Notes on The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz

Along with Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, this was one of the books that individuals I respect recommended during Trump’s presidency. I finally got around to reading it.

Milosz, a Polish poet and writer, wrote this in 1950, and he draws on his experience living in a Soviet controlled country. I came into this wanting to learn about authoritarianism and the way individuals psychologically accept or even embrace this. The book does address this by profiling four writers, describing the (mostly psychological) path they took to work for the Soviet-controlled government.

But their journey’s didn’t stand out to me. What stood out more is what I learned about Soviet-style Marxism, which I guess could be described as Stalinism? (Or Leninism?) While I don’t know enough about Marx, Communism, or Socialism to make precise distinctions between them, some differences did come to light, and this interested me the most.

I want to use this thread as a way to crystallize my thoughts and absorb the book.

One thought on “Notes on The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz

  1. My flawed(?) sense of the differences between Socialism, Communism, and Soviet-Communism.

    Socialism: Government has significant, but not total control of the economy.

    Communism: Government has total control over the economy. The society should be near the point where government control over the economy is unnecessary as the workers control means of production and property, and they equally share the fruits of both.

    Soviet-style Communism: Russia is the primary model for Communism. And they will lead other Communist countries in the revolution to bring about the world where there is only one government, controlled by the workers of the world, enabling everyone to have their needs met.

    From what I recall from the book, this leadership is totalitarian, and it’s totalitarian in order to buttress Marxist process of analyzing and understanding the world, as well as protecting the claims derived from this process. From what I understand, Communist believes that forces relating to history will eventually result in workers of the world uniting and defeating capitalists and the bourgeoisie, leading to the utopian vision I described above. This Marxist analysis, based on a dialectical method, is the basis for this, and Soviets and the satellite countries saw this method as rigorous and scientific, to the point of being infallible. At least that’s the sense I got.

    These are unrealistic standards, and in order to prop up the illusion that these standards could be met and faith in the Communist vision could be maintained, these societies required a totalitarian government. Or at least that’s my impression.

    “History” has a very specific meaning in the context of Marx

    Francis Fukuyama had a famous essay entitled, “The End of History.” I never read the essay (or the subsequent book based on it), but I interpreted the title to mean that capitalism defeated communism, ending the debate over which system was better.

    But after reading The Captive Mind, I think there may be a different, or at least, an additional meaning. In the book, Milosz speaks of History as a force akin to Fate or Providence, perhaps. And History is moving to a specific end point (i.e., the Communist utopia).

    With this meaning, Fukuyama’s title could mean the end of this specific notion of History. That is, History has failed or doesn’t exist in the Marxist sense.

    On a side note, if my understanding is correct, here’s what I’m unclear on: If History is this powerful, why do you need totalitarian Communist governments to push for communism? Milosz’s book may have addressed this, but I can’t remember this.

    By the way, my sense is that while Americans (or American leaders) may view themselves as a “City on the Hill” (albeit sheepishly right now), I don’t think they think of liberal-democracy as an inevitable conclusion for every country. That would be one difference with the Soviets, depicted by Milosz.

    (More later on the grandiose narrative and national identity Russians set up for themselves and the need to find an adequate replacement.)

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