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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Reminder, Not Revelation

By William E. Mckibben

"I do know that North Vietnam, while definitely no Shangri La, is a truly remarkable country, that the North Vietnam is an extraordinary human being. The Vietnamese are 'whole' human beings, not 'split' as we are inevitably, such people are likely to give the outsider the impression of great simplicity... It is not simple to be able to love calmly, to trust without ambivalence, to hope without self-mockery to act courageous to perform arduous tasks with unlimited resource of energy." "Trip to Hanoi,"   Susan Sontag, June-July 1968

What the recent Polish events illustrate is something more than that fastest rule is possible within the framework of a Communist society, whereas democrat government and worker self-rule are clearly in- tolerable--and will not be tolerated. I would contend that what they illustrate of a truth we should have understood a very long time ago: that Communism is fascism successful fascism if you will... Communism is in itself a Variant the most successful variant, of fascism."   "The Lesson of Poland."   Susan Sontag, January 1982

THE CROWD EXPECTED no surprises from Susan Sontag when she rose to speak, just another speech in a night of speeches on the theme "Solidarity." Like almost everyone else on the platform at Manhattan's Town Hall for the Jetty convocation that night. Sontag was sure to call Poland a tragedy, point out that America was doing much the same thing in El Salvador, denounce the president as a hypocrite, and sit down Instead. Sontag devoted most of her ten minutes to an attack on communism qua communism, and on the American left, at least some portion which she accused of "old and corrupt rhetoric" regarding Marxism Leninism "We thought we loved justice, many of us did. But we did not love the truth enough which to say that our priorities were wrong. The result was that many of us, and I include mystery did not understand the nature of the Communist tyranny."

* * *

Before Ben Cooper 84 even opened his mouth, some in the crowd were hissing Alter two dozen speakers from what might loosely be described as the campus left, here was member of the Conservative Club and everyone was sure the night unanimity was about to varnish, a no-hitter ruined with two out in the ninth. But Cooper told the Advisors Committee on Shareholder Responsibility that his organization thought if wrong for Harvard to invest in banks lending to South Africa Before he sat down, however, he advanced another argument that it was hypocritical of those assembled to talk only about apartheid and not about the oppression of the gulag Communist in all its forms, he said, merited the same condemnation.

* * *

The subscribes to Partisan Review could probably hold a reasonably intimate dinner party these days. Monthly Review its fraternal twin, also stands in no danger of wielding influence. On this campus, only the Spartacus Youth League, that lunatic asterisk to every generalization, " defends" the USSR, and when the crackdown began in Warsaw, it was the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee that threw together a protest meeting, not the Conservative Club When one counts prominent American leftists--not a very time-consuming task--next to none come to mind who urge "communism" and most. Michael Harrington for instance, have at one time or another been notorious anti-Communist crusaders Not a single American with higher name recognition that Angela Davis might still be classed as an outright red, or even an obvious Comsymp. So where does this indictment of Cooper's--common enough in right wing circles--come from? Who is Sontag scolding?

Herself, that's who. Herself and a whole generation or two of leftists, mostly intellectuals and mostly New Yorkers, who actually spent some or all of their lives in the thrall of sectarian myth. And maybe, more to the point, a somewhat larger number of"60s types who glorified a bit too strenuously the virtues of Fidel and Ho and Mao Sontag belongs, more or less, in both categories; she was born into the Manhattan neo-Stalinist school of the '30s and '40s (though she was never a supporter) and in the '60s revived her interest in Matters political to take an active part in the antiwar movement. She made the ritual pilgrimage to Hanoi in 1968, and, in a long, moving essay upon her return wrote the following: "When love enters into the substance of social relations, the connection of people to a single party need not be dehumanizing. Though it's second nature for me to suspect the government of a Communist country of being oppressive and rigid...(against) that abstract suspiciousness I must set (and be overruled by) what I actually saw when I was there--that the North Vietnamese genuinely love and admire their leaders; and, even more inconceivable to us, that the government loves the people. "So when she addresses Poland, when she declares that all communism is fascism by its very nature, when she blames the left for being starry-eyed and bending the truth, Sontag is (as she admits) confessing her own sins.

EXCEPT THAT, once confessed, Sontag seems to want the rest of us to say her Hail Marys for her. The uproar that her speech set off at hysterics in The Nation can rightly be termed an uproar (may indicate there are a few remaining who see Sontag's speech as heresy, the fact that student activists on this campus have been more concerned about South African than the Ukraine might be proof of a subtle. Perhaps subconscious, willingness to set up double standards for "leftist" regimes (The again, it might not be evidence. South Africa, after all doesn't have any ICBM's). Still and all, a little smugness surely justified. This generation of leftists suffers from few of the delusions of their predecessors, though they've inherited much of the hate and suspicion those delusions engendered in the rest of the country.

