No sooner had Francis Fukuyama announced to the world that, owing to the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, the end of history was now upon us than Professor Pierre Bourdieu of the College de France hastened to report that, on the contrary, what the collapse of Communism really means is that history has just begun—again. In a remarkable essay entitled “History Dawns in the East,” published in Liber, the monthly European supplement to the London Times Literary Supplement, Bourdieu hailed events in Eastern Europe for providing us with, of all things, a model of revolution—a model, moreover, that the rest of Europe (meaning, of course, Western capitalist Europe) would do well to follow.
“It is time,” he writes, “to take up the revolutionary élan that the peoples of the East have injected into the listless history of Europe.” Which can only mean that it is not for Prague and Warsaw to emulate London and Paris and Rome, but for London and Paris and Rome to follow the lead of Prague and Warsaw. This, to say the least, is a very novel reading of events in Eastern Europe.
For Pierre Bourdieu, clearly, you cannot have history without revolution, and without revolution history is hardly worth having, anyway. In this interpretation of events and their meaning, it was Stalin who closed the door on history by betraying the revolution, and the downfall of Stalinism in Eastern Europe means that “history did not really stop in Moscow in the 1930s.” But who except Pierre Bourdieu, we can only wonder, ever believed that it did? Certainly not the people who suffered under Moscow's tyranny for so many decades. History remained all too real and all too bloody for them, and what they dreamed of was hardly yet another re-enactment of the revolution that brought them so much misery and death.
The real meaning of “History Dawns in the East”—a title so reminiscent of all those earlier announcements of Red dawns promising the joys of revolution—has nothing to do with either the end of history or its beginning. It is to be found, rather, in what on this side of the Atlantic is called political damage control.
The overthrow of Communism in Eastern Europe has dealt a harsh blow to the political myths fostered by the intellectual Left in Western Europe—and, for that matter, in this country, too—and to a way of thinking that glorifies revolution as a political and cultural ideal. It is entirely understandable, therefore, that intellectuals like Pierre Bourdieu, still dreaming the dream of lost Utopias, should now want to claim that this spectacular repudiation of revolution and its consequences is somehow a reaffirmation of the very thing that has been so resoundingly rejected. “What a magnificent celebration of the Revolution of 1789!” writes Pierre Bourdieu of events in Eastern Europe, apparently oblivious to the fact it is only in the comfortable milieu of the College de France in Paris, and not in the more difficult world of Warsaw and Prague and East Berlin, that anyone is invoking 1789, not to mention 1917.
Trotting out all the blood-chilling rhetoric of past revolutions—“We must make every effort to ensure that the rigorous use of reason, and hence of language, becomes a political virtue, and the first among political virtues,” etc.—Pierre Bourdieu warned against “lapsing into the old rhetoric.” But what was this but the refurbished rhetoric of Robespierre adapted to yet another attempt to uphold the ideal of revolution as an alternative to what is contemptuously dismissed as “the soft pillow of economic success”? Our own guess is that events in Eastern Europe have a lot more to do with a yearning for such a “soft pillow” than with revolutionary theories of history.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 7, on page 1
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