On the 29th March, 1951 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of espionage. Their conviction was the culmination of a concerted campaign in the United States to root out communist subversives. The paranoia and rage at that time was unrelenting and unforgiving, and the Rosenbergs were given the death penalty for divulging official secrets to the Soviets. It is difficult for us now to imagine the atmosphere of paranoia and fear and anger at that time in history.
However in 1971 the American novelist E.L Doctorow expertly captured these harrowing events and their repercussions in his ambitious historical/allegorical novel “The Book of Daniel”. The main protagonist is Daniel Issacson, the son of Paul and Rochelle Issacson. These fictional characters are loosely based on the Rosenbergs.
The narrative switches between Daniel’s memories of his parents’ political activism and the political fervour of the late sixties and early seventies. Feelings of persecution threaten to overwhelm him and he feels as though he is heading towards martyrdom.
He finds a clear affinity with the Biblical Daniel, cornered into the den of lions. It is patently clear that his parents’ fanaticism has damaged him psychologically. All of his childhood memories were marked by the invidious nature of their influence.
He concludes that his father’s politics were the product of his bitter envy and the sense of his own failure to thrive in a purely capitalist society, as he states that,
“Social justice was a way of living without envy…It was a way of transforming envy into constructive outgoing hate”.
Daniel and his sister Susan live in parallel worlds. The moral order of school contrasts violently with the amoral disorder of their parents’ milieu. Daniel manages to suppress his anxieties but Susan experiences an unsettling instability that is irrevocable.
In the later narrative, Susan is living in a long term psychiatric institution while Daniel is navigating life as a young husband and father. In these later scenes he ruefully reflects that,
“My father was skinny, nervous, selfish, unreliable, full of hot radical passion, insolent in his faith, loyal to Marxism-Leninism, rude eyed and tendentious. He scared me. (My mother) was as unstable as he was. In her grim expectations. In her refusal to have illusions. In her cold, dogmatic rage”.
The pitiless nature of his parents’ conviction and sentence is laid bare. When the children say their final farewells to them there is a distinct lack of sentimentality, there is instead an overpowering bathos.
The book is a salutary reminder that there is nothing romantic or glamorous about revolutionary politics. At this juncture it is worth reminding ourselves of the wise and prophetic words of the German writer and philosopher Oswald Spengler.
Spengler correctly predicted that the unique moral and spiritual character of Russia would be ruined after the revolution and advised the “West” to resist the allure of this toxic progressivism, claiming that it,
“..has an immense appeal for the fomenting intellectuals of our cities. It has become a hobby for tired and addled brains, a weapon for decaying megalopolitan souls, an expression for rotting blood”.
The only real and true expression of the Russian soul remains in the lustrous fiction of Dostoevsky.
Spengler regarded Dostoevsky as a saint rather than a “romancier”, as this crude appellation is purely ascribed to him by Western commentators who had no insight into the culture of pre-revolutionary Russia. Ironically, the USA is regarded as the apotheosis of Western civilisation but is now on a determined mission to undermine itself and its achievements.
It is a great paradox, to observe that the more a society seeks to modernise itself the further it sinks into primitivism. Progressive activists should be aware of this reality and appreciate the past rather than trying to destroy it.