The Rise of The Cliodynamicists

Those who’ve read science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy will recall the character of Hari Seldon, a scientist/prophet who developed the mathematical discipline of psychohistory, which enabled him to both predict and guide future events.  He taught that the future would be punctuated by “Seldon Crises,” which mankind would have to successfully negotiate if the good guys were to win in the end.  There have been many would be Hari Seldons in real life, among whom Karl Marx was probably the most prominent.  The latest variation on the theme is known as cliodynamics, defined by the journal of that name as “…a transdisciplinary area of research integrating historical macrosociology, economic history/cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases.”

According to a recent paper by cliodynamicist Peter Turchin entitled, “Dynamics of political instability in the United States, 1780–2010,” the Republic has so far successfully negotiated three Seldon Crisis analogs, and will encounter the next one around 2020.  The article includes a graph purporting to show how a composite of riots, lynchings, and terrorism peaked in the three earlier events, which occurred around 1870, 1920, and 1970, at neat 50-year intervals.  One enduring constant in history has certainly been the enduring popularity of fortune tellers.  There have been so many of them that some fraction of their predictions are bound to come true, or at least nearly true, thereby “proving” the general validity of the trade for the next generation of soothsayers.  This latest “scientific” version may be similarly “proved,” but I doubt it has a significant leg up over Nostradamus or the Mayan calendar.

Notice, for example, that the three earlier peaks happened to coincide with major wars, all of which had been predicted many years in advance of the time they actually happened, but none of which were provably inevitable, and, at least in the first two cases, were sparked, not by “macrosociological” cycles, but, in one instance, by the election of Abraham Lincoln, and in the next by the assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary.  A peak seems to be missing for 1820, and bona fide insurrections like Shay’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion that were certainly much remarked on by people at the time they happened are missing from the data.  Similar “peaks” in other countries haven’t happened at neat intervals, nor have they been separated at anything like 50 years.  For example, in France, major revolutions occurred in 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1870, with enough miscellaneous mayhem mixed in at random intervals between to make the U.S. “peaks” of 1920 and 1970 look like child’s play.

Well, what of it?  At worst the cliodynamicists may inspire a few people to take an interest in history, and at best they may significantly shorten the period of chaos between the rise and fall of galactic empires.

Hari Seldon

The Atomic Bomb and the Premonitions of James Burnham

We tend to be strongly influenced by the recent past in our predictions about the future.  After World War I, any number of pundits, statesmen, and military officers thought the next war would be a carbon copy of the one they had just lived through, albeit perhaps on a larger scale.  The German government’s disastrous decision to declare war in 1914 was likely influenced by the quick and decisive German victories in 1864, 1866, and 1870.  The Japanese were similarly mesmerized by their brilliant success against the Russians in 1904-05 after an opening surprise attack against the Russian fleet lying at anchor at Port Arthur, and assumed history would repeat itself if they launched a similar attack against Pearl Harbor.

Sometimes startling events force the reevaluation of old ideas and paradigms, such as the German armored Blitzkrieg or the destruction of powerful battleships from the air in World War II, or, more recently, the sudden collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union from 1989-91.  We are always fascinated by such events, yet few of us grasp their significance as they are happening.  Our tendency is always to look backwards, to fit the revolutionary and the unprecedented into the old world that we understand rather than the new one that we can’t yet imagine.  So it was after the dropping of the first atomic bombs.  It certainly focused the attention of public intellectuals, unleashing a torrent of essays full of dire predictions.  For many, the future they imagined was simply a continuation of the immediate past, albeit with new and incredibly destructive weapons.  It was to include the continued inexorable push for world dominion by totalitarian Communism, centered in the Soviet Union, and world wars following each other in quick succession every 15 to 20 years, about the same as the interval between the first two world wars.

Such a vision of the future was described by James Burnham in “The Struggle for the World,” published in 1947.  Burnham was a former Marxist and Trotskyite who eventually abandoned Marxism, and became one of the leading conservative intellectuals of his day.  His thought made a deep impression on, among others, George Orwell.  For example, he had suggested the possibility of a world dominated by three massive totalitarian states, constantly at war with each other, in an earlier book, “The Managerial Revolution,” published in 1941.  These became Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia in Orwell’s “1984.”  The notions of “doublethink”, the totalitarian use of terms such as “justice” and “peace” in a sense opposite to their traditional meanings, and the rewriting of history every few years “so that history itself will always be a confirmation of the immediate line of the party,” familiar to readers of “1984,” were also recurrent themes in “The Struggle for the World.”

Burnham, born in 1905, had come of age during the stunning period of wars, revolutions, and the birth of the first totalitarian states that began and ended with the world wars of the 20th century.  He assumed that events of such global impact would continue at the same pace, only this time in a world with nuclear weapons.   As a former Marxist, he knew that the Communists, at least, were deliberately engaged in a “struggle for the world,” and was dismayed that U.S. politicians at the time were so slow to realize the nature of the struggle.  He also correctly predicted that, unless they were stopped, the Communists would develop nuclear weapons in their Soviet base “in a few years.”  This, he warned, could not be allowed to happen because it would inevitably and quickly lead to a full scale nuclear exchange.  His reasoning was as follows:

Let us assume that more than one (two is enough for the assumption) power possesses, and is producing, atomic weapons.  Each will be improving the efficiency and destructive potential of the weapons as it goes along.  Now let us try to reason as the leaders of these powers would be compelled to reason.

Each leader of Power A could not but think as follows:  Power B has at its disposal instruments which could, in the shortest time, destroy us.  He has possibly made, or is about to make, new discoveries which will threaten even more complete and rapid destruction.  At the moment, perhaps, he shows no open disposition to use these instruments.  Nevertheless, I cannot possibly rely on his continued political benevolence – above all since he knows that I also have at my disposal instruments that can destroy him.  Some hothead – or some wise statesman – of his may even now be giving the order to push the necessary buttons.

Even if there were no atomic weapons, many of the leaders would undoubtedly be reasoning today along these lines.  Atomic weapons are, after all, not responsible for warfare, not even for the Third World War, which has begun.  The fact that the political and social causes of a war are abundantly present stares at us from every edition of every newspaper.  The existence of atomic weapons merely raises the stakes immeasurably higher, and demands a quicker decision.

But to assume, as do some foolish commentators, that fear of retaliation will be the best deterrent to an atomic war is to deny the lessons of the entire history of war and of society.  Fear, as Ferrero so eloquently shows, is what provokes the exercise of force.  Most modern wars have been, in the minds of every belligerent, preventive:  an effort to stamp out the fear of what the other side might be about to do.

