The foul link of complicity


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IN the Gifford Lectures of 1990, George Steiner recalls a time when the spread of liberalism, science and technology, spread of education and free travel had generated the hope for greater civility and political tolerance in Europe. It was also hoped that the days of torture and burning of books, dissenters and heretics was a thing of the past. All these hopes proved to be false. Not merely because history has with monotonous regularity proved otherwise, but because ‘education has shown itself incapable of making sensibility and cognition resistant to murderous unreason.’1 The attraction that authoritarian men and women have for the masses is not a symptom unique to Europe. Nor is the attraction that evil and wicked demagogues generate in vast masses of people. There is a long and hoary tradition in India of genuine doubt and healthy skepticism crushed by an awesome and dazzling bully, often in the name of clichés, vapid abstractions and irresistible platitudes.

It is, then, naïve to think of intellectuals and artists as fellow travellers. Some of them will invariably rationalize their actions, justify their complicity and mock dissenters as unwelcome misfits. Steiner formulates this powerfully:

Far more disturbingly, the evidence is that refined intellectuality, artistic virtuosity and appreciation, scientific eminence will collaborate actively with totalitarian demands or, at best, remain indifferent to surrounding sadism. Resplendent concerts, exhibitions in great museums, the publication of learned books, the pursuit of academic research both scientific and humanistic, flourish within close reach of the death-camps. Technocratic ingenuity will serve or remain neutral at the call of the inhuman. The icon of our age is the preservation of a grove dear to Goethe within a concentration camp.2


This is self-evident even today: we are constantly being exhorted to forget the riots of 1984 or 2002 and move forward. Those doing so are not merely technocrats and entrepreneurs but generous dispensers of literary and academic awards. It is another matter that no one questions the content and destination of this act of ‘moving forward’; it is generally understood that ‘moving forward’ means more money, more greed and the bloodless ballet of sensex and GDP figures. It must, therefore, be possible to tear ourselves away from our overwhelming context and look at the sordid compromises that writers, musicians, poets and painters make in order to endear themselves to tyrants, despots and murderers masquerading as harbingers of hope and optimism. It is equally important to refine the parameters of our moral judgments of such men and women.


Czeslaw Milosz’s essay3 called ‘Alpha the Moralist’ is one such significant statement of the capitulation and obsequiousness of the intellectual to authority in general and brutal power in particular. Alpha begins life as a minor writer publishing in a journal that was racist and partial to authoritarian tendencies. Later, he finds anchor in Catholicism. During the German occupation of Poland, he becomes a powerful voice of the writers and artists underground opposing the Nazis. After the liberation of Poland, he becomes an icon for the Communists, subsequently renouncing his old life in an act of self-criticism and finding refuge in the dialectical method. In his journey from a reactionary to a communist, there are a few elements that remain constant in Alpha.

The first was the celebration of the figure of a strong and pure hero. But the second element is what defined him: a life tormented by the enigma of purity. He sought moral purity in life and morality of tone in his writing. It was an otherworldly and abstract notion of purity that helped him shift his moral compass at will and with effortless ease. Milosz calls his pursuit of purity as the ‘sublimation of his other ego, the repository of all his hopes.’4 This pursuit of purity was closely linked to his personal arrogance and his haughty imperiousness with people. Catholicism lent him a language that supplied him an elevated tone. Milosz observes that he was so preoccupied with building up situations of moral conflict in his works that he became blind to the concrete details that involved living people. As a communist, Alpha reasoned that the writer as a moral purist of the day had to turn his attention to social goals and social results.

In the end, what remained of Alpha was just a ‘sainted, supercilious tone’5 without the realization that genuine purity has to be earthy and deeply rooted in experience and observation of life. Milosz concludes that in sharp contrast to the sainted, supercilious tone, ‘it is sometimes better to stammer from an excess of emotion than to speak in well-turned phrases.’6


At this juncture, we need to turn to Chaim Rumkowski, an energetic, uncultivated and authoritarian man, who was also associated with a number of Jewish charities. We find him in the pages of Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved.7 He lived in the Polish city of Lodz, a city that would become a Jewish ghetto at the hands of the Nazis. When Lodz turned a Jewish ghetto, Rumkowski was made the president of the ghetto. He passionately loved authority and was given this position because he was ‘a fool with an air of respectability – in short, the ideal dupe.’ Despite knowing his ultimate fate, he loved his position and made the best use of the power vested in him. Like all small tyrants, suggests Levi, he was impotent with those above him and omnipotent with those below him. Not only was he a renegade and an accomplice but he also convinced himself that he was a saviour of his people. Levi feels that political coercion gives birth to an ill-defined sphere of ambiguity and compromise. Ideologies and regimes that thrive on unbridled power, intimations of grandeur and the rhetoric of decisiveness produce men like Rumkowski who are ready to grab their small portion of power. But a system or an ideology based on an inflated idea of power degrades its victims and transforms them into resembling itself. In order to run a brutal and coercive system, such ideologies and regimes require great and small complicities.


