"Once socialism is established," George Orwell predicted in the 1930s, "the
rate of mechanical invention will be greatly accelerated." I read Orwell's
prophecy during the 1980s and was struck by how ludicrous it seemed. After more
than half a century of socialist economies (including Communist ones), not a
single new invention — not so much as a can opener — had been produced. Socialism
had only impoverished every country where it existed, and had moreover totally
stifled the creative faculties. Nobody could have foreseen how bleak it would
All of which is even truer of the purest form of socialism, Communism.
Even the few remaining Communists are somewhat chastened, having witnessed
the repudiation of Stalin and Mao by their successors. The "New
Soviet Man," the Five-Year Plan, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural
Revolution, Building a New Society — all these old slogans sound like
grimly ironic epitaphs. "I have been over into the future, and
it works," burbled Lincoln Stevens, arriving home from Moscow
in the 1920s. The only good news for the Commies and their fellow travelers
is that they have never been called to account, a la Nuremberg, for
the colossal crimes they committed, ignored, and defended. But we tend
to forget how long even most anti-Communists took Communism's insane
As we bid adieu to the twentieth century, it seems worthwhile to
review not only its achievements and atrocities but its hopes. Time
after time its optimistic expectations have been rendered absurd by
events. A whole book keeping score of twentieth-century enthusiasms
is long overdue; meanwhile, a brief account will have to suffice.Of
World War I it may be enough to quote the archoptimist Woodrow Wilson's
description of it as the "war to end all wars." Marshall
Foch more sanely called the Versailles Treaty "a
20-year truce." The historian Harry Elmer Barnes even more prophetically
spoke of "perpetual war for perpetual peace."
At the 1943 Tehran Conference, the three archcynics — Roosevelt,
Churchill, and Stalin — adopted Wilsonian language
to promise a postwar world of eternal peace, liberty, and justice: "Emerging
from these cordial conferences, we look with confidence to the day
when all peoples of the world may live free lives, untouched by tyranny,
and according to their varying desires and their own consciences." It's
doubtful that anyone took this verbiage seriously; but by then utopian
democratic jargon had become standard issue, even (or especially) for
the bloodiest despots.
Catholics may recall the high hopes for liturgical reform in the
wake of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. The vernacular Mass
and the relaxation of old disciplines were supposed to inspire a new
piety in the laity, who were given a larger role in the rites, including
the freedom to receive the Eucharist in their hands — traditionally
regarded as a desecration.
The upshot, as such observers as James Hitchcock and Michael Davies
noted many years ago, was precisely the reverse of what the liberals
predicted and far worse than the reactionaries feared: Mass attendance
immediately plummeted and tens of millions of Catholics in the United
States alone have fallen away from the Church. Those who remain formally
within the Church feel free to defy Catholic teaching on such matters
as contraception and abortion; most no longer believe that the Eucharist
is the true Body of Christ; and young Catholics are stunningly ignorant
of Catholic doctrine.
The general liberalization of religion has failed in the same way.
The attempt to keep Christianity and Judaism au courant with contemporary
fads has merely enfeebled the sense of the sacred, turning worship
into thinly disguised self-indulgence. A "nonjudgmental" God
is not God at all and, precisely because he needn't be obeyed, can't
be adored. "If God does not exist," says Dostoyevsky's Ivan
is permitted." And a God who permits everything doesn't really
exist. What's the point of calling such an entity "God"?
Yet the progressive churches, by making few demands on their members,
have steadily lost membership, while the reactionary churches, insisting
on divine commandments, have thrived.
Jews may likewise recall that the establishment of Israel was supposed
to create a "homeland" where Jews would live in safety and
harmony with their Arab neighbors, in a democratic, socialist, earthly
— and godless — utopia. This too has proved a delusive hope. Israel
remains dependent on the United States, bitterly at odds with neighboring
countries, and in constant danger of war and terrorism. Most Jews still
prefer to live in the Diaspora, and especially in the United States.
