the gospels) was certainly literate, being a tax collector.
If Ehrman is right that they were mostly illiterate peasants, then the chance that they would have known anything of the apocryphal books of Enoch are remote, and virtually nil that they could have known of The Wisdom of Solomon – written in Greek – or the works of their contemporary Philo of Alexandria in Egypt.
And even if they were literate, as they almost certainly were, they were not scholars or theologians. There is no way they would have been able to argue for the existence of lesser gods, even if they knew Psalm 82 off by heart. They would have been taught that “God is One” – the central tenet of Judaism. So Ehrman’s sophisticated arguments from esoteric and academic sources for the possibility that they could believe Jesus was or became a god, are inapplicable to them. …
A professor of philosophy named David Benatar published, some eight or nine years ago, a book titled: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.
He makes the case that to live is to suffer and so it is best not to live. Just coming into existence is “a serious harm”. People should not have children. All babies should be killed in the womb. Humanity should become extinct.
He argues that the pain living beings endure is always much greater than the pleasure they enjoy. So they should not live. To avoid pain is a good thing; to miss pleasure is merely not a bad thing. The harm must always outweigh the joy.
It would not matter – he contends – if the human race ceased to exist: human existence has no value.
His argument is derived from the experience of each sentient being; that he [she, it] feels pain. Feels pain more acutely and more often than pleasure.
It is on subjective experience that Benatar builds his case.
But subjective experience and the judgment of it is confined to each subject, each individual. Pleasure and pain are entirely subjective. I can feel only my own pain and pleasure. Only I can know if it is worth it to me to endure the pain. Only I can determine what is pleasurable to me, and how intense the pleasure is, and how much it is worth to me.
Benatar even goes so far as to claim that all people overestimate the pleasure they have, or can possibly have.
How can he know? He can’t. He cannot know the subjective experience of any other single person, let alone of all people.
On the face of it, the claim that all people suffer more than they enjoy or hope to enjoy, is nonsensical. If it were true, suicide would be the rule. The population of the world would have been very small, probably entirely youthful, and would long ago have dwindled away. But it didn’t. And that’s probably why he had to deduce that people don’t realize how much they suffer – the chumps!
All that is hardly worth debating. Though the Oxford University Press takes his contention seriously enough to put it in print. (And there must be at least some people who are willing to fork out a whopping $21 for the kindle edition!)
Why take notice of it now?
Because, when he comes to his declaration that human life has no value, one hears the voice of the Zeitgeist. A cold hand clutches one’s heart, and one must protest.
Value to whom? As measured by what? Relative to what?
How can the value of human life be objectively assessed? Value is a human idea. Take away all human beings, take away the human mind, and there are no ideas, no values. No goodness. No truth. No beauty. No joy. No jokes.
No world. No universe. As the only begetter of ideas, the human consciousness is the creator of “the universe”.
Mathematics, physics, computers, the Ninth Symphony, Hamlet and The Tempest, the palace of Versailles, the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome, Americans walking on the moon … all are valued as long and only as long as human beings exist. Then, eventually (and it could be billions of years from now), our revels will be ended. “The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,/ The solemn temples, the great globe itself,/ Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve/And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,/Leave not a rack behind.” And after that, nothing will matter. There will be no one for anything to matter to.
The statement “human life has no value” is meaningless.
Yet it is stated. Not just by one (deeply unhappy?) philosopher. Who lives, incidentally, in the loveliest part of the world, the magnificent Cape of South Africa, with its clement climate and breathtaking natural beauty of mountains, valleys, oceans, beaches, vineyards, forests, and more wild flowers than anywhere else on earth. But what is beauty and plenty and a professor’s generous salary when metaphysical angst, toothache, and the prospect of death ineluctably confront a man?
As I said, it is the Zeitgeist speaking. It is common now among the intellectual elite of the Western world, habituated to a sociological way of thinking – which is to say, seeing human beings as a swarm, like insects – to affirm that this species is a bad thing. They say we are bad for the planet. They say we should be fewer in number. Humanity should give up its cities, its industries, its farming, its civilization, its arts, its investigation of nature. We should live as our most primitive ancestors did. (Only with cell phones.)
The most radical of such thinkers – among them some who live in the greatest luxury like Professor Benatar – say the entire human species must go. Whether slowly over a few generations by not breeding, or quickly within a few years by abortion, murder and suicide, go it must.
How are they different from those cranks who used to patrol the main streets of cities with billboards proclaiming, “The End is Nigh“?
They are different in this: while the old cranks considered it a frightening prophecy, the Benatars of our time think it is a good plan.
Do we not see that it is good?
Well no, Professor. I do not.
Jillian Becker January 10, 2016
Today we have posted the last essay, number 18, in the series by Jillian Becker titled The Darkness of This World.
Find it in full under Pages in our margin.
Here is part of it:
America the Last Best Hope?
A multitude of enlightened Europeans cultivated reason, and built a culture that was innovative, prosperous, powerful, and humane. Other Europeans wanted to destroy all that, and succeeded. Rebels from and against the prosperous educated classes – philosophers and poets, artists and politicians – taught generations to intoxicate themselves with fantasies of destruction, spoliation, and atrocity that could, and at times did, inspire real events of vast horror, suffering, and death. From each of them Europe seemed to recover for a while. But at the time of this writing, the rebels have triumphed. The dark vision prevails. Europe is rotten. Multitudes of Europeans, seeing nothing in their culture worth preserving and no point in its survival, reluctant even to beget children, are yielding to immigrating hordes of aliens from the Third World who lust for conquest and are governed by laws devised in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula in the Dark Ages.
So must the greatness of Europe be altogether lost? Surely not! Surely in the states of America, united on Enlightenment principles of liberty, reason, tolerance, and participatory government, European civilization will be preserved and enhanced? There where every citizen is free to pursue his own happiness, to hold property securely, to have his say in a government of limited powers, the United States will continue to prosper and advance? America, it is said, is a forward-looking “can do” society – innovative, prosperous, powerful and humane. “The last best hope of earth.” [As President Lincoln said of his country in a message to Congress on 1 December, 1862.]
And for a while yet it may continue to be so. But the seed of the evil flowers of the culture – Marxism, political sadism, and most potently poisonous of all, the political philosophies of the New Left – have found as fertile soil in America as in Europe.
The mainly bourgeois “anti-bourgeois” terrorist groups that rose with the “sixty-eight” protest movement in America, did evil just as intentionally as their European counterparts. And went in for the same posturing and frivolity. The US was at war in Vietnam, and the anti-draft demonstrations on university campuses gave a serious aspect to the American rebellion, but the war and the draft were pretexts rather reasons for it, as two leaders of the young radicals, Peter Collier and David Horowitz, confessed years later in their book – the best I have found on the subject – Destructive Generation: “The war in Vietnam was a gift of chance that allowed radical leaders to convince others of a need for a social apocalypse and of the necessity for their destructive strategies.”
