Romanticism is good in poetry but can be fatal in real life. “The lot of the man who sees life truly and thinks about it romantically is Despair,” says Bernard Shaw [Preface to Caesar and Cleopatra]. Some of the finest poets in the history of English literature met their end in the prime of their life. Will Durant argued that they were killed by their romanticism. Shaw wouldn’t have disagreed.
Today’s Hindu newspaper reports that “Sixty years after death, Stalin (is) turning hero for Russians.” Celebrating the 60th anniversary of Stalin’s death, “a majority of Russians” expressed the view that “the Soviet dictator had played a positive role in Soviet history.” The report goes on to say that “The number of people who called Stalin the most outstanding historical figure jumped from 12 per cent shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union to 36 per cent in 2008.” And now 49% of Russians view Stalin as a great hero “even though they are aware of millions of innocent people who died in Stalin’s prisons and labour camps.”
One of the basic tenets of romanticism is: “Distance lends enchantment to the view.” Shakespeare set his romantic plays in a far away land and far away time precisely because of this reason. God and heaven are placed at a considerable distance from the ordinary mortals not for any other reason.
Another aspect of romanticism is that it loves to glorify something or the other. It loves to create heroes. For Wordsworth the hero was something as impersonal as the nature which he personalised and attributed quite many divine qualities to it. For other romantic poets anything from a nightingale to the west wind could be a hero.
Now Stalin is a hero for the Russians. Hitler was a hero for some of the Indians in the recent past. Looking backward toward some glorious past is another aspect of romanticism. Some of our countrymen keep looking back at the Ramrajya. Then they look forward to some avatars of Hitler to usher in a yug of renewed nationalism... Wait for the Lok Sabha election campaign to begin and you’ll understand what I mean.
People forget the real history. This is inevitable amnesia that grips the romantically oriented. Forgetting the real history, they create glorified versions of the past. Villains become heroes. Mythical figures acquire divinity. Sentiments leap out of hearts that long for utopias.
We can forgive the amnesia that comes naturally to the utopia-craving rank and file. But such amnesia is not good for leaders. Good leaders live in the present and face the reality without sentiments. Good leaders find solutions in the present instead of carrying bricks to fill the cracks in the past.
Let me illustrate this quality of a good leader with an example from Shaw (the play mentioned above):
Rufio: Now tell me: if you meet a hungry lion there, you will not punish it for wanting to eat you?
Caesar [wondering what he is driving at] No.
Rufio: Nor revenge upon it the blood of those it has already eaten.
Rufio: Nor judge it for its guiltiness.
Rufio: What, then, will you do to save your life from it?
Caesar: [promptly] Kill it, man, without malice, just as it would kill me.
Deal with the problem at hand without sentiments. Without also resurrecting the ghosts of the past and, worse, idolising them. Communism may have much to offer to the Russians, but not Stalin the Lion.