Political Correctness and the “Cult of Personality”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 1918 – 2008

The phrase “politically correct,” or “PC,” was first publicly used by a British Ministry of Information official during the First World War. It later appeared in Mao Zedung’s “Little Red Book” in the early 1960s and was adopted, originally tongue-in-cheek, by the radical left in the USA. In Marxist–Leninist and Trotskyist vocabulary, “correct” was the common term denoting the “appropriate party line” and the ideologically “correct line.” [Source]

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his novel Cancer Ward  gives  us an example of ‘political correctness’ in Soviet Russia via the character, Rusanov, about whom more, below.

It is important to know the period in which the action of Cancer Ward takes place. Here are the leaders of the USSR, in date order (note the hiatus between the dates in red):

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, 26 Oct 1917 – 21 Jan 1924
Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin, 3 Apr 1922 – 5 Mar 1953
Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, 7 Sep 1953 – 14 Oct 1964
Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, 14 Oct 1964 – 10 Nov 1982
Yuriy Vladimirovich Andropov, 12 Nov 1982 – 9 Feb 1984
Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko, 13 Feb 1984 – 10 Mar 1985
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, 11 Mar 1985 – 24 Aug 1991

Nikita Khrushchev

After Stalin died there was a political struggle among several pretenders to Stalin’s throne between March and September, 1953. Stalin had held the top post in several functions and, after his death, there was a dispersion of these duties to several people so no one could claim to be Stalin’s sole heir, until Khrushchev finally gained the support necessary.

Khrushchev began a gradual change in the legacy of Stalin and, suddenly, in a 1956 speech “On the Personality Cult and its Consequences” to the closed session of the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party, he denounced Stalin’s dictatorial rule and cult of personality. He also attacked the crimes committed by Stalin’s closest associates.

This speech destroyed the legitimacy of Khrushchev’s remaining Stalinist rivals, solidifying his domestic power. He began to ease many restrictions, and freed millions of political prisoners from the “Gulag”–penal labor camps spread across the Soviet Union. (Read Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago).

This “thaw” in the political, cultural and economic life of the Soviet Union included some openness and contact with other nations and new social and economic policies, helping living standards to rise and promoting a higher level of economic growth. Censorship was also relaxed. Some subtle criticism of Soviet society was tolerated, and artists were allowed to produce some works that didn’t have government-approved political content–but there were still limits an artist or writer could not go beyond without reprisal.

The novel Cancer Ward is set in a hospital in Soviet Uzbekistan in 1955, before and during the period when the changes to Stalin’s policies and apparatus were culminating. One of the patients in the cancer ward was Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov, as mentioned above. While in the hospital he learns from a newspaper, and from his visiting wife and daughter, that the Soviet regime is changing: prisoners are being released from the Gulag, having been officially “rehabilitated.”

One of these prisoners, Rusanov fears, is a man, a former friend and compatriot, whom he falsely denounced to achieve some advantage in the factory where they both worked. Here are some excerpts to show the disorientation and fear the new rules of political correctness engendered in him:

Now times had changed, things were bewildering, unhealthy, the finest civic actions of earlier days were now shameful. Would he now have to fear for his own skin?

[Rusanov mentally reviewing the past] The nature of Rusanov’s work had been…that of personnel records administrator. It was a job that went by different names…but the substance of it was always the same. Only ignoramuses and uninformed outsiders were unaware what subtle, meticulous work it was, what talent it required. It was a form of poetry not yet mastered by the poets themselves. As every man goes through life he fills in a number of forms for the record, each containing a number of questions. A man’s answer to a question on one form becomes a little thread, permanently connecting him to the local centre of personnel records administration. There are thus hundreds of little threads radiating from from every man, millions of threads in all…They are not visible, they are not material, but every man is constantly aware of their existence. The point is that a so-called completely clean record was almost unattainable, an ideal, like absolute truth. Something negative or suspicious can always be noted down against any man alive. Everyone is guilty of something or has something to conceal. All one has to do is look hard enough to find out what it is.

…The poetic side of [Rusanov’s] work lay in holding a man in the hollow of [his] hand without even starting to pile on the pressure.

[Later, Rusanov talking with his daughter, Alla, a well-placed writer who has recently visited Moscow and who is visiting him in the hospital] ‘Listen,’ her father said quietly, do you remember. I asked you to find something out? That strange expression–you come across it sometimes in speeches or articles–“the cult of personality”–are those words an allusion to…?’ [He means Stalin]

‘I’m afraid they are, Father…I’m afraid they are. At the Writers’ Congress, for example, the phrase was used several times. And the trouble is, nobody explains what it means, though everyone puts on a face as if they understand.’

