Interview with Professor Mark Lilla

Matthew Zipf, CPR: In The Shipwrecked Mind, you discuss how reactionaries appear now on the far left as well as on the far right. So in the United States, how should we think about, and classify, Trump and Sanders?

Mark Lilla, Professor of Humanities, Columbia University: The movements Trump and Sanders lead are inspired by a reaction to the present that is not a reaction in the ordinary sense. By reaction, I do not mean to simply be frustrated with things in the present. You can be frustrated with things, think they need to be changed, and even have some ideas about precedents historically, but not be a reactionary. There’s a meliorist reformism that, while expressing frustration, takes the present as it is, and understands the limits of what we are and what we can do.

The reactionary is more radical. He thinks that somehow there has been a break in history, that a chasm has opened up in time, and that it has become impossible to live in the present. He believes that either one has to go back to some glorified past—or rather, one’s glorified idea of the past—or one has to leap ahead and create a world where something from the past would be reborn. Both Trump and Sanders can appeal to this apocalyptic way of thinking. I wouldn’t say that all the people who voted for them were like that. But certainly the refrain, “Make America Great Again,” lets the imagination run away with ideas of, well, what America? What is Trump referring to? Some people have clear ideas about that; others don’t. So they’re figures who can attract reactionaries.

If you look at strong reactionary movements, like political Islamism today or 20th-century Fascism, the leaders had very clear ideas of what they wanted to do: They wanted to go back to Sharia law or create an ethnically-cleansed state run by paramilitary means. Trump is different. He is vague about his ideas, which means that people can project their fantasies onto him of what it would mean to recapture something from the past

But on the other hand, when it comes to revolutionaries, the less they say, the more successful they are. If you look at the utopian socialists of the 19th century, like Saint Simon, Fourier, or August Comte, they had very elaborate pictures of what the future would look like. The more they said, the more absurd they looked and the less convincing they were. Whereas, the most Marx and Engels said is, you’ll fish in the morning and criticize in the afternoon. So the less said, the better. Trump is using that strategy, which makes him interesting.

On the Sanders side, the political nostalgia that I see in Sanders himself—I don’t know how much in his movement—is for a time when the left meant a certain thing. That nostalgia for the left itself seems to him as important as doing anything in society. He is still stuck in his ‘70s view of what America’s problems are, what our psychological condition is, what the world economy is like, and so on. It is evident that he is unwilling to begin with the hand that we’ve been dealt politically and economically. He’s steeped in ‘70s nostalgia. As someone who grew up in the ‘70s, I went to college with guys like this. Some of his followers from that generation share his nostalgia, but young people who have no idea of that time and are just dissatisfied with the present. What young people do seem attached to are the idea of the left on the one hand, and noble defeats on the other. On the left, a noble defeat always counts more than a victory.

MZ: One of the driving factors in both The Shipwrecked Mind and The Reckless Mind is Miłosz’s observation that our “fate could be influenced by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy.” When it comes to a candidate like Trump, who’s so unintellectual, is there still a connection to these “abstruse books”? What’s their impact?

ML: No, I think he’s something preliterate. He appeals to people who are not comfortable with arguments and discourse. I don’t think there are ideas there. But, were he to be elected, he would have to rely on thinking people to actually get things done. Demagogues eventually find a consigliere, an ideological Savonarola to actually run things. The question then is who those people would be and what sort of ideas they would have. Hitler and Mussolini, unlike Trump, were both literate and had ideas, but they still required a whole intellectual class to develop a political program. It’s fascinating to see which people on the right of the intellectual class have genuflected and are becoming shills for him. The question, again, is what kind of ideas they’ll bring. An interesting case is Newt Gingrich, who’s always seen himself as an idea-man, and not only as an on-the-ground politician. He’s hovering around Trump. I think he’d love to be his Savonarola.

MZ: When is reaction constructive for society?

ML: Never, because this apocalyptic idea about history is simply incorrect. History doesn’t have a moment when everything breaks, when everything falls apart, when we cease to be what we were. It’s not the way history works. It’s not the way human nature works. It’s simply not grown-up to make that assumption about the world. Now, to reject the present is respectable, sometimes necessary, and often noble. If you’re simply disturbed by everything in the present, then you’re required to grapple with it, and to think about how you would change it, which means being informed and living within the situation we’re in. But the reactionary abdicates responsibility for analyzing the present. He wants to live either in the past or in some sort of future where the past is reborn.

