Last Days of a Sorcerer’s Apprentice

As a sceptical 1950s student hangover, I was still around university campuses and undergraduate life during the upheavals of 1965-75, but saw them very differently from most students around me. I was most interested in surprising ideas and developments that did not fit the instant mythology being created. A major cause of these surprises was that, when university departments, flush with cash in those days, sought to raise their prestige by inviting a ‘Distinguished Visiting Professor’ from afar to join them for a year or two, they sometimes got different distinctions from the ones they expected.

A walking piece of history
In 1966-68, I was at Sir George Williams University. My Queen’s mathematics degree already in hand, I was taking two years to qualify in honours history. before moving on to graduate studies at McGill. During those two years, the Sir George history and economics departments had jointly obtained Rudolf Schlesinger as a visiting professor. Schlesinger was the retiring head of ‘Soviet Studies’ at the University of Glasgow, and the editor of two academic journals, one on the USSR, one on ‘world co-existence’. He was also a walking piece of history. Coming to Britain as an Austrian e’migre’ in the late 1930s, he had been an important Communist Party activist for two previous decades, in Berlin, Prague, and Moscow. Despite having been expelled from the USSR CP in 1936 in a purge, he had remained a lifelong Marxist-Leninist.

The then largely youthful and leftist history department revered him as a scholarly Marxist, who would add the weight of his historical experience. In some ways, he did as expected. He was certainly not one of the countless eventually disillusioned Marxists of his generation, symbolized by Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel, Darkness at Noon. For him, Communism was still not the god that failed. “Koestler? A mere courier!” he was once heard to snarl, venting the rage of the True Believer against the departing disenchanted. ‘Co-existence’ advocate he might have become, but strictly as understood by a staunch Leninist and Soviet apologist.

But Schlesinger embodied a deep malaise. He was a physical wreck, perhaps suffering heart disease or cancer. Only 65, he looked twenty years older, and died a couple of years later. A big, heavy-set, shambling figure around the Hall Building, he dressed so shabbily that a library security guard once almost threw him out, thinking him some drifter off the street. But I soon learned that he had suffered more than physical ill-health. He was the victim of a long inner turmoil. Half a century of loyal service to Communism, it seemed, had been as devastating for him as the agonizing breaks from it made by more famous literary apostates like Koestler and Whittaker Chambers.

The man who could have stopped Hitler?
Schlesinger at least half-believed, maybe entirely believed, that he was ‘the man who could have stopped Hitler’. At the start of the 1930s, Moscow gave the disastrous instruction to the world’s Communist Parties, including the German one, to regard the social democrats as their main political enemy, and, in Germany, even to ally themselves with the Nazis in finishing off the Weimar Republic., to speed ‘the final fall of capitalism’. But by 1932, only a firm alliance of the large SPD (Socialist) trade unions with the KPD (Communist) ones in Berlin could have stopped and reversed the growing and quite durable power of the National Socialists. Schlesinger might have conceivably refused Moscow’s orders, but adhering to Leninist discipline, he did not.

Disillusionment with communism
So while the twelve years that followed were a nightmare for millions, they were also a uniquely personal one for him. German Communists who had bellowed “After Hitler, us!” in 1932 were soon being interned or shot, save for the many who converted to Nazism. By the mid-1930s, the CP ideological ‘line’ was changed, allowing co-operation with socialist parties, briefly leading to a 1936 ‘Common Front’ Government in France. But it was too late for Germany, and for Europe. Disillusionment with Communism exploded everywhere with the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact. Stalin twisted the knife by sending many German Communists, who had escaped Nazi Germany for the USSR, back to Hitler and death. The World War that followed brought ruin and destruction to both Schlesinger’s original homeland and his idealized Marxist fatherland. And he was also a Jew, who had almost accidentally survived the Holocaust.

I did not think that he had emerged from all this with great wisdom; he seemed to me to be still trapped in an ideological form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. But I was fascinated by his reaction to the 1960s student radicals, more feverish in the U. S. and Europe, but not all that different here. He was terrified of them. Despite being anti-capitalist, anti-American, and opposed to the Vietnam War, he still positively hated the angry and disruptive student crowds.

He was even reminded of Nazi students in the 1920s, casually contemptuous of courteous elderly liberal professors, and of reading books. This reaction shocked the few Sir George student radicals who were even much aware of his existence and history. The few who did know of his reaction were appalled and uncomprehending. How could a famous old red equate their own moral purity and virtue as being in any way like that of Nazis? Even the rare politically conservative faculty and students never said that. But Schlesinger took his dialectical materialism so seriously that he was not all that interested in the conscious intentions of radical student activists of any kind, for any cause. He regarded these intentions as mere epiphenomena from the meeting of underlying economic forces with youthful hormones. Ideological explanations of them were, to him, largely just rationalizations of the coming forces of the age.

Narcissism masked as altruism
Never a Marxist myself, I still found this a striking notion, especially as we both observed the strange worldwide tide of Maoism or pseudo-Maoism of the 1966-8 ‘Cultural Revolution’ years. To anyone not joining the frenzy, it appeared that the young Chinese Red Guards were indeed behaving a lot ‘like Nazis’, using mob rule, intimidation, beatings, and eventual murder. Furthermore, no small proportion of the young of all great Western cities and universities were cheering them on, waving their Little Red Books.

Lots of more minor but still thuggish behaviour was tolerated and even casually endorsed on many campuses. I thought that what Schlesinger had at least half-understood was that what is imagined to be a pressing ‘moral’ cause among the radical young may or may not be desirable and defensible in the longer term and wider context, doesn’t serve to explain or evaluate the behaviour itself, no matter how much the young involved try to claim otherwise. No matter what kind of ‘idealistic’ rhetoric is used by the most militant to defend it, it is narcissism masked as altruism. The French syndicalist Georges Sorel got it right: the means justifies the means.

Mob rule back on university campuses
Now another version of this same phenomenon is back on the university campuses, mob rule and shouting hysteria once again, intimidation of those who resist conscription, shakedowns for phony new ‘studies’ and ‘centres’. The causes have become preposterous: verbal hypersensitivity and mandatory ‘safe spaces’. The shouters have no idea what they are doing, which is above all to assault freedom itself. “Liberal’ faculty and administrators are combining gentle reproofs with feeble rationalizations. Like Schlesinger, they may half-understand what is happening, but also like him, have no way to say what they most need to say: This is evil.

[Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. This article first appeared in The Prince Arthur Herald]