Monday, March 30, 2009

Idealism and Realism: Clarified by Vasily Grossman

I recently upset a friend by writing that idealists have been responsible for many of history’s greatest disasters. “Thank God for idealists,” she replied. My words brought to her mind a choice between hidebound conservatives and optimistic, compassionate progressives; defenders of the status quo and reformers guided by a shining ideal. Maybe Natan Sharansky captured the difference when he noted that it would be unfair to criticize the inventor of the wheel for not having invented the pneumatic tire.

The idealist judges the existing order from the ideal rather than by its past progress or its ability to improve or the flexibility of its institutions. Idealists have often created havoc and suffering in proportion to the urgency and passion with which they insist the world measure up.

I do not contend that there is no safe dose of idealism, but history warns us that the world has been denied a lot of measurable and possible progress because politicians and political movements have chosen to pursue unachievable and often unworkable ideals. Few people have written so well about the dangers of idealism as Vasily Grossman. Here are passages from his huge novel about WWII,Life and Fate.

Whenever we see the dawn of an eternal good that will never be overcome by evil. . . . whenever we see this dawn, the blood of old people and children is always being shed.

I have seen people being annihilated in the name of an idea as good and fine and humane as the ideal of Christianity. I saw whole villages dying of hunger; I saw peasant children dying in the snows of Siberia; I saw trains bound for Siberia with hundreds and thousands of men and women from Moscow, Leningrad and every city in Russia -- men and women who had been declared enemies of a great and bright idea of social good. The idea was something fine and noble -- yet it killed without mercy, crippled the lives of others, and separated wives from husbands, and children from fathers.
. . .
and yet ordinary people bear love in their hearts, are naturally full of love and pity for any living thing. At the end of the day's work they prefer the warmth of the hearth to a bonfire in the public square.

From Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler. Vasily Grossman was born in Ukraine in 1905 and served as a war correspondent in the fiercest fighting between Soviet and German troops. The KGB confiscated what they thought were all copies of his novel.

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