The existence of two or more centers of control of atomic weapons would be equal to a grenade with the pin already pulled.

According to Burnham, the resulting nuclear war or wars would lead to the collapse of Western Civilization.  In his words,

If, however, we are not yet ready to accept passively the final collapse of Western Civilization, we may state the following as a necessary first condition of any workable solution of the problem of atomic weapons: there must be an absolute monopoly of the production, possession and use of all atomic weapons.

One wonders what direction world history might have taken had someone like Burnham been President in 1950 instead of Truman.  He would have almost certainly adopted MacArthur’s plan to drop numerous atomic bombs on China and North Korea.  We were lucky.  In the end, Truman’s homespun common sense prevailed over Burnham’s flamboyant intellect, and the nuclear genie remained in the bottle.

However, in 1947 the U.S. still had a monopoly of nuclear weapons, and, for the reasons cited above, Burnham insisted we must keep it.  He suggested that this might best be done by establishing an effectual world government, but dismissed the possibility as impractical.  The only workable alternative to a Communist conquest of the world or full scale nuclear war and the end of Western Civilization was U.S. hegemony.  In Burnham’s words,

It is not our individual minds or desires, but the condition of world society, that today poses for the Soviet Union, as representative of communism, and for the United States, as representative of Western Civilization, the issue of world leadership. No wish or thought of ours can charm this issue away.

This issue will be decided, and in our day. In the course off the decision, both of the present antagonists may, it is true, be destroyed. But one of them must be.

Whatever the words, it is well also to know the reality. The reality is that the only alternative to the communist World Empire is an American Empire which will be, if not literally worldwide in formal boundaries, capable of exercising decisive world control. Nothing less than this can be the positive, or offensive, phase of a rational United States policy.

As a first step to empire, Burnham proposed the union of Great Britain and the United States, to be followed, not by outright conquest, but by firm assertion of U.S. predominance and leadership in the non-Communist world.   Beyond that, the Communist threat must finally be recognized for what it was, and a firm, anti-Communist policy substituted for what was seen as a lack of any coherent policy at all.  Vacillation must end.

Fortunately, when it came to the nuclear standoff, Burnham was wrong, and the “foolish commentators” who invoked the fear of retaliation were right.  Perhaps, having only seen the effects of dropping two low yield bombs, he could not yet imagine the effect of thousands of bombs orders of magnitude more powerful, or conceive of such a thing as mutually assured destruction.  Perhaps it was only dumb luck, but the world did not stumble into a nuclear World War III as it had into the conventional world wars of the 20th century, and the decisive events in the struggle did not follow each other nearly as quickly as Burnham imagined they would.

Burnham also failed to foresee the implications of the gradual alteration in the nature of the Communist threat.  At the time he wrote, it was everything he claimed it to be, a messianic secular religion at the height of its power and appeal.  He assumed that it would retain that power and appeal until the battle was decided, one way or the other.  Even though he was aware that the masses living under Communism, other than a dwindling number of incorrigible idealists, were already disillusioned by “the God that failed,” he didn’t foresee what a decisive weakness that would eventually become.   In the end, time was on our side.  The Communists, and not we, as Lenin had predicted, finally dropped onto the garbage heap of history “like a ripe plum.”

However, Burnham wasn’t wrong about everything.  To win the struggle, it was necessary for us to finally recognize the threat.  Whatever doubt remained on that score, at least as far as most of our political leaders were concerned, was dissipated by the North Korean invasion of the south.  Our policy of vacillation didn’t exactly end, but was occasionally relieved by periods of firmness.  In the end, in spite of a media dominated through most of the struggle by Lenin’s “useful idiots” and the resultant cluelessness of most Americans about what we were even trying to do on the front lines of the “clash between the cultures” in places like Vietnam, we prevailed.

It was a near thing.  Burnham feared that, even after losing the opening battles of the next war to a United States with a monopoly of nuclear weapons, the Communists might regroup, abandon their vulnerable cities, and transform the struggle into a “people’s war.”  His description of what would follow was eerily similar to what actually did happen, but in a much smaller arena than the whole world:

They would transform the struggle into a political war, a “people’s war,” fought in every district of the world by irregulars, partisans, guerillas, Fifth Columns, spies, stool pigeons, assassins, fought by sabotage and strikes and lies and terror and diversion and panic and revolt. They would play on every fear and prejudice of the United States population, every feeling of guilt or nobility; they would exploit every racial and social division; they would widen every antagonism between tentative allies; and they would tirelessly wear down the United States will to endure.

Though the result would be not quite so certain, perhaps, as if the communists also had atomic weapons, they would in the end, I think, succeed. Because of the lack of a positive United States policy, because it would not have presented to the world even the possibility of a political solution, its dreadful material strength would appear to the peoples as the unrelieved brutality of a murderer. Its failure to distinguish between the communist regime and that regime’s subject-victims would weld together the victims and their rulers. Americans themselves would be sickened and conscience-ridden by what would seem to them a senseless slaughter, never-ending, leading nowhere. The military leadership would be disoriented by the inability of their plans based on technical superiority to effect a decision. The failure to conceive the struggle politically would have given the communists the choice of weapons. From the standpoint of the United States, the entire world would have been turned into an ambush and a desert. In the long night, nerves would finally crack, and sentries would fire their last shots wildly into the darkness, and it would all be over.

Change “the world” to Vietnam and it reads like a history instead of a premonition.  Tomorrow is another day, and I doubt that any of us will prove better at predicting what the future will bring than Burnham.  We have lived through an era much different, more peaceful, and more sedate in the pace of events than the one he experienced between 1914 and 1945.  We should beware of assuming, as he did, that the future will bear any resemblance to the immediate past.  The world is still full of nuclear weapons, some of them already in the hands of, or soon to be in the hands of, dictators of suspect rationality.  Some of our intellectuals soothe our fears with stories about the “vanishing of violence,” but as Omar Khayyam put it in the “Rubaiyat,” they could soon be “cast as foolish prophets forth, their mouths stopped with dust,” through some miscalculation or deliberate act of malice.  As the Boy Scouts say, “be prepared.”