MZ: There’s a great epigraph in The Shipwrecked Mind, Randall Jarrell's saying that “People who live in a golden age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.” So how do we know when civilization is good? How do we measure it?

ML: In retrospect. It’s the only way we can gain enough distance. What I liked about the Randall Jarrell quote, the ironic observation, is that it points to something in the psychology of reaction. Once you’ve decided that the present is unbearable, and you think that there was a golden age in the past, the more you develop that idea of the past, and the more disturbed you are by the present. You enter into a vicious circle where the more you idealize the past, the more hopeless the present looks, which makes you appeal more to the past, and so on. That’s why reaction is such an intellectual trap.

MZ: Toward the end of The Shipwrecked Mind, you craft a distinction between Don Quixote, the reactionary, and Madame Bovary. This distinction helps explain many of their actions, but where do their different outlooks arise from? What inspires a nostalgic imagining rather than a general one?

ML: It all has to do with history. Emma Bovary has been reading way too many novels, and so she imagines herself in all of these possible alternative lives. But those alternative lives are present at all times. It has nothing to do with history. So the gap that she perceives is between the real world and an idealized world that could exist at any time, whereas for Quixote it’s historical. Fiction doesn’t inspire him to think about creating a better world. But rather, he believes it actually existed in the past, and then we were kidnapped.

MZ: It’s a question of what one reads?

ML: It’s a question of whether the ideal is historical or not. There is always a gap between the ideal and the real, and the question is how you cope with that. If you see that gap as built into life, then you are prepared to deal with it. You can still think about an ideal. The question simply becomes how you can approach your ideal, even as you know it cannot fully exist in the real. But to think that the ideal was realized once, and then disappeared, changes your frame of mind.

If you believe the ideal was once real, you believe it can be real again. Whereas, to live with the sense of the gap between the real and the ideal requires a kind of irony, but a productive irony. It doesn’t stifle action. You need to be able to hold onto both the real and the ideal, because it is both a political mistake and, I believe, a psychological and moral mistake to give up either.

MZ: In The Reckless Mind, you cite how Plato recognizes a connection between the love of truth and the love of tyranny. Does either of those play a role in reaction? 

ML: Sure. Certain intellectuals are attracted to tyranny because the intellectual believes he has a key to all things, and can’t be bothered with having to build consensus. He doesn’t believe he needs to go out, say, and actually meet people in Appalachia and see what their concerns are. He doesn’t understand that he needs to compromise, to give constituents some things to get their votes for other necessary things, like social services.

The messiness of politics is something that intellectuals can have a horror of. Tyrants convince them that they can skip over politics and transform the world overnight. By tyranny, one can mean many things, but certainly it entails a kind of politics that does not require consultation of the governed.

MZ: In the same book, you address the role of intellectuals in politics. As a historian, public intellectual, and scholar, what do you see as your responsibility to society?

ML: My responsibilities to society are that of a citizen. Intellectuals have no special responsibilities. Their intellectual responsibilities are to the truth. I have no idea what the term intellectual political responsibility means. However, if you have both a commitment to the truth and a commitment as a citizen, there are going to be times when those things conflict. You may have to do something or perhaps say something that is not true in order to achieve a good political goal. The question there, as with the ideal and the real, is whether you can hold onto both of those. Whether you can hold onto your idea of the truth and still be able to operate in a world where the truth is not the coin of the realm.

MZ: For college students, what advice do you have to help them navigate a world in which there are reactionaries and revolutionaries on both the right and the left?

ML: Read the newspaper. I’m struck by how uninformed students are. They’re simply not in the habit of reading a lot of things. It’s not a question of being able to jump in and read a long-form article about something. It’s about the daily work of simply reading the newspaper and learning a little bit about everything, everyday, in a publication that’s curated by someone else, not your own aleatory searching. Reading the newspaper or reading political opinion magazines is a discipline because it forces you to think about a lot of things simultaneously and hear different points of view. I’m stunned by the fact that students do not read a physical newspaper everyday. I find it irresponsible, unless they’re doing the same thing online by essentially reading everything. You cannot be taken seriously if you are not informed about a full range of political phenomena all the time. If you’re not, you don’t deserve to participate, frankly.