These authors, long since cured of the romantic radicalism of their youth, look back and “wince” at the “homemade hankerings for Armageddon”. The Sixties, they write, was a time of “monumental idealism”, when “dewy-eyed young people in the throes of a moral passion … sought only to remake the world”. They would do this by destroying “the evil empire of ‘Amerika’” and freeing “the captive peoples of the world”. It was a time, they say, “when innocence quickly became cynical “ and “when a gang of ghetto thugs like the Black Panthers might be anointed as political visionaries”.
The Black Panthers and many of the “dewy-eyed” rebels intended to do what they fully recognized as evil in pursuit of their ideals. For instance, a man known as J. J. – a member of the white middle-class group that became the terrorist organization called Weatherman and later Weather Underground – was notable for “his [drug augmented] high energy, his nonstop, almost demonic chatter, his ability to carry listeners with him by the sheer force of his words rather than their depth”. And J. J.’s idea “was not to create a perfect state operating by the clockwork principles of Marxist law but to promote a chaos that would cripple America and ultimately cast it into a receivership that would be administered by the morally superior Third World. Unafraid to pursue his theme to its logical end, J. J. would add that people shouldn’t expect the revolution to achieve a Kingdom of Freedom ; more likely, it would produce a Dark Ages.” J. J. “[laid] out the ‘White Devil’ theory of world history. ‘We’re against everything that’s “good and decent” in honky America. … We will loot and burn and destroy. We are the incubation of your mother’s nightmares!’”
As in West Germany, France and Italy, the terrorist bombers of America demanded their rights under the law that they broke, mocked, and abominated. “Despite their incessant complaints of police brutality, Sixties radicals lived for the most part in a no-fault system, demanding their constitutional rights at the same time as they were abusing and denouncing the Constitution. They knew they had the option, which many of them ultimately used, of diving back into the System [and their comfy bourgeois lives] when they tired of being extrinsic. (For this reason New Leftism, although discredited in politics, continues to thrive in the ‘academic work’ of former radicals who returned for postgraduate degrees to the universities they had earlier tried to destroy.) It was an example of the cynicism that marked the decade – counting on the fact that America was exactly the sort of flexible and forgiving society they were condemning it for failing to be.”
The evil was done not only to shock their bourgeois parents, as their drugs, promiscuous sex, and bombs were meant to do and did, but for a very much higher good, of course. The very much higher good: “social justice”; “ending oppression” in the forms of “ racism”, “sexism”, “homophobia”, “classism”, “imperialism”, “colonialism”; all of which required the destruction of “the capitalist system”.
Most of them did not, however, describe themselves as Communists. Without reading the works of Marx, or of Marxists, Trotskyites, or New Left political philosophers, they all – in harmony with their European counterparts – looked forward to a political apocalypse; a revolution that they considered themselves to be hastening, that would change everything and replace the earthly Hell of oppression and social injustice with a Heaven of … something yet to be defined.
Collier and Horowitz write of “the decade’s transcendental conviction that there was something apocalyptic lurking behind the veil of the ordinary, and that just a little more pressure was needed to pierce the last remaining membrane – of civility, bourgeois consciousness, corporate liberalism, sexual uptightness, or whatever else prevented us all from breaking through to the other side”. And: “Again it was that hunger to reach the apocalypse just beyond, the essential act that would make them real revolutionaries.” And “the Weatherpeople, like all parvenus, spent considerable time working on a genealogy that would connect them with noble [sic] forbears: Russian narodniki and European anarchists, Cuban fidelistas and Vietnamese guerrillas.”
A work of fiction that impressively conveys the real evil of the 60s rebels is American Pastoral by Philip Roth. A percipient discussion of it and the issues it raised was published in Commentary magazine by Carol Iannone. I summarize the plot and quote her most illuminating comments relevant to my theme:
An only child – cheerful, affectionate, charming as a little girl – of a business man who in his youth had been an athlete and a Marine, and his beauty queen wife, grows up to be “overtaken by the 60s”, sets a bomb in a post office and kills a local doctor. She goes underground and kills three more people in another bombing.
“In his manly way” (Carol Iannone writes) the father “ tries to see where his own responsibility lies for what has happened to his much loved daughter … only to be forced again and again to confront the blazing chaotic irrationality of it all. What he cannot understand … is her hatred of America. ‘How could she “hate” this country when she had no conception of this country? How could a child of his be so blind as to revile the “rotten system” that had given her own family every opportunity to succeed? To revile her “capitalist” parents as though their wealth were the product of anything other than the unstinting industry of three generations …’”
“The 60s, in brief, are not just about the bomber young and their war with ‘Amerika’; in the 60s, ‘the indigenous American berserk’, have entered the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, touching everything and everyone with their ‘mockery of human integrity, every ethical obligation destroyed’.”
It entered the academies, and through them the mind of the nation, until the counter-culture has become The Culture. Collier and Horowitz write: “[N]owhere is the entrenchment of the Sixties mentality more complete or more destructive than in the university. That the Left should now dominate the academy involves a savage irony, of course. It was only after failing in their intent to burn down the university in the Sixties that radicals decided to get on the tenure track in the Seventies. Unimpeded in their long march through these institutions by fair-minded centrists of the sort they themselves now refuse to hire, these Leftists have brought a postmodern Dark Age to higher education – “deconstructing” objective truths to pave the way for chic academic nihilism: creating a curriculum of contempt for American history and culture; and transforming many classrooms into chambers of inquisition and indoctrination.”
The demonic achievements of the rebels were crowned by the election, in 2008, to the presidency of the United States of one of their own: Barack Hussein Obama, the son of a 60s counter-culturist mother and an African father who was both a Communist and a Muslim; and was associated eventually in the son’s mind with “colonial and imperial oppression” of his ancestral land, Kenya, when it was under British rule.
President Obama acceded to the White House with all his ideological baggage intact: the credo of the New Left plus admiration of Islam. And this at a time when Islam was becoming the main enemy of the Western world, practicing terrorism on a large scale, waging open warfare in the Middle East, and launching a migrant invasion of Europe that European governments allowed, encouraged, and all too willingly submitted to. Obama’s policies facilitated the European calamity, and he took steps to help Islamic Iran, which constantly reiterates its intention to destroy America and conquer the non-Muslim world, to become a nuclear power. He has lowered America in the eyes of the world. He and his minions treat the Constitution with contempt.
