Thursday, January 7, 2010
“Lenin continues to have imperishable value,” wrote Ivan Frolov, an advisor to Mikhail Gorbachev. I quoted this pearl of wisdom in 1990 and added the comment: “Mr. Frolov should know that statements like this can only sound farcical in the West today.”[i] But I would hardly venture to make the same comment now in 2000, for the rehabilitation of Marxism-Leninism has been proceeding apace, inspiring books and articles that advise us—that command us—to return to the True Marx. Some of Mr. Frolov’s oratorical flights, preaching “a transition toward a qualitatively new condition, toward a renewed, human socialism,” sounded like pathetic gibberish even when he pronounced them. But today such phrases pop up frequently in the musings of Western writers, many of whom would not hesitate to endorse another priceless example of Frolov’s claptrap: “We are in the process of re-evaluating the dialectical unity of the scientific, revolutionary and humanistic aspects of Marxism.”
After the collapse of Soviet Communism, politicians and intellectuals of the Old Left began a vigorous counteroffensive, aiming to erase or invert the obvious conclusions to be drawn from that event and, more generally, from the manifest failures of socialist ideology. What prompted these elites to believe they could extract lessons from history that blatantly contradict what history so plainly says? What arguments have they deployed to shore up their defense of totalitarian delusions and crimes, or at least the motives behind them? How persuasive have these arguments been? Do they have a wide following, or is their influence limited to a powerful but small clientele that regards itself in a flattering mirror, the better to deny its errors and chase away the pangs of remorse?
In short, is this grande parade of the left accomplishing its agenda? Or is it merely the final spasm of a criminal aberration, one which later generations that took no part in it will be able finally to reject freely and completely, without duplicity or regret?
The primary meaning of the French word parade is shared by the English word “parade”: a procession or an attention-grabbing display. The term is also used by fencers to mean the parrying of an attack. Accordingly, the leftists’ performance has served a dual purpose, allowing them, on the one hand, to deflect the sword of history that was threatening to cut down their doctrine for good; and on the other, to remain players in the pageant of culture and politics, still marching at the head of the procession. In nautical terms, their parade was preliminary to a tacking maneuver, a way of changing course without being too obvious about it. To bring in yet another metaphor, it was a matter of “dressing” (in French, parer) Communism in the way a chef prepares meat or fish before cooking a dish, removing the unusable parts while saving as much of the original as possible. Which leads to the question: Is the left just serving up the same old ideological hash, but now relabeled as nouvelle cuisine?
These are far from idle questions, for even in the midst of a global information explosion it may turn out that we understand little or nothing about totalitarianism. If this is the case, then information per se may be of limited value, and those responsible for providing us with information may prove to be useless or even harmful. At a time when “the meaning of history” (le sens de l’histoire) is still venerated, to have so poorly understood history’s lessons would testify to a crippling cultural failure, or worse, to a troubled relationship with facts—a permanent legacy, perhaps, of ideological indoctrination.
For a while, sensible things were said. Reviewing the journalism of the early 1990s, I am struck to see in the majority of periodicals, even those of the left, how frequently two ideas keep cropping up, presented as empirically derived certainties. The first of these is that we must write off Communism and everything associated with it once and for all—the logical conclusion to be drawn from the pitiless evidence of history. The corollary is that after the Marxist catastrophe, the classical liberal formula has emerged as the only solution. Whatever its imperfections, this option alone is economically and politically viable, and it will persist. Indeed, for something to be imperfect, it must first exist, a condition that command economies do not fulfill.
By now, however, a striking reversal has occurred: these reasonable conclusions are being spurned almost everywhere—in theory at least, for action often flies in the face of theory. Although Communism is no longer put into practice, it is mentioned with growing approval; while the practice of liberalism, though almost universally denounced, is increasingly evident in the realm of action. Thus, the internal antithesis between the ideal and the actual that is a fundamental characteristic of the totalitarian mentality is reconstituted in another vocabulary and, as it were, in a void, since “actual Communism” has all but vanished.
A revival of liberalism began prior to the collapse of Communism, preceding it by a good ten years with the leadership of Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and then Ronald Reagan in the United States. But these electoral victories were not inevitable. It is erroneous to think that classical liberalism—something to which the French genius finds itself miraculously immune—belongs exclusively to “Anglo-Saxon” culture, as through some congenital defect. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt, America had steadily pushed Big Government further into almost every part of economic and social life; while doggedly following the tax-and-spend gospel. But any awareness of such historical realities was brushed aside, either deliberately or unconsciously, in Europe and especially in France.