But a lot happens before these great and small complicities are won. The tyrant and the demagogue tries to make us understand the world. Primo Levi calls this effort to make us ‘understand’ the world as a way of reducing what we can and ought to know into a schema. Put differently, the world has to be simplified, centuries of history reduced to ‘we’ and ‘them’, human complexities trivialized into relations of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’. The desire for simplification is understandable : shunning complexities leads to conflict, which, in turn, leads to a duel, something that ends in a spectator sport consisting of the victors and the vanquished. Admitting complexities is like announcing that the duel or the game has ended in a draw: it leaves the spectators disappointed, cheated and defrauded. Therefore, a very simple model prevails, one where ‘we’ are inside and the enemy is sharply defined existing outside. Levi’s assertion also vividly invokes the sense of Cavafy’s immortal poem, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, which ends with the following lines:

Because night came and the barbarians never appeared.

Later some of our men arrived from the borders

And gave us the news: there were no more barbarians.


What are we going to do now, without barbarians?

Those people, they were a kind of solution.

Just as Cavafy’s poem points to the fact that the barbarians are perhaps within and not outside, Levi also argues that ‘the enemy was all around but also inside, the "we" lost its limits, the contenders were not two, one could not discern a single frontier but rather many confused, perhaps innumerable frontiers, which stretched between each of us.’8

The state of the writer and artist in thrall of the decisive leader or the brutal tyrant is that of the privileged prisoner or the functionary prisoner in the concentration camp that Primo Levi so vividly describes. He is the universal Rumkowski, ‘who instead of taking you by the hand, reassuring you, teaching you the way, throws himself at you, screaming in a language you do not understand, and strikes you in the face. He wants to tame you, extinguish any spark of dignity that he has lost and you perhaps still preserve.’9 At the foot of the throne of every absolutist and every street bully, there are enough people crouching to comply, collaborate and betray. The only way the decisive leader and the bully can ensure their complicity is to burden them with enough guilt and cover their hands in blood. They have betrayed once and they will betray again; the only way to ensure their unflinching complicity is to dehumanize and compromise them.


Levi states this simply. The greater the potential for oppression and authoritarianism, the greater the willingness among the oppressed to collaborate – even if one considers all the infinite nuances and motivations and complexities of human nature into account. This capitulation takes many guises: terror, ideological seduction, servile imitation of the victor, myopic desire for any power, cowardice and, finally, lucid calculations to dodge the order or regime itself. Looking up to a powerful and decisive leader and the promise of a brutal regime, the complicit among the oppressed, often get fatally intoxicated by the little power at their disposal. The regime too chooses people with scarce ability and merit. Their sole claim to elevation in status or rank is their ability to pay homage to hierarchical authority.

Is there a way to judge such men and women? Levi calls this the ‘gray zone’, where human ambiguity provoked by oppression sometimes leads us to confuse the murderers with their victims. The testimony of those who once collaborated ‘is at once a lament, a curse, an expiation, an attempt to justify and rehabilitate oneself: a liberating outburst rather than a Medusa-faced truth.’10


There are many who will argue that Milosz and Levi wrote about exceptional circumstances. They will argue that these essays were written in the shadow of communism, Stalinism and Nazism. They will forget that oppression and brutality can also be democratically sanctioned in the name of the ‘people’. They will overlook the ways in which technocratic-managerialism mocks democracy and crushes individuals. They will instead celebrate ‘order’, efficiency’, ‘strength’, ‘development’, ‘tradition’, ‘nation’ and the abstract idea of the ‘people’. Dissent and protest will be seen by them as mere disruptions, roadblocks in the way of ‘moving on’. They will forget Primo Levi’s wise counsel to us all:

Like Rumkowski, we too are dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential fragility. Willingly or not we come to terms with power, forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death, and that close by the train is waiting.



1. George Steiner, Grammars of Creation. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2001, p. 5.

2. Ibid., p. 5.

3. Czeslaw Milosz, ‘Alpha the Moralist’, in To Begin Where I Am: Selected Essays, Farrar, Straus And Giroux, New York, 2002 edition.

4. Ibid., p. 117.

5. Ibid., p. 139.

6. Ibid., p. 140.

7. Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved. Vintage International, New York, 1989.

8. Ibid., p. 38.

9. Ibid., p. 41.

10. Ibid., p.53.