In the universities the counter-culture has become the orthodoxy. A majority of instructors indoctrinate students rather than educate them, teaching them what to think rather than how to think. Some Leftist representatives in Congress have passed a resolution to curb free speech. And the spirit of free enterprise, which made America rich and mighty, has been all but crushed by tyrannical regulation. Wealth has been taken from those who have earned it and given to those who have not. In short, the New Left has triumphed – though without attaining its heaven on earth.
Can the harm it has done be undone? At present the dark stream of unreason flows strongly. The resistance to it should be the vigorous self-interest inherent in human nature, the desire in most of us to succeed; and the lure of science, technology, all they give us for the betterment of our lives. Only as long as free personal endeavor and innovation continue to characterize America, will there be hope – if not the last, certainly the best – for our splendid civilization to survive in this, our only world.
Today we have posted in our Pages section essay number 17, The Orgiasts (Two), in the series by Jillian Becker titled The Darkness of This World (Part 3).
Here it is in full.
The Orgiasts (Two)
Hermann Nitsch (1938 – ): Hell’s bells and buckets of blood
Hermann Nitsch, one of the founders of the Action Art movement in Austria, publicly performed rituals with animal carcasses and their viscera, and naked human bodies deluged with blood, to the accompaniment of cacophonous music.
He also performed his rituals at private “festivals “ in the courtyard of his home, a baroque castle standing secluded near the Austrian-Czech border. His wife, a Jungian psychoanalyst, had bought it to provide the perfect venue for Hermann’s “Orgy Mystery Theater”. There, Nitsch intended his performances to rouse audiences to such excitement that an orgy would spontaneously erupt.
I witnessed a performance in an art gallery (where I was introduced to Nitsch as “the international press”, having credentials from a British newspaper), and was invited to the castle a few days later.
In preparation for his Action, the flayed and eviscerated carcasses of sheep, goats, oxen and pigs were hung by the stumps of their hind legs from rails and hooks, each against a backdrop of a stretched white sheet, their heads dangling, open-jawed, a few feet from the ground. (In a theater or gallery there would be up to three; but at the castle, ten or more.) Their viscera were heaped near their heads on a plastic sheet covering the ground.
The action began with Nitsch’s assistants bearing in a naked, blindfolded youth (in public these participants were more often boys, but sometimes girls took part too), lying supine on a white stretcher or a wooden cross, and setting him down with his face directly beneath the gaping mouth of a skinned beast beside the viscera.
Recorded music – mostly organ and brass – started plangent and reverberating but not loud. Then Nitsch entered, and strode purposefully towards the carcass in black rubber boots: a thick-set man of medium height with tonsured black hair, dressed all in black but for yellow rubber gloves. At the same time his assistants brought plastic buckets, blue, yellow, black and red, and set them down near the naked body. Nitsch took up a bucket and ladled red wine into the open rear of the dead beast so that it trickled down through its mouth on to the face below. The trickle was followed by a splash, and another, and another, until Nitsch flung the ladle aside and – the music growing louder – sent all that was left gushing through the carcass. He seized another bucket, and poured all it contained through the carcass on to the body. The next bucket that he emptied in the same way was full of blood. Bucket after bucket was brought and emptied, faster and faster. A bucket of wine alternated with a bucket of blood. The downpour became a deluge, now the shining wine, now the viscous blood. The music grew very loud. Whistles and rattles, pipes and drums were distributed to members of the audience so they could swell the noise. Many of the watchers began to stamp, clap, shout as the spirit moved them. Nitsch heaved up the buckets in a kind of frenzy, and flung their contents randomly at the carcass, the backdrop sheet, and the boy below. Bits of raw flesh were now in the blood. The music rose to a deafening pitch, and could be felt rumbling underfoot. The naked body was so drenched that not an inch of white flesh showed through the red. A slippery pool formed on the ground, with the bits of flesh floating in the mess, and as Nitsch continued to swing the buckets, gouts and gobs spattered the spectators. Some of them slithered in the pool of blood and wine. At last Nitsch gathered the slimy viscera in his arms, and reaching up, struggled to stuff them into the stiff cadaver, poking, punching, wrestling with them as they bulged out of his grasp. Some long pieces of intestines tore away and fell over his face while he struggled on blindly. He slipped and fell, letting go the guts to flop where they may. The recorded music stopped abruptly. The whistles and rattles, pipes and drums, clapping and stamping subsided. When Nitsch rose and gestured to his assistants, the blood-dyed, gore-smeared body was taken up and borne away. In the sudden silence, the spectators contemplated for a moment the bloodstained white sheet and the dripping carcass, and then another naked white blindfolded youth was carried in and set down beneath the next beast, the music started again, and the ritual was repeated.
Originally Nitsch slaughtered the animals himself as part of his Action, but the Authorities had objected that his method was cruel. They permitted him to carry on with his performances, but only if he bought dead beasts from licensed wholesale butchers. At the castle, the rites would go on for hours, sometimes through the greater part of a day or night. The spectator-participants would be intoxicated with drugs and wine – some of it from the castle’s own vineyard. (Nitsch told me that he himself preferred wine to the drugs his acolytes brought to the castle – the cannabis, marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and hallucinogens – because he found that drugs “discouraged eroticism”.) They would be further entranced by the corybantic music. Their nostrils would be filled with the raw fetor of blood and guts, augmented by both incense and its counter-smell of animal excreta sprayed from cans. They were expected to be participants in the rite “like any congregation at a religious ceremony”, Nitsch explained to me. “But participating more intimately than co-worshipers. More even than communicants. Like the members of ecstatic cults, they should achieve a kind of trance – which is a proof of therapeutic response.” The ceremonies would be brought to a climax with “copulation, all kinds of sex, including sado-masochistic interactions”. (But, he assured me, my presence at the castle as “the international press” precluded an orgy.)
His performances, he said, were “catharsis-therapy, comparable to psychoanalysis”. He gave me a book, a very thick volume, in which he describes dozens of his actual and imaginary Actions. An example: “Hundreds of Popes, crucified, having a poem read to them while the Emperor Nero, 40 castrated boys, and 3,200 pigs help make up the orchestration.”
And this also is in the book: “Classical psychoanalysis is replaced by sensations which disinhibit and intoxicate: actions with raw meat, damp body-heated guts, bloody excreta, blood warm from slaughter, tepid water, the pleasure of splashing, squirting, pouring, sullying is heightened to intense joy by tearing raw flesh, stamping into guts. The shredded abreactions-god drops into the association-field. The dramatic burrows its way into the excitement of cruelty. Chaos, orgiastic drunkenness, breaks upon us. The intensity of the experience allows a mysticism of aggression and cruelty to develop.”
“The ultimate purpose of the artist,” Nitsch said, “is self-liberation. He needs to break through to the essential, strongly felt experience of existence. Calls to bliss are mixed with the pain of overcoming. That is why it is a form of therapy.”
