10 Oct 2007

Heroism, Modernism, and the Utopian Impulse

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James Bowman, in the New Atlantis:

Writing in the Washington Post about the dedication of the new Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, D.C., Philip Kennicott suggested that there is encoded in it the subtextual and “contentious” claim that “the left failed to adequately oppose communism.” As the memorial consists of a statue based on the replica of the Statue of Liberty carried by the students of Tiananmen Square in 1989, while the inscription on the plinth doesn’t mention “the left” at all but only says “to the more than one hundred million victims of communism and to those who love liberty,” you might almost think that somebody on the left had a sore conscience. It is hard to see, moreover, what would have been “contentious” about the claim—if it had been made—that, so far from opposing communism “adequately,” many on the American left hardly opposed it at all. Many others were unashamed apologists for the regimes that murdered the (estimated) 100 million people now being memorialized. Much of the left was —and remains— “anti-anti-communist.” This is what accounts for what Ferdinand Mount calls the “asymmetry of indulgence” afforded communistic and fascistic state-sponsored murders.

Robert Service, writing in The New Statesman, recently complained that merely because his book Comrades: A World History of Communism had noticed the toll taken on the lives and liberties of those unfortunate enough to have lived under Communist dictatorships, a reviewer in the British press had assigned to him the most despised epithet in the vocabulary of the contemporary British intellectual: “neocon.” Service noted ruefully that, though discredited wherever it has been instituted, “Communism, like nuclear fuel, has a long afterlife.” Indeed it does. But it didn’t occur to him to ask why. I think it is because Communism was a powerful example of the recurring strain of utopianism in the intellectual life of the West. Communism itself may have failed, but the utopian habit of thought on which it was based lingers on even among those who find Communism repugnant and hateful—even, perhaps, among the dreaded neocons themselves. And this survival, in turn, is a result of our culture’s having nowhere else to go in its long flight away from a heroic past it is determined to reject.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

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