AN OLD QUESTION ASKED ANEW
1 Our Pessimism
—Emile Fackenheim, God’s Presence in History1As decent and sober a thinker as Immanuel Kant could still seriously believe that war served the purposes of Providence. After Hiroshima, all war is known to be at best a necessary evil. As saintly a theologian as St. Thomas Aquinas could in all seriousness argue that tyrants serve providential ends, for if it were not for tyrants there would be no opportunity for martyrdom. After Auschwitz, anyone using this argument would be guilty of blasphemy…. After these dread events, occurring in the heart of the modern, enlightened, technological world, can one still believe in the God who is necessary Progress any more than in the God who manifests His Power in the form of super-intending Providence?
The twentieth century, it is safe to say, has made all of us into deep historical pessimists.
As individuals, we can of course be optimistic concerning our personal prospects for health and happiness. By long-standing tradition, Americans as a people are said to be continually hopeful about the future. But when we come to larger questions, such as whether there has been or will be progress in history, the verdict is decidedly different. The soberest and most thoughtful minds of this century have seen no reason to think that the world is moving toward what we in the West consider decent and humane political institutions—that is, liberal democracy. Our deepest thinkers have concluded that there is no such thing as History—that is, a meaningful order to the broad sweep of human events. Our own experience has taught us, seemingly, that the future is more likely than not to contain new and unimagined evils, from fanatical
dictatorships and bloody genocides to the banalization of life through modern consumerism, and that unprecedented disasters await us from nuclear winter to global warming.
The pessimism of the twentieth century stands in sharp contrast to the optimism of the previous one. Though Europe began the nineteenth century convulsed by war and revolution, it was by and large a century of peace and unprecedented increases in material well-being. There were two broad grounds for optimism. The first was the belief that modern science would improve human life by conquering disease and poverty. Nature, long man’s adversary, would be mastered by modern technology and made to serve the end of human happiness. Second, free democratic governments would continue to spread to more and more countries around the world. The “Spirit of 1776,” or the ideals of the French Revolution, would vanquish the world’s tyrants, autocrats, and superstitious priests. Blind obedience to authority would be replaced by rational self-government, in which all men, free and equal, would have to obey no masters but themselves. In light of the broad movement of civilization, even bloody wars like those of Napoleon could be interpreted by philosophers as socially progressive in their results, because they fostered the spread of republican government. A number of theories, some serious and the others less so, were put forward to explain how human history constituted a coherent whole, whose twists and turns could be understood as leading to the good things of the modern era. In 1880 a certain Robert Mackenzie was able to write:
Human history is a record of progress—a record of accumulating knowledge and increasing wisdom, of continual advancement from a lower to a higher platform of intelligence and well-being. Each generation passes on to the next the treasures which it inherited, beneficially modified by its own experience, enlarged by the fruits of all the victories which itself has gained…. The growth of man’s well-being, rescued from the mischievous tampering of self-willed princes, is left now to the beneficent regulation of great providential laws.2
Under the heading of “torture,” the famous eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica
published in 1910-11 explained that “the whole subject is one of only historical interest as far as Europe is concerned.”3
On the very eve of World War I, the journalist
Norman Angell published his book The Great Illusion,
in which he argued that free trade had rendered territorial aggrandizement obsolete, and that war had become economically irrational.4
The extreme pessimism of our own century is due at least in part to the cruelty with which these earlier expectations were shattered. The First World War was a critical event in the undermining of Europe’s self-confidence. The war of course brought down the old political order represented by the German, Austrian, and Russian monarchies, but its deeper impact was psychological. Four years of indescribably horrible trench warfare, in which tens of thousands died in a single day over a few yards of devastated territory, was, in the words of Paul Fussell, “a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing Meliorist myth which had dominated public consciousness for a century,” reversing “the idea of Progress.”5
The virtues of loyalty, hard work, perseverance, and patriotism were brought to bear in the systematic and pointless slaughter of other men, thereby discrediting the entire bourgeois world which had created these values.6
As Paul, the young soldier hero of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front,
explains, “For us lads of eighteen [our teachers at school] ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress—to the future…. But the first death we saw shattered this belief.” In words echoed by young Americans during the Vietnam War, he concluded that “our generation was more to be trusted than theirs.”7
The notion that the industrial progress of Europe could be turned to war without moral redemption or meaning led to bitter denunciations of all attempts to find larger patterns or meaning in history. Thus, the renowned British historian H. A. L. Fisher could write in 1934 that “Men wiser and more learned than I have discerned in history a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me. I can see only one emergency following upon another as wave follows upon wave.”8
The First World War was, as it turned out, only a foretaste of the new forms of evil that were soon to emerge. If modern science made possible weapons of unprecedented destructiveness like the machine gun and the bomber, modern politics created a state of unprecedented power, for which a new word, totalitarianism,
had to be coined. Backed by efficient police power, mass political parties, and radical ideologies that sought to control all aspects of
human life, this new type of state embarked on a project no less ambitious than world domination. The genocides perpetrated by the totalitarian regimes of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia were without precedent in human history, and in many respects were made possible by modernity itself.9
There have of course been many bloody tyrannies before the twentieth century, but Hitler and Stalin put both modern technology and modern political organization in the service of evil. It had previously been beyond the technical ability of “traditional” tyrannies to contemplate something so ambitious as the elimination of an entire class of people like the Jews of Europe or the kulaks in the Soviet Union. Yet this was precisely the task made possible by the technical and social advances of the previous century. The wars unleashed by these totalitarian ideologies were also of a new sort, involving the mass destruction of civilian populations and economic resources—hence the term, “total war.” To defend themselves from this threat, liberal democracies were led to adopt military strategies like the bombing of Dresden or Hiroshima that in earlier ages would have been called genocidal.