Israel and the Other Holocaust

Perhaps it would be better to say “one of the other holocausts” instead of “the other holocaust.”  There have, after all, been many.  However, the one that Jews of eastern and central Europe suffered during and immediately after World War I was probably more costly in terms of lives and suffering than any other save the Nazi inferno.  Accounts of it may be found in numerous sources.  The following are taken from the memoirs of Maurice Paleologue, French ambassador to Russia during the war (my translation from the German version).  The first is from the entry of March 1, 1915:

The Jews of Poland and Lithuania have suffered terrible persecution since the beginning of the war.  During the month of August (1914) they were forced to leave the zone near the border as quickly as possible.  After a short time, these mandatory expulsions, carried out with excessive haste an cruelty, were applied further east with each passing day.  Eventually, the entire Israelite population from Grodno, Lomza, Plozk, Kutno, Lodz, Pietrokov, Kielce, Radom, and Lublin was forced into the interior of the country in the direction of Podolia and Volhynia.  Everywhere the expulsions were accompanied by acts of violence and plunder, carried out under the approving gaze of the authorities.  One could see hundreds of thousands of unfortunates, driven aimlessly through the snow, driven on like cattle by bands of cossacks, in extreme want, abandoned in train stations, open fields, and the outskirts of cities, dying of hunger, exhaustion, and cold.  And to improve their morale, everywhere they went these miserable people encountered the same feelings of hatred and rejection, the same accusations of expionage and treason.  Never in all its painful history has Israel suffered a more tragic expulsion.  And yet, there are 200,000 Jewish soldiers fighting bravely in the ranks of the Russian army!

and, from the entry of August 5, 1915,

With every retreat of the Russian army, the police continue the expulsion of Jews.  Wherever it occurs, the expulsions are carried out with the usual excessive haste, as mindless as they are cruel.  Those affected are informed at the last minute; they have neither time nor opportunity to take anything along.  They are hurriedly packed into train cars; they are forced onto the road like herds of cattle; they are informed of their destination, which is then changed 20 times along the way.  And wherever the order is given for them to leave a city, the orthodox population descends on the ghetto and plunders it.  Forced back in the direction of Podolia, Volhynia, Bessarabia, and the Ukraine, they are given over to terrible suffering.  The total number of the expelled has reached 800,000.

These expulsions were accompanied by bloody pogroms, lasting through the Civil War years, in which tens of thousands of Jews were murdered in cold blood.  Descriptions of those carried out in the Odessa area may be found, for example, in Ivan Bunin’s Cursed Days.

In the years immediately following World War II, as hundreds of thousands of homeless Jews continued to wander about Europe, it seemed obvious to President Truman and many other leaders on this side of the iron curtain that the best solution to the problem was the creation of a Jewish State.  There they would have at least a fighting chance of defending themselves against the holocausts of the future.  It is interesting to consider, with the benefit of hindsight, whether the founding of the state of Israel really was a good idea after all.  However, while the existence of human moral emotions certainly cannot be ignored in answering that question, they should certainly not be consulted to arrive at that answer.

Consider, for example, the contortions of the “progressive” ideologues as they chased the chimera of “the Good” as applied to the state of Israel.  In the beginning, the Jews were the “good guys,” as seen, for example, in films like “Exodus.”  Now, after demonstrating on several occasions that they are quite capable of defending themselves, they have become the “bad guys,” a much more familiar role for the Jews, who have always had the misfortune of being a “natural” outgroup wherever the diaspora has taken them.  They are accused of favoring “apartheid,” in spite of Israel’s large Arab population, and the decimation of Jewish minorities in many of the states of north Africa and the Middle East.  They are the ones guilty of “ethnic cleansing,” even as genuine ethnic cleansing of Jews from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is accepted without a murmur.  They are accused of atrocities against civilians, even as their enemies deliberately fire thousands of rockets at civilian population centers, and so on, and so on.

All this demonstrates once again, as have a virtually infinite number of similar experiments throughout human history, that decisions of this sort should not be based on morality.  The reason for this seems abundantly obvious.  The moral emotions from which all moral systems are ultimately derived evolved at a time when entities such as the state of Israel, or anything else resembling a modern state, for that matter, simply did not exist.  On what, then, should they be based, if we exclude the wonderfully satisfying but grossly destructive and unreliable moral emotions?  Why, the human ability to reason, by default.  It is, admittedly, a very weak reed to lean on, but it’s the only one we really have.

On the Afterglow of Historical Fairy Tales

We are fortunate to be living in an age in which historical source material is becoming increasingly abundant and difficult to destroy, because we are also living in an age that has been prolific in the rearrangement of historical fact to suit ideological ends.  I just ran across yet another data point demonstrating the process whereby the myths created in the process are transmogrified into “historical fact.”  It turned up on Atomic Insights, a blog penned by nuclear power advocate Rod Adams.

The reason this particular “historical fact” turned up in one of Rod’s articles is neither here nor there.  As far as I know he’s perfectly sound politically, and has no ax to grind outside of his nuclear advocacy.  It was apparently reproduced without any malice or intent to deceive as a “well known fact” in an article about the mutual hostility of the U.S. and Iran.  According to Rod,

On the other side of the issue, Iranians date their hostility to America to 1953, when the United States CIA took actions to stimulate the overthrow of the democratically elected leader named Mohammad Mosaddeqh. Our main beef with him was the fact that he had decided that the oil and gas under his country actually belonged to the people, not to the companies that had arranged some sweet deals during a colonial era. When he moved to nationalize the oil reserves, the UK and the US took action to install a dictator who was more compliant with our “interests.”  That part of the controversy is pretty well known and discussed.

In fact, that part of the controversy isn’t discussed nearly enough.  If it were, this version of “history” would have been relegated to the garbage heap long ago.  I wrote a series of articles debunking it some time ago that can be read here, here and here.  The “official” version of this particular historical fairy tale, entitled All the Shah’s Men, was written by New York Times reporter Steven Kinzer, apparently in the proud tradition of Walter Duranty’s glowing accounts of Stalin’s Russia.  Kinzer’s “history” was based largely on a CIA source document, which is available to anyone on the web.  Evidently he assumed no one would actually bother to read it and the other easily available source material, because the idea that they “prove” the great Mossadegh Coup myth is palpably absurd.  The CIA activities described were so dilettantish they wouldn’t have seriously undermined the flimsiest of banana republics, not to mention Iran.  On the very day that the coup happened the supposedly miraculously effective CIA plotters in Tehran, convinced that the coup had failed, sat meekly on the sidelines, taking no significant role in directing events whatsoever.  To believe the claim that their actions were undertaken solely to mollify evil US and UK oil and gas cartels it is necessary to willfully blind ones self to the possibility that Communist aggression ever actually existed or that the US government ever honestly believed that it was a threat at the time.  Of course, I cannot prove that I am any less prone to historical distortions than Mr. Kinzer et. al.  However, I can suggest that anyone interested in the facts read the source material.  It speaks for itself.  I suspect that anyone reading it with an open mind will conclude that his yarn about the mind boggling effectiveness of the great CIA plot and the reasons it happened are baloney.