Likewise, there was widespread ignorance of conditions in the United Kingdom: of how, since 1945, the Labor Party ideology had created the most statist, bureaucratic, highly taxed, unionized and regulated society in democratic Europe. Although the Conservative Party had won several elections during this period, no Conservative government before Margaret Thatcher’s had won a sufficiently strong and clear electoral mandate to permit tampering with the fundamental props of the Labor edifice. Economic decline had set in, bringing widespread impoverishment, failure of public services, administrative paralysis—festering sores that had become critically infected by 1977–1978 and threatened to plunge Britain into chaos. And so the electorate chose, not another routine party rotation, but a razing of the very foundations laid down in 1945: it voted for a draconian liberal revolution. Since this turnabout, the British people have not changed their minds; in 1997, Labor could not be sure of victory at the polling booths without disavowing their socialist agenda. Politically, Tony Blair is less the successor of James Callaghan, the last Labor prime minister before the free-market revolution, than of Margaret Thatcher—with all due deference to fabulists of “the left’s triumph in Europe” at the century’s end.
More astounding still was the tide of liberalism that rushed across continental Europe during the Thatcher and Reagan years. In Italy, Socialists and Communists were professing to be less and less dirigiste; in Spain, the Socialist Party let it be known that it had never been dirigiste; and in Portugal—where, since the Revolution of the Carnations in 1974, the Socialist leader Mario Soares had been an invincible rampart against all coups d’états on the part of the Communists—the electorate twice, in 1980 and 1985, swept reprivatizing liberals into power.
But it was mainly the abrupt economic and financial crackup of France, after two years of Mitterrand’s Socialist regime, that impressed people’s imaginations and turned public opinion. Virtually overnight, we began to hear effusions of praise for “enterprise”—private enterprise, that is—from every side. Adolescents went so far (and I was witness to one such semicomical scene) as to reproach their civil-servant fathers for “never having established a business.” Overnight, the French became fierce critics of nationalization schemes, which they had long mostly favored. Their change of attitude can be tracked through opinion polls, such as the one published by Paris Match (April 1, 1983) showing that 59 percent of French people were in favor of more entrepreneurial policies, while only 25 percent wanted more state control of the economy.
The French left, already a national minority since the municipal elections of 1983, became all but marginal when the European elections took place in 1984. Moreover, studies of voters’ wishes, analyzed at the time by various polling organizations, show that they were ready to reject not merely this or that governmental team but the left as such and its ideological principles, the first of which is reverence for the state. Thus the Communist Party was reduced to 11 percent support among voters and was destined to sink even lower. It had lost half its supporters in five years and would never find them again. Moreover, it refused to form part of the government of Laurent Fabius, which followed and turned its back on that of Pierre Mauroy. So Mitterrand, with a Socialist Party that slipped from 38 percent of the legislative vote in 1981 to 21 percent in the 1984 European elections, led a government that represented barely one-fifth of French citizens until the elections of 1986.
Perhaps still more humbling for the left than its political and economic failures was its philosophical and cultural shipwreck. It was not only the economic program of the left that began to take a farcical turn—its slogan “rupture avec le capitalisme!” sounding risible when all the world’s noncapitalist regimes were sinking beneath the waves—but also its other projects for social redemption, each of which seemed leakier than the last as they all crashed in turn on the shoals of public exasperation.
In July 1984, Mitterrand had to withdraw his education plan, a model of socialist anachronism if ever there was one. The protests against Mitterrand’s draft bill, aimed at suppressing private instruction, owed something to traditional religious convictions; but that was only part of the explanation. In fact, the majority of the millions who demonstrated all over the country for more than a year, religious believers or not, were mainly protesting against a totalitarian scheme to unify elementary, secondary and university education under the aegis of the state and the Marxist-dominated teachers’ unions. The public well understood what was afoot with the bill: the establishment of another hegemony, an ideological monopoly, by the Socialists and Communists. In this matter, as in many others, we witnessed a popular repudiation of the state.
The government had seriously misread the wishes of the society over which it presided. Other examples of its tone-deafness included its law on the press, its exploitation of state television, and its notion that governmental success is primarily a matter of propaganda. Socialists in power had thus unleashed against themselves not only the people but also most of the country’s intellectuals.
This, then, was the picture midway between 1980 and 1990: Communism had been discredited well before the Berlin Wall came crumbling down and at a time when the approaching disaster was not yet foreseen. Socialism, too, had run into hard times, not just in practice but as an ideal. The setback in France was paralleled by a lengthy exclusion from power of the Labor Party in Britain and of the SPD (Social Democratic Party) in Germany. The finishing touch to a dismal scene was the condition of Sweden’s economy: even this Sacred Grotto of Miracles—for forty years a realistically managed social-democratic welfare state—was moribund.