In many chambers of his castle, crosses were displayed, upside-down or draped in used menstrual bandages. There were monstrances and censers. Blood-stained priestly vestments were hung in rows along a wall. In a long shed, rows of meathooks dangled from overhead rails. And there was a once-consecrated chapel, painted white and gold, with wooden pews carved and polished, and an altar. On the ceiling were frescoes of chubby cherubs with rosy flesh among diaphanous white veils and whipped-cream clouds, holding Christian symbols. Blasphemous rites, Nitsch said, were celebrated there.
Yet Nitsch vigorously denied that Catholicism had anything worth mentioning to do with his work for self-liberation. “My art is Dionysian”, he said. “There is both creation and destruction in our existence. All flows together in the River of Life. So in one festival I must represent all aspects of existence. My work contains cruelty but the opposite of cruelty too. People come here to eat, drink, wander in my garden, my orchard, my vineyards, and enjoy it all. That is important. But the shock of the performances is important. Cathartic, like the old Greek tragedies.”
Nitsch himself seemed a generous and even gentle person, not cruel. He denied that to stage performances with carcasses, guts, and blood-drenched people, was to feed an appetite for the sight of suffering. “On the contrary,” he said, “it channels such desires into art actions which might otherwise require sadistic expression in real life. Here the Opfers [the ‘victims” or “sacrificies” – the German word has both meanings) are all volunteers and none of them is ever hurt.” Not even psychologically? None had said so. “They understood that this too was part of the Heraclitean river of Life containing all things good and evil.”
1. I was commissioned by the Sunday Times Magazine to write about a festival of Performance Art held in Vienna from the 21st to the 30th April, 1978. A Magnum photographer was sent with me. My story was duly printed, with photographs. The cover of the magazine displayed one of the pictures of a Nitsch ritual. Two days before it was to be distributed with the newspaper, the editor became anxious about the pictures. He submitted the whole issue to the editor-in-chief, who apparently said: “You cannot put a picture of all that blood on the Sunday morning breakfast tables of the nation.” So the whole thing was spiked.
2. Nitsch’s performances were indeed modeled on the rituals of the cult of Dionysos, the Greek god of wine. In those rituals, bulls and goats were sacrificed, both beasts being held sacred to him. Celebrants became intensely inebriated and danced wildly to the loud music of pipes, drums and cymbals, until the “god entered into them”, a mystic condition for which the Greek word was Enthusiasm. With the god inside them they were freed from all restrictions of law and reason and, transcending even the supposed limits set by nature, would tear an animal or human being apart with their bare hands and feast on the raw flesh. Bands of drunken men and woman (but in The Bacchae by Euripides, only bands of women called the Maenads), ran and danced, naked or partially clad in the skins of fawns, and smeared with the blood of the animal or human prey, night-long, in wild places, leaping over earth and grass and stone, and indulging every erotic desire. The name for this sacrament was an “orgion” – an orgy. An appendix to these essays will describe the cult, and its reformed version in the cult of Orpheus; and how the Orphic Mysteries contributed to the dogma and rites of both Christianity and Christian Gnosticism.
3. The (3rd century?) Greek biographer, Diogenes Laërtius, in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, summarizes the philosophy of Heraclitus (535-475 BCE) thus: “All things come into being by conflict of opposites, and the sum of things flows like a stream.” And: “Of the opposites, that which tends to birth or creation is called war and strife, and that which tends to destruction by fire is called concord and peace.” An echo of these ideas is sounded in the “dialectical idealism” of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), one of the most culpable philosophers in the flowing stream of European – especially German – thought, right up to the thinkers of the New Left.
Today we have posted essay number 16, The Orgiasts (One), in the series by Jillian Becker titled The Darkness of This World (Part 3). (Find it under Pages in our margin.)
Here is part of it.
The Orgiasts (One)
Peter Weibel (1944- ): Riot as Art
Otto Mühl (1925-2013): Crime as Art
When the tumult and the shouting of the “sixty-eighters” died down in Western Europe, and the terrorists were dealt with by the law courts, and the shallow ideas of the New Left had crystallized into an orthodoxy as “political correctness”, the shocking of the bourgeois – the chief impetus of the movement – was carried on for years in “Action Art”.
In Austria, which claimed to be its home, the political dimension of Action Art (Aktionismus) was inspired by the satirical “happenings” which anarchist groups performed as part of the sixty-eight fun-revolutionary protests.
Though at first the movement was just as dedicated to the defiance and denigration of the civil authorities as the student protests, Austrian Aktionismus actually came to be sponsored for a time by the state. By the late 1970s, exhibitions of Action Art were funded by the government, and even opened ceremoniously by ministers of culture. The artists were celebrities: acclaimed by the media, honored in the universities, given awards and generous grants. Many Austrians were proud of them.
But at the start, when the artists first performed their obscene acts, and painfully assaulted their audiences, they were arrested. Even then they were not held for long. There was an outcry from the progressive intelligentsia: “This is ART. Couldn’t the official barbarians understand that?” The official barbarians hung their heads in shame. This was an age when almost anything was allowed to ART. Criminal violence it may be, but it may not count as crime when it was ART.
In the summer of 1968, a group of Austrian Actionists toured Germany – Munich, Essen, Cologne – with a repertoire of performances in support of the student rebellion. They appeared in sports-halls and amphitheaters “before audiences of 2,000 and more”. They built a water cannon “with extra strong pressure” to turn on to the audience. One of them, Peter Weibel, explained to me (some years later):”The idea of the gathering was rebelling for Vietnam, and the audience had come to demonstrate that they were in solidarity with the Vietnamese who were suffering from American aggression. We believed that solidarity only counts if you are suffering too. But there the audience was, just sitting and not suffering at all. They were there to protest for Vietnam, but they were eating, drinking, doing nothing but waiting to be entertained, exhibiting the typical schizophrenic condition of this society. So we turned water on them.”
The audience did not accept the assault passively, not even for the sake of Art or Vietnam. They threw bottles back at the artists, and then the artists whipped them.
“But first I hurt myself. I worked with fire. Before turning the water on them or whipping them I burnt my own arm. I put chemicals on my skin and set fire to it. This was to show that I earned the right to make them suffer by suffering myself. It was saying to them, ‘Look, I’m in pain so I have the right to be taken seriously.’ In Cologne I had to go to hospital afterwards, and there they didn’t believe me that this was an art action. They called the police and the police thought I had been experimenting with explosives. But my intention was to make rituals. No masochism was intended. While I was burning I was smiling all the time, to say, ‘Look, you can trust me, I won’t lose my nerve.’ ”
He had to work hard on his whipping technique because, he said, “I used a very long whip and I couldn’t make it move fast enough at first, and people in the audience used to catch hold of it and pull me towards them, or jerk it out of my hands, until I learnt how to do it properly so that I cut their faces before they could do anything. The end was always a riot. The police came to stop it, we were arrested, and then we were fined. But that was part of the Action. ‘WAR, ART, RIOT’ the show was called. It was a campaign. Like a military campaign, only with Art.”