That hasn’t prevented these myths from gelling into historical “facts.”  Rob’s blog is hardly the only place you’ll find similar disinformation.  The more a given myth serves ideological ends, the faster the gelling process proceeds.  In this case it was doubly effective.  It stroked the egos of the CIA supersleuths who had no trouble convincing themselves that they really had “killed seven at one blow,” and it also had just the right “anti-imperialist” touch for the ideologues of the left.  But heaven forefend that you should take my word for it.  Look for yourself.

One could cite many other similar instances of rearranging history.  For example, there’s the old southern schoolmarm’s yarn about how the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, the anti-nuclear activists’ yarn about how the atomic bomb had nothing to do with ending World War II, the Nazi yarn about how the German army lost World War I because it was “stabbed in the back” by revolutionaries on the home front, and so on and so on.  One often hears the old bromide that “history is written by the victors” from the creators of these fantasies.  That may be, but in all the cases cited above, and many more like them, there is no lack of source material out there for anyone interested enough to dig it up and read it.  In the case of the Civil War, for example, it reveals that common people in the north thought it was about slavery, common people in the south thought it was about slavery, foreign observers uniformly concurred it was about slavery, and southern politicians made no bones whatsoever about the fact that it was about slavery in their declarations of secession.  Under the circumstances, based on the unanimous testimony of the people who actually experienced it, I tend to believe the Civil War was, in fact, about slavery.  If you make the effort to “go to the source” with an open mind, you’re liable to find a lot more fossilized historical “facts” that aren’t quite what they seem.

Remembering Communism

We live in sedate times, at least from an ideological point of view.  Such excrescences of the 20th century as Nazism and fascism have come and gone.  The greatest messianic world view of them all, Communism, if not stone cold dead, is no more than a shadow of its former self.  With its demise, its very memory is passing into oblivion.  That’s unfortunate.  Given the cost of the Communist experiment – 100 million dead and the virtual beheading of at least two countries, Russia and Cambodia – we would do well to at least learn something from it.

It seems to me that one particularly profound lesson is the degree to which vast numbers of intellectuals the world over were capable of deluding themselves about the nature of the Stalinist regime, renowned scientists among them.  Malcolm Muggeridge chronicled the phenomena in his brilliant little snapshot of the time, The Thirties.  For example,

Admiration for the Soviet regime had greatly increased since the introduction of the Five-Year Plan in 1929, though more among Liberals and the professional classes than among trade unionists, who from the beginning showed themselves to be less easily deluded by Soviet propaganda than university professors, writers and clergymen.  Professor Julian Huxley (brother of Aldous and grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, ed.), for instance, had no difficulty in believing that ‘while we were in Russia a German town-planning expert was travelling over the huge Siberian spaces in a special train with a staff of assistants, where cities are to arise stopping for a few days, picking out the best site, laying down the broad outlines of the future city, and passing on, leaving the details to be filled in by architects and engineers who remain’ or that ‘Stalin himself sometimes comes down to the Moscow goods sidings to help.’

 

The cost of a tour in the USSR, though moderate, was beyond the means of most manual workers, so that those who availed themselves of the exceedingly competent Intourist organization were predominantly income-tax payers.  Their delight in all they saw and were told, and the expression they gave to this delight, constitute unquestionably one of the wonders of the age.

 

The almost unbelievable credulity of these mostly university-educated tourists astonished even Soviet officials used to handling foreign visitors.

 

The climax came, perhaps, with the visit to the USSR of Mr. Bernard Shaw, Lady Astor and Lord Lothian, which provided, as Mr. Eugene Lyons has put it, ‘a fortnight of clowning… The lengthening obscenity of ignorant or indifferent tourists disporting themselves cheerily on the aching body of Russia, seemed summed up in this cavorting old man, in his blanket endorsement of what he would not understand.  He was so taken up with demonstrating how youthful and agile he was that he had no attention to spare for the revolution in practice.

 

Despite such episodes the Soviet regime continued to be held in ever greater esteem by writers like Shaw and Andre Gide and Romain Rolland:  clergymen like the Reverend Hewlett Johnson, journalists like Walter Duranty and Maurice Hindus, economists like G. D. H. Cole and the Webbs (Sidney and Beatrice, Fabian socialists, ed.) scientists like Professor Julian Huxley.  How could all these, so learned and to righteous, be wrong?

 

…like vegetarians undertaking a pious pilgrimage to a slaughter-house because it displayed a notice recommending nut-cutlets.

 

All this is doubly astounding in light of the fact that it was so obvious at the time all this was going on that the Soviet Union had become a vast charnel house.  Indeed, Muggeridge himself had sympathized with the new regime.  The scales fell from his eyes when he took an unauthorized trip to the Ukraine while visiting the Soviet Union, and saw the starvation and misery there first hand, even as Walter Duranty was denying it in the New York Times.  The Eugene Lyons Muggeridge refers to above was a journalist who spent six years in the Soviet Union and was not as easily duped as Duranty.  He wrote a damning indictment of the regime in his book, Moscow Carrousel.  In a synopsis of his findings written for the American Mercury in 1936 in the context of a review of the Webb’s ecstatic praise of the regime in their book, Soviet Communism:  A New Civilization?, he wrote,

The material out of which the Webbs have fashioned their Utopia is that theoretical USSR of governmental forms, paper freedoms, poster proletarians, stage kulaks, decrees, and charts – the immense make-believe of externals under which all governments, especially all-powerful, all-knowing and infallible super-states, function.

 

One is tempted to quote endlessly from the curious mixture of misinformation, half-truths, and naive credulity which fill these volumes.  The liquidation of the kulaks, for instance, becomes under the busy pens of the Webbs almost an act of benevolence.  These poor people, it appears, would have starved to death had not the authorities come along mercifully and transferred them free of charge to the lumber camps and canal diggings.

 

The discussion of other aspects of the terror is in the same key.  Everything that might reflect on the institution of the OGPU (secret police, ed.) is dismissed with a sneer… The whole complex of forced and convict labor involving millions of persons (hundreds of thousands are building canals and railroads at this very moment); the mass executions without public trial; the teeming concentration camps; all of this the Webbs judge on the basis of official statements, official silences, and the mendacities of ill-informed foreign parrots.

 

Lyons’ article is interesting in that it documents the fact that the truth about the mass slaughter underway in the Soviet Union was perfectly obvious to anyone who didn’t deliberately delude themselves, even in 1936, before the climax of the Great Purge Trials in 1937 and 1938.  Which begs the question, why were so many seemingly intelligent people so delusional for so long?  The question was answered by Julius Caesar over 2000 years ago:  “People willingly believe what they want to believe.”  And many intellectuals of the time dearly wanted to believe in socialism, if not Communism.  Many of them shared Maxim Gorky’s belief that democracy was impossible without it.  Ironically, they included George Orwell, certainly no Stalinist or Communist, but a lifelong socialist, who never realized his work would deal such a telling blow to socialism until it was too late.  In his essays before the war, he actually claimed that there was no moral distinction between the Nazi and British versions of capitalism.  For example, in an essay entitled “Spilling the Spanish Beans,” that appeared in the New English Weekly in 1937, he wrote,

You can oppose Fascism by bourgeois “democracy”, meaning capitalism.  But meanwhile you have got to get rid of the troublesome person who points out that Fascism and bourgeois “democracy” are Tweedledum and Tweedledee… If the British public had been given a truthful account of the Spanish war (in which Orwell was a combatant, ed.) they would have had an opportunity of learning what Fascism is and how it can be combated.  As it is, the News Chronicle version of Fascism as a kind of homicidal mania peculiar to Colonel Blimps (British icon of reaction, ed.) bombinating in the economic void has been established more firmly than ever.  And thus we are one step nearer to the great war “against Fascism” (cf 1914, “against militarism”) which will allow Fascism, British variety, to be slipped over our necks during the first week.

Orwell’s comment throws a great deal of light on the phenomenon of mass self-delusion noted above.  By the 1930’s more than a century of socialist philosophers and propagandists, of whom Marx, Engels and Lenin were some of the more prominent examples, had elevated socialism to a quasi-religion.  The brilliant Scotchman, Sir James MacKintosh, had already noticed the trend in the early 1800’s, long before Marx appeared on the scene, observing that the new religion was bound to fail eventually, because it promised an unachievable paradise on earth, where it could be fact-checked, instead of in heaven, where it could not.  The new religion came complete with its own morality and its own good, the proletariat, and evil, the bourgeoisie.  Speaking in terms of human nature, the bourgeoisie became an outgroup, and the system associated with it, capitalism, anathema.  Thus, it was possible, even for a man as brilliant as Orwell, to seriously maintain that the British democracy and Nazism were really just manifestations of the same evil, capitalism, and therefore as equivalent to each other as Tweedledum and Tweedledee.   This explains another remarkable phenomenon of the time; the willingness of so many seemingly sober economists, politicians, and other miscellaneous intellectuals to liquidate an entire economic system in favor of the gaudy, pie-in-the-sky theories of socialism.  By so doing, one was not merely conducting a somewhat risky economic experiment.  One was fighting evil incarnate.  Self-delusion has always been a prominent characteristic of religious zealots, and the secular religious zealots of the 1930’s were no different.

Well, the experiment has been done, the facts have been checked, and, just as Sir James MacKintosh predicted over 150 years ago, the great Communist myth evaporated like a soap bubble.  Islam, a more traditional religion, rushed in to fill the vacuum left by its demise, inspiring a grotesque love affair between the obscurantist zealots of the old faith and the former “progressive” zealots of the secular faith that had just died.  Meanwhile, these “progressives” have begun assiduously cobbling on the outlines of a new secular faith.  The most recent versions come with a new, if somewhat hackneyed and moth-eaten, morality, including a new “good” (the 99 percent), and a new “evil” (the corporations).  We would do well to step back and consider whether we really want to go there again, before another country kills off the lion’s share of the intellectual cream of its population by way of eliminating the evil one percent.

 

Who Says Russia Can’t Beat Napoleon?

The Edinburgh Review, that’s who.  The liberal Edinburgh was one of the two great British political and literary journals of the first half of the 19th century.  It’s conservative counterpart was the Quarterly Review, which enjoyed its heyday at about the same time.  An article in the April, 1810 issue reviewed a Letter on the French Government that had just been published by an anonymous “American recently returned from Europe.”   Unfortunately, we still don’t know who he was, but we gather from his letter that he was an anglophile, highly educated, and very well informed about the financial arrangements of the Napoleonic government in France.  The Letter deals mostly with taxation and the other sources of revenue of France at the time, and includes estimates of the total income and disbursements of the Empire, the amount spent on the military, etc.

The British reviewer, also anonymous as usual at the time, threw in some interesting speculations of his own regarding the current political and military situation, likely reflecting the journal’s editorial point of view.  It will be recalled that in 1810 Napoleon was at the zenith of his triumphant career, with an army of around 800,000 veterans.  His power on the ground in Europe seemed unchallengable, at least as far as liberal opinion in Great Britain was concerned.  The reviewer’s comments about Napoleon and France have an uncanny similarity to some of the “informed commentary” about Hitler and Germany that was appearing on both sides of the Atlantic after his stunning victories in 1940 and 1941.  They also reveal, yet again, the pitfalls of attempting to predict even the immediate future.  Political pundits take note.

Then, as in 1940, victory created a deceptive aura of invincibility.  In both cases, Russia appeared to pose the only remaining credible challenge to the power of the autocrats on the European continent, and in both cases a remarkably large number of “well-informed” commentators dismissed her with a wave of the hand.  Here’s what the Edinburgh’s reviewer had to say about her:

The states that border upon France are ruled either by the kinsmen, or by the vassals of Bonaparte; – all but the Spanish chiefs, who have only a little hour to strut and fret.  The more remote empire of Russia is still in peace; and in peace she must remain, or be crushed without mercy, and without hope of restoration, for she seemed powerful only by the prudent reserve of Catherine.  The succeeding governments, less sagacious, have experimentally shown us how much we overvalued the resources of that country.

Of course, we know in retrospect that both Napoleon and Hitler had a disastrous penchant for undervaluing the “resources of that country.”  Both of them found it rather more difficult to “crush her without mercy” than they had expected.  The rest of the reviewer’s comments about how to deal with the “hopeless” superiority of Bonaparte seem hopelessly naive to those of us who know “the rest of the story.”  They are, however, interesting by virtue of their striking similarity to the advice of a class of writers that we now refer to as “appeasers.”  In both cases, the proposed “solution” to the problem was to avoid offending the triumphant dictator.  Here is what the Edinburgh’s man had to say:

We do think, then, that there is no chance of our being able to crush the power of France by direct hostility and aggression; but still we are of opinion, that, by skilful and cautious policy, we may reasonably hope to disable it.  This, however, we must do by gradual and cautious means; …we ought not to disturb the quiet of the Continent.  Every agitation that we can now excite there, is a fresh advantage to our enemy; …We should rather endeavour to keep the states of Europe so completely tranquil, that he shall have no cause or excuse for war – no resistance to fear, no plots to punish.  If we could but behold the French forces inactive, we might hope to behold them subdued. …”What then?”  it may be said – Are we to congratulate ourselves on the helplessness of all the states that might make head against France?  Certainly; – if we are convinced, as it appears we should be, that nothing can be expected from their exertions, while every thing may be hoped from their repose.

Just as the appeasers of a later day, the reviewer’s sanguine hope was that, if England just stopped provoking the boogeyman, he would eventually go away.  His people, informed of their folly by the burgeoning power of modern means of communication, would become restive, and his army would just “melt away”:

While the war continues, and especially while it is possible to impute its continuance to the restless hostility of England, the vanity and impetuosity of the French people may second the ambition of their ruler; but if they be ever allowed to settle into the habits and enjoyments of peace, all the natural interests and reflections which are generated by the very structure of modern society, will expand with tenfold vigour, and oppose a most formidable resistance to the tyranny which would again repress them for the purpose of its own extension.

Napoleon’s mighty army would simply fall apart of its own accord,

…degenerating, by disuse, toward the level of a new and inexpert militia.

Of course, as we now know, Napoleon’s mighty army, and later Hitler’s, did not “degenerate by disuse.”  Rather, their “degeneration” resulted from their attempts to “crush without mercy” a foe both they and the respective “experts” of the day had underestimated.

I suspect that the pundits of our own day will have no more luck in their attempts to predict the future than those of earlier ages.  However, the psychological type of the appeaser is as familiar today as it was in 1810 or 1940, as is that of their more bellicose and militant counterparts, who once wrote for the Quarterly Review.  In fact, neither type has had much success in predicting events.  It’s a great deal easier to predict how they will react to those events when they happen, though.

George Orwell and the Pacifists

Orwell despised pacifism, and wrote some very interesting critiques of pacifist ideology during World War II.  On reading them, one notes a striking similarity between the pacifist ideology of Orwell’s time and the different variants thereof that existed in the United States during the Vietnam era and thereafter.  A particularly interesting example appeared in the US literary and political journal Partisan Review entitled A Controversy.  The piece included an attack on Orwell and elaboration of their own ideas by several pacifists, and Orwell’s reply.  The bit by the pacifists actually amounts to an excellent piece of self-analysis.  The reply exposes the gross self-deception that has always been inherent in pacifist thought, and points out the equally obvious fact that pacifists during wartime are, objectively, enemy collaborators in whatever country they happen to be active.

A remarkable similarity between the Vietnam-era pacifists and those of Orwell’s day is their tendency, against all odds, to perceive their own side as the moral equivalent of the enemy.  Occasionally their own side is recognized as an outgroup, as for example by Jane Fonda who struck a heroic pose on a Communist anti-aircraft gun as her countrymen fought them further south.  By that time Gulag Archipelago had been published, and a torrent of details was available about the mass slaughter, misery and torture that was a common feature of Communist regimes.  As for Orwell’s British pacifists, the murderous nature of Hitler’s regime was already abundantly clear by 1940.  It didn’t matter.  In both cases, the facts were simply ignored.   D.S. Savage, one of the pacifists writing against Orwell in the Partisan Review, provides us with what could well be described as a self-caricature:

It is fashionable nowadays to equate Fascism with Germany. We must fight Fascism, therefore we must fight Germany. Answer: Fascism is not a force confined to any one nation. We can just as soon get it here as anywhere else. The characteristic markings of Fascism are: curtailment of individual and minority liberties; abolition of private life and private values and substitution of State life and public values (patriotism); external imposition of discipline (militarism); prevalence of mass-values and mass-mentality; falsification of intellectual activity under State pressure. These are all tendencies of present-day Britain. The pacifist opposes every one of these, and might therefore be called the only genuine opponent of Fascism.

Don’t let us be misled by names. Fascism is quite capable of calling itself democracy or even Socialism. It’s the reality under the name that matters. War demands totalitarian organisation of society. Germany organised herself on that basis prior to embarking on war. Britain now finds herself compelled to take the same measures after involvement in war. Germans call it National Socialism. We call it democracy. The result is the same.

…we regard the war as a disaster to humanity. Who is to say that a British victory will be less disastrous than a German one?

…and so on from one of Hitlers most valuable “useful idiots.”  The striking similarity between these puerile arguments, as transparently specious to Orwell then as they are to us now, and those of the Vietnam-era pacifists must be apparent to anyone who lived through those times.  Orwell points out the disconnect with reality, seemingly obvious to any child, in his rebuttal:

Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, “he that is not with me is against me”. The idea that you can somehow remain aloof from and superior to the struggle, while living on food which British sailors have to risk their lives to bring you, is a bourgeois illusion bred of money and security. Mr. Savage remarks that “according to this type of reasoning, a German or Japanese pacifist would be ‘objectively pro-British’.” But of course he would be! That is why pacifist activities are not permitted in those countries (in both of them the penalty is, or can be, beheading) while both the Germans and the Japanese do all they can to encourage the spread of pacifism in British and American territories. They would stimulate pacifism in Russia as well if they could, but in that case they have tougher babies to deal with. In so far as it takes effect at all, pacifist propaganda can only be effective against those countries where a certain amount of feedom of speech is still permitted; in other words it is helpful to totalitarianism.

If Mr. Savage and others imagine that one can somehow “overcome” the German army by lying on one’s back, let them go on imagining it, but let them also wonder occasionally whether this is not an illusion due to security, too much money and a simple ignorance of the way in which things actually happen.

I am interested in the psychological processes by which pacifists who have started out with an alleged horror of violence end up with a marked tendency to be fascinated by the success and power of Nazism. Even pacifists who wouldn’t own to any such fascination are beginning to claim that a Nazi victory is desirable in itself.

