“Some were recalcitrant; some tried not to show how much his favor meant to them; some were openly servile. In a short time, he was surrounded by a court of yes-men who frowned when he frowned or guffawed loudly whenever he deigned to tell a joke.”
Frustrated with the inability of the West to understand why so many Eastern European intellectuals actively collaborated with their country’s autocratic regimes, and darkly amused by the attraction of many Western elites to autocratic governments, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz penned these words in 1951 in his most well-known work, “The Captive Mind.”
Milosz would later become a U.S. citizen, working as a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. But it was this early work that would gain him lasting literary and political relevance.
The book was written shortly after Milosz walked away from his diplomatic post as a cultural attache for the communist government of Poland and defected to the West. It was his attempt to explain why individuals moved along the path from resistance to surrender, submission and ultimately advocacy of a system of government they had detested. Written to explain what intellectual life was like behind the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain, Milosz’s work is freshly relevant today.
Part political philosophy, part literary criticism and part a personal memoir, “The Captive Mind” sought to “create afresh the stages by which the mind gives way to compulsion from without, and to trace the road along which men in people’s democracies are led to orthodoxy.” The people’s democracies to which he was referring, though, were anything but democratic. They were the communist states of eastern and central Europe where Moscow crushed freedom and individualism. It was able to do so because it had collaborators who would carry its message, cheer its arrival, accept its largesse and attempt to impose its strictures.
But this was not just a story of individuals: Milosz also explains why proud and formerly free nations gradually submitted to the compulsions of others. This process hardly ever occurred all at once. The changes happened slowly, almost imperceptibly, and began by a weakening of the will to resist.
The book begins with the long-forgotten Polish painter, writer and philosopher Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz and his book, “Insatiability.” In the novel, Poland falls to a Chinese leader named Murti Bing, whose emissaries hand out a pill that, when taken, destroys the willingness of the Poles to defend their sovereignty. Milosz describes how, at a moment of loss of faith in the virtues of democratic life, Murti-Bing pills begin appearing in Polish cities. As the use of the pill spreads, anxieties about the advance of the enemy’s forces recede and the armies of the West surrender without a fight.
Discussing the novel as a means of offering commentary on world affairs, Milosz cautions that this capitulation is not a simple case of forced coercion. Instead, individuals accommodate themselves to their oppressors, shifting their thinking and shaping their actions in a far more subtle process.
Of course, people do not lose their thinking facilities, even if they willingly surrender them. Rather, they internalize the contradiction of being able to say one thing and believe another. As a result, certain “contradictions” exist in people’s minds — between what they privately know and what they must publicly state. They resolve that tension, Milosz explains, “by becoming actors.” The result is that for people behind the Iron Curtain, life became “a constant and universal masquerade” where people could “say something is white when one thinks it black, to smile inwardly when one is outwardly solemn, to hate when one manifests love, to know when one pretends not to know, and thus to play one’s adversary for a fool.”
Such willful distortion of reality had wide-ranging implications. Reality became untethered from fact, assuming the shape of whatever the ruler said it was. Individuals as well as institutions tended to “by-pass a fact when a concept comes into conflict with reality,” even though this “must eventually lead to costly errors.”
Such an environment led individuals to lead double lives and ignore uncomfortable facts. The political necessity of delivering good news led government bureaucrats to purposefully distort facts and shade information, muting feedback about whether policies were working. These were the conditions that led to the embrace of relativism — what we would today call whataboutism.
This process has become more resonant at a time when truth itself is under siege. Michiko Kakutani began her book “The Death of Truth” with the observation that the totalitarian regimes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin “both were predicated upon the violation and despoiling of truth, upon the knowledge that cynicism and weariness and fear can make people susceptible to the lies and false promises of leaders bent on unconditional power.” Sadly, Milosz foresaw this, writing in 1981 that “the power of attraction exerted by totalitarian thinking, whether of the left or of the right, does not belong to the past in the world; on the contrary, it seems to be on the increase.”
Around the world, authoritarian rulers are on the march, waging a sustained assault on facts, reason and democracy. China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian states have worked to interfere with and suppress debate in other nations, just as they stifle dissent at home. While Milosz’s message holds special relevance for those living in autocracies, its resonance extends to both free and unfree nations today.
He reminds us that yes-men always accompany the rise of would-be authoritarians. Pointing to the roles that fear, greed, tribalism and ambition play, he underscores that while the motivations for accommodation can vary, the end result — obedience — remains constant.
Milosz also makes the powerful case that art can be a weapon against autocracy. For its searing critique of the Polish government, “The Captive Mind” was banned, though it circulated through the underground and inspired countless fellow Poles, including Lech Walesa, the first president to preside over a post-communist Poland, and Karol Józef Wojtyla, who would become Pope John Paul II.
Today, we are not accustomed to thinking of either the poet or the odd intellectual as radical voices of subversion. And yet, totalitarian states feared that original thought from any quarter could prompt action uncontrolled by the state. This made Milosz’s voice unwelcome to his own government. It is the same rationale that made Chinese writer and Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo an enemy of the state, and what prompted Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s death at the hands of Saudi Arabian officials.
But what kind of a state fears a poet’s words? Only those that are more brittle than they appear. While Milosz’s work warns that the authoritarian states of the East would wage an assault on the West, he also believes those states were inherently insecure, dependent on the appearance of strength and success. Once that facade cracked, he predicts that millions of its obedient followers would quickly turn against it.
But if Milosz underscores the brittle nature of dictatorships, his work reminds us that so, too, is the veneer of civilization. Having lived through the tragedy of World War II, Milosz knew how weak society’s bonds could be. “The habit of civilization is fragile,” he darkly reminds. “A sudden change in circumstances, and humanity reverts to its primeval savagery.” Fully conscious of the flaws of the old order, he was keenly aware that there are things far worse when that order buckles.
Yet this point was where Milosz, writing as Moscow’s shadow lengthened across Europe, was at his most defiant, most hopeful and most relevant. Having fled to the relative safety of the West, he asked himself whether “the decision to refuse all complicity with the tyranny of the East” was sufficient. His thundering answer: “I do not think so. I have won my freedom; but let me not forget that I stand in daily risk of losing it once more.” For those willing to resist, and for those wanting to encourage others to do so, Milosz recognized that refusing to be complicit is insufficient. The harder and more enduring task was recognizing that they had merely won the privilege to fight for it for another day.
“I refuse to be afraid,” Ma Jian, the Chinese author and dissident living in self-exile in London, said this month. “We need to protect concepts of humanity, and freedom can’t be taken for granted. We have to remain constantly vigilant. The more you buckle under these pressures, the huger the monster becomes. One’s responsibility as a writer is to be fearless.”
In Ma, another champion of freedom and opponent of authoritarian leaders, Milosz might have recognized a kindred spirit. After all, Milosz intended “The Captive Mind” to serve as a weapon in the arsenal of democracy, writing that “this book is at the same time a battlefield, in which I have given shape to my combats with the doctrine I have rejected.” Milosz’s words are no less relevant today and stand as a stark warning to the West to wake to the danger facing it.