In that same momentous summer, one of the founders of the Action Art movement, Otto Mühl, along with other Actionists, put on a performance in the auditorium of the University of Vienna titled ART AND REVOLUTION. They announced that it was for the victims of the Vietnam war. Mühl described it to me as “pissing, shitting, beating, and masturbating while singing hymns”. He and the other artists were arrested and imprisoned.
By the later 1970s, Mühl had stopped giving public performances, preferring to concentrate on “self-expression psychoanalysis and therapy through sexual activity and all other natural functions”. His theories on psychotherapy, he said, were “derived from those of Wilhelm Reich – and also of course from Sigmund Freud, our Viennese Urvater of psychoanalysis.”
Otto Mühl had founded two communes: one in Vienna, and one on a farm, Friedrichshof, in the Burgenland near the border with Hungary (which was then, and for another two decades, under an oppressive Communist regime obedient to the Kremlin). He named the country commune “The European Center of the Action-Analysis (AA) Organization of Conscious Life-Praxis”. Followers of his movement formed “branches” in Berlin, Hamburg, Kiel, Bremen, Oslo, Geneva, and Paris. At the start of his campaign Mühl visualized a “world commune organization, a global society made up of communes”, all of them following the pattern set at Friedrichshof, for the better health and happiness of mankind. In 1976, membership of his organization peaked at a little over 500.
Central to Mühl’s “praxis” was Selbstdarstellung, or “SD”, meaning self-expression, carried out in groups under a Self-Expression Leader whose aim was “to exorcise the small-family person” – der Kleinfamilienmensch – from the communard-patient. The process, Mühl maintained, was “Action Analytical Art”. His Selbstdarsteller had to become a performance artist. Before an audience of fellow communard-patients, he/she “wanders through childhood and corrects the damage that was done” to him/her. “The audience will be deeply moved when the patient recreates the scenes of his childhood damage, lets himself fall into a birth-experience and demonstrates the meaning of health as a new-born baby. From the re-enacted birth-experience – often accompanied by an enactment of ‘the killing of Mummy and Daddy’ – the final self emerges in the Selbstdarstellung, which is also called ‘dissolving the genital armoring’.” Beyond that, he’d explain, “lies not only cure but true liberation”; that is to say, an ability to experience “psychophysical orgasm” by which the patient/artist is liberated to enjoy “full sexual and social freedom”. The person has “found his/her identity in orgasm”.
What actually happened in the performance ending with a rebirth? What was Otto Mühl’s work as an artist-therapist? Simply sexual activity in public. “Free sexuality is an integral part of commune-society. The exclusive two-person relationship is a sickness of the small-family person” Mühl told me. (He also, in an unguarded moment, confided to me that he was “surprised to find that many of the male patient-artists developed impotence in the course of the treatment”.)
Although the achievement of personal liberation from authority was one of the chief aims of the therapy, the commune had strict rules. Both men and women, for instance, had to have their heads shorn of all hair and to dress in uniform trousers with a flap in front “to facilitate work” – namely, copulation-masturbation-therapy. The enterprise was dedicated to the defiance and destruction of “authoritarianism”, and the method was regulated in a sternly authoritarian manner.
It was a life-style of enforced asceticism, combined with extreme libertinism. All bodily functions were on display; the bathrooms and toilets had no doors. No member was allowed privacy, or money, or any personal property. “The commune rejects commercial and profit thinking.” On joining, a member made over all his property and wealth to the organization, including real estate and income from any source, even student grants. Members were discouraged from making contact with their “small family” (more commonly called, in English, the “nuclear family”) or anyone in the outside world, because “society predetermines their emotional misery, as if the world were ruled by an evil spirit”.
The communal life itself, according to Mühl, was “an art form”. So was every performance of “direct art actions”, which consisted of persons – often, if not always, drugged – performing sexual activities before the rest of the assembled group, “with objects, animals, excreta” and fellow communards of either sex and every imaginable erotic desire. Photographs of the actions were taken, collected, edited, and published in professionally printed and bound volumes.
Children were admitted to the Mühl communes with their mothers. Some were born in them. “Children”, Mühl said, “grow up in the commune without sexual repression, so they will be healthy and socially well adjusted. The sexual activity of the parent is not concealed because nobody is made to feel that it’s forbidden.”
But adjusted to what society? …
The practice of any conventional form of art was discouraged (though Mühl himself painted in a private studio standing apart from the main buildings of the commune). “It is enough that the commune life is itself an art-form,” he said.
And so, in his theory, was death: “killing people is an element of art to come.”
“to make art – you do not need a piano – detergent and jam and urine will do – art may slip into every material and out of every hole – everybody can do art if he can find the pepper – boycott the pigs controlling the mass media – do not buy newspapers or tv-sets or cinema tickets – blast the opera houses – from now on all there is will be presented directly, coitus, torture, medical operations, destruction of people and animals and other objects is the only theater worth seeing – the rest is nonsense! – the inner life will be reduced to bodily acts – religious and political pigs can only be stopped by brutal use of all means – pornography [contrary to other statements] is a suitable means for curing society of genital-panic – the elements of art to me are eating, drinking, shitting and pissing, fucking and killing people. – these are the hot irons of our times – murder as art.” …
There has been a heated exchange of views in our comments sections on some of our recent posts dealing with Nazis, Communists, and other socialists, particularly on yesterday’s post, Tomorrow belongs to them, and the extract from Jillian Becker’s essay The Fun Revolutionaries, July 26, 2015 (posted in full under the title The Darkness of This World [Part Two], to be found under PAGES at the top of our margin). Today we post an article by Jillian Becker on the same subjects, with an explanation of how it came to be written.
A new production of Hamlet is being put on at the Barbican Theatre in London, starring the impressive actor, Benedict Cumberbatch. The director, Lyndsey Turner, sees generation rebellion as an important aspect of the story, and observes that the events of the play take place some 30 years after a war between Denmark and Norway (a war which Denmark won). The assistant-director, Sam Caird, wrote to me on June 8, on behalf of the director, asking me (as the author of Hitler’s Children) to come and speak to the company about generational rebellion in West Germany in the late 1960s, when the New Left movement protested against the parent generation of the Third Reich (which of course lost the Second World War). I felt honored by the invitation, but explained that I could not travel from America to speak to the company, much as I’d have liked to. Instead I promised them a paper on the subject. Here it is:
Generational Rebellion and its Effects in West Germany, 1967-1977
Most of the declared causes of the 1967-1968 student protest movement in West Germany were ideological. The protestors were for pacifism, and against authoritarianism, capitalism, militarism, nuclear arms, the re-armament of Germany, and – intimately associated with all that – “Amerika”. A more immediate cause, and the one they felt most strongly about, was university reform. They wanted more representation on the governing boards, and the dismissal of teachers who had been members of the Nazi party.
