Richard Pipes on why he left Washington
By Alberto Mingardi
Richard Pipes left us last week, at age 95. He was an immensely accomplished historian, who devoted a lifetime to study and understand Russia and the Soviet system. In 2015 he was awarded the Bruno Leoni Prize in Milan and I had the chance to spend a couple of days with him and his wonderful wife Irene. They were both Polish; they met at a party as kids casually, and they would meet again and marry in the US. Pipes escaped Nazi rule via Italy on his way to the United States, where his family arrived in July 1940.
Father said that although he had acquaintances in many European capitals, unfortunately he knew no one in Rome. Minutes after he had uttered these words someone shouted ‘Pipes!’. The shout came from an Italian businessman by the name of Roberto de Spuches who had lived in Warsaw before the war.
… I spent my days leisurely visiting Rome’s museums, frequenting concerts and the opera, going to the movies.
Pipes remembered the Italians to be friendly and civil (though fascist racial laws were in place since 1938), but left for good before the situation could become ugly under Nazi pressure. He subsequently led the most distinguished academic career, teaching Russian history at Harvard. His works on the Russian revolution are seminal contributions. He published his last work just a couple of years ago, a short monograph on Alexander Yakovlev, a former Soviet ambassador to Canada that he held supplied Gorbachev with his reformist ideas and was unduly forgotten. I highly recommend his short book on Communism, which is a superb work of wisdom and synthesis, and of course his Property and Freedom, which ought to be remembered as a great book on the subject of the interplay of freedom and property, written with the support of Pipes’ robust historical scholarship.
The National Interest has a nice tribute to Pipes that focuses on his involvement with “Team B” and the Reagan administration stance against Soviet Russia. I think it may be nice to bid farewell to Professor Pipes with selections from his own work in government, from his autobiography Vixi. Memoirs of a Non-Belonger:
When I first arrived in Washington, some old-timers predicted that I would never leave. As for myself, however, I had no doubt that I would be back at Harvard in two years, come what may. My certainty derived not only from a deep-seated love of scholarship but also from lack of taste for power, the impulse that drives political ambition. Power provides psychic compensation: it impels a person who cannot rule himself to rule others. I do not deny that I enjoyed the attention I received while in the White House, but power, as such, held no attraction for me… Why this should have been the case was made clear for me by Eric Hoffer, one the wisest minds of 20th century America. In his diary he writes as follows:
The significant point is that people unfit for freedom – who cannot do much with it – are hungry for power. The desire for freedom is an attributed of a ‘have’ type of self. It says: leave me alone and I shall grow, learn, and realise my capacities. The desire for power is basically an attribute of the ‘have-not’ type of self. If Hitler had had the talents and temperament of a genuine artist, if Stalin had had the capacity to become a first-rate theoretician, if Napoleon had had the makings of a great poet or philosopher – they would hardly have developed the all-consuming lust for absolute power. Freedom gives us a chance to realise our human and individual uniqueness… those who lack the capacity to achieve much in an atmosphere of freedom will clamor for power.
It was freedom not power that I yearned for. And on the first day out of government, I jubilantly noted in my journal: ‘Fantastic! It is 9:20 a.m., the time I got to my office every day – and I have just arrived at the Library of Congresss… The collar and leash that invisibly tugged at me are gone.