IN THE END, a "millennium" is too big a concept for the imagination. A thousand years equals 30 generations, a duration that has no flesh and blood dimension. Half a millennium ago, Columbus had just landed in the Western hemisphere; half that again, America had not yet been born.
But a century has resonance for us, spanning the two or three lifetimes that we have touched. For example, I can trace my own grandparents' path back to Moravia and the Ukraine, though I can't go any further back than that. My grandparents were married just before the turn of the last century, and their children's lives began with it. Brief as this interval is in the overall span of time, three generations is probably enough to understand ourselves as human beings.
Looking behind us, this century of ours was mostly a stage for the destructive dramas of a secular religious faith called "socialism." It is a faith inspired by the dream of a social redemption realized through human rather than divine power, through the force of politics and the state. In its communist form, the efforts of this faith ruined whole continents and destroyed a world of human lives. Have we learned from these disasters, or will the passions of this faith follow us into the century to come?
That is my millennium question.
For an answer, I turned to the pages of the Nation, an institution of the left that participated in these dramas across the entire century, and whose editorial stances on each defining moment of the communist project have been utterly refuted by historical events. The editors of the Nation supported the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist collectivization, the infamous purge trials and the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe and the Maoist tyranny in China, the communist conquest of South Vietnam and Pol Pot's genocidal revolution and, of course, Castro's long-lived dictatorship in Cuba.
During the Cold War to contain the expansion of the Soviet empire, the editors of the Nation opposed the Truman Doctrine, the formation of NATO and SEATO, and the efforts of western military and intelligence organizations generally to stem the Soviet tide.
Over five decades, the editors of the Nation waged journalistic war against the defenders of freedom in the West, against America's "cold warrior" presidents Truman and Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan. At the same time the Nation was the defender of Soviet shills and Soviet spies like Harry Dexter White, Owen Lattimore, John Stewart Service and the Rosenbergs. As recently as this month — the last of the century — its editor was still defending Alger Hiss.
In this pre-millennial hour — December 1999 — the editors of the Nation chose to run two stories — an appraisal of the socialist century past and a harbinger of the socialist century to come — that provide the answer to my question.
In the Dec. 13 issue, there is a long review article called "Exploiting a Tragedy, or Le Rouge En Noir [The Red in Black]," written by the magazine's longtime "European Editor," Daniel Singer, a godson disciple of the Trotskyist writer Isaac Deutscher, and the magazine's resident expert on the subject of the communist experience.
The main focus of Singer's article is "The Black Book of Communism," a French treatise that attempts to sum up the human horror of the project to make a better world. According to the book's authors, during the 20th century between 85 and 100 million human beings were slaughtered in peacetime by Marxists in the effort to realize their impossible dream. As a foreword by Martin Malia reasonably suggests, "Any realistic accounting of communist crime would effectively shut the door on Utopia."
That is the minimal lesson one might expect to learn from the unbroken record of the socialist utopias of the century just past. But it is exactly the lesson the Nation fervently rejects. Writes Singer: "Our aim — let us not be ashamed to say so — is to revive the belief in collective action and in the possibility of radical transformation in our lives." He refers to this passion for social redemption as "the Promethean spirit of humankind," a term that reprises the precise language Marx used when he launched his destructive project over 150 years ago.
Socialism is dead. Long live socialism.
For Singer and the Nation, the unrelieved horror and failure of socialist experiments over the course of a century is not a lesson in sobriety for those who promoted and supported them, nor a reason to reconsider the faith. It is just a tragedy of errors that need not discourage them and need never be repeated. For the Nation this is the story of "a revolution in a backward country failing to spread and the terrible result then presented to the world as a model."
In other words, had there been sufficient communists in America and Europe to make revolutions there as well, the utopia that socialists had dreamed of would have been realized in fact. With communists triumphant everywhere, the Marxist fantasy would have come true.
And lo and behold, in the very next issue, a Nation editorial, "Street Fight in Seattle," hails the eruption of political violence in the state of Washington as a beacon of socialist renewal in the nation as a whole. The protest against the emerging global market, the editorial gloats, is "something not seen since the sixties" — when the anti-capitalist, anti-market, anti-property forces of the left last took their socialist fantasies and nihilist agendas to America's streets.
The voices recorded are familiar ones: "A week ago no one even knew what the World Trade Organization was," proclaimed Tom Hayden, one of the most destructive luddites of the previous generation, who did not miss the opportunity to join the demonstration. "Now these protests have made WTO a household word. And not a very pretty word."
From generation to generation, the message has not changed one iota. Declaims the Nation: "A corporate-dominated WTO that puts profits before people and property rights before human rights can no longer sustain its current course." It quotes Gerald McEntee, a leader of the government unions and a major power in Democratic Party politics: "We refuse to be marketized." Quoting the famous words of a '60s leader, McEntee proclaimed: "We have to name the system, and that system is corporate capitalism."
In other words, the Nation's war is still directed against a system that in the last 50 years has brought unimagined well-being to millions of people previously excluded from all but the barest minimum of the fruits of their labor — a system which is the only creator of democratic freedoms the world has ever known.
The Nation's mantra — "Profits before people and property rights before human rights" — is the anathema on the system that was formulated by Marx and is now resurrected in Seattle. But how is it possible for any sentient human being to have lived through the 20th century without coming to understand that property rights are the basis of any rights that human beings have ever been able to secure, and that far from conflicting with human needs, profits are the only practical engine ever devised that even half-succeeded in fulfilling them.
Such willful ignorance does not stem from lack of intelligence, but has a deeper source in human desires that can only be satisfied by religious faith. The socialist dream of achieving a kingdom of heaven on earth is as old as Eden. "You shall be as G-d," was the serpent's fatal promise then. It is the "Promethean" dream that Marx identified as his own and that the Nation editors are intent to keep alive. It is the idea of putting a human design on the impersonal structures of the social order beginning with the economic market and extending to the constitutional order. In wishing this, socialists fail to understand that a market that human beings cannot control and a political process they are bound to respect are the very disciplines that human beings require in order to be human.
Without such restraints and the limits they impose, humanity quickly descends into the barbarism the 20th century has made us all too familiar with, yet whose lessons — as we go into the 21st — the Nation and its comrades have not learned.
In the end, is there anything really new under the sun, as far as the passions that inspire and the reasons that guide us are concerned? The Homeric epics, which are the first literature of our civilization, were written three millennia ago, yet they are inhabited by people whose emotions and calculations are familiar today. The ideas of Plato and Aristotle, the ethics of the religious founders who lived more than two millennia ago, pretty much encompass the ideas, ethics and religious faiths we see around us today.
Call this continuity "human nature." We are bounded by who we are and what we can learn. In the matter of how we live and react, what we can learn about ourselves is pretty well set by the real individuals who connect with us, and by whom we are touched. One or two, or at most three generations encompass this extended family of flesh and blood contacts. A century or so will do it.
So that's my millennial question: Have we learned from the Marxist disaster of this century, or are we doomed to repeat it in the next?
|JWR contributor David
Horowitz is editor of Front Page
Magazine and the author of several books, including,
Hating Whitey, Art of Political War, Radical Son : A Generational Odyssey
|© 2000, David Horowitz|
Philosophy of Government
24 jan 2000