Sunday, January 29, 2012

Five top books on dissent in Central Europe

Timothy Snyder is professor of history at Yale University. His books include Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

One book tagged in his dialogue with Alec Ash at The Browser about books on the experience of dissent in Central and Eastern Europe:
Homage to Catalonia
by George Orwell

Your first book is Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, which you describe as a prehistory of dissent.

Generally when people talk about Orwell in this context, they start with Animal Farm because it’s a retelling of Soviet history, or with 1984 because it’s an account of what a totalitarian society would look like, at a time when communism was spreading to Eastern Europe. The reason why I am so fond of Homage to Catalonia, and see it as an even more relevant precursor to dissent, is that in it you can see a man of the Left learning to make the distinction that breaks down the Left with a big L into lots of little lefts. He comes to understand what Soviet power actually is, and that it is qualitatively different to the other sorts of Spanish left, or to European left-wing intellectuals or Labour in England.

The difference is not just a matter of being on a different point of the spectrum. It is to do with the immediate violence of Soviet means which were visible to Orwell at that time and place. That’s the second thing which I find important about the book as a precursor to dissident literature. To the end of dissident literature, in the seventies and eighties, people defended themselves by making observations and elementary distinctions, preserving certain concepts, not allowing things to be vague. They defined themselves as individuals by their capacity to be specific about what was going on around them. And Orwell is wonderful at that. It is his creative gift.

He describes what is happening in Catalonia [during the Spanish Civil War] in such a way that we are able to see why he’s so upset about Soviet power. His argument is not one of category and concept but of irresistible observation, that builds itself up into facticity with a literary quality that is strong enough to contend with, if not defeat, ideological certainty. The dilemma that the dissidents had to face later on was that they had to build up a view of the world which was non-ideological, yet could somehow contend with and subvert ideological views of the world. Orwell did that on the basis of good observation and good prose.

Was it that fixed ideological dogma that repelled Orwell’s moral compass most?

My sense was that the ruthlessness of Soviet communist actions in Spain led him to an intuition about the wrongness of the total certainty of a worldview that could justify any action at any place and any time in service of the larger story. I think Orwell grasped that there was an almost arrogant coherence to Soviet activity when he saw the ruthlessness of Soviet behaviour, against a background where other people on the left were much less sure and confident, and were fighting for things that were much more immediate and palpable.
Read about another book Snyder discussed at The Browser.

Homage to Catalonia also appears among Carne Ross's five notable books on leaderless revolution, Samuel Muston's ten best travel books, Harold Evans's five best books on reporting, and Michael Symmons Roberts's ten best books on civil war.

--Marshal Zeringue