Immediately after the Second World War, the victorious Western allies had carried out a “denazification” campaign. It had worked well. Most West German voters became firm democrats. Their children grew up knowing what the Nazi regime had done, but its ideology was literally locked away from them. Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, for instance, was inaccessible to post-war generations. One could look at it in a university library, but only if a professor certified that one needed it for approved research. With that sort of policy, the campaign went too far. All ideas should be critically examined.
Shame and guilt kept most parents from talking to their children about what they had done and thought in the years of the Third Reich. Nevertheless, as a generation, the parents were stigmatized in the eyes of their grown children. Those fathers who survived the war had their personal authority weakened by the Nazi police state, and fathers and mothers alike were demoralized by defeat and the revelation of the death camps. The student protestors held the crimes – though not the defeat – against the older generation in general. Some of the more radical activists proudly proclaimed that they were doing what their parents had failed to do: denounce and defy the Nazi regime. They disregarded the fact that they were doing it many years too late. They saw Nazism in all authority – in the schools, the universities, the Federal government, the states’ governments, the press, the commercial world, the military, the police, the banks, and “Amerika”.
Among the fiercest of the student rebels were children of liberal parents. Their sons and daughters accused them of not doing enough to compensate for their past, and of hypocrisy – preaching egalitarianism but living in luxury while others were poor.
In fact, almost nobody in West Germany was poor. All classes had worked extremely hard; and aided by the Marshall Plan, by which America provided vast sums for reconstruction, they had succeeded beyond all expectation in creating astonishing prosperity. It was called an “economic miracle”.
And the student rebels have been called the “the spoilt children of the economic miracle” – ungrateful for the freedom and plenty bestowed on them. They were well housed, well fed, well educated, supplied with all the goods the cornucopia of the West could pour on them. What did they have to complain of?
The answer they needed came from the New Left political philosopher, Herbert Marcuse. He asserted that the apparently free peoples of the West were oppressed by plenty and repressed by tolerance. They were hoodwinked into an illusion of contentment by material abundance and ample choice, while they were actually subject to the vicious tyranny of big business, the military-industrial complex, and “American imperialism”. The student protestors, he declared, were the “advanced consciousness of humanity”, whose mission it was to lead the revolution.
It may seem strange that of all West Europeans, these young Germans, with their country divided between a Communist east and a free west, should be so easily persuaded that New Left Communism was preferable to liberal democracy. Some of them were even refugees from Communism, their families having fled to the West before the Berlin wall was built. How could West Germans be unaware of the poverty, the privation, the bleakness and anxiety of life on the other side of the Wall? Why did the students so naively swallow the Soviet line that the Russian-led Warsaw Pact was all for peace, while American-led NATO was a war–monger? Why did they so furiously demand that the West destroy its nuclear bombs, but not Russia? How could they not know that in the USSR rebels against the system were routinely imprisoned, tortured, killed? If they did know, the knowledge had little or no effect on their passionately held opinions. They blamed America for the war in Vietnam, the wretchedness of the peasants in South America, the oppression of the Iranians, and inequality everywhere; but the USSR they exonerated, and even admired, no matter what it did. Why? Because they accepted the lie that Communism is the opposite of Nazism, rather than its twin, which it is.
A voice raised in support of the protestors was that of the journalist Ulrike Meinhof. She wrote for a leftist periodical, Konkret, owned by her husband. Her columns were ardently pacifist, anti-American and pro-Communist. Her foster-mother Renate Riemeck, who had fled from Communist East Germany, typified the attitude of liberal West Germans to Communism. She believed that “anti-Communism was the fundamental foolishness of the twentieth century”.
Through the early months of I967, the demos in the universities and on the streets grew ever bigger and more unruly, and clashes with the police ever more violent. The students hurled stones at the police and clubbed them with thick staves; the police charged and struck about them with their batons. (Only a very few of the marchers knew that Soviet agents had launched the movement. Not until the fall of the USSR did evidence emerge that it had funded the “peace movement” in Western Europe.)
On the 2nd June, 1967, there was a very large demonstration in West Berlin protesting a visit by the Shah of Iran, and in the midst of a skirmish a student was shot and killed by a police bullet.
For days and nights following the event there were meetings of student organizations for highly emotional discussions of what had happened and what should be done. There was general agreement that the shooting had proved them right – the fascist state was out to kill them. They must organize for resistance. They could only answer violence with violence. At one gathering, a young woman named Gudrun Ensslin shouted , “It’s the generation of Auschwitz – you cannot argue with them.”
Protest demos continued at intervals for another year. In February 1968, older citizens, including large numbers of trade union members, staged a massive counter-demo organized by the Berlin senate, to protest against the students’ revolt and “anarchy”. It was a rare public display of anger by the parent generation.
After the middle of 1968 the students’ movement faded. The majority of protestors were mollified by new university constitutions granting the students more say in the conduct of their affairs. But there were some who could not easily give up the heady excitement and return to normal life. And there were a few who did not find their way back at all.
In 1969 there were random bomb attacks on property, and though they harmed no people, they created an atmosphere of fear and insecurity. The official explanation was that those responsible were “isolated individuals and small militant groups on the fringes of the New Left”. But not everyone believed it. Rumors spread of an “underground resistance” being formed. Gudrun Ensslin, the woman who had shouted that the older generation could not be argued with, and her lover, Andreas Baader, had firebombed a store in Frankfurt in March 1968.
They had been sentenced to three years in prison. But as the “fascist” authorities were in fact lenient to a fault, they soon let them out again, pending an appeal. The arsonists absconded, helped by sympathetic members of their parents’ generation: lawyers, parsons, teachers, professors, doctors, journalists, artists. As soon as asked, they provided the fugitives with cars, money, and apartments. Later they excused their weakness by pleading for the terrorists that “their hearts were in the right place, their aim for peace was good, only their violent method was wrong”.
When Baader was re-arrested and returned to prison, after he had been on the run for nearly a year, Ulrike Meinhof helped him escape again. She sought permission for him to work in a public library with her, and the all-too-soft authorities granted it. While they sat together in a room barred to the public, three raiders shot their way past two armed policemen guarding the prisoner, and got him out through a window. Ulrike Meinhof fled with them.
