Roger Kimball is Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion and President and Publisher of Encounter Books. He is an art critic for National Review and writes a regular column for PJ Media at Roger’s Rules. He has written and edited several books on art, literature, culture, politics, and education. He recently spoke with Catholic World Report about his most recent book, The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia, published by St. Augustine’s Press, offering his thoughts on relativism, tyranny, culture, religion, Chesterton, art and architecture, socialism, and the future of Western civilization.
Catholic World Report: In the Preface, you write that the “embrace of relativism was a harbinger, a symptom of a seismic shift in the way people view the world.” What was that seismic shift? And how did it set the stage, so to speak, for the rise and growing acceptance of relativism?
Kimball: Perhaps the best way of identifying the nature of that shift is to quote Dostoyevsky’s famous observation, from The Brothers Karamazov, that “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” Dostoyevsky’s great insight was to see that without allegiance to the transcendent, our parochial attachments are anchorless, and, being anchorless, they tend to drift along whichever way the current of sentiment pushes them. As I note in Fortunes, relativism, whether or not it travels under that particular name, has more and more assumed the status of a civil religion in the West. It bearing the promise of liberation from old pieties—just think back to the rancid jubilations of the 1960s and 1970s if you want an example—but regularly delivers new forms of tyranny and enslavement.
That’s to say, while the first upsurge of relativism can be an intoxicating draught—think again of the giddiness that ushered in the Sixties—the unpleasant hangover, the foundering on the jagged shoals of reality—is not long in coming. What seemed like a welcome liberation soon reveals itself as a vertiginous exile. Which is to say that, at bottom, relativism is a religious problem. “God is dead,” Nietzsche proclaimed in the 1880s. What he observed was an emotional, not an historical, fact. The unspoken allegiance to something transcending the vicissitudes of human desire had been (among the elites, anyway) shattered. The result was nihilism, that existential vacuum which human nature abhors and rushes to fill with a panoply of brazen idols and false gods.
Catholic World Report: An interconnecting theme in the book is how relativism informs a number of modern impulses and trends, including those of tyranny, utopianism, and benevolence. Many people, it is safe to say, think those three have little or no connection at all to one another. How are they connected? Why do many people fail to see the relationship between them?
Kimball: The connection between tyranny and utopianism is indeed a prominent leitmotif of the book. Why is it, you ask, that people are slow to recognize the connection? A flattering explanation is that people are seduced by the promise of good intentions. A Marxist arrives telling you he wants to establish the brotherhood of man by abolishing private property. Many believe him and, moreover, think that this might be just what the doctor ordered. Why? It is a sobering thought that Lenin (for example) was a committed humanitarian—a “friend of humanity,” as I put it in one of the chapters of Fortunes.
In his book Modern Times, the historian Paul Johnson speaks of Lenin’s “burning humanitarianism, akin to the love of the saints for God.” Yes, and here’s the rub: “But his humanitarianism was a very abstract passion. It embraced humanity in general but he seems to have little love for, or even interest in, humanity in particular. He saw the people with whom he dealt, his comrades, not as individuals but as receptacles for his ideas.” Here’s where we see the link between tyranny and utopianism. The paterfamilias of this brand of sentimental humanitarianism was Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “I think I know man,” Rousseau said mournfully toward the end of his life, “but as for men, I know them not.” (Nor, come to that, did he know any of his five illegitimate children, all of whom he abandoned to the orphanage.) It’s a short step from Rousseau and his celebration of the emotion (as distinct from the reality) of virtue to Robespierre and his candid talk about “virtue and its emanation, terror.”
Lenin was a utopian. Hitler was a utopian. Ditto Stalin, Pol Pot, and . . . you can extend the list. All were adept practitioners of what Johnson calls the twentieth century’s “most radical vice: social engineering— the notion that human beings can be shovelled around like bags of cement.”
And this brings us to yet another irony: that relativism and tyranny, far from being in opposition, are in fact regular collaborators. (I go into this in more detail in my chapter “What’s Wrong with Benevolence.”) This surprises many people, for it seems at first blush that relativism, by loosening the sway of dogma, should be the friend of liberty. In fact, as Mussolini saw clearly, in its “contempt for fixed categories” and “objective truth,” “there is nothing more relativistic” than fascism. And it is not only fascism that habitually makes use of relativism as a moral softening-up agent. Modern liberal democracies champion reason in the form of a commitment to science and technology, but there, too, relativism shows itself as the friend of various strains of dehumanization.
Why does relativism, which begins with a beckoning promise of liberation from “oppressive” moral constraints, so often end in the embrace of immoral constraints that are politically obnoxious? Part of the answer lies in the hypertrophy or perversion of relativism’s conceptual enablers—terms like “pluralism,” “diversity,” “tolerance,” “openness,” and the like. They all name classic liberal virtues, but it turns out that their beneficence depends on their place in a constellation of fixed values. Absent that hierarchy, they rapidly degenerate into epithets in the armory of political suasion. They retain the aura, the emotional charge, of positive values. But in reality they act as moral solvents, as what one commentator calls “value-dispersing terms that serve as an official warning to accept all behaviors of others without judgment and, most important, to keep all moral opinions private.” In this sense, the rise of relativism encourages an ideology of non-judgmentalism only as a prelude to ever more strident discriminations.
Let me say a word or two more about how this affects liberalism. To be an anatomist of totalitarianism is also to be a connoisseur of freedom, its many beguiling counterfeits as well as its genuine aspirations. The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski had some penetrating things to say about this. What Kolakowski calls the “antinomy” of liberalism stand behind the puzzle of how ideas like relativism, humanitarianism, and benevolence can cohabit so easily with tyranny.
The antinomy is this: liberalism implies openness to other points of view, even (it would seem) those points of view whose success would destroy liberalism. Tolerance to those points of view is a prescription for suicide. But intolerance betrays the fundamental premise of liberalism, i.e. openness. How do we square that circle?
Kolakowski is surely right that our liberal, pluralist democracy depends for its survival not only on the continued existence of its institutions, but also “on a belief in their value and a widespread will to defend them.” Here’s the $64,000 question: Do we, as a society, enjoy that belief? Do we possess the requisite will? The jury is still out on those questions. A good test is the extent to which we can resolve the antinomy of liberalism. And a good start on that problem is the extent to which we realize that the antinomy is, in the business of everyday life, illusory. The “openness” that liberal society rightly cherishes is not a vacuous openness to all points of view: it is not “value neutral.” It need not, indeed it cannot, say Yes to all comers. American democracy, for example, affords its citizens great latitude, but great latitude is not synonymous with the proposition that “anything goes.” Our society, like every society, is founded on particular positive values—the rule of law, for example, respect for the individual, religious freedom, the separation of church and state. Western democratic society, that is to say, is rooted in what Kolakowski calls a “vision of the world.” Part of that vision is a commitment to openness, but openness is not the same as indifference.
In my chapter on G. K. Chesterton, I quote this memorable line from his book Orthodoxy: Chesterton championed freedom of thought, but wisely noted that “There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.” Our society is extraordinarily accommodating of diverse points of view— especially, it sometimes seems, to those that are hostile to the ideal of diversity. In order to continue to enjoy the luxury of freedom, we must say No to those movements that would exploit freedom only to abolish it. The point is that that human freedom is inextricably tied to a recognition of limits. We pride ourselves today on our “openness” and commitment to liberal ideals, our empathy for other cultures, and our sophisticated understanding that our way of viewing the world is, after all, only our way of viewing the world. But Kolakowski reminds us that, without a prior commitment to substantive values—to an ideal of the good and (just as important) an acknowledgment of evil—openness threatens to degenerate into vacuousness.
Catholic World Report: Many, if not all, of your books focus on the meaning and purpose of culture, and in this book you write about American culture. How would you define “American culture” if you had to do so in a few sentences? Or is it possible? Are there signs of healthy, vibrant culture in the United States? What are they?
Kimball: Well, if the task is to define America culture, I would have to plead my incapacity. I feel about that Herculean task the way St. Augustine felt about time: “I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled.” But you are right: Fortunes, like most of my books, is concerned with what we might call the vocation of culture. In general, I think that T. S. Eliot was right about culture. “Boil down Horace, the Elgin Marbles, St. Francis and Goethe,” Eliot wrote, and the result will be “pretty thin soup.” “Culture,” he concluded, “is not enough, even though nothing is enough without culture.” What else is there? Religion, or at least some acknowledgement that the ultimate source of our moral vocation transcends our mundane interventions. Eliot put it neatly: “Either everything in man can be traced as a development from below, or something must come from above. There is no avoiding that dilemma: you must be either a naturalist or a supernaturalist.”
That takes us pretty far afield, but I think it may be worth keeping that background assumption in mind. As for signs of health, they certainly exist, but I think they occupy the role of a sort of counter-culture, a sort of dissent from the majority or established culture. Specifics? Well, I like to think that enterprises like The New Criterion, which I edit, and Encounter Books, of which I am the publisher, provide some vital examples. On the cultural front, there are many such enterprises. In the world of art, for examples, there are plenty of serious, accomplished artists making splendid works of art, it’s just that they are not part of the established art world. They tend not to get written up in The New York Times or have exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, or similar establishments. On another level, I think that the home schooling movement, which began as an evangelical enterprise a couple decades ago, has become a vibrant force for challenging the dominant, sclerotic culture in America.
Catholic World Report: “Culture survives and develops”, you state, “under the aegis of permanence.” Yet “instantaneity” is “one of the chief imperatives of our time”. If you could cautiously don the prophet’s robes, what is at the end of the road for this culture of instantaneity?
Kimball: In brief, the culture of instantaneity is the culture of ephemeralness: a voracious, but largely self-consuming leviathan. That’s where the theme of amnesia comes in. In my title essay, I note that while our age is hailed as “the information age,” our possession of the wisdom behind the information is shaky: Data, data everywhere, but no one knows a thing. In the West, at least, practically everybody has instant access to huge databases and news-retrieval services, to say nothing of television and other media. With a few clicks of the mouse we can bring up every line of Shakespeare that contains the word “darkling” or the complete texts of Aeschylus in Greek or in translation. Information about contract law in ancient Rome or yesterday’s developments in microchip technology in Japan is at our fingertips. If we are traveling to Paris, we can book our airline ticket and hotel reservation online, check the local weather, and find out the best place to have dinner near the Place des Vosges. We can correspond and exchange documents with friends on the other side of the globe in the twinkling of an eye. Our command of information is staggering.
And yet with that command comes a great temptation. Partly, it is the temptation to confuse an excellent means of communication with communications that are excellent. We confuse, that is to say, process with product. As the critic David Guaspari memorably put it, “comparing information and knowledge is like asking whether the fatness of a pig is more or less green than the designated hitter’s rule.”
That is not the only confusion. There is also a tendency to confuse propinquity with possession. The fact that some text is available online or on CD-ROM does not mean that one has read and absorbed its contents. When I was in graduate school, there were always students who devoted countless hours to copying articles on the library’s Xerox machines. They somehow supposed that by making a copy of some document they had also read, or half-read, or at least looked into it. Today that same tendency is exacerbated by high-speed internet access. We can download a veritable library of material to our computer in a few minutes; that does not mean we have mastered its riches. Information is not synonymous with knowledge, let alone wisdom.
Catholic World Report: You point out in several places that there are signs in our country of religious revival and true interest in orthodoxy. What are some of those signs? Who or what are the main enemies of that revival and interest?
Kimball: To confine myself to just one example, I think the new interest in the Tridentine Mass among Catholics is one such sign. For several years, my wife and I were privileged to attend Mass with Bill Buckley in a small chapel in Stamford. The priest traveled half an hour most Sundays to say Latin Mass in the old rite for four or five of us. When Bill started doing that, the Tridentine Mass was vanishingly rare, almost a verboten exercise. It has made a big come back and is evidence, I think, of a serious religious renewal in our culture. Of course, there are plenty of countervailing evidences, but I think the appetite for that majestic rite is a cheering phenomenon.
Catholic World Report: Readers might be surprised that tucked among chapters on Pericles, John Buchan, Chesterton, Kipling, and Richard Weaver (among others), you have a chapter on The Dangerous Book for Boys. What caught your attention about that book? What does its success suggest?
Kimball: Well, I first encountered this admirable work when it was published in London in 2006. I liked its retro look—the lettering and typography of the cover recall an earlier, more swashbuckling era—and I thought at first it must be a reprint. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that a book containing instructions on how to make catapults, how to hunt and cook a rabbit, how to play poker, how to make a waterbomb, was published today, the high noon of nannydom.
The first chapter, “Essential Gear” (“Essential Kit” in the English edition), lists a Swiss Army knife, for God’s sake, not to mention matches and a magnifying glass, “For general interest. Can also be used to start fires.” Probably, the book would have to be checked with the rest of your luggage at the airport: If you can’t bring a bottle of water on the airplane, how do you suppose a book advocating knives and incendiary devices is going to go over? Why, even the title is a provocation. The tort lawyers must be salivating over the word “dangerous,” and I can only assume that the horrible grinding noise you hear is from Title IX fanatics congregating to protest the appearance of a book designed for the exclusive enjoyment of boys.
And speaking of “boys,” have you noticed how unprogressive the word sounds in today’s English? It is almost as retrograde as “girls,” a word that I knew was on the way out when an academic couple I know proudly announced that they had just presented the world with a “baby woman.”
No, I did not make that up, and even after due allowances are made for the fact that the couple were, after all, academics and therefore peculiarly susceptible to such PC deformations, it’s clear that something fundamental is happening in our society. Some speak about the “feminization” of America and Europe. Scholars like Christina Hoff Sommers have reported on the “war against boys.” A public school near where I live gets high marks for “academic excellence,” but I note that they allow only 15 minutes of recess a day for kindergarteners and first graders. Result: By 2 pm the boys are ready to explode. That turns out to be a solvable problem, though, because a little Ritalin with the (whole grain) Cheerios does wonders to keep Johnny from acting up.
In a recent interview, Conn Iggulden, speaking about his collaboration with his brother in writing The Dangerous Book for Boys, dilated on this campaign against the boy-like side of boyhood. “They need to fall off things occasionally,” Iggulden said, “or . . . they’ll take worse risks on their own. If we do away with challenging playgrounds and cancel school trips for fear of being sued, we don’t end up with safer boys—we end up with them walking on train tracks.” Quite right. The Dangerous Book for Boys is alive with such salubrious challenges. Its epigraph, a 1903 letter from an army surgeon to the young Prince of Wales, advises, “The best motto for a long march is ‘Don’t grumble. Plug on.’” How antique that stiff-upper-lippery sounds to our ears! The Dangerous Book for Boys is an invigorating challenge to our anemic, politically correct establishment and for that reason I thought it deserved a place in a book that also looked askance at that suffocating imperative.
Catholic World Report: You praise the “inestimable achievement” of G.K. Chesterton having “salvaged wonder for himself” and his readers. What are some ways in which Chesterton salvaged wonder? Why is it important in the enlightened year of 2012?
Kimball: Let me mention that Chesterton would have liked The Dangerous Book for Boys, partly because he would have loathed everything that goes under the name of political correctness, partly because he managed to preserve something boylike in his character to the very end. (As Ronald Knox observed of Chesterton, he grew up from manhood into boyhood). Many people have dilated on Chesterton’s fondness for paradox. That is certainly a prominent ingredient in his writing and his whole comportment to the world. But behind that delight in paradox was a wonder at the oddness, the wonder of reality. I think that the science writer Martin Gardner, a huge admirer of Chesterton’s, got it exactly right: “No modern writer,” Gardner noted, “lived with a more pervasive sense of ontological wonder, of surprise to find himself alive, than Gilbert Chesterton.” As I note in my chapter on Chesterton, such wonder was the source of his uncanny powers of rejuvenation, of making fresh, young, new. Wonder, Chesterton said in the Autobiography, “was the chief idea of my life.” Surprise, as Gardner noted, is one regular concomitant of wonder. Another is gratitude. It was a prime Chestertonian gift, the sense of grateful wonder before the fathomless mystery of life. “The comedy of man,” as he put it in a 1935 radio broadcast, “survives the tragedy of man.”
You ask about the importance of Chestertonian wonder today, in 2012. Here let me invoke Søren Kierkegaard. I have found no evidence that Chesterton read Kierkegaard, who died in 1855 but was not translated into English until much later. Kierkegaard was a sort of connoisseur (and expert anatomist) of boredom. Boredom was, Kierkegaard said, “the demonic side of pantheism.” Chesterton would have understood and savored that formulation. Boredom’s pact with the devil yielded staleness and weariness where joy ought to have predominated. It was, he would have pointed out, one of the disadvantages of pantheism and the doctrinaire naturalism from which pantheism flows. One does not need to embrace Chesterton’s religious views to understand that he who wonders at life cannot be bored, while he who is bored cannot experience wonder or the gratitude that blossoms alongside it.
I believe that much of Western culture today is deep in the grip of the sort of distracted pantheism Kierkegaard diagnosed and Chesterton battled against. We are, as T.S. Eliot put it in another context, “distracted from distraction by distraction.” The remedy, the antidote, to the corrosive boredom that follows in its wake is precisely to cultivate that true attention to the panoply of existence, to see, as William Blake put it, the world in a grain of sand. Chesterton is an accurate guide, an inspiring teacher, in this school of wonderment. We need him more now than ever.
Catholic World Report: There are three words that stand out in your essays on art and architecture: crisis, disaster, and ideology. How are the three related? What are some examples of the three in the current world(s) of art?
Kimball: Ah, a large couple of questions! The art world today — which is not quite the same as the world of art — subsists in a curious deformed state. You cannot go to any museum of contemporary art or trendy gallery and not be assaulted by work claiming to be “transgressive,” that “challenges established conventions,” etc. The risible truth is, however, that what parades under the banner of the avant garde today is utterly banal and familiar. The only thing it challenges is the viewer’s credulity. Far from being genuinely challenging of conventions, it wallows in the rancid conventions of an outmoded avant garde whose originality expired back in the early decades of the last century. Marcel Duchamp, the apostle of Dada, mapped out all of the essential features of today’s advanced art. He took an ordinary bottle rack, exhibited it as a work of art, astounded the punters, and established a precedent that has been paying dividends at the box office of artistic futility ever since. Then he had the temerity to exhibit a urinal, signed “R. Mutt,” which shocked the tender sensibilities of the Edwardian world and ushered in decades of repellent “art” that championed the use or invocation of bodily fluids.
It’s all pretty familiar today when establishments like The Museum of Modern Art host black-tie galas for the latest art world freak. Indeed, when we look around at the contemporary art scene, we are struck not only by its promiscuous nature—by the fact that it is a living illustration of the proposition that anything can count as art today—but also by certain telltale symptoms. I believe that these symptoms tells us a great deal not only about the character of contemporary art but also about the character of contemporary culture: about what we value, what we aspire to, who we believe we are as human beings. It is not a flattering portrait.
The first of these symptoms is novelty. Anyone looking at the art world today cannot fail to be struck by its obsession with novelty. For those in thrall to the imperatives of the art world, the first question to be asked of a given work is not whether it is any good but whether it represents something discernibly new or different. Of course, the search for novelty has long since condemned its devotees to the undignified position of naively re-circulating various clichés: how little, really, our “cutting edge” artists have added to the strategies of the Dadaists, the Futurists, the Surrealists. But the appetite for novelty—even if the result is only the illusion of novelty—is apparently stronger than the passion for historical self-awareness. Never mind that the search for novelty is itself one of modernity’s hoariest maneuvers: for susceptible souls its siren call is irresistible.
A second, related, symptom is the art world’s addiction to extremity. This follows as a natural corollary to the obsession with novelty. As the search for something new to say or do becomes ever more desperate, artists push themselves to make extreme gestures simply in order to be noticed. But here, too, an inexorably self-defeating logic has taken hold: at a time when so much art is routinely extreme and audiences have become inured to the most brutal spectacles, extremity itself becomes a commonplace. After one has had oneself nailed to a Volkswagen (as one artist did), what’s left? Without the sustaining, authoritative backdrop of the normal, extreme gestures—stylistic, moral, political—degenerate into a grim species of mannerism. Lacking any guiding aesthetic imperative, such gestures, no matter how shocking or repulsive they may be, are so many exercises in futility.
You mentioned ideology. It is in part to compensate for this encroaching futility that the third symptom, the desire to marry art and politics, has become such a prominent feature of the contemporary art scene. When the artistic significance of art is at a minimum, politics rushes in to fill the void. From the crude political allegories of a Leon Golub or Hans Haacke to the feminist sloganeering of Jenny Holzer, Karen Finley, or Cindy Sherman, much that goes under the name of art today is incomprehensible without reference to its political content. In many cases what we see are nothing but political gestures that poach on the prestige of art in order to enhance their authority. Another word for this activity is propaganda, although at a moment when so much of art is given over to propagandizing the word seems inadequate. It goes without saying that the politics in question are as predictable as clockwork. Not only are they standard items on the prevailing tablet of left-wing pieties, they are also cartoon versions of the same. It’s the political version of painting by number: AIDS, the homeless, “gender politics,” the Third World, and the environment line up on one side with white hats, while capitalism, patriarchy, the United States, and traditional morality and religion assemble yonder in black hats.
The trinity of novelty, extremity, and politics—leavened by frantic commercialism and the cult of celebrity—goes a long way toward describing the complexion of the contemporary art world: its faddishness, its constant recourse to lurid images of sex and violence, its tendency to substitute a hectoring politics for artistic ambition. It also helps to put into perspective some of the changes that have taken place in the meaning and goals of art over the last hundred years or so. Closely allied to the search for novelty is a shift of attention away from beauty as the end of art. From the time of Cubism, at least, most “advanced” art (which is not necessarily synonymous with “good” art) has striven not for the beautiful but for more elliptical qualities: above all, perhaps, for the interesting, which in many respects has usurped beauty as the primary category of aesthetic delectation.
At the same time, most self-consciously avant-garde artists have displayed considerably less interest in pleasing or delighting their viewers than in startling, shocking, even repelling them. Not for nothing are “challenging” and “transgressive” among the most popular terms of critical praise today. The idea, of course, is that by abjuring beauty and refusing to please the artist is better able to confront deeper, more authentic, more painful realities. And perhaps he is. But one mustn’t overlook the element of posturing that often accompanies such existential divagations. Nor should one forget the many counter-examples and counter-tendencies. In a famous statement from 1908, when he was almost forty, Henri Matisse wrote that he dreamt of “an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the business man as well as the man of letters, . . . something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” Matisse was one of the greatest and also most innovative painters of the twentieth century. Does this vision of balance and serenity diminish his achievement?
To a large extent, the calamities of art today are due to the aftermath of the avant-garde: to all those “adversarial” gestures, poses, ambitions, and tactics that emerged and were legitimized in the 1880s and 1890s, flowered in the first half of this century, and that live a sort of posthumous existence now in the frantic twilight of postmodernism.
In part, our present situation, like the avant-garde itself, is a complication (not to say a perversion) of our Romantic inheritance. The elevation of art from a didactic pastime to a prime spiritual resource, the self-conscious probing of inherited forms and artistic strictures, the image of the artist as a tortured, oppositional figure: all achieve a first maturity in Romanticism. These themes were exacerbated as the avant-garde developed from an impulse to a movement and finally into a tradition of its own.
Catholic World Report: The third and final section of the book focuses on socialism and related ideologies. You argue that while socialism presents itself as scientific it is actually far more accurate to say it is “sentimental”. How so? What are some other qualities of socialism that are either overlooked or submerged underneath scientific rhetoric?
Kimball: Although Marxists like to present their theories as “scientific” (the “inevitable unfolding of the dialect” and all that), it is indisputably clear that the chief appeal of socialism is emotional. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski observed, far from depending on its alleged “scientific character,” the appeal of socialism depends “almost entirely [on] . . . its prophetic, fantastic, and irrational elements.
Marxism says that as capitalist societies develop, most people are hounded into abject poverty while a tiny coterie of capitalists thrive. This scenario is presented, À la Hegel, as a “dialectical” inevitability. But in fact capitalism has always made societies richer, much richer. Capitalists may get rich, but their workers become more prosperous than their grandparents could have ever imagined possible. Whether or not this is a “necessary” concomitant of market forces, it is an historical fact. The curious thing is that this phenomenon, which any dispassionate observer might count as a refutation, leaves the true-believing Marxist entirely unruffled. Whatever else one can say about it, Marxism is surely one of the most impervious systems of thought ever devised. It is also one of the most protean. It has always, as Kolakowski notes, been able to change “content from one situation to another and [crossbreed] with other ideological traditions.” In part, this is a testimony to its intellectual adaptability; in part, it is simple mendacity. As Marx himself explained in an 1857 letter to Friedrich Engels about an election prediction he had made, “It’s possible that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way.” Nice work if you can get it!
The embarrassing thing is that all of Marx’s major predictions have turned out to be wrong. He said that societies based on a market economy would suffer spiraling class polarization and the disappearance of the middle class. Every society lucky enough to enjoy the fruits of a market economy shows that Marx was wrong about that. He predicted the growing immiseration and impoverishment of the working class in capitalist societies. (Actually, he didn’t merely predict that it would happen, he predicted that it would happen necessarily and inevitably—thanks, Hegel.) The opposite has happened. Marx further predicted the inevitable revolution of the proletariat. Mark that, inevitable.
This is the very motor of Marxism. Take away the proletarian revolution and you neuter the theory. But there have been no proletarian revolutions. The Bolshevik revolution, as Kolakowski points out, “had nothing to do with Marxian prophesies. Its driving force was not a conflict between the industrial working class and capital, but rather was carried out under slogans that had no socialist, let alone Marxist, content: Peace and Land for Peasants.” Marx said that in a capitalist economy, untrammeled competition would inevitably squeeze profit margins: eventually—and soon!—the economy would grind to a halt and capitalism would collapse. Take a look at capitalist economies in the hundred and fifty years since Marx wrote: have profit margins evaporated? Marx thought that, when they matured, capitalist economies would hamper technical progress and Communist societies would support it: the opposite is true.
No, Marxism has been as wrong as it is possible for a theory to be wrong. Addicted to “the self-deification of mankind,” it continually bears witness to what Kolakowski calls “the farcical aspect of human bondage.” Why then was Marxism like moral catnip—not so much among its proposed beneficiaries, the working classes who bore the brunt of its immiserating effects, but among the educated elite? Why?
Well, beguiling simplicity was part of it. Like Freudianism, like Darwinism, like Hegelianism—Marxism is a “one-key-fits-all-locks” philosophy. All aspects of human experience can be referred to the operation of a single all-governing process, which thereby offers the illusion of universal explanation.
Marxism also spoke powerfully to mankind’s unsatisfied utopian impulses. How imperfect a construct is capitalist society: how much conflict does it abet, how many desires does it leave unsatisfied! Can we not imagine a world beyond those tensions and conflicts in which we could realize our full human potential without competition, without scarcity, without want? A society in which, as Marx famously put it in The German Ideology, the alienating “division of labor” has been overcome and anyone can “do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and be a critic after dinner, just as I have a mind.” Sure, we can imagine that, but there is a reason that “utopia” means “nowhere.” Kolakowski shows how Marxism speaks powerfully to those unrealized, and unrealizable, utopian dreams. Marxism, he wrote, was the “greatest fantasy” of the twentieth century, not because it offered a better life but because it appealed to apparently ineradicable spiritual cravings.
Catholic World Report: In the concluding chapter you remark that “the anatomy of servitude … has formed an important leitmotif in this book…” How has that servitude been realized in Western culture? And how can it be resisted, rejected, and ultimately defeated?
Kimball: A full answer to that question would be very long! One thing humans are perennially clever at is making for themselves new forms of servitude under the banner of liberation. Socialism in its various forms offers many doleful examples. But so, alas, does our own quasi-capitalist society. I am particularly concerned in Fortunes with what Alexis de Tocqueville called “democratic despotism,” with the ways in which modern democratic societies replace old fashioned tyranny with infantilization as the preferred mode of enforcing servitude.
How can it be resisted? Well, in order to resist it, we first have to recognize it and have the courage to call things by their real names. The so-called “Welfare State,” for example is less a means of combating poverty than institutionalizing it. You don’t hear that from our politicians. But that is the irrefutable lesson of history. That is one insight I hope readers will carry away from The Fortunes of Permanence. Another speaks to your question about how the servitude of socialism and kindred assaults on liberty can be “ultimately defeated.” They can’t be. That is to say, the battle for freedom and against the encroachments of servitude is never over. Every generation must fight it again, indeed, every individual must always be vigilant about keeping freedom alive in his own heart. That is the great Burkean point I try to make in The Fortunes of Permanence. Civilization is an achievement not a gift; it is always besieged, must constantly be defended, and once lost, is immeasurably difficult to reclaim. We see the results of the assaults against freedom all around us.
I hope that spectacle will be sobering, but not disheartening. I intended this book to be a cautionary tale, but not a dispiriting one. Look at the prospect before us, there is much to worry about, but also much to celebrate. I end the book with what I think is a tonic observation from Viscount d’Abernon: “An Englishman’s mind,” he wrote, “works best when it is almost too late.” An American’s too, I fancy.
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