An assault had to be launched against this tentative resurgence of classical liberalism. The incipient success of free-market themes, along with the manifest contradictions of socialist ideology and Communist regimes, filled the sectarians with fresh ardor to beat back the dissidents—employing, naturally, the time-honored weapons of leftist “debate.”
Thus, when the celebrated Mexican writer Octavio Paz, in a 1987 speech delivered in Frankfurt, compared the Nicaraguan Sandinista regime to Castro’s tyranny and dared to mention that Moscow was financing and equipping it—an obvious and proven fact by now—he found himself greeted with the fine courtesy that characterizes left-wing discourse. Among Mexican intellectuals, the Marxist left, a veritable museum of mummified political thought, exploded with rage. For a week, newspapers and magazines vented their anger with articles and cartoons and polls, culminating with a manifesto signed by 228 professors of “every scientific and cultural discipline, from thirteen countries and five institutions.” These pro-Communist shamans were exemplary manifestations of the classic personality type that has been dubbed “the perfect Latin American idiot.”[ii]
Octavio Paz’s name was summarily erased from the program of a choral concert featuring his poems; and an actor slated to introduce the performance with a reading of the poems, backed out. The Frankfurt speech was unanimously condemned despite the fact that no one in Mexico could possibly have read it, for the simple reason that, with the exception of a few words quoted in the German press, it had not yet been published. In his speech, Paz dealt with many topics other than Nicaragua, and his overall account of the political landscape seems quite self-evident today. Nevertheless, elements of the heroic left (typically informed and tolerant, and bursting with antifascist zeal) went so far as to demonstrate before the United States embassy in Mexico, where Octavio Paz—that “traitor to Mexico”—was burned in effigy to the accompaniment of chants by the student crowd: “Rapacious Reagan, your friend is Octavio Paz!”[iii]
Let’s never forget that in Europe as in Latin America you can be a card-carrying member of the left with one simple qualification, well within the reach of anyone, however slow of mind: to be reflexively anti-American, at all costs and in all circumstances, whatever the event or the issue.
It is quite possible, indeed not unusual, for a person to be politically obtuse while being brilliant in other respects. Examples abound, but Harold Pinter is typical. The English dramatist explains NATO’s intervention against Serbia in April 1999 with the assertion that the United States follows but one principle in international politics: “Kiss my ass or I’ll beat you up.”[iv] Evidently, talent for theater does not inoculate one against profound idiocy and vulgarity when it comes to venting political opinions. One of the mysteries of politics is its power to induce such befuddling in otherwise intelligent people. How would Harold Pinter react if drama critics allowed themselves to fall so low in abusive imbecility while critiquing his plays?
When the French, of both the right and the left, awoke to the reality that the United States had emerged triumphant from the Cold War, they began to focus their animosity on the economic arrangements of the one remaining superpower, their anti-American animus rising to a peak of frenzy in the last decade of the century. The antiliberal crusade was launched with the Socialists’ two-year struggle against Jacques Chirac’s government, in 1986–1988. Although the privatizations actually carried out by this government concerned only a few nationalized enterprises, and although none of its reforms made any substantial reduction in public expenditures or in the tax burden, the left did not relent in its bombardment of Chirac’s team, routinely stigmatizing it with the charge of “ultra-liberalism”—the shameful prefix having become de rigueur—and accusing it of antisocial perfidy.
But to get an idea of how far the “liberal” reformers, throughout continental Europe but above all in France, were from being real free-market reformers, and how deeply they were stuck in the old mold of centralized planning, consider how much of Europe’s economy continues to be state-dominated ten years after the so-called “liberal wave” began and despite substantial privatizations. The state-owned proportion of the national product in European countries went, on average, from 15.4 percent in 1920, to 27.9 percent in 1960, and to 45.9 percent in 1996. And in France, ever eager to tax and to regulate, the public-sector share in 1997 rose to a staggering 54.5 percent.[v] Despite the half-heartedness of liberal reforms, the campaign against the free-market idea was marvelously successful, since Mitterrand, who in 1984 had been the most unpopular head of state in the entire history of the Fifth Republic, managed to get re-elected four years later.