In their reports of the drama, the media designated Baader and Meinhof as the leaders of the group. They called it the “Baader-Meinhof gang”. At the same time the group itself took the name “Red Army Faction”. Its members robbed banks, shot policemen, bombed public buildings, maimed, kidnapped, tortured and murdered until most of them were caught and brought to trial.
At every point of the story until that stage was reached, the authorities of the Federal Republic of West Germany, far from exhibiting fascist tendencies, acted with so much restraint that it often amounted to foolhardy indulgence – at least partly because they feared to be accused of “authoritarianism”. It was the terrorists who acted like fascists.
Their generation could be called “Hitler’s Children” simply because they were born in the Hitler period. But when applied to the terrorist rebels, the label means more than just a generational relationship. It implies a family resemblance between the Nazis and the New Left activists.
An incident in their history illustrates the similarity. On June 27, 1976, an Air France airbus, on its way from Tel Aviv to Paris, was hijacked by two Germans and two Arabs. The pilot was forced to fly the plane to Entebbe, in Uganda, which was then under the dictatorship of Idi Amin (a keen fan of Adolf Hitler). The Jews were separated from the rest of the passengers. In return for the lives and freedom of the Jewish hostages, the terrorists demanded the release of fifty-three prisoners, of whom forty were held in Israel and six in Germany.
Among the Jewish hostages there were some who had been in Hitler’s concentration camps. Yet again they found themselves being sorted out from others by Germans, to be victimized and possibly killed. Again they were ordered about at gunpoint, slapped and shouted at to move quickly: “Schnell!” One of the captives showed the Germans his arm with a number indelibly branded on it, and told them he had got it as a prisoner of the Nazis. He said he had supposed that a new and different generation had grown up in Germany, but with this experience he found it difficult to believe that the Nazi movement had died. One of the hijackers snapped back that this was something entirely different from Nazism; that he was a member of the Red Army Faction, and what they wanted was world Marxist revolution. But the man with the number on his arm and the other Jewish captives could not see a difference.
All but four of the Jewish hostages were rescued by Israeli commandos. Along with the Arab hijackers and 48 Ugandan soldiers, the Germans were shot dead.
Did the terrorists themselves really believe that their actions would inspire a general uprising in West Germany? Or were they just playing a very dangerous game? As they had no obvious cause of their own to justify their tactics, they have been called “the fun revolutionaries”. They themselves feared not being taken seriously, which is why some of them, including Meinhof, Baader and Ensslin, went to Jordan in June 1970, to join the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and undergo “urban guerrilla” training.
The PFLP is an Arab nationalist and Marxist group, founded by a Greek Orthodox doctor, George Habash, who believed that his fight for the Palestinian and Arab nationalist causes was a necessary part of world revolution. He and his men came to despise the German men as soft, inept – and unserious. Both sides disliked each other, though Meinhof said that the training was “much more fun than sitting at a desk with a typewriter”. After two months the Germans returned home.
It was with the PFLP that some members of the group later co-operated in the hijacking of the Air France plane to Entebbe. Three of the six German prisoners whose release was demanded were “Baader-Meinhof” members, but Andreas Baader himself was not on the list. And by that time Ulrike Meinhof was dead, having hanged herself a few weeks earlier. New terrorists joining the “armed struggle” were not sorry to be rid of them. And their former helpers in the general population had finally lost sympathy with them. Meinhof had been given up to the police by a teacher with whom she had sought asylum.
Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin all killed themselves in prison: Meinhof in May 1976, before the court had given its verdict at their trial; Baader and Ensslin in October 1977, after they were sentenced to “three times life plus fifteen years”.
Some members of the gang admitted when they were caught that they had joined because it was “so romantic to go underground and make revolution”. Meinhof might have come close to convincing herself that she was working effectively towards the transformation of the world, but she became ever more confused, to a point where she was rapidly losing her reason. Ensslin, volatile and truculent, and Baader, a doltish bully and natural delinquent, finally understood when the judges pronounced their sentences that what they had done would not be admired, or excused, or forgiven. The game was over.
Their last hope was for martyrdom. They tried to make their suicides look like murder by the “fascist” state. They fantasized that their deaths would enflame multitudes to rise and avenge them by making revolution at last. Of course nothing of the sort happened. They neither led nor inspired a Communist uprising in West Germany. But all the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed, the Berlin Wall came down, and in October 1990 Germany was reunified.
An afterword: What did the Communist Party of the Soviet Union think of them? A Moscow publication of the late 1970s said (rather to my dismay) that I was right to call them “Hitler’s Children”. And it explained that the CPSU scorned them because they were “left-wing Communist individual terrorists” – meaning they were not controlled by the Party – and as such, according to Leninist doctrine, they were not acceptable participants in the “revolutionary armed struggle”.
Jillian Becker June 2015
Today we have posted essay number 15, The Fun Revolutionaries, in the series by Jillian Becker titled The Darkness of This World (Part 3). (Find it under Pages in our margin.)
It is about the New Left rebel movements in Europe in 1967 and 1968; the Baader-Meinhof gang; the “Paris May”; and the political philosophers who incited and excused the violence that led to terrorism.
Here is part of it. As usual, we draw attention to the importance of the information in the footnotes (not added here).
The Fun Revolutionaries
Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979)
Louis Althusser (1918-1990)
Guy Debord (1931-1944)
The New Left arose in the Western world in the late 1960s. Its name was not intended to distinguish it from the Leftist regimes of Russia and China, and its philosophers and activists did not become famous for criticizing Stalin and Mao Zedong. What made it “new” was chiefly a momentous change in a central Marxist doctrine, forced upon it by History herself: the working class was no longer the bearer of “revolutionary consciousness”.
What had happened? The workers in the capitalist West had simply let the side down by becoming prosperous, and – what was worse – happy in their prosperity. They could not, would not, be persuaded it was in their interest to overthrow a system that provided them copiously with the good things of life.
It was a disappointing and downright treacherous development, and Communists found it hard to get their heads round it. While the revolution was still inevitable, who would become the dictator of the new order if not the proletariat? Some theorists reached in desperation for the Lumpenproletariat, the underclass of vagabonds, beggars, low-life criminals, which Marx himself had rejected as revolutionary material. But most shifted their hopes to the underdeveloped Third World with its vast reserve of underdogs, the “victims” of “imperialism” and “colonialism”.
One of the most prominent theorists of the New Left, Herbert Marcuse – considered by many to be its progenitor – reached for both the underclass and the Third World. He wrote: “The people [ie. the workers] recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment … [But] underneath the conservative popular base is the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process. … Thus their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not.”
He recognized, however, that the revolution needed to be led by persons who could understand what he was talking about. Who could those be but the young educated sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie?