When the crackdown finally came in Poland, everyone was angry--a little angrier, Perhaps, then they would have been if they knew, really knew, it had been coming Of course we'd all been expecting it, but there had been so many crises survived...Dreams, usually not spoken for fear of having to eat the words, but dreams nonetheless that perhaps this was the start of some peaceful evolution to a human government. If martial law served any good end, it was to remind the world what almost all of us knew that the soviet system was impermeable to decency, incontrovertible in its evil. In the same way, Sontag's formulation of "the essentially despotic nature of the Communist system (that is, a country any country ruled by a I Leninist Party)" is useful as a reminder of what happened to those who were shouting "Two, three many Vietnams" in 1969 Come 1990. We don't want to have to be explaining away some Sandinista atrocity or another there is very little in past history to give much credence to the dream that any of the current revolutions will produce a kind and pure worker's state entirely free of the defects that mar the rest of the socialist encampment.

Sontag, in other words, is correct in what she says But there is a lot left unsaid Which is a far cry from saying that there aren't sides to be taken it is entirely likely that El Salvador, should the revolution prevail, will be ruled by a L. Leninist party (especially if the U.S. continues its carefully concerted plan to drive the rebels into the arms of Moscow). Still Sontag says she "passionately supports" their cause, and so should the rest of us. Sandinista Nicaragua is no waystation on the road to nirvana: still and all, there are considerably fewer deaths-by-government-violence, and considerably more well-fed citizens (both certifiably good things), than in Somoza Nicaragua. The problem with announcing that communism is fascism and then sitting down is that capitalism can be fascism too, at least that corrupted sense of the word that means "shitty."

Sontag's generation, they were looking for some solution that was going to be great.and the leading candidate was Marxism-Leninism. Stalin was an aberration, yet understand. We don't want to fall into the same trap; leftists coming of age in this era should only be looking for something so doing we would he wise so discount Sontag's motion that communism is a monolith, pretty much the same wherever it rears its unchained head. As she herself eloquently proves, North Vietnamese communism circa 1968 is not the same as North Vietnamese communism criea 1980; certainly out of hand condemnations of the Sandinistas --increasingly a Leninist party, and hence a part of Sontag's menance--can be debated in ways that out of hand condemnations of Jaruzelski's Poland or Hoxha's Albania (or Garica's Guatemala) can't.

More compelling is an argument that Sontag hints at, an argument actually developed is more detail by Jeane Kirkpatrick in her infamous Commentary article. In trying to differentiate between totalitarian (left-wing) and authoritarian (right-wing) dictatorships, Kirkpatrick said the later were more susceptible to change for the better, in part because they exercised less complete control over social and economic aspects of life. Jaruzelski's seeming success has robbed much of the wind from the sails of those who pointed to Solidarity and hooted at her hypothesis. If Sontag's repeated use of the term fascism has power, it is in this context. "It is now proved that we have been wrong to be hopeful that out of Communism something much better might emerge?" she asks. ''''Yes, it is now proved. We were wrong. It is the people who live in those countries who tell us that." she answers. Compelling, but not convincing, at least not yet. Nicaragua and soon El Salvador and Guatemala will give us a better idea of the level of tolerance in a state where the leftist government has been installed by the people; the intermediate step of Castro's Cuba holds out some hope that they will not become tropical Czechoslovakias.

FOR THOSE OF US who never carried cards, or even knew anyone who carried card, Sontag's words are more useful as reminder than as revelation It's not too hard to understand why some well intentioned people were reluctant to let go of the myth of communism. The Leninist formulation promoted promised not only paradise, but inevitableparadise, and so the intellectual struggle to achieve justice was reduced to watching for the signs of impending worker's revolution. Like those fervent believers who point to the rise of the Common Market and the establishment of Israel and say armageddon approacheth, an era of two of American progressive could simply watch the declining rate of profit and know that the revolution was on its way. No more, the generation that knows the truth about Kampuchea and EI Salvador, Poland and Guatemala, the Soviet Union and South Africa, must start to think anew unless it wants simply to be choosing the better of two evils at every turn.

"Sectarianism in any quarter is an obstacle to the emancipation of mankind. Both types of sectarian, treating history in an equally proprietary fashion, end up without the people--which is another way of being against them," writes Paolo Freire, the brilliant Brazilian educator, in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The view of past history held by rightists and of future history held by sectarian leftists makes them impervious to reality. Open to the world, it will be harder for this generation--an all the generations that follow--to be radical. What Sontag and others of her place and time remind us with their sad history is that we can't believe: instead we must think. borrowing what we can from the communists and capitalists and the Buddhists and anyone else. But if that is tougher, it is also more exciting, more liberating. In some sense, the revolution will be inside us, all of the time. As Freire says, "the radical, committed to human liberation, does not become the prisoner of a 'circle of certainty' within which he also imprisons reality. On the contrary, the more radical he is, the more fully he enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he can better transform it." Or as Sontag said, upon her return from Hanoi: "I discover that what happened to me in North Vietnam did not end with my return to America, but is still going on."

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