If you check the websites of any one of the major booksellers, you can get an idea of the kind of books people are reading these days by checking their offerings. Click on the “history” link, for example, and you’ll quickly find quite a few offerings on U.S. history, with emphasis on the Civil War, the Revolution, and the Founding Fathers. There are lots of books about war, an occasional revelation of how this or that class of victims was victimized, or this or that historical villain perpetrated his evil deeds, and a sprinkling of sports histories, but there are gaping lacunae when it comes to coverage of events that really shaped the times we live in, and the ideological and political developments of yesterday that are portents of what we can expect tomorrow.
Perhaps the Internet, wonderful as it is, is part of the problem. The wealth of information it provides tends to be sharply focused on the here and now. We have all the minutiae of the health care debate, troop levels in Afghanistan, and the narratives affirming and rejecting global warming at our fingertips, but little to encourage us to take an occasional step back to see things in their historical perspective. As a result, one finds much ranting about Marxism, socialism, fascism, Communism, and related ideological phenomena, but little understanding of how they arose in the first place, how it is they became so prominent, or why they are still relevant.
Such ideologies appealed to aspects of human nature that haven’t gone anywhere in the meantime. The specific doctrines of Marx, Bakunin, and Hitler are discredited because they didn’t work in practice. That doesn’t mean that new variants with promises of alternate Brave New Worlds won’t arise to take their place. For the time being, Islamism has rushed in to fill the vacuum left by their demise, but I doubt it will satisfy the more secular minded of the chronic zealots among us for very long. The Islamists may have appropriated the political jargon of the “progressive” left, but it’s a stretch to suggest that western leftists are about to become pious Muslims any time soon. Should the economies of the developed nations turn south for an extended period of time, or some other profound social dislocation take place, some new secular faith is likely to arise, promising a way out to the desperate, a new faith for the congenitally fanatical, and a path to power for future would-be Stalins.
To understand the fanaticisms of bygone days, and perhaps foresee the emergence of those of the future, it would be well if we occasionally stepped back from our obsession with the ideological disputes of the present and pondered the nature and outcome of those of the past. One such outcome was the birth of the United States, and the subsequent replacement of monarchical systems by secular democracies in many countries, accompanied by the movement away from societies highly stratified by class to more egalitarian systems. Personally, I am inclined to welcome that development, but it remains to be seen whether the resultant social and political systems are capable of maintaining their integrity and the cultural identity of the people they represent against the onslaught of alien cultures and religions.
Another, less positive, outcome has been the emergence of secular dogmas such as those mentioned above, promising rewards in the here and now instead of the hereafter. These have generated levels of fanaticism akin to those generated by religious faith in the past. In fact, as belief systems, they are entirely akin to religion, as various thinkers have repeatedly pointed out over the past two centuries. They are substantially different from religions only in the absence of belief in supernatural beings. These belief systems have spawned all the mayhem that their religious cousins spawned in the past, but with a substantial difference. I suspect that difference is more a function of general advances in literacy, technology, and social awareness than any distinctions of dogma.
Specifically, for the first time on such a massive scale, the mayhem and slaughter occasioned by fanatical belief in these new secular dogmas has not fallen with more or less equal weight on all the strata of society. Rather, its tendency has been to eliminate the most intelligent, the most productive, and the most creative. Lenin and Stalin were not indiscriminate in their mass murder. They singled out scientists, academics, the most intelligent and productive farmers, the most economically productive, the most politically aware, and the most creative thinkers. Their goal was to eliminate anyone who was likely to oppose them effectively. In general, these were the most intelligent members of society. Similarly, the horrific Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia systematically eliminated anyone with a hint of education or appearance of intellectual superiority. In another example, of which most of us are only dimly aware, although it happened in living memory, the right in the Spanish Civil War ruthlessly sought out and shot anyone on the left prominent for political thought or leadership capacity, and the left, in turn, sought out and shot anyone who had managed to rise above the bare level of subsistence of the proletariat. The Nazis virtually eliminated a minority famous for its creativity, intelligence, and productivity.
Mass murder is hardly a novelty among human beings. It has been one of our enduring characteristics since the dawn of recorded time. However, this new variant, in which the best and brightest are selectively eliminated, really only emerged in all its fury in the 20th century. The French Reign of Terror, similarly selective as it was, was child’s play by comparison, with its mere 20,000 victims. The victims of Communism alone approach 100 million. In two countries, at least, it is difficult to see how this will not have profound effects on the ability of the remaining population to solve the many problems facing modern societies. In effect, those two countries, the former Soviet Union and Cambodia, beheaded themselves. The wanton elimination of so much intellectual potential by their former masters is bound to have a significant effect on the quality of the human capabilities available to rebuild society now that the Communist nightmare is over, at least for them. Perhaps, at some future time when we regain the liberty to speculate about such matters without being shouted down as evildoers by the pathologically politically correct, some nascent Ph.D. in psychology will undertake to measure the actual drop in collective intelligence in those countries resulting from the Communist mass murder.
It behooves us, then, to remember what happened in the 20th century. It is hardly out of the question that new fanatical faiths will emerge, both secular and religious, and that they we be capable of all the social devastation of the Communists and Nazis and then some. Here in America, an earlier generation, even in the darkest days of the Great Depression, rejected the siren song of the fanatics. For that, we owe them much. Let us try to emulate them in the future.