Nineteenth-century theories of progress associated human evil with a backward state of social development. While Stalinism did arise in a backward, semi-European country known for its despotic government, the Holocaust emerged in a country with the most advanced industrial economy and one of the most cultured and well-educated populations in Europe. If such events could happen in Germany, why then could they not happen in any other advanced country? And if economic development, education, and culture were not a guarantee against a phenomenon like nazism, what was the point of historical progress?10
The experience of the twentieth century made highly problematic the claims of progress on the basis of science and technology. For the ability of technology to better human life is critically dependent on a parallel moral progress in man. Without the latter, the power of technology will simply be turned to evil purposes, and mankind will be worse off than it was previously. The total wars of the twentieth century would not have been possible without the basic advances of the Industrial Revolution: iron, steel, the internal combustion engine, and the airplane. And since Hiroshima, mankind has lived under the shadow of the most terrible technological advance of all, that of nuclear weapons. The fantastic economic growth made possible by modern science had a
dark side, for it has led to severe environmental damage to many parts of the planet, and raised the possibility of an eventual global ecological catastrophe. It is frequently asserted that global information technology and instant communications have promoted democratic ideals, as in the case of CNN’s worldwide broadcasting of the occupation of Tienanmen Square in 1989, or of the revolutions in Eastern Europe later that year. But communications technology itself is value-neutral. Ayatollah Khomeini’s reactionary ideas were imported into Iran prior to the 1978 revolution on cassette tape recorders that the Shah’s economic modernization of the country had made widely available. If television and instant global communications had existed in the 1930s, they would have been used to great effect by Nazi propagandists like Leni Riefenstahl and Joseph Goebbels to promote fascist rather than democratic ideas.
The traumatic events of the twentieth century formed the backdrop to a profound intellectual crisis as well. It is possible to speak of historical progress only if one knows where mankind is going. Most nineteenth-century Europeans thought that progress meant progress toward democracy. But for most of this century, there has been no consensus on this question. Liberal democracy was challenged by two major rival ideologies—fascism and communism—which offered radically different visions of a good society. People in the West themselves came to question whether liberal democracy was in fact a general aspiration of all mankind, and whether their earlier confidence that it was did not reflect a narrow ethnocentrism on their part. As Europeans were forced to confront the non-European world, first as colonial masters, then as patrons during the Cold War and theoretical equals in a world of sovereign nation states, they came to question the universality of their own ideals. The suicidal self-destructiveness of the European state system in two world wars gave lie to the notion of superior Western rationality, while the distinction between civilized and barbarian that was instinctive to Europeans in the nineteenth century was much harder to make after the Nazi death camps. Instead of human history leading in a single direction, there seemed to be as many goals as there were peoples or civilizations, with liberal democracy having no particular privilege among them.
In our own time, one of the clearest manifestations of our pessimism was the almost universal belief in the permanence of a
vigorous, communist-totalitarian alternative to Western liberal democracy. When he was secretary of state in the 1970s, Henry Kissinger warned his countrymen that “today, for the first time in our history, we face the stark reality that the [communist] challenge is unending….
We must learn to conduct foreign policy as other nations have had to conduct it for so many centuries—without escape and without respite…. This condition will not go away.”11
According to Kissinger, it was utopian to try to reform the fundamental political and social structures of hostile powers like the USSR. Political maturity meant acceptance of the world as it was and not the way we wanted it to be, which meant coming to terms with Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. And while the conflict between communism and democracy could be moderated, it and the possibility of apocalyptic war could never be overcome completely.
Kissinger’s view was by no means unique. Virtually everyone professionally engaged in the study of politics and foreign policy believed in the permanence of communism; its worldwide collapse in the late 1980s was therefore almost totally unanticipated. This failure was not simply a matter of ideological dogma interfering with a “dispassionate” view of events. It affected people across the political spectrum, right, left, and center, journalists as well as scholars, and politicians both East and West.12
The roots of a blindness so pervasive were much more profound than mere partisanship, and lay in the extraordinary historical pessimism engendered by the events of this century.
As recently as 1983, Jean-François Revel declared that “democracy may, after all, turn out to have been a historical accident, a brief parenthesis that is closing before our eyes …”13
The Right, of course, had never believed that communism had achieved any degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the populations it controlled, and saw quite clearly the economic failings of socialist societies. But much of the Right believed that a “failed society” like the Soviet Union had nonetheless found the key to power through the invention of Leninist totalitarianism, by which a small band of “bureaucrat-dictators” could bring to bear the power of modern organization and technology and rule over large populations more or less indefinitely. Totalitarianism had succeeded not just in intimidating subject populations, but in forcing them to internalize the values of their communist masters. This was one of the distinctions that Jeanne Kirkpatrick, in a famous 1979 article, drew between traditional authoritarian regimes of the Right and
radical totalitarianisms of the Left. While the former “leave in place existing allocations of wealth, power, status” and “worship traditional gods and observe traditional taboos,” radical totalitarianisms of the Left seek to “claim jurisdiction over the whole of the society” and violate “internalized values and habits.” A totalitarian state, in contrast to a merely authoritarian one, was able to control its underlying society so ruthlessly that it was funda...