Sunday, March 5, 2023

On charisma and greyness under communism

Several years ago in a conversation about politics and history,  a friend asked me something about the durability of Tito’s regime in Yugoslavia (35 years). I cannot remember what was my answer, but I remember that he summarized it by saying that Tito must have been a charismatic leader. That statement struck me as odd. My friend lived in Argentina for a decade or more, and I thought that perhaps it came naturally to him to associate the long rule and popularity of leaders to their “charisma”.  Yet, as far as Tito was concerned,  no one could claim that he was a charismatic leader. Towards the end of his life, he was quite popular, liked by most, even adored by many—but “charismatic”: never.

That led me to think about the absence of charismatic figures among the second generation of communist leaders. For sure, communists had some charismatic leaders: Trotsky, partly Lenin, and surely Fidel Castro (but not Raul) come to mind. Even Mao—although I would like to treat him separately. But nobody else. Stalin was certainly not a charismatic leaders. Nor were the leaders whom I remember well from my youth: Todor Zhivkov, János Kádár, Gustav Husak, Walter Ulbricht, Władysław Gomułka were the greyest shade of grey. There is no crowd where they would stand out. Rather, they seem to have cultivated the desire for greyness and “averageness”. Others were not much better. Khrushchev was mercurial and often unpredictable, but not charismatic. And Brezhnev. Kosygin, Andropov, Chernenko were of the same grey-greyness variety. Jaruzelski stood out a bit, but this was because he was an unusually-looking communist leader: a military man with dark glasses. He looked more like an East European Pinochet than a communist leader. Ceauşescu was more known because of his independent foreign policies and crazy domestic policies, but he too was far from charismatic—as we can easily ascertain by watching his much replayed last speech at the Victoria square in Bucharest.

An easy answer to this absence of charisma or individuality is to point out that all post-revolutionary communist leaders were men of the “apparat”: skillful in bureaucratic machinations and back-room maneuvering.  They did not need to appeal to the population, run in elections, gather votes. And bureaucratic organizations prefer greyish technocrats like Kosygin and Kadar, or just grey  people in general with no individuality (like the rest of the characters  mentioned  above).  Reading recently David Halberstam’s “The best and the brightest”, I thought: was not McNamara, the man of the system, the same greyish-grey?; even if he was in certain intellectual ways probably more impressive than some on this list of communist “apparatchiks”.

Nonetheless, this bureaucratic explanation is neither sufficient not fully convincing. I think that there was another ideological explanation. When a friend mentioned Tito’s presumed charisma, I felt like correcting him, by saying that for communists charisma was never an ideologically desired property. No true communist leader would explain his popularity or longevity by “charisma”. “Charisma” and individual popularity were bourgeois inventions, good for class-based societies. Communist leaders were tools, playthings of history; individuals who just embodied the historical Geist. Thus ideally, and I think that this is a correct ideological frame within which to place their “greyness”, they as persons did not matter. What mattered was being on the right side of History and doing what the Party commanded. Every individualism, and even more so every flamboyant individualism, was suspicious. (My cousin who was a perfect Party man, scrupulously honest and dedicated, would never answer any personal questions directly: asked what are his plans regarding  his work and life, he would invariably –and honestly—reply: “I have none. It will be as the comrades decide.”)

The submission of individuality meant of course no place for charisma. This seems at first strange because some of these leaders—Stalin in particular, but also Tito, Enver Hoxha and Mao—enjoyed and encouraged a cult of personality but without claiming any charisma. History spoke through them.

Communist ideology was, fundamentally, an ideology of ordinary, working-class men and women. It was an ideology of masses. It thus frowned upon all displays of individualism and even favored an esthetic of ordinariness, of utilitarianism, of non-standing out in the crowd. Greyness of the leaders was exactly how ideologically the leaders should be: not any different from you and me, dressed in grey or brown, wearing dark shoes with thick soles, speaking softly, boringly and for a long time in a mixture of Marxist and economistic jargon that would put most listeners to sleep.  

The point was to be “the average man”.

There was a distinct communist aesthetic of greyness and drabness, derived from the ideology of “averageness” and levelling, where what may be judged as colorless and dull was precisely what was sought. Every aesthetic is deeply subjective. There is no reason to believe that an aesthetic of grey, dusty colors is inferior to the aesthetic of a rainbow. What is often ridiculed or criticized as lack of elegance or aesthetics in leaders, clothing, apartment buildings, and perhaps art in general is the application of foreign (to communist ideology) aesthetic criteria. The conventional ugliness of communist constructions was not a defect. It was something that was desired. It was an alternative aesthetic where nothing  would ever stand out. The grey leaders were beautiful—on their own terms.

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