To pad their propaganda, the socialists set up Reagan’s United States and Thatcher’s United Kingdom as cautionary tales of “savage capitalism.” Here was the origin of that prolific tradition in which these advanced nations are castigated as vast camps for the indigent, where weary hordes of diseased and hungry homeless people fill the streets. A literary genre like this had no basis in reality, of course; it was a fruit of fantasy, inspired not by liberalism’s failures but by socialism’s need to conceal its own shortcomings. The campaign was nevertheless effective because the mass media and a large part of the so-called quality press, mostly but not only of the left, bought into the credo. The political leaders of the French right came to be branded as doctrinal allies of the demonic Reagan and Thatcher. The left’s winning strategy was to make classical liberals fear the consequences of their own devotion to their philosophy, and to pressure them eventually to abjure it altogether. The battle was decided in those years.
Meanwhile, the European left put its condemnation of the anticommunists on the back burner, feigning indifference to attacks on Marxist regimes. The reason was that it had invested its emotional capital in Mikhail Gorbachev, convinced that he at last was constructing a Communism compatible with liberty—that rare bird awaited in vain for seventy years. Why get irritated with the stale vociferations of the anticommunists when the messiah of “socialism with a human face” was coming soon to shut the mouths of the crypto-fascists permanently?
After the failed (or apparently failed?) Moscow putsch of August 19, 1991, and despite the brief return of Gorbachev to the Kremlin as a lame duck, the international left correctly intuited that Communism this time around was well and truly finished. The last lifeboat had capsized.
Outwardly, the edifice still stood. The abortive coup against the misconceived policy of perestroika had apparently left the citadel of Communist power intact. But it was a mere façade, behind which lay a mass of rubble. The left immediately got the picture, months before the official crackup of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991. It was thus fully prepared to launch an ideological counteroffensive by summer of the next year, with a torrent of articles—signed for the most part by authors who were not actually Communists and hence were in a better position to rev up the engines of postmortem justification. Their undertaking grew in scope and intensity over the following years, and although theirs was necessarily a defensive operation, they went on the attack straightaway. An event that should have tolled the hour of repentance for those who had indulged Communism mutated into a brief against those who had descried in Communism’s crimes and failures proof of its toxicity. The refrain went: Communism is finished, but what wonderful people it inspired to action! And how can we get by without that ideal? In any case, liberalism is obviously worse. And do we really have to sacrifice the sublime vistas of revolutionary hope and resign ourselves to the grim pragmatism of managerial politics?
We have to admire the agility with which the left uprooted the debate from down-to-earth realities and ensconced it in that empyrean of pure ideas where well-intentioned ideologues can never be wrong. They were making a U‑turn back to the emergency exit: to the early days of Marxism-Leninism, that pristine age before the Fall when the doctrine still shone with every perfection, for the simple reason that it had not yet been put into practice.
Here is a tasty paradox: The ferocity of the Marxist legions redoubled in the very same year when history had finally put paid to the object of their sacred cult. Marx’s disciples, betraying the master’s analysis, refused to bow down before the criterion of praxis, choosing instead to retreat into the impregnable fortress of the ideal. As long as they had been obliged to drag around the ball and chain of actually existing socialism, they could not avoid facing up to criticism. Their solution to the imperfections of socialism in practice had always been to tout the infinite perfectibility of the as yet unachieved revolution. But once the Soviet system had disappeared, the mirage of a reformable Communism vanished along with the object to be reformed, and so too did the painful servitude of having to argue the cause in terms of tangible successes and failures. Released from importunate reality—which they would henceforth blithely dismiss as inconsequential—the faithful could return to the roots of their fanaticism. They felt free at last to restore socialism to its primordial state: Utopia.
After all, socialism incarnate was always vulnerable to criticism. Utopia, on the other hand, lies by definition beyond criticism. Hence the rage of Utopia’s haughty champions could again become boundless, since there was no longer, anywhere, any embodiment of their vision.
To fill in the details: The hysteria directed at Octavio Paz was mostly precipitated by two speeches. The first was given at Frankfurt in October 1984 on the occasion of the writer’s being awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade by the president of West Germany; it was a very general discussion on the topics of war and peace, on international affairs and the Cold War. The words that provoked the rage of the ideologues were the following: “It is clear that the United States supports armed groups that are opposed to the Managua regime. It is equally certain that the USSR and Cuba are sending military advisors and weapons to the Sandinistas. And it is also true that the roots of the conflict are deeply buried in Central American history.” These remarks are unobjectionable—a moderate statement of the obvious. But the hatred for Paz had a more unforgivable cause: his longstanding refusal to be a fellow traveler of Communism.
In the second speech, delivered in Valencia on June 15, 1987, Paz was commemorating the congress of antifascist intellectuals held in that city in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. He made the mistake of recalling the role of Stalin and his henchmen in the defeat of the Republican side, a role that has since been abundantly documented by all serious historians.