A terrible linguistic confusion has set in following the Revolution of 1989, and we will likely just have to bear with it for a while. That doesn’t mean it should not be challenged, but a calm and clear approach to the problem is in order.
The problem, briefly stated, is that the collapse of Communist regimes and the death of Marxist ideology have left large sectors of our political, cultural, and religious leadership at a loss as to how to think and talk about the world. Their belief system has been exploded. Over the last four decades, and especially since the 1960s, that belief system had two chief articles of faith. The first article—and there were both hard and soft versions of this—was that, all things considered, Marxist regimes and would-be regimes represented the authentic aspiration of “the people” for a more just social order. Those who subscribed to the hard version of this article of faith were quite up-front in cheerleading Communist rule in, among other places, Maoist China, Castro’s Cuba, North Korea, East Germany, Grenada, Nicaragua, and even in the Soviet Union itself.
Those who subscribed to the soft version acknowledged the unpleasant aspects of such regimes, but operated on two saving provisos. First, they said that even the more oppressive Marxist regimes were in their professed ideals, if not in practice, on the right side of history; and they had, after all, made remarkable economic and social gains, even if at a terrible human price. The second and more important proviso was that Marxism and socialism must not be judged by the failures of Marxists and socialists. “True” Marxism and “true” socialism, it was incessantly asserted, have yet to be given a fair try.
The second article of faith in the belief system now exploded was shared by both the hard and soft socialists, but also by many who did not want to be pinned with the Marxist, or even the socialist, label. That article was, quite simply, that—all in all, and considering the alternatives—the United States is a negative force in world history. Many went further and said the U.S. was a force for evil, the root cause of capitalist, imperialist, militarist oppression in the world. The more temperate contented themselves with asserting that the U.S. represented the revolutions of the past ranged against the revolutions of the future. In their view, America had become, more willy-nilly than by conscious design, the bastion of political reaction and the anchor of a world economic system that was the cause of most, if not all, of the poverty, suffering, and environmental degradation in the world. Among the conclusions to be drawn from this state of affairs was that Americans were in no moral position to be “judgmental” about Communist regimes and sundry Marxist insurgencies against the “unjust status quo.”
These, then, were two articles of the belief system: the conviction that socialism, more or less Marxist, held the key to a more promising future, and that America and its power in the world was the chief obstacle to the realization of that future. It is a terrible thing to have a belief system destroyed, and destroyed so unceremoniously. We are witnessing the pain that attends what Peter Berger has analyzed as “the collapse of plausibility structures.” After such a collapse people are left without a place to stand, bereft of ideas with which to make sense of things, without a way to locate themselves in the continuing disputations about the shape of the world and what to do about it. People in the “knowledge class”—e.g., media pundits, politically concerned academics, the church-and-society curia—are supposed to know, they are paid to know, they have a deep career investment in what they claim to know. After the Revolution of 1989, it is embarrassingly apparent that many, probably most, members of the knowledge class did not know what they were talking about. They were wrong. Worse than being wrong, from their viewpoint, they were stupid.
There are a number of possible reactions to the trauma of plausibility collapse, all of them marked by desperation. Denial is the most common, and perhaps the most understandable. It can take the form of simply pretending that nothing has changed. Here, for instance, is a brand new statement from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “The Church in Society: Toward a Lutheran Perspective.” Brand-new, and depressingly old. The source of injustice in the world, we are told, is individualism and economic systems based on competitiveness. And so, self-evidently, the course of justice is communal and egalitarian restructuring of the world along the lines of “economic and social democracy.” It is as though the Revolution of 1989 never happened. Most of the people responsible for statements such as this would not publicly call themselves socialists, and might be sincerely appalled at being called Marxists. They are simply locked into an antiquated belief system, operating on habitual assumptions, blithely unaware of the historical provenance of the ideas they take to be self evidently true. They have been spared the pain of knowing that their plausibility structures have collapsed. Most of them, charity compels us to say, are less devious than dumb.
Others, more swift of mind and fleet of foot, employ deception in support of denial. Here is where post-cold war Newspeak becomes more interesting. Consider, for example, Eugene Rochberg-Halton, social theorist and author of Meaning and Modernity, writing on the op-ed page of the New York Times. His subject is the “cold war’s victims,” and the victims in question are all the people who have allegedly suffered from American militarism. The list of victims is long, and the author thinks a memorial should be erected to them. On that memorial, he suggests, should be inscribed the words uttered earlier this year by President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia: ‘The previous regime, armed with a proud and intolerant ideology, reduced people into the means of production... Out of talented and responsible people, ingeniously husbanding their land, it made cogs of some great, monstrous, smelly machine, with an unclear purpose.”