As one who listened to the chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho chi Minh, NLF is going to win” back in the Vietnam era, I know exactly what Orwell is talking about. As students of the Civil War will know, there were pacifists in those days with precisely similar arguments. Just as Orwell’s pacifists were objectively pro-Nazi and tended to sympathize with the Nazis, and the Vietnam-era pacifists were objectively pro-Communist, and tended to sympathize with the Communists, the Civil War pacifists were objectively pro-slavery, and tended to sympathize with the slavers.

In a word, when it comes to pacifism, we have left the realm of rational argument. As Orwell points out, we are dealing with a psychological type, very similar across populations and across long stretches of time. The pacifist equates peace with “the Good,” and war with “evil.” Identification of “the Good” represents, not a logical, but an emotional process. If peace is “the Good,” one becomes “good” and defends “the Good” by supporting “peace,” regardless of any real situation or consequences, no matter how obvious to anyone whose mind has not been artificially closed in the same fashion.

One should not become too smug in judging the pacifists. After all, we are all human, and we all have a similar tendency to form emotional attachments to “the Good,” whether it be pacifism or any other ideological tendency. As a Monday morning quarterback, it seems to me I can detect similar phenomena, associated with other “Goods,” going on in Orwell’s own mind. For him, socialism was “the Good,” so, for a long time, he had the fixed idea that Britain must try the highly dubious experiment of attempting a socialist revolution if she was to win the war. For him, the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War was “the Good,” as well. After all, he had nearly been killed fighting for that side. As a result, one finds highly exaggerated predictions of the disastrous results that would “inevitably” follow because the Allies had allowed Franco to win. In retrospect, with Franco safely in the grave and Spain a democratic state, Orwell’s prediction that she would remain a totalitarian dictatorship until the fascists were overthrown by force didn’t exactly pan out.

I have any number of similar emotional attachments of my own. Perhaps the example of a man as brilliant as Orwell will help me to detect and compensate for some of them. It would seem to me that it would behoove us all to make the attempt, assuming we really value the truth.

Of Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, and Historical Narratives

Jonathan Haidt is one of the most coherent thinkers in the social sciences today. A Professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, he specializes in the study of morality and emotion, and how they vary across cultures. He describes himself as an atheist, and embraces the notion that there is such a thing as “human nature,” in the sense that our behavior is profoundly influenced by innate predispositions. For that alone he would have suffered the anathemas of his fellow experts in the behavioral sciences a few short decades ago. Until quite recently they were still in thrall of the collective delusion that human behavior is almost entirely determined by culture and education. But Haidt doesn’t stop there. His work focuses on our moral nature, and he is of the opinion that moral reasoning is not the basis of moral judgment. Rather, he supports what he calls the social intuitionist model, according to which moral judgments are the result of quick, automatic intuitions, including moral emotions. Moral reasoning commonly only appears after moral decisions have already been made, serving to rationalize them after the fact. Innate, evolved traits play a significant role in the process. In Haidt’s words from the paper, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment,”

The social intuitionist model… proposes that morality, like language, is a major evolutionary adaptation for an intensely social species, built into multiple regions of the brain and body, that is better described as emergent than as learned yet that requires input and shaping from a particular culture. Moral intuitions are therefore both innate and enculturated.

Obviously, we have come a long way since the 60’s and 70’s, when the entire orthodox scientific establishment was defending the cherished but palpably absurd dogma that “human nature” was almost entirely the result of education and culture, and the effect of innate predispositions of the kind Haidt refers to on human behavior were insignificant. In one of the more remarkable paradigm shifts in scientific history, they have finally been forced by the weight of evidence to abandon that delusion. For all that, they have shown a remarkable resistance to facing the obvious implications of the truth they have finally embraced. Nowhere has that been more true than in the field of morality.

If what Haidt says is true, then human morality is the expression of evolved behavioral traits. As such, it cannot be other than subjective in nature. Objective good and evil cannot exist because there is no legitimate basis for their existence. Morality has no purpose, nor does it serve any higher end. It exists purely and simply because it has increased the odds that carriers of the genes that give rise to it would survive and reproduce those genes. In spite of these seemingly elementary facts, no human illusion is as persistent and resilient as the belief in objective good.

Haidt explores some related issues in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis. It’s a good read, consisting of a collection of interesting ideas, insights and recent research results and concluding with an examination of the question, “What is the meaning of life.” According to Haidt, the question, “What is the meaning of life?” really consists of two sub-questions: What is the purpose of life? and What should be our purpose within life? He does not attempt an answer to the first, but focuses on the second, noting that it refers to what we should do to have a good, happy, fulfilling and meaningful life. Haidt devotes the final portion of the book to the question. There is something rather striking about his answer. It requires acceptance of the theory of group selection.

Why is that striking? Back in the day when, as noted above, virtually the entire orthodox scientific establishment was proclaiming the dogma that “human nature” was almost exclusively the result of education and culture, the most influential and significant writer insisting that the establishment was wrong, recognized as such at the time by proponents of both points of view, was Robert Ardrey. Well, it so happens that Ardrey, a brilliant writer with a profound grasp of the big picture, was right and the establishment was wrong about the role of the innate on human behavior. Yet today his name is hardly mentioned in the same breath with Galileo, or any of the other great destroyers of false orthodoxies in the sciences for that matter. Rather, he has been almost entirely forgotten. It happens, you see, that Ardrey was outside the academic pale. He was, in fact, a playwright for much of his career, and it would be too painful for the guild of “experts” to admit that a mere playwright like Ardrey had correctly insisted on an abundantly obvious truth at a time when they were still collectively defending a cherished but palpably false delusion.

Eventually, when the delusion collapsed, resulting in one of the more remarkable paradigm shifts in the history of the sciences, the “experts” constructed an entire alternative reality, exemplified by Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, according to which, incredibly, Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong,” and the real hero had been the more respectable and palatable E. O. Wilson, no matter that the ideas he set forth in books like Sociobiology and On Human Nature were no more than a reformulation of Ardrey’s thought. Now the chances that Pinker ever actually read Ardrey before dismissing him as “totally and utterly wrong” are vanishingly small, but he cited Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene as the basis of his claim, as if Dawkins were as infallible as the pope. Dawkins, in turn, based his entire criticism of Ardrey on some remarks he made in his book The Social Contract about a theory that was of no particular significance whatsoever as far as the fundamental question of the role of the innate on human behavior is concerned. And what was that theory? Why, none other than the theory of group selection, without which Haidt’s “Happiness Hypothesis” evaporates in the mist. It appears that Dawkins was somewhat premature in announcing its demise. Such are the narratives that occasionally pass for “history” in the sciences. Meanwhile, Ardrey remains an unperson. I should think he deserves better.

