This book was once famous, but was mostly forgotten when Communism died and so-called liberal democracy seemed ascendant. It is increasingly famous again, and relevant, in these days of a new creeping totalitarianism, this time in the West itself. Such timelessness is the signature of a classic work, so my goal today is to explicate Václav Havel’s thought, and to show why its time has come round again.
When we think of the Soviet Union, we mostly think of it as a fully realized totalitarian state. We think of Stalin, of World War II and of the Cold War. Lenin is a shadowy figure to most of us, usually lumped in with the chaos that preceded and surrounded the Russian Revolution. As a result, biographies of Stalin and histories of the Cold War are a dime a dozen, but there are few objective biographies of Lenin. He, though, was the true author of Soviet totalitarianism, and, more importantly, he, and he alone, was the indispensable man to the creation of Communism as a realized state, even if he did not live to see it. His life, therefore, is important, in that it illuminates history, and also in that it provides, in some ways, an instruction book for those seeking change today.
Mark Lilla’s books are all polished gems, perfectly and fluidly written, brief yet complete within the ambit Lilla sets for each of his works. This book, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, was written about a decade after the collapse of Communism. From its title, the casual browser might think it was a general attack on intellectuals. It is not that at all—Lilla is nothing if not an intellectual himself, and he sees a lot of merit in the world of ideas, if he also sees its limitations. Rather, this is an examination of why brilliant men and women of the modern world so often willingly dance with tyranny, and an attempt to draw a distinction between mere intellectuals, who often toady to raw power, and true philosophers, who pursue virtue.
The wicked reality of Communism has, over the past twenty-five years, been deliberately erased from Western education and, more broadly, from the Western mind. This was entirely predictable. The reasons behind the erasure are not complex. The ruling classes and social tastemakers in the West at the time that Communism fell, and for decades before and since, had and have a lot of sympathy for Communism. They were appalled by efforts, like Reagan’s, to actually end Communism, and they had no real problem with it in practice. To nobody’s surprise, today they have no interest in admitting their support for evil, or in exposing their guilt to a new generation. Moreover, as Ryszard Legutko has explained at length, Communism has much in common with modern liberal democracy—far more than liberal democracy has with pre-liberal forms of political thought. Education and the media are today controlled by these philo-Communists, throughout the West (with a few virtuous exceptions, notably Poland and Hungary). As a result, from a combination of self-interest and ideological sympathy and compatibility, the vast …
This book’s title is a lie, as is most of what little history it contains. I read Europe Since 1989: A History to fill in the gaps from Tony Judt’s Postwar, which ends its history around 2000. Philipp Ther’s book was published in 2014, with an English translation in 2016, and it specifically name-checks Judt’s book. Thus, it seemed like the ideal way to bring my knowledge to the present day. But this book could better be titled A Narrow Attack on the Economics and Social Impact of Neoliberalism in Post-Communist Eastern Europe; Or Why State Socialism is Awesome. This book is, in fact, an apologetic for Communism, and a plea for a return to as many aspects of it as feasible, buried under a mishmash of rambling attacks on the economic methods used during the return to freedom of Eastern Europe.
Postwar, by the late Tony Judt, is the type of book for which the term “magisterial” might have been invented. Judt takes an enormous amount of information and condenses it down to a manageable narrative, not in the service of some overarching thesis, but simply to communicate the basic history of the period (namely, from World War Two until early 2005). He is even-handed and insightful. The only problem, though, is that today’s reader finds it hard to care about this period. Viewed from the perspective of 2017, very much of this strikes the reader as roughly equivalent to discussion of who ruled Mohenjo-Daro in 2413 B.C. The knowledge is not worthless, but it is not worth much, because it is irrelevant to today’s Europe, barren of children and swamped by barbarians, a continent whose major challenges are maintaining any global relevancy past the next few decades, and surviving in any recognizable form thereafter. On the other hand, though, the facts narrated here do offer various lessons for us, which is one reason the book …
I have a confession to make. The first history I learned about the Vietnam War was from watching the move Rambo, in 1985. Around the same time, and viewable on VHS (what’s that, Daddy?) if you missed it in the theater, were movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, the latter set during the battle that is the focus of this book. From these movies, naturally, I learned little real history, and haven’t learned much more about Vietnam since. In fact, when I was a young lawyer at a giant law firm, I used to amuse myself by needling the senior partners, rich, aging hippies all, by telling them that I thought of World War I and the Vietnam War as roughly contemporaneous, and equally relevant to the modern age—that is, not at all. They were not amused.
The heroes of every age are often not seen as heroes during their lives, or if so viewed in their own age they are not so viewed in later ages. And doubtless perceptions of heroes change as one future passes into another. But for us, today, Churchill and Orwell are heroes to many, and whatever else may be true, this alone gives the two men something in common. Thomas Ricks uses this commonality as the springboard and organizing theme for his book, which is a competently written capsule biography of its title subjects, combining examination of the men with examination of their time. His book offers both an interesting narration of known facts and some fresh insights by the author—neither an easy feat when dealing with heroes.
There is a scene in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, in which a character comes across a book of philosophy (Schopenhauer) and realizes in a soaring epiphany that it contains the answers to all of life’s questions. For me, this book served much the same purpose—it explained to me why certain things are the way they are in the modern world. Although, sadly, it did not explain “all of life’s questions,” such as what is contained in Area 51. (I will also gloss over that the character in Mann’s novel quickly forgets the supposed answers and then drops dead of a tooth infection.)
It is easy enough to know what the Right thinks, and why. Half a dozen recent books can easily be found explaining clearly libertarianism; or social conservatism; or “reform conservatism.” But no such thing exists for the Left. Yes, there are many books on what political ends the Left desires. I think those desires are mostly insane and fly in the face of reality. But it cannot be true that those on the Left view their desires, or what drives their desires, as either insane or senseless. And one must know one’s enemy. So why are those ends desired? I have always found that hard to say.