‘But it’s pure blasphemy! How dare they, eh?’

[Alla] ‘…Generally speaking, you have to be flexible, you have to be responsive to the demand of the times. This may annoy you Father, but whether we like it or not we have to attune ourselves to each new period as it comes! I saw a lot in Moscow. I spent quite a lot of time in literary circles–do you imagine it’s easy for writers to readjust their attitudes over the last two years? Ve-ry complicated! But what an experienced crowd they are! What tact! You can learn a lot from them!’

I hope this is enough to elicit your interest in the book, and to provide some food for thought about the potential power of presidential ‘executive orders’ and extraordinarily wealthy news and social media owners to shape and change our lives.

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”A Friend in Power is a Friend Lost”

Henry Brooks Adams, 1838 – 1918

Here is The Education of Henry Adams, an autobiography or, perhaps more accurately, a memoir in that there are around 20 years missing, those with his wife Clover. (See the link at the end for access to her life, and its effect on Henry Adams).

Much of what is written today in the realms of politics and statecraft, weaponry and war, physics, industrial development, religion and science, evolution in its broadest sense, psychology, Nature and Man, and other areas of inquiry are amply and aptly covered in this volume of 500 pages (in the small Modern Library edition).

I chose the current title because it seemed to be one of the great lessons HA learned through his extensive, life-long “education.”

You can’t use tact with a Congressman! A Congressman is a hog! You must take a stick and hit him on the snout!”

(An online version can be read here.)

It starts in an odd way, one that almost put me off it for lack of initial understanding. The author wrote this account in the third person. I don’t remember ever seeing this form for a memoir. He refers to himself variously: first as a “manikin,” then student, student of history, private secretary (to his father Charles Francis Adams, the ambassador to Great Britain at the time), former private secretary, and other names and titles one must be alert to. He is quite self-deprecating, stating often that he has learned nothing although having experienced and observed much. “The reader will find wit but little passion and less private information in the book. In fact, the narrator will simply skip twenty years (1872–1892) during which Adams was married and his wife committed suicide.” (Source of quotation)

Ancestors of Henry Adams

Adams’s great-grandfather was the second US President, John Adams, and his grandfather was the sixth President, John Quincy Adams whom he remembers along with his maternal grandfather, Peter Chardon Brooks, a wealthy Massachusetts merchant. He was the fourth of seven children and was able, through family connections and wealth, to roam the world—mostly Europe—and to consort easily with presidents, heads of state and other high politicians, great scholars and scientists, and other luminaries and villains of the second half of the 19th Century. William Henry Seward, US Secretary of State under presidents Lincoln and Grant during the years 1861-69, was one of Adams’s favorite public figures and acquaintances.

His father, Charles Francis Adams

I offer, below, a few quotations to show what HA says he has learned, finally, after not quite 70 years of life.

Early in the book he begins the first of his many observations and laments on how society conspires to break a boy’s spirit:

From cradle to grave this problem of running order through chaos, direction through space, discipline through freedom, unity through multiplicity, has always been and must always be, the task of education, as it is the moral of religion, philosophy, science, art, politics, and economy; but a boy’s will is his life, and he dies when it is broken, as the colt dies in harness, taking new nature in becoming tame. Rarely has the boy felt kindly toward his tamers. Between him and his master has always been war. Henry Adams never knew a boy of his generation to like a master, and the task of remaining on friendly terms with one’s own family, in such a relations, was never easy.

On congressmen and senators, p. 261:

…(O)ne day when Adams was pleading with a Cabinet officer for patience and tact in dealing with Representatives, the Secretary impatiently broke out: “You can’t use tact with a Congressman! A Congressman is a hog! You must take a stick and hit him on the snout!” Adams knew far too little, compared with the Secretary, to contradict him, though he thought the phrase somewhat harsh even as applied to the average Congressman of 1869–he saw little or nothing of later ones–but he knew a shorter way of silencing criticism. He had but to ask: “If a Congressman is a hog, what is a Senator?”

This innocent question, put in a candid spirit, petrified any executive officer that ever sat a week in his office. Even Adams admitted that Senators passed belief. The comic side of their egotism partly disguised its extravagance, but faction had gone so far under (President) Andrew Johnson that at times the whole Senate seemed to catch hysterics of nervous bucking without apparent reason…(T)heir egotism and factiousness were no laughing matter. They did permanent and terrible mischief, as (President) Garfield and (Secretary of State) Blaine, and even (President) McKinley and (Secretary of State) John Hay, were to feel. The most troublesome task of a reform President was that of bringing the Senate back to decency.

Cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt

Page 418:

Those who seek education in the paths of duty are always deceived by the illusion that power in the hands of friends is an advantage to them. As far as Adams could teach experience, he was bound to warn them that he had found it an invariable disaster. Power is poison. Its effect on Presidents had been always tragic, chiefly as an almost insane excitement at first, and a worse reaction afterwards; but also because no mind is so well balanced as to bear the strain of seizing unlimited force without habit or knowledge of it; and finding it disputed with him by hungry packs of wolves and hounds whose lives depend on snatching the carrion. (President Theodore) Roosevelt enjoyed a singularly direct nature and honest intent, but he lived naturally in restless agitation that would have worn out most tempers in a month, and his first year of Presidency showed chronic excitement that made a friend tremble.

Page 421-422:

As an affair of pure education the point is worth notice from young men who are drawn into politics. The work of domestic progress is done by masses of mechanical power–steam, electric, furnace, or other–which have to be controlled by a score or two of individuals who have shown capacity to manage it…Modern politics is, at bottom, a struggle not of men but of forces. The men become every year more and more creatures of force, massed about central power-houses. The conflict is no longer between the men, but between the motors that drive the men, and the men tend to succumb to their own motive forces.

Finally, though I could happily quote so much more from this latter part of the book, I offer HA’s rather sour summary of the world, just after the turn of the 20th Century, pages 432-434 from Chapter XXIX entitled “The Abyss of Ignorance”:

Nearly all the highest intelligence known to history had drowned itself in the reflection of its own thought, and the bovine survivors had rudely told the truth about it, without affecting the intelligent. One’s own time had not been exempt. Even since 1870 friends by scores had fallen victims to it. Within five-and-twenty years, a new library had grown out of it. Harvard College was a focus of the study; France supported hospitals for it; England published magazines of it. Nothing was easier than to take one’s mind in one’s hand, and ask one’s psychological friends what they made of it, and the more because it mattered so little to either party, since their minds, whatever they were, had pretty nearly ceased to reflect, and let them do what they liked with the small remnant, they could scarcely do anything very new with it. All one asked was to learn what they hoped to do.

Sigmund Freud

Unfortunately the pursuit of ignorance in silence had, by this time, led the weary pilgrim [i.e., himself] into such mountains of ignorance that he could no longer see any path whatever, and could not even understand a signpost. He failed to fathom the depths of the new psychology, which proved to him that, on that side as on the mathematical side, his power of thought was atrophied, if, indeed, it ever existed. Since he could not fathom the science, he could only ask the simplest of questions: Did the new psychology hold that the νΧή (Ancient Greek for Psyche)–soul or mind–was or was not a unit? He gathered from the books that the psychologists had, in a few cases, distinguished several personalities in the same mind, each conscious and constant, individual and exclusive.

The fact seemed scarcely surprising, since it had been a habit of mind from earliest recorded time, and equally familiar to the last acquaintance who had taken a drug or caught a fever, or eaten a Welsh rarebit before bed; for surely no one could follow the action of a vivid dream, and still need to be told that the actors evoked by his mind were not himself, but quite unknown to all he had ever recognized as self. The new psychology went further, and seemed convinced that it had actually split personality not only into dualism, but also into complex groups, like telephonic centres and systems, that might be isolated and called up at will, and whose physical action might be occult in the sense of strangeness to any known form of force.

Dualism seemed to have become as common as binary stars. Alternating personalities turned up constantly, even among one’s friends. The facts seemed certain, or at least as certain as other facts; all they needed was explanation.

This was not the business of the searcher of ignorance, who felt himself in no way responsible for causes. To his mind, the compound νΧή took at once the form of a bicycle-rider, mechanically balancing himself by inhibiting all his inferior personalities, and sure to fall into the sub-conscious chaos below, if one of his inferior personalities got on top. The only absolute truth was the sub-conscious chaos below, which every one could feel when he sought it.

Whether the psychologists admitted it or not, mattered little to the student who, by the law of his profession, was engaged in studying his own mind.

One must slow down to effectively read this book, starting from the beginning. An impatient person may wish to start in the later chapters (say, from chapter 28) to get to the bottom line, but how HA got there, after 60-odd years, is quite instructive and entertaining as well.

Check it out.

Here are links to some further readings on the Adams family and HA’s wife:

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