Ponder this for a moment, please. Havel’s words are spoken in condemnation of the Communist regime overthrown in the Revolution of 1989. They are spoken in the context of affirming the new Czechoslovakia’s determination to be part of Europe and the West, with representative democracy and a market economy. Never mind; Rochberg-Halton, clearly a victim of cold war plausibility collapse, seizes upon Havel’s words and twists them into a condemnation of the Western democracies that Havel intends to praise. Here is where desperation turns into the deception of post-cold war Newspeak.
Or consider the editorial line now advanced by Sojourners, a magazine that advertises itself as the voice of radical evangelicalism. It has been watching the 1989 Revolution with great interest and enthusiasm, and searching for what it means for Christians in the West. What it means, according to Sojourners, is that the champions of democracy in the West who have been so critical of Communism in the East have been proved wrong. The evidence of that, if you will believe it, is that the Communist nations are having their revolution while our revolution still hasn’t happened! Readers who shake their head in disbelief at such logical contortions fail to understand that, for this species of Christian radicalism, the struggle for justice is against the undifferentiated reality of “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6), and the nature of the principality or power in question really does not matter. The revolutionary mandate does not allow for nice discriminations, such as that between totalitarianism and liberal democracy. In other words. Communism is better because it is so obviously bad that it leads to revolution against Communism. Liberal democracy, on the other hand, insidiously preserves the hated status quo.
Post-cold war Newspeak is evident in another way of talking that has become widespread in the last year or so. Communist hardliners are routinely referred to as “conservatives, “ while their anti-Communist critics are the “liberals.” Thus the geriatric champions of Maoism in China, Gorbachev’s opponents in the politburo, and, increasingly, Fidel Castro are “conservative.” Behind this peculiar usage is an assumed alignment of moral judgment. Liberal and left are good, conservative and right are bad. Add to that the felt need to be on the side of history’s winners. The conclusion is obvious: If it is turning out that those who used to be called the conservatives are winning, then it must be that they are really liberals. And vice versa.
Such Newspeak is turning our political language into an awful muddle. In this century the difference between left and right has been fairly well understood. The left emphasized economic and social rights, the right emphasized civil and political rights. The left favored state planning in a command economy, the right favored competition in a market economy. Among religious leaders, the left believed that some curtailment of religious freedom could be tolerated for the sake of other social goods, the right insisted that there is no higher good than religious freedom. There were distinctions and arguments at the edges, but that was the fairly well understood shape of the dispute. To be sure, until the 1960s, those farther to the left complained that most American liberals were really on the right, and they were right about that. But, with the “radicalization” of the last twenty years, that changed and liberalism lurched dramatically leftward. In our recent political experience, the distinction between “left” and “liberal” has become somewhat strained, but it is worth remembering that liberalism has not always meant what it is generally thought to mean today.
Perhaps the more useful distinction since the 1960s, many have argued, is the distinction between anti-Communists and anti-anti-Communists. The Revolution of 1989 in Eastern Europe is one in which the anti-Communists—those who give priority to civil and political rights, favor market economics, and insist on religious and cultural freedom—are carrying the day. The most elaborate exercises in post-cold war Newspeak cannot disguise for long the fact that the anti-anti-Communist left has been discredited by the very course of history to which it made its ultimate appeal for vindication. Anti-Communist critics should not gloat excessively over the discomfiture of the left. After all, it did not take much intelligence for most people to see through the moralistic pretensions of a Marxism that visited upon millions nothing but brutal madness. Moreover, the Utopian impulse that drove the death march of Marxism has not come to an end. Leaving Marxism behind, that impulse will surely contrive new banners, slogans, and grand illusions with which to resume the march.
But, for now, we can be grateful for a momentary pause in the march of madness. This is the second great pause in this century, the first being the defeat of National Socialism. Unlike that horror, however, Marxism and ideas derived from Marxism supplied much of the intellectual leadership of the West with a belief system. Those who have been deprived of their belief system are in pain. It is not surprising that some of them desperately lash about with denials and deceptions, trying to cover their embarrassment. And some sympathy is in order for others who seem to be in a state of catatonic stupor, capable only of mouthing the slogans of a vanishing world. In such a situation, the emergence of post-cold war Newspeak was perhaps inevitable. It need not permanently corrupt our moral and political discourse if we remain calm and clear about why so many of the “best and the brightest” feel they need it to get through what has to be a very difficult period in their intellectual sojourn.