Notes & Comments October 1996
Protecting a legacy
On Anne Applebaum’s essay in “The future of the European past” series
One of the most debilitating side effects of liberal intellectual fashion in modern times is a peculiar species of political colorblindness: nothing pink or red registers accurately. No matter how tyrannous a regime or doctrine may be, as long as its left-wing credentials are in good order it enjoys a powerful rhetorical dispensation, a sort of metaphysical nihil obstat. The generic name of this dispensation is “idealism”: in theory a patent of noble intentions, but in practice a seductive moral narcotic that coats everything it touches with a glaze of mendacious sentiment. Even the most barbarous left-wing despotism can be camouflaged by repeated doses of this specific.
Not that despotism itself always goes unrecognized: indeed, part of the romance is to acknowledge and even deplore the “excesses” and cruelties of particular actors while praising the underlying “ideals” that supposedly inform the “movement.” The early-modern master of this spiritual legerdemain was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who prattled on about establishing the “reign of virtue” while laying the groundwork for extraordinary tyranny. “Those who dare to undertake the institution of a people,” Rousseau wrote in a chilling passage of The Social Contract, “must feel themselves capable, as it were, of changing human nature, of transforming each individual … into a part of a much greater whole, … of altering the constitution of man for the purpose of strengthening it.” Not for nothing did Rousseau’s disciple Robespierre speak of “virtue and its emanation, terror.”
In our own day, such Rousseavian subterfuge has cropped up as regularly as weeds wherever Marxism and its offshoots (Communism, socialism in all its varieties) have flourished. In “A Dearth of Feeling,” her contribution to our series on the Future of the European Past that appears in this issue, the political correspondent Anne Applebaum provides an insightful analysis of this phenomenon. In the course of her essay, she has occasion to quote Tina Rosenberg—the latest addition to The New York Times’s stable of editorial writers and author of the Pultizer Prize-winning book about Eastern Europe, The Haunted Land. Quoth Ms. Rosenberg: “Communism’s ideals of equality, solidarity, social justice, an end to misery, and power to the oppressed are indeed beautiful.” Anne Applebaum comments: “Here it is again: the ideas were fine, it is the people who failed. That the ideas were wrong, still escapes her; that Hitler had ideals, too, is also not mentioned.”
How can we account for this political color blindness? Why is it that everything red comes out looking peachy? As Ms. Applebaum points out in her essay, it is well known that Stalin killed at least twice as many people as Hitler. Why then are not Stalin’s “ideals”—the “beautiful” ideals of Communism—as thoroughly discredited as the “ideals” of Nazism? Part of the reason, Ms. Applebaum suggests, lies in “a deep desire to protect the legacy of the Western Left,” whose intellectual sources and guiding rhetoric are consonant with those of Soviet Communism: “To condemn the Soviet Union too thoroughly would be to condemn a part of what the Western Left held dear.”
Among much else, Ms. Applebaum’s important essay makes it clear that until we are prepared to strip Communism of its façade of virtue and regard it, along with National Socialism, as one of “the great ills of our century,” we will be condemned to misunderstand not only the history of Communist regimes but also our own recent history, especially as regards our role in the Cold War. Coming to terms with the truth means not simply rejecting Stalinism, but understanding that what Tina Rosenberg—like so many other Western intellectuals—regards as the “beautiful” ideals of Communism are themselves irredeemably corrupt. It means understanding that the rhetoric of idealism is often a cloak for tyranny. It means, finally, dispensing with the the rose-colored spectacles that endow every impulse toward socialism with the patina of virtue.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 2, on page 2
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