“Workers of the world . . . forgive me.”
—Graffiti on a statue of Karl Marx
Moscow, August 1991
The monuments have fallen now; the faces are changed. In the graveyards the martyrs have been rehabilitated, and everywhere the names are restored. In a revolutionary eyeblink, a bloody lifetime has passed into history.
During the climactic hours of the Communist fall, someone—Boris Yeltsin perhaps—observed that it was a pity that Marxists had not triumphed in some smaller country, because “we would not have had to kill so many people to demonstrate that Utopia does not work.”
What more is there to say?
Nothing, if we could be sure that this was truly the end of it. If we could really close the book on the long, sorry episode of human folly and evil that the socialist experiment has turned out to be. If we could look on this futile tale of human suffering and deprivation as a tragic detour in the march of progress, now safely left behind. But to do so would be to court yet another illusion: that the chronicle of misfortune that makes up the socialist chapter in the human epic was indeed an aberration—the result of mistaken ideas now painfully corrected, rather than passions rooted in the human heart.
In some sense, of course, the entire episode of this failed Utopia can reasonably be viewed as a colossal mistake. Few doctrines have been proven so wrong as the socialist doctrine of Karl Marx. None, by the very force of its error, has been the cause of so much human misery and heartbreak. Yet this merely identifies the paradox: How could such error inherit such power? What can account—even now, after the fall—for the continuing presence of Marxist paradigms and socialist values in America’s universities and in other institutions of its intellectual culture?
At least a part of the answer lies in the oft-noted affinity of Marxist ideas for much of what is held to be modern and intellectually valuable in the cultural heritage of the West. It is for this reason that—through its entire bloody history—Communism has been able to draw on the support (and count on the forbearance) of many who were not themselves members of the radical faith. Here is a Cold War balance sheet of their service recently drawn by Hilton Kramer:
It will always be a mark of moral and intellectual dishonor for the West that in this historic and protracted encounter with the adversaries of freedom and democracy so many of our most gifted writers, artists, scientists, and intellectuals were more energetically engaged in opposing our own political institutions and the ideas essential to their survival than in questioning either the lethal political doctrines that were designed to destroy them or the elaborate edifice of cultural mendacity that was spawned by the Communist movement for the express purpose of bringing down the democratic societies of the West.
Now that Communism is buried, the same “progressive” voices are proclaiming that it is not “real socialism” but only a Soviet version that has died, that free market conservatives have not been vindicated by their Cold War victory, that the radical ideals of the socialist left are not implicated by the crimes perpetrated in their name. Although Marxism itself is inevitably in retreat, a rainbow of parallel ideologies has emerged to take its place. The new paradigms are built on gender and race instead of class, but at their core is the same old Utopian project: to create a world of perfect equality and human unity. At a moment when the wounds of whole continents lie open and bleeding in the East, in the West the Utopian passion is being born again.
Its progress is well illustrated in the recent writings of the philosopher Richard Rorty, one of America’s foremost academics and an exponent of pragmatism, the quintessential American philosophy. A philosophic skeptic and political liberal, Rorty’s moral support for the radical impulse provides an exemplary case of the way the totalitarian temptation still lives in the heart of the intellectual culture of the West.
As a “postmodernist,” Rorty’s stance differs from liberalisms past in laying a nihilistic ax to the root of the very values and traditions that make liberal society possible. As a result, his liberal faith—whose sincerity is not in doubt—comes to seem merely sentimental and to provoke suspicions of hypocrisy by friends and enemies alike. One of Rorty’s students, New Left professor Cornel West, recently put the question to Rorty directly. How, West asks in The American Evasion of Philosophy, can Rorty “kick the philosophical props from under bourgeois capitalist societies and require no change in our cultural practices”? West goes on to condemn Rorty for his “barren” philosophizing and his “fervent vigilance to preserve the prevailing bourgeois way of life in North Atlantic societies.”
In his reply to West in Transition, Rorty reveals the continuing attraction for American liberals of the prophetic fantasies of the political left. Far from recognizing in an ideologue like West a political enemy, Rorty instead apologizes for his own ineffectuality in promoting the radical agenda: “Unless we pragmatist philosophy professors find some prophets whom we can serve as auxiliaries, we are not of much interest.” Apologizing for any vigilance he might be seen to have exerted in defense of bourgeois society, Rorty explains that his concern is “largely a matter of urging that we hang on to constitutional democracy—the only institutional aspect of the ‘prevailing bourgeois way of life’ about which I get fervent—while patriotically striving to keep social protest alive.”
For Rorty, America’s constitutional order is only an “aspect” of its existence, without organic relation to other institutions like free markets, private property, and the unpragmatically self-evident truths of a Judeo-Christian tradition. The radical assault on America’s foundations is, in the view of Rortian liberalism, a benign surgery, as though it were possible to attack the foundations of bourgeois society without radical consequences for the liberty those foundations have made historically possible. In this way, Rorty can still think of himself as an apostle of American liberalism while embracing a project that is its radical negation.
In the end, Rorty’s posture is that of the classic fellow traveller—to will the ends of revolution but not the means. Starting from the premises of universal skepticism and nihilistic doubt, he concludes with hope for the victory of believers of the radical faith:
Pragmatism in the professorial sense is just a repudiation of the quest for certainty and foundations, which West has described as “the evasion of philosophy” This evasion is socially useful only if teamed up with prophecies—fairly concrete prophecies of a Utopian social future.
This social Utopia, Rorty had explained a year before the Communist collapse, should be built on radical egalitarian foundations: “Suppose that somewhere, someday, the newly elected government of a large industrialized society decreed that everybody would get the same income, regardless of occupation or disability. . . . That country would become an irresistible example . . . . Sooner or later the world would be changed.”
Indeed—as all the suffering of this revolutionary century attests—it would.
Rorty’s wish to be “socially useful” is really a form of the religious desire that the modern temper denies and that radical messianisms, like the Marxist faith, come forward to satisfy. This is the common aspiration that creates the popular front between the revolution and its apologetic liberal allies. For the abiding root of the revolutionary impulse lies not in the frailty of the human intellect, but in the weakness of the human heart.
For the left, it is not socialism, but only the language of socialism, that is finally dead. In the universe of postmodern relativists, there is no truth, no lesson that can be derived from this terrible experience, but only competing “stories” of the past and future. To be reborn, the left has only to rename itself in terms that do not carry the memory of insurmountable defeat, to appropriate a “narrative” in which the leftist Utopia can still propose itself as a moral “solution.”
It is a task already well under way. In a Los Angeles Times essay appearing one month after the dissolution of Communism in the Soviet Union, Jeffrey C. Alexander, chairman of the Sociology Department at UCLA, joined with a colleague to propose this revised version of the socialist myth: “This grand social narrative of American life is what we might call the Drama of Democracy: a messianic, at times apocalyptic, struggle to secure a world where all people will be free, equal, independent, and without want.” In this way the same Utopian fantasy that has filled the world with so much treachery and unhappiness in our time is being revived as a patriotic vision.
The conflict that now divides America’s political culture is a familiar one. According to the radical myth, new style: “The dramatic tension [in America’s social narrative] arises from the struggle to make this ‘American Dream’ available to everyone.” But contrast this with the conservatism of Federalist #10, which found solace in the geographical vastness of the new republic because of the obstacles so many factions would pose to a party bent on radical redistribution:
A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it, in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district than an entire State.
In the post-Communist era, the dramatic tension of the American narrative differs in name from what it has been until now. But does it differ in substance? Can we not hear in these voices the same discordant agendas that have led to the tragedies of the past: the tension between democracy understood as limited government—the flowering of a diverse and inchoate humanity—and democracy as a total state?
David Horowitz is coauthor, with Peter Collier, of Deconstructing the Left (Second Thought Books).