Sunday, December 02, 2007

Lenin and the mystagogues: Lesley Chamberlain's The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia

Finished Lesley Chamberlain's book The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia reviewed here by Frances Stonor Saunders and by Bryan Appleyard over at Orthodoxy Today. Appleyard writes,
In September 1922, in St Petersburg, Lenin's political police loaded 25 families onto the German ship Haken. Six weeks later, about the same number were loaded onto another German ship, the Preussen. The ships steamed out into the Gulf of Finland and the families waved goodbye to Mother Russia.
and finds the real heart of the this story,
On board those ships was a peculiarly Russian mix of philosophers, critics, historians, mystics and theologians. They were divided by many things, but they were united by three big things. First, they had all been identified as threats to Leninism; second, they were famous, and executing them would have alienated foreign supporters; third, they had all seen the malignancy that lay behind the hyper-rationalism of the Bolshevik revolution. They had seen, in other words, the fatal weakness in the Enlightenment Project and were seeking an alternative. Chamberlain calls them "the shipped-out mystagogues".

The book's true subject, therefore, is the confrontation between reason and faith. But the banality of that formulation simply does not do justice to the depth and passion that Chamberlain brings to her story, nor, indeed, to the complexities of what we mean by faith. The reason this is such a good book is that the author feels the conflict within herself. She sees herself as a rational secularist and humanist, but, equally, she sees how catastrophically those causes have failed in the past. As a result, she understands the evil of Lenin but also grasps his deep and entirely logical attraction for western intellectuals; on the other side, she sees the vagueness, eccentricity and, frequently, just plain madness of her mystagogues, but also their honesty, heroism and high decency. In almost every sentence, one feels the pressure to codify this conflict into a coherent statement, and the impossibility of the task.
Much of the task and scholarship according to Chamberlain is happening on the web. Here's a nice site on Nikolai Berdyaev and his essays translated into English.

It is a tough book to read in the sense I felt this need to jumb to the net every few pages and google the names from the list of passengers to follow up later with their writings.

Saunder's review quotes Lenin in his scatological mode Marxists prone too,
These metaphysical antiquities [the philosopher exiles -Baar] had no place in Lenin's world, which was anti-metaphysical, rationalist, atheist. As Chamberlain writes, under Lenin reason "took a perverse, political form . . . which became the foundation of the totalitarian system. It led to a militant and incriminating ban on all expressions of faith and an attempt to destroy individual conscience and human inwardness." Lenin spoke of religion as getting off on the dead; he referred to those he was evicting as "the shit". Trotsky, eager assistant in the deportations, described one of the victims as "a philosophical, aesthetic, literary, religious sponger, that is, he's the dregs, trash."

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