Communism and the Lessons of History

There is nothing more important for us to learn and understand than our own nature. Human nature, by which I mean our innate behavioral traits, does not determine human history, but it constrains it. Anyone aware of those fundamentally emotional traits, related although certainly not identical versions of which exist in many other animals, would have realized that Communism was a non-starter. The Communists and their intellectual fellow travelers fondly believed that their noble experiment would be immune from such hard-wired features of our mental equipment as ingroup-outgroup behavior and the inevitable competition for status and power in human groups, whether they be political parties, “classes,” or social clubs. It was not. As E. O. Wilson so accurately observed concerning Communism, “Great theory, wrong species.”

Communism was a costly experiment. In the attempt to apply it, countries like Russia and Cambodia virtually decapitated themselves. Given its cost, it would behoove us to learn from it. I see very little happening along those lines. The whole phenomenon is fading from living memory, and the historical facts relating to its spectacular rise to prominence as the greatest secular religion of all time, its brutal and bloody reality, and its eventual collapse are all becoming dim as they recede into the mists of time. I can think of no history that it would be more important for our children to learn, but I doubt that more than one in a hundred of our high school students knows who Lenin actually was, let alone the basic tenets of Marxist philosophy.

One lesson we should surely learn is humility. We are not really an intelligent species. We are just smarter than the rest. Our powers of self-delusion are, nevertheless, phenomenal. In the wake of the Great Depression, a whole generation of some of the best and brightest intellectuals among us managed to bamboozle themselves, in spite of copious evidence to the contrary existing at the time, into believing that Communism was both humane and the inevitable future of mankind. Read the pages of such journals as The New Republic, the Nation, and the American Mercury after H. L. Mencken turned over the editorship to Charles Angoff, and you’ll see what I mean. There were certainly a few more sober heads among them, but many of the most prominent political thinkers were cocksure that the Depression proved beyond any reasonable doubt that capitalism had reached a dead end, and the only remaining question regarding the transition to socialism was how it would occur. There are countless examples of this mindset, well known to anyone familiar with the history of the time. One of the more obscure but illustrative examples was published in 1933 by Elias Tobenkin in his book, Stalin’s Ladder. Here are some vignettes from that work:

(The criminologist) leaves the Soviet Union with a heartening sense of having witnessed something new under the sun. Soviet prisons and the Soviet penal system open a novel and inspiring chapter in the relations between society and the criminal. Soviet Russia is successfully coping with the age-old problem of crime and punishment on the basis of a complete transformation of prison life and a complete reversal of the old attitude of vindictiveness toward the individual offender.

With the antiquated prison system there went by the board the practices of corporal punishment, of solitary confinement and of the “iron bags” – the vault-like individual cells that gave the Czarist prisons their stark appellation of the “House of the Dead.”

The conception of punishment, of revenge upon the criminal has been outlawed. In a decree issued in March, 1919, the Communist party ordered the country’s prisons to be transformed into educational institutions. Confinement in such an institution was declared to be an “economic corrective,” for the purpose of educating the offender “in the discipline common to all workers.”

The prisoner has his whole life recut and reshaped during his period of confinement. He gets a complete overhauling physically, mentally, and psychically. His emotions are drained of past bitterness and disappointments and attuned to a course of labor and peace with his fellows, with the world.

…and much more of the same. Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Eugenia Ginzburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind were yet to appear, but there were already many published accounts available of the reality of the Soviet forced labor camps by lesser known authors with firsthand knowledge at the time Tobenkin was writing his book.  They were ignored by those who should have known better, swamped by a vast wave of confirmation bias, and trivialized by phrases like, “you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.”

It’s easy to gain a sense of intellectual hubris in reading the countless similar examples of delusional self-deception published at the time by the likes of George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, not to mention such lesser intellectual lights as Tobenkin. We would do well to resist the urge. In matters touching the Soviet prison system we have the familiar advantage of Monday morning quarterbacks. Not so concerning the political and intellectual controversies of our own day. The true believers in the political narratives of the left and the right are just as cocksure they have a monopoly on the truth as ever the likes of Shaw or Wells were in their own day. History is likely to prove them just as delusional.

The truth is elusive to minds as limited as ours. It is best to retain a due sense of intellectual humility, and refrain from wandering too far from the domain of repeatable experiments into the realm of unfalsifiable speculation. Otherwise we are just so many Tobenkins waiting to happen.

Moral Relativism and Modern Times

Trying to learn some history but the relentless political correctness of leftist authors makes you nauseous?  You need a change of pace. Try Modern Times by Paul Johnson.  It’s still politically correct, but it’s the masculine, almost Rhodesian political correctness of the right instead of the pecksniffing, pathologically pious political correctness of the left.  In accordance with the rules of modern historiography, all the important players are sorted into bad guys and good guys, but the roles are reversed:  Harding and Coolidge and good guys and Roosevelt and the New Dealers are bad guys. 

According to Johnson, the bad guys became evil because they abandoned Judeo-Christian morality, source of such uplifting triumphs of the objective good as the hanging and burning of several hundred thousand “witches,” centuries of genocidal attacks on the Jews, and religious wars beyond counting.  The bad guys, on the other hand, are all “moral relativists.”  In case you’re wondering what a “moral relativist” is, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a very good article about it.  In short, a “moral relativist” is anyone who differs with you touching matters of morality.  As the Stanford Encyclopedia puts it:

Moral relativism has the unusual distinction—both within philosophy and outside it—of being attributed to others, almost always as a criticism, far more often than it is explicitly professed by anyone.

Johnson’s own version of “objective morality” at least has the virtue of being idiosyncratic.  Where academic leftists would use the phrase, “You have to break some eggs to make an omelet” to rationalize the crimes of Stalin, Johnson would be more likely to use it to rationalize Franco’s shooting of more than 150,000 helpless victims after his victory in the Spanish Civil War.  He speaks of the matter as if it were a mere bagatelle, and, after all, Franco was an upholder of “Judeo-Christian morality.” 

Be that as it may, Modern Times is no hack journalist’s history.  Johnson has a profound knowledge of the events he describes, and has much of interest to say about the intellectual currents and personalities of the 20th century.  Any history with such a broad scope is bound to transmute complex human beings into wooden dummies.  That’s not Johnson’s fault.  Given the nature of his book, he’s done his job if he at least points them out to you.  Finding the human being beneath the wooden shell is always something you’ll have to do on your own.