They represented, Marcuse said, “the most advanced consciousness of humanity”. It was their mission to lead the exploited but ignorant “substratum” against the established order. They could understand that while the capitalist order might look good, really it was bad. Its material abundance lulled people into an illusion of contentment. Its tolerance was really a form of repression. By leading the revolution, they could liberate the free from freedom and rescue the well-provided-for from plenty. And they did not actually have to give up anything, or go anywhere to do it. They must only “give themselves to the Great Refusal”; say “no” to liberal democracy and capitalism, and with their advanced consciousness, feel at one with distant victims.
The thousands of young rebels who marched down the streets of West European university cities on Sundays and fine spring evenings in 1967 and 1968, did not have to read the works of Sartre, Foucault, Lukács, Marcuse … to know what they thought and taught. The intellectual atmosphere of the West was saturated with their ideas. Rising generations had only to breathe to be intoxicated with a passionate hatred of freedom and everything else the West stood for.
They knew Marcuse’s flattering description of them; and they knew that not every Marxist professor agreed with it. Louis Althusser did not think the student protestors could or should lead the revolution which he continued confidently to expect the workers to bring about. But he did allow them to consider themselves working class; to “identify with” the proletariat. Louis’s wife Hélène told him that she saw no proletariat – or none likely to make revolution and establish a dictatorship in fulfillment of Marx’s prophecy. In Louis’s eyes, that was sin and apostasy. So he strangled her to death.
What did the student protestors say it was all for, the anger, the tumult and the shouting? Gently-reared, well-nourished in safe and comfortable homes, educated in lavishly equipped academies, these beneficiaries of Western Europe’s post-war economic recovery (greatly assisted by America’s Marshall Plan) had no cause of their own. But Marcuse told them they were oppressed by plenty and repressed by tolerance. And Althusser told them they could be let off being bourgeois as long as they felt they were working class. They did not have to be for anything, only against their country, class, and civil order: against capitalism; against the bourgeois; against “authoritarianism”; against having to taking exams; against the “military-industrial complex”; against nuclear arms in the hands of Western powers (but not in the hands of the Soviet Union); against war in general, and the current war in Vietnam in particular, where America was supporting the South in conflict with the Communist North. America embodied almost everything they were against. America was “imperialism” itself.
Released by Marxist philosophy from the bonds of conventional morality, and being well supported materially by their compatriots whose labor allowed the country to afford the luxury of gesture politics, they joined together fiercely and joyfully in the marches, the sit-ins and teach-ins, the interruptions of public events in lecture rooms and concert halls, the abuse of figures in authority, and sometimes in actual physical clashes with the police – those ready representatives of “authoritarianism”. They felt brave, while knowing that the police would not hurt them. When, occasionally and without intention, in the midst of a skuffle, the police did hurt one of them, they were blissfully outraged, and claimed they had “brought the fascist out of the policeman” so everyone could see how right they were to protest.
Most of the demonstrators were satisfied after a while with making angry gestures and shouting for revolution. Before the decade was over they had had enough of it, and the movement petered out.
But in Germany there were a few who could not bear to give up the fun, the excitement, the romantic pretence that they were leaders of a revolution. To prove their worthiness for that role and show themselves to be more dedicated, more daring, more active, more heroic, more self-sacrificing, more angry in the cause of pacifism than all the rest, they resolved to use violence in the cause of anti-violence. They would kill for peace. They would bomb for the revolution and the Communist paradise that lay on the other side of it.
So it happened that in Germany small gangs of terrorists emerged out of the student protest movement. One of the first bombs planted by German terrorists maimed a child for life, and destroyed the livelihood of a painter who was working through the night on the walls of a newspaper office, by blowing off his hand. The most notorious group called itself the Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion). It was better known by the name the media gave it: Baader-Meinhof, after one of the men, Andreas Baader, and one of the women, Ulrike Meinhof, who formed and led it.
“There is nothing I would not do, however base, to change the world,” Ulrike Meinhof said. And she and her merry band did abominable things: kidnapped, killed, burned, shot, and bombed, to improve the world.
For a while they felt quite safe. Their parents were professors, politicians, lawyers, teachers, doctors, clergymen, journalists, businessmen, some even movers and shakers of the Federal Republic of Germany, and most of them had been sympathetic to the protest movement. Many of them were impressed – as their children expected them to be – by the lengths the “absolutists” were prepared to go to for the higher good and their own liberation from bourgeois values. The older wiser heads opined, “Their hearts are in the right place, only their methods are wrong.” Only maiming and slaughtering their neighbors; only putting fear of injury, agony, and death into all who went about their business in public places.
As a result of this indulgence, the terrorists were genuinely astonished by the punishment meted out to them when they were arrested, tried, and found guilty of grave crimes. The fun was over for them then. They finally had to believe that they would actually be imprisoned for a very long time, perhaps for the rest of their lives; they, “the most advanced consciousness of humanity”, who had only done what the best minds of their parents’ generation had urged them to do! The courts did not appreciate that what they had done was necessary for the establishment of heaven on earth. The Judges did not share the opinion the status quo had to be swept away so that the inevitable new world could be born. They and the general public had only to peer over the Berlin Wall at that part of Germany which had been flung – along with the other east European countries – under the jackboot of Soviet Russia after World War II, to be sure that they would rather be repressed by tolerance and enslaved by plenty than live over there with scarcity and fear.
Some of the terrorists, including Ulrike Meinhof, who passed through Communist Germany on their way to and from terrorist training camps in the Middle East, did not like what they glimpsed. The glimpse told them that a life there would not do for them. Although they had voluntarily taken the lampshades off the lamps in their West Berlin communes to demonstrate their scorn for luxury, they had never had to go without central heating, ample food and good quality clothes; and they who had chosen to drive to the scenes of their robberies, arsons and murders whenever possible in a (stolen) Mercedez Benz, laughed and shuddered at the cheap plastic-bodied Trabants with their noisy two-stroke engines and their smelly exhaust which they sighted and smelt in sparse numbers on the strangely empty and ill-kept roads of East Berlin.
In truth the entire student protest movement was frivolous. It was all posture and gesture. All fake, the pity and the indignation – everything except the conceit. Worse, it was mockery. For such as they, the most fortunate of the human race, to claim to be fellow sufferers with selected victims of oppression and poverty, was to make mock of them and their plight. The charade of insurgency was performance art on a grand scale. But neither they nor their hooray-chorus of philosophers and professors saw it for what it was. Despite their “advanced consciousness”, they were oblivious to the cruel sarcasm of their masquerade. …
Full substantiation of what is said here about the Baader-Meinhof gang can be found in Jillian Becker’s book Hitler’s Children. (Click on its cover in our margin.)