From film noir to la politique noir, and I don’t mean ‘black politics’, as in Black Power. My reading and viewing have converged at what Philip Pomper, in his biography of Sergei Nechaev, calls, “[the] striking lesson in the disastrous possibilities of revolutionary politics.” Extreme disturbed personalities, fantastic rhetoric, and violence. Patty Hearst, Dostoyevsky’s Demons, Ed Begley as a lunatic Texan Cold Warrior, and Nechaev, fact and fiction. Let’s start with Ms. Hearst.
Patty Hearst, a film from 1988, directed by Paul Schrader, with Natasha Richardson in the lead, is hard to find, but you can get it on DVD. It doesn’t seem to be an official release, whatever that means, but it is a very fine dramatization of this crazy episode in revolutionary fringe politics. Schrader is sympathetic to, but not sentimental about Hearst: a young, sheltered girl who thought she knew a thing or two about the world is kidnapped and kept in a closet for weeks, blindfolded and gagged, treated like a dog, and raped (made a sperm receptacle) by her captors, male, and it seems female as well. We would all like to think that we would come through this okay, and escape at the first opportunity, rather than imploding and joining the gang, so, as she tells us at the end, her survival, ‘rescue’, and trial were mightily inconvenient for the mass audience following every sordid minute of the tale.
I’ve written about the Symbionese Liberation Front and their rhetoric before, and the film does a great job of dramatizing it. Ving Rhames (Marsellus in Pulp Fiction) uses that deep voice of his to convey the incantatory and delusional charisma of Field Marshal Cinque. The thing is, that as I’m watching it, I’m thinking of Dostoyevsky’s novel, Demons. After Patty has joined The Cause, and is helping plan a bank job, she asks, “Will the rest of The Army help us with it?” Everyone chuckles, and Cinque replies, “It’s just us, there is no army.” Did Pyotr Verkhovensky really have a network of cells communicating with him? Some characters wondered. The similarities multiply.
The members of Hearst’s cell are all white, except for their leader, Cinque, and they all have a major case of white radical guilt. When Hearst complains that she is hungry, they tell her “This is how black people in our country live every day! You don’t know!” Every word Cinque utters is considered brilliant. At one point, a cell member responds to a rather inept and non-sequitur comment with, “Brilliant, that’s brilliant! Goddamn it , goddamn I wish I was black!” Later, he is shown in blackface makeup, the usual disguise they use, attempting to strike a streetwise pose. This corrosive guilt and lack of self-esteem it brings to political thinking was not new in the 60’s: Nechaev was very successful in exploiting it in his recruitment of middle-class and upper-class Russians of his own time.
It is well-known the Demons draws heavily on the trial record of Sergei Nechaev, who had a brief period of power within the chaotic Russian revolutionary movement. He was a manipulator, a liar, a thief, and totally – that’s actually an understatement – unprincipled. When he started his own journal, it was called The People’s Revenge. He bilked Herzen and his daughter out of thousands, tried to seduce her after the old socialist’s death, played Bakunin like a fiddle, and committed so many frauds – he was always claiming to have legions of followers at his beck and call – that Bakunin’s association with him gave Marx the leverage to get Bakunin kicked out of the International, that pesky, infantile, anarchist! (In fact, I have discovered, there is a scholarly literature on the Russophobia of Karl Marx. He thought they, the Russian revolutionaries, were a bit nuts – how’s that for communist irony!)
What I found surprising regarding Demons, is how closely some parts of the novel are modeled on Nechaev’s life. The central murder of the book, in fact, conforms almost exactly to the facts of the case – the botched disposal of the corpse in a pond; luring the victim with a story of a buried press; and the almost comic disorganization of the killers. We must recall, after all, that Dostoyevsky originally was planning a comic burlesque of nihilist politics when he began his story. The Wise Serpent of Demons, combines many of Nechaev’s personality traits with a cunning and slyness that the real-life figure lacked. Nechaev moved with clumsy and ill-concealed cynicism towards his goals, eventually disgusting most of those he worked with in the revolutionary underground. Still, he was committed to the cause, fanatically, so they cut him a lot of slack.
Pomper dissects his life with a lens tinted with psychoanalytic hues, but not intrusively so: the Oedipal, infantile anti-authoritarian, and perverse sexual mental contortions of his thinking are quite plain in his writings. One of his favorite propaganda tropes was to depict the orgiastic and revolting sexual activities of the Tsar, the nobles, or of whomever he was attacking. Obviously, this sort of rhetoric has a long history – often turned against Jews – and it had a grand future, being part of the revolutionary stock in trade right up to 1917. His language makes use of religious themes as well, particularly martyrdom, for which he planned, and is in this way curiously linked to the imagery of What Is to Be Done?
I originally bought Pomper’s biography hoping to find more writings of Nechaev’s, but apart from some letters, and excerpts from articles he wrote, and, of course, the full text of his Catechism, there was not much. I was particularly disappointed by the absence of a translation of his Foundations for a Future Social Order, the document in which he lays out his plans for society after the revolutionary transformation. From the bits I have read of and about it, it is a grim vision of a militantly regimented society that seems drawn from the history of ancient Sparta and Fourier’s utopian plans. What particularly upset some (according to Nechaev) were his notions of communal dining. This led to Marx’s famous contemptuous dismissal of his ideas as “barracks communism.” In his world, Pechorin would be less than superfluous: he would be a pest to be exterminated.
Was Nechaev on his mind when Italo Calvino wrote Beheading the Heads? In this short story, a tourist happens upon a land where the leaders are ritually executed periodically (as were some kings in ancient times, if The Golden Bough is to be believed). The action then jumps back in time to show us the nihilist cells planning for The Revolution, after which there will be no leaders other than those who agree to die, and so prevent tyranny. One man questions whether they should not ritually execute the leaders of their cells since that is what they plan for society. Are they not hypocrites if they do not? Naturally, there is some hesitation on this point amongst the revolutionary heads. They hit upon a compromise: they will ritually mutilate the leaders at suitable intervals, leaving the post-revolutionary society to fully implement their plan. It concludes with descriptions of revolutionary activity led by men with no fingers, missing ears, sometimes a wooden leg, each vanished appendage a testament to their zeal for the New World Order.
Finally, we have Ken Russell’s film, Billion Dollar Brain (1967), with the always enjoyable Michael Caine. It’s basically, a mediocre spy film that followed Caine’s work as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File. The film is enlivened by Karl Malden playing an utter sleaze of an ex-agent gone ‘entrepreneur’ working for ‘General’ Midwinter (Ed Begley), a fanatical anti-communist zillionaire from Texas. Midwinter is angry at the world, at the government (the password between his men is always, “now is the Winter of our discontent“) and most of all at the commies. He has a secret plan to use germ warfare against the Russians while his private army of rebels in Latvia begin the dissolution of the Evil Empire. He mixes Christian fundamentalism with anti-Russian hellfire to work up enthusiasm among his ’employees’, while his plans are being completely undermined by Malden’s diversion of the mercenaries payroll into his own pocket. The Russians are onto him too, and they efficiently dispose of his army in an air attack on the frozen Baltic that brings to mind Alexander Nevksy’s victory at Novogorod. Perhaps it takes a Brit to penetrate to the center of the American Texas phenomenon. In this case, Russell’s exaggeration was no exaggeration.