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The world changed out of all recognition during the period in which the writings that are collected here were written. When the earliest of them appeared, over thirty years ago, the international scene was shaped by a struggle between two power blocs – a geopolitical freeze that was mirrored in the realm of ideas. Europe was divided along the boundaries established during the Second World War, Russia was a Communist state and China ruled by Mao. The recent wave of globalization had hardly begun. The rise of Asia was yet to come, and America was by far the most powerful country. In Britain Labour was negotiating a bailout from national bankruptcy with the International Monetary Fund, and Margaret Thatcher was leader of the Opposition. The political classes took it as given that some version of the post-war consensus on the mixed economy would remain in place, while the intelligentsia were occupied in languid disputes over the varieties of Marxism.
Behind this shadow play there were beliefs no one doubted. Liberal democracy was spreading inexorably; the advance of science would enable the affluence of some countries to be enjoyed by all; religion was in irreversible retreat. The path might not be straight or easy, but humanity was moving towards a common destination. Nothing could stand in the way of a future in which ‘Western liberal values’ were accepted everywhere.
Not much more than thirty years later all these certainties have melted away. The Soviet state has ceased to exist and Europe has been reunified; but Russia has not adopted liberal democracy. In the years after his death in 1976 China shook off Mao’s inheritance and adopted a type of capitalism – without accepting any Western model of government or society. The advance of globalization continued, with the result that America has lost its central position. The US is in steep decline, its system of finance capitalism in a condition of collapse and its vast military machine effectively paid for by Chinese funding of the federal deficit. All mainstream parties in democratic countries converged on a free-market model at just the moment in history when that model definitively ceased to be viable. With the world’s financial system facing a crisis deeper than any since the 1930s, the advancing states are now authoritarian regimes. The bipolar world has not been followed by one ruled by ‘the last superpower’. Instead we have a world that nobody rules.
The growth of knowledge has continued and accelerated. At the same time economic expansion has come up against finite resources, with peaking energy supplies and accelerating climate change threatening industrial growth. Rival claims on scarce resources are inflaming wars around the world, and these resource wars are intertwined with wars of faith. Far from fading away religion is once again at the heart of human conflict.
If the global scene at the start of the twenty-first century is different from any that was commonly anticipated, this was only to be expected. A weakness for uplifting illusions has shaped opinion throughout this period. No doubt intolerance of reality is innate in the human mind. Every age has a hallucinatory image of itself, which persists until it is dispelled by events. Secular thinkers imagined they had left religion behind, when in truth they had only exchanged religion for a humanist faith in progress that was further from reality. There is nothing wrong in taking refuge in a comforting fantasy. Why deny rationalists the consolations of faith – however childish their faith may be? The pretence of reason is part of the human comedy. But the decline of religion that occurred in the twentieth century was accompanied by the rise of faithbased politics, a continuation of religion by other means that has proved as destructive as religion at its worst.
Lenin’s embalmed body and the saviour-cult orchestrated around Hitler are examples of the twentieth-century sanctification of power. Nazism and Communism were political religions, each with its ersatz
shrines and rituals. The Nazi paradise was confined to a small section of the species, with the rest consigned to slavery or extermination, while that of the Bolsheviks was open to everyone – apart from those marked down for liquidation as remnants of the past, such as peasants and bourgeois intellectuals. In both cases terror was part of the programme from the start. Humans are violent animals; there is nothing new in their fondness for killing. The peculiar flavour of modern mass murder comes from the fact that it has so often been committed with the aim of creating a new world.
It is important to understand that faith-based violence has not been limited to totalitarian regimes. Starting with the French Jacobins, it has been a pervasive feature of modern democracy. It is not only revolutionaries that have turned politics into a crusade. Liberal humanists who say they aim for gradual improvement have done the same. Like the utopian projects of the far left and right, the liberal ideal of a world of self-governing democracies has spilt blood on a colossal scale.
Even in Britain – supposedly the home of a sceptical, pragmatic approach to government – politics has been understood in terms that derive from religion. The Thatcher experiment is an example. I cannot count the number of times people have asked why I ‘stopped believing’ in Thatcherism. The assumption is that there was once a body of thought that could be described as ‘Thatcherism’ – something I never encountered as a participant observer at the time. More to the point, the question assumes that politics is like religion – some parts of Western Christianity, at any rate – in requiring belief in a creed or doctrine. My view was quite different. Politics is the art of devising temporary remedies for recurring evils – a series of expedients, not a project of salvation. Thatcher was one of these expedients.
The Thatcher era began as a response to local difficulties, only to end by producing another political religion. To be sure, true believers gathered around Thatcher from the start. The right-wing think-tanks of London of the early 1970s were littered with former Communists and Trotskyites who had lost their belief in Marxism but not the need for a political faith. The trend was exemplified in figures such as Sir Alfred Sherman – a founder of the Centre for Policy Studies and an early adviser of Thatcher whose faith in the free market followed the same doctrinaire footsteps as the faith in central planning he had as a Communist in the 1930s. For Sherman and others like him the triumph of the free market was pre-ordained
In the context of the Cold War these enthusiasts had their uses. Their doctrinal turn of mind offered clues to Soviet thinking, in which ideology was surprisingly persistent. The USSR contained fewer convinced Marxists than the average Western university. Even so Soviet perceptions of the world were heavily filtered by Leninist ideas, and exCommunists who shared this framework were better guides to the Soviet mind than Western specialists. None of the Sovietologists grasped the illegitimacy of the Soviet system, or suspected it might suddenly implode. When the dissident writer Andrei Amalrik, author of Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984? (1970), raised the prospect of its collapse his analysis was written off as wildly unrealistic. Yet he was closer to reality than the Western experts who were declaring the USSR unshakable right upto the moment when it collapsed.
As an anti-Communist I shared Amalrik’s belief that the Soviet state was not a permanent fixture. During the Cold War, respectable opinion viewed anti-Communism as a grubby and at times shady business, and there are many who still see it that way. I am unrepentant. The defeat of Communism was as worthwhile a goal as the destruction of Nazism. The predominant Western view of the Soviet system was a mix of progressive wishful thinking and cultural prejudice. Western opinion attributed the totalitarian character of the system to Stalin, and then to Russian traditions of tyranny. Lenin – the system’s true architect, and a faithful disciple of Marx – was absolved of responsibility. The fact that Soviet repression was from the beginning on a scale not dreamt of in the Russia of the tsars was never admitted. This was not a position confined to the far left. It was maintained throughout the intelligentsia, for whom the only permissible criticism of the Soviet system was that it was not authentically Marxian.
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