In the end, a "millennium" is too big a concept for the imagination. A
thousand years equals 30 generations, a duration that has no