The Meaning
Of History
These are excerpts (slightly condensed) from Itinerary by Octavio Paz [Harcourt, 1994. Translated by Jason Wilson].
The book is a memoir of Paz' journey through the political and artistic landscapes of his youth.
This, below, on the early 1930s in Mexico.

The ascent of Lázaro Cárdenas to power was translated into a vigorous turn to the left. The communists crossed over from the opposition to collaborate with the new government. The politics of the popular fronts, initiated during those years, justified the mutation. The more wary among us finally accepted the new line: social democrats and socialists stopped being "social traitors" and were suddenly turned into allies in the fight against the common enemy: nazis and fascists. Cárdenas' government was notable for its generous egalitarian verve, for its social reforms (not always apt), for its disastrous corporativism in political matters, and for its daring and nearly always faultless international policies.

In cultural matters, its acts were more negative. So-called "socialist education" damaged the educational system: moreover, adopted by the government, a crude, bureaucratic, demagogic art flourished. There were countless "proletarian poems" and stories and novels were paved with "progressive" commonplaces. Associations of revolutionary artists and writers, scarcely tolerated before, swelled with the arrival of new members from who knows where and who soon took over the centers of official culture.

The legion of opportunists, guided and excited by intolerant doctrinaire leaders, unleashed a campaign against a group of independent writers, the so-called Contemporáneos. These writers belonged to a generation before mine; some had been my teachers, some were my friends and amongst them were several poets that I admired and admire. If I deplored the attitude of the League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, I was more disgusted by the rhetoric of its poets and writers. From the beginning I refused to accept the jurisdiction of the Communist Party and its party leaders in questions of art and literature. I thought that true literature, whatever its themes, was naturally subversive. My opinions were scandalous but, because I was insignificant, they were treated with scorn and indifference; they came from a young nobody.

§     §     §

On 1939-1940, beginning with the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August, 1939.
Among my friends and companions the news was at first received with disbelief; then, almost immediately, the interpretations and justifications started. At El Popular, once the early confusions were over, this somersault began to be justified. I talked with the editor and told him about my decision to leave the newspaper. He looked at me in surprise and said: "It's a mistake and you'll regret it. I approve of the pact and see no reason to defend the corrupt bourgeois democracies. Don't forget that they betrayed us in Munich." I accepted that what happened at Munich had been worse than an abdication, but I reminded him that all the communist policies, over the recent years, had spun round the idea of a common front against fascism. And now the initiator of this policy, the Soviet government, had broken it, started war, and covered all its friends and partisans with shame. I ended by telling him: "I'm off for home because I do not understand what is happening. But I will not make any public declarations or write a word against my companions." I kept my promise. More than a break, it had been a distancing: I left the newspaper and left my communist friends. The clash between what I thought and what I felt had got wider and deeper.

A few months passed. With time my bewilderment increased. After occupying Poland, the Red Army had launched itself against Finland and was about to reconquer the Baltic countries and Bessarabia. We were witness to the reconstruction of the old czarist empire. In a number of "Clave," the Mexican Trotskyist magazine which I used carefully to read, an article by Leon Trotsky appeared which irritated and perplexed me. I was bothered by his unquestioning arrogance, more a despot's than a politician's, and I was staggered by the intellectual ranting it revealed. Ranting or conceit? Perhaps both things: the conceited man blinds himself.

The article was a defense of Moscow's expansionist policies and could be reduced to two points. The first referred to the class nature of the Soviet Union, the sole working-class state in the world. In spite of the bureaucratic degeneration it suffered, the USSR conserved intact its social base and its means of production. For that reason, the first duty of revolutionaries was to defend it. Thus, the defense of the Soviet Union was based on its social nature: it was a historically superior society to Finnish democracy or to any other capitalist democracy. The second point was deduced from the first. In a strict sense the annexation of those countries by the USSR was not an imperialist act: "In Marxist literature," wrote Trotsky, "imperialism is understood as financial capital's expansionist policy."

Trotsky's argument, although subtle, was not very different from that of the editors of "Futuro" or "El Popular." In both cases the answer was not the result of the concrete study of the facts based on an individual's awareness; all was referred to a superior, objective agent, independent of our will: history and the laws of social development. In place of divine providence or any other meta-historical principle, Trotsky placed society, moved by an immanent, chimerical logic. Dialectic was the other name for that god of history, society's driving force in perpetual motion, never static, veritable holy ghost. To know its laws was to know history's direction and its plans.

For Hume, the origin of religion, its root, consisted in attributing a plan to nature and its phenomena. That claim is also the root of the Leninist pseudo-religion in all its guises, including Trotsky's complicated version and Stalin's pedestrian one. In antiquity the seers interpreted the will of the gods through bird song and other signs; in the twentieth century revolutionary chiefs became interpreters of history's arcane logic. In the name of that logic and absolved by it, they committed many iniquities with the same calm conscience as that of a religious fanatic who, with his chest covered with scapulars, kills heretics and sentences pagans to death.

§     §     §

A summing up.
Humans, inventors of ideas and artifacts, creators of poems and laws, are tragic, transient creatures: ceaseless creators of ruins. Are, then, ruins the meaning of history? If that is so, what is the meaning of ruins? Who could answer this crazy question? the god of history and the logic that rules its movements is the reason behind crimes and heroisms? That many-named god has not been seen by anybody. He is all of us: is crafted by us. History is what we make. All of us: the living and the dead. But are we responsible for what the dead did? In a certain way, yes we are: they made us and we prolong their works, the good and the bad.

History drips with blood since Cain: are we evil itself? Or is evil outside with us as its instrument, its tool? One of the Marquis de Sade's delirious characters believed that the entire universe, from stars to people, was made up of "malevolent molecules." Absurd: neither stars nor atoms, nor plants nor animals know evil. The universe is innocent, even when it sinks a continent or explodes a galaxy. Evil is human, exclusively human. But not all is evil in humans. Evil nests in their awareness, in their freedom. In that also lies the remedy, the answer to evil. This is the sole lesson I can deduce from this long, sinuous itinerary: to fight evil is to fight ourselves. And that is the meaning of history.

--- Suggested by Jon Gallant
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