June 27, 2014


The Truth About Our Libertarian Age : (Mark Lilla, 6/17/14, New Republic)

What is, or was, ideology? Dictionaries define it as a "system" of ideas and beliefs people hold that motivate their political action. But the metaphor is inapt. All practical activity, not just political activity, involves ideas and beliefs. An ideology does something different: it holds us in its grasp with an enchanting picture of reality. To follow the optical metaphor, ideology takes an undifferentiated visual field and brings it into focus, so that objects appear in a predetermined relation to each other. The political ideologies born out of the French Revolution were particularly potent because they came with moving pictures that disclosed how the present emerged from a comprehensible past and was now moving toward an intelligible future. Two grand narratives competed for attention in Europe, and then around the world: a progressive one culminating in a liberating revolution, and an apocalyptic one ending with the natural order of things restored.

The ideological narrative of the European left was a cross between Prometheus Bound and the life of Jesus. Mankind was assumed to be equal to the gods but bound to the rock of history by religion, hierarchy, property, and false consciousness. For millennia that was how things stood, until a miracle of incarnation occurred in 1789 and the spirits of freedom and equality became flesh. The problem was that redemption did not follow. Just as the followers of Jesus had some theological work to do when his return kept being deferred, so the nineteenth- and twentieth-century left developed a revolutionary apologetics to make sense of historical disappointment. It taught that while the French Revolution descended into Terror and Napoleonic despotism, it did prepare the way for the pan-European revolutions of 1848. These were short-lived but they inspired the Paris Commune. That lasted only a few months, but it set the example for the October Revolution of 1917. True, that was followed by the November Revolution and then Stalin and his terror. But after World War II the revolution's pilgrimage wound its way to China and the Third World, globalizing the struggle against capitalism and imperialism. Then there was Cambodia, and the music stopped.

The counter-revolutionary right in Europe, though much stronger politically in the nineteenth century, could not offer a narrative nearly as glorious as the left's. Formed in reaction and under duress, it was obscure and less inspiring. But in moments of crisis it could be very compelling. The story it told was a cross between the legend of the golem and the Book of Revelation. In the best-known version of the golem story, a rabbi places into the mouth of a clay figure a slip of paper bearing God's name on it; the figure then comes alive and rages through a Jewish ghetto terrorizing its residents until the rabbi snatches the paper back. If we think of the golem as le peuple, the paper as the writings of Voltaire and Rousseau, and the destruction of the ghetto as the Terror, we have made our way into the mind of the reactionary right. 

In the legend, the rabbi tames the golem. The forces of reaction, though, never could control the forces of revolution in the nineteenth century, which were scientific, economic, and technological as well. Railroads crisscrossed the unspoiled landscape. Cities replaced villages and country estates, factories replaced farms, secular schools replaced religious ones, unshaved politicians replaced dukes and earls, and the peasants became an undifferentiated mass of brutalized workers. As the century progressed, a romantic right dreaming of a restored age of sweetness and light was transformed into an apocalyptic right convinced that it was living through the Great Tribulation. And when the improbable Russian Revolution succeeded, and Marxism went from being a small sect to being a powerful global force, the face of the Antichrist was exposed for the world to see. The final battle had begun, and into it leapt nationalist redeemers who ruled their peoples with iron rods and "tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty" (Revelation 19:15). We have now made our way into the mind of fascism. 

To speak about such matters is already, two decades on, to conjure up a lost world. Try to convey the grand drama of political and intellectual life from 1789 to 1989 to young students today--American, European, even Chinese students--and you are left feeling like a blind poet singing of lost Atlantis. Fascism for them is "radical evil," hence incomprehensible; how it could develop and why it appealed to millions remains a mystery. Communism, while of course it was for "many good things," makes little sense either, especially the faith that people invested in the Soviet Union. Students simply do not feel the psychological pull of ideology today, and find it hard to imagine a captive mind. 

Posted by at June 27, 2014 8:11 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus