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The Reactionary Utopian
May 20, 2009

Progressive Hopes
by Joseph Sobran


"Once socialism is established," George Orwell predicted in the 1930s, "the rate of mechanical invention will be greatly accelerated." I read Orwell's prophecy during the 1980s and was struck by how ludicrous it seemed. After more than half a century of socialist economies (including Communist ones), not a single new invention — not so much as a can opener — had been produced. Socialism had only impoverished every country where it existed, and had moreover totally stifled the creative faculties. Nobody could have foreseen how bleak it would actually prove.

All of which is even truer of the purest form of socialism, Communism. Even the few remaining Communists are somewhat chastened, having witnessed the repudiation of Stalin and Mao by their successors. The "New Soviet Man," the Five-Year Plan, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, Building a New Society — all these old slogans sound like grimly ironic epitaphs. "I have been over into the future, and it works," burbled Lincoln Stevens, arriving home from Moscow in the 1920s. The only good news for the Commies and their fellow travelers is that they have never been called to account, a la Nuremberg, for the colossal crimes they committed, ignored, and defended. But we tend to forget how long even most anti-Communists took Communism's insane promises seriously.

As we bid adieu to the twentieth century, it seems worthwhile to review not only its achievements and atrocities but its hopes. Time after time its optimistic expectations have been rendered absurd by events. A whole book keeping score of twentieth-century enthusiasms is long overdue; meanwhile, a brief account will have to suffice.Of World War I it may be enough to quote the archoptimist Woodrow Wilson's description of it as the "war to end all wars." Marshall Foch more sanely called the Versailles Treaty "a 20-year truce." The historian Harry Elmer Barnes even more prophetically spoke of "perpetual war for perpetual peace."

At the 1943 Tehran Conference, the three archcynics — Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin — adopted Wilsonian language
to promise a postwar world of eternal peace, liberty, and justice: "Emerging from these cordial conferences, we look with confidence to the day when all peoples of the world may live free lives, untouched by tyranny, and according to their varying desires and their own consciences." It's doubtful that anyone took this verbiage seriously; but by then utopian democratic jargon had become standard issue, even (or especially) for the bloodiest despots.

Catholics may recall the high hopes for liturgical reform in the wake of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. The vernacular Mass and the relaxation of old disciplines were supposed to inspire a new piety in the laity, who were given a larger role in the rites, including the freedom to receive the Eucharist in their hands — traditionally regarded as a  desecration. The upshot, as such observers as James Hitchcock and Michael Davies noted many years ago, was precisely the reverse of what the liberals predicted and far worse than the reactionaries feared: Mass attendance immediately plummeted and tens of millions of Catholics in the United States alone have fallen away from the Church. Those who remain formally within the Church feel free to defy Catholic teaching on such matters as contraception and abortion; most no longer believe that the Eucharist is the true Body of Christ; and young Catholics are stunningly ignorant of Catholic doctrine.

The general liberalization of religion has failed in the same way. The attempt to keep Christianity and Judaism au courant with contemporary fads has merely enfeebled the sense of the sacred, turning worship into thinly disguised self-indulgence. A "nonjudgmental" God is not God at all and, precisely because he needn't be obeyed, can't be adored. "If God does not exist," says Dostoyevsky's Ivan Karamazov, "everything is permitted." And a God who permits everything doesn't really exist. What's the point of calling such an entity "God"? Yet the progressive churches, by making few demands on their members, have steadily lost membership, while the reactionary churches, insisting on divine commandments, have thrived.

Jews may likewise recall that the establishment of Israel was supposed to create a "homeland" where Jews would live in safety and harmony with their Arab neighbors, in a democratic, socialist, earthly — and godless — utopia. This too has proved a delusive hope. Israel remains dependent on the United States, bitterly at odds with neighboring countries, and in constant danger of war and terrorism. Most Jews still prefer to live in the Diaspora, and especially in the United States. Contrary to all Darwinian wisdom, the only form of Judaism that retains its vitality is the Judaism that refuses to "adapt": Orthodox Judaism.

Similarly the end of European colonialism was supposed to allow African and Asian peoples, freed at last from foreign exploitation, to enjoy the fruits of self-determination. In most cases the former colonies have gone from modest contentment to wretched poverty, epidemic disease, and terrifying tyranny, with little prospect of improvement. The United Nations, advertised as "the Parliament of Man," has fallen somewhat short of expectations; the best that can be said of it is that it has been nearly impotent, serving chiefly as an arena of mutually contradictory propaganda efforts to which nobody pays much attention anymore. We can be consoled by the reflection that it must have disappointed its chief architect, Alger Hiss.

The sexual revolution was heralded as offering not only new freedom but new felicity, as old taboos and inhibitions
yielded to the indulgence of our healthy natural appetites. The net result has been mass misery: more divorce, disease,
anxiety, heartbreak, and of course an explosion of illegitimacy, with all the crime and disorientation that come of the disruption of the family. The horror of abortion has become normalized as a "constitutional right" and an everyday occurrence; sodomy and pedophilia have been liberated; and countless souls are lost to sins that are no longer recognized as perversions.

Pornography too has been normalized to the point where it is inseparable from ordinary popular entertainment. Nudity in
films, which was supposed to make them more "true to life," has instead damaged them aesthetically and morally. Unbridled
hedonism has brought only frustration and depression; even the clergy have been corrupted. The advocates of unbridled sexual expression predicted that releasing the erotic would diminish violence; but the reverse has happened. Lust and violence are eternal partners, and the porn culture, far from breeding a gentle eroticism, has liberated cruelty and sadism. The "new candor" hasn't banished hypocrisy; it has merely given it new forms, with hypocrites claiming to represent "honesty."

"Civil rights," meaning increased state power to dictate private association, has not produced either freedom or racial equality, but only more tyranny and bitterness. Far from achieving a "color-blind" society, we now have a race-obsessed one, with a criminal "underclass" that didn't exist before.

The welfare state, which promised to lift people out of poverty, has merely habituated them to it, while burdening and endangering the general population. "Affirmative action" has proved only that when you promise to impose justice for all, you leave everyone feeling aggrieved. Racial differences, whether inherent or cultural, have turned out to be stubbornly irremovable; but progressive ideology has taught us that the results of those differences are due only to "racism" and must be remedied by giving the state even more power over private relations and private property.

Progressivism spoke of "eliminating" — not merely opposing or reducing or discrediting — such huge and amorphous conditions as poverty and prejudice. Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" would end in permanent victory, a "Great Society." Johnson actually promised to abandon that war if it didn't succeed, just as the Catholic hierarchy promised to undo the post-Vatican II liturgical innovations if they didn't produce the desired results; but the Great Society programs and the Novus Ordo Mass are still with us. Futile "reforms," once established, seem as hard to eliminate as the evils they originally purported to cure.

Progressive faith became obligatory, and it was heresy to doubt that the world could be radically remade. Since liberalism insisted on learning the hard way, it was fitting that many white liberal parents should be shocked to find their children fearing and hating blacks not because of ignorance and "prejudice," but as a result of their own experience in integrated schools. (By the end of the century the number of liberals with children in integrated schools had notoriously declined.)

It's fascinating that even such an astringent critic of inflated utopian language as Orwell (of all people!), who would eventually create some of the darkest images of modern tyranny, should have succumbed, in his salad days, to the temptation to idealize the future. His may simply be an outstanding case of learning from one's mistakes, like other noted apostates from progressive hope: Arthur Koestler, Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, and so many of the most penetrating debunkers of the future that was never to be.

Such men needed a special kind of courage to denounce the official illusions of the twentieth century. As the French Catholic poet Charles Peguy said near the beginning of the century: "We shall never know how many acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of seeming not sufficiently progressive."

"I have a dream," proclaimed Martin Luther King Jr., whose "dream" was inspired by his reading of Marx and other progressive prophets. Like countless visionaries, he was unaware of Michael Oakeshott's admonition: "The conjunction of ruling and dreaming generates tyranny." Which might serve as the epitaph for the twentieth century.

This article is from the April 2000 edition of Sobran's: The Real News of the Month.

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