Contrary to all Darwinian wisdom, the only form of Judaism that retains
its vitality is the Judaism that refuses to "adapt": Orthodox
Similarly the end of European colonialism was supposed to allow African
and Asian peoples, freed at last from foreign exploitation, to enjoy
the fruits of self-determination. In most cases the former colonies
have gone from modest contentment to wretched poverty, epidemic disease,
and terrifying tyranny, with little prospect of improvement. The United
Nations, advertised as "the Parliament of Man," has
fallen somewhat short of expectations; the best that can be said of
it is that it has been nearly impotent, serving chiefly as an arena
of mutually contradictory propaganda efforts to which nobody pays much
attention anymore. We can be consoled by the reflection that it must
have disappointed its chief architect, Alger Hiss.
The sexual revolution was heralded as offering not only new freedom
but new felicity, as old taboos and inhibitions
yielded to the indulgence of our healthy natural appetites. The net
result has been mass misery: more divorce, disease,
anxiety, heartbreak, and of course an explosion of illegitimacy, with
all the crime and disorientation that come of the disruption of the
family. The horror of abortion has become normalized as a "constitutional
right" and an everyday occurrence;
sodomy and pedophilia have been liberated; and countless souls are
lost to sins that are no longer recognized as perversions.
Pornography too has been normalized to the point where it is inseparable
from ordinary popular entertainment. Nudity in
films, which was supposed to make them more "true to life," has
instead damaged them aesthetically and morally. Unbridled
hedonism has brought only frustration and depression; even the clergy
have been corrupted. The advocates of unbridled sexual expression predicted
that releasing the erotic would diminish violence; but the reverse
has happened. Lust and violence are eternal partners, and the porn
culture, far from breeding a gentle eroticism, has liberated cruelty
and sadism. The "new candor" hasn't
banished hypocrisy; it has merely given it new forms, with hypocrites
claiming to represent "honesty."
"Civil rights," meaning increased state power to dictate
private association, has not produced either freedom or racial equality,
but only more tyranny and bitterness. Far from achieving a "color-blind" society,
we now have a race-obsessed one, with a criminal "underclass" that
didn't exist before.
The welfare state, which promised to lift people out of poverty,
has merely habituated them to it, while burdening and endangering the
general population. "Affirmative action" has
proved only that when you promise to impose justice for all, you leave
everyone feeling aggrieved. Racial differences, whether inherent or
cultural, have turned out to be stubbornly irremovable; but progressive
ideology has taught us that the results of those differences are due
only to "racism" and must be
remedied by giving the state even more power over private relations
and private property.
Progressivism spoke of "eliminating" — not merely opposing
or reducing or discrediting — such huge and amorphous conditions as
poverty and prejudice. Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" would
end in permanent victory, a "Great Society." Johnson actually
promised to abandon that war if it didn't succeed, just as the Catholic
hierarchy promised to undo the post-Vatican II liturgical innovations
if they didn't produce the desired results; but the Great Society programs
and the Novus Ordo Mass are still with us. Futile "reforms," once
established, seem as hard to eliminate as the evils they originally
purported to cure.
Progressive faith became obligatory, and it was heresy to doubt that
the world could be radically remade. Since liberalism insisted on learning
the hard way, it was fitting that many white liberal parents should
be shocked to find their children fearing and hating blacks not because
of ignorance and "prejudice," but
as a result of their own experience in integrated schools. (By the
end of the century the number of liberals with children in integrated
schools had notoriously declined.)
It's fascinating that even such an astringent critic of inflated
utopian language as Orwell (of all people!), who would eventually create
some of the darkest images of modern tyranny, should have succumbed,
in his salad days, to the temptation to idealize the future. His may
simply be an outstanding case of learning from one's mistakes, like
other noted apostates from progressive hope: Arthur Koestler, Whittaker
Chambers, James Burnham, and so many of the most penetrating debunkers
of the future that was never to be.
Such men needed a special kind of courage to denounce the official
illusions of the twentieth century. As the French Catholic poet Charles
Peguy said near the beginning of the century: "We
shall never know how many acts of cowardice have been motivated by
the fear of seeming not sufficiently progressive."
"I have a dream," proclaimed Martin Luther King Jr., whose "dream" was
inspired by his reading of Marx and other progressive prophets. Like
countless visionaries, he was unaware of Michael Oakeshott's admonition: "The
conjunction of ruling and dreaming generates tyranny." Which might
serve as the epitaph for the twentieth century.
This article is from the April 2000 edition of Sobran's:
The Real News of the Month.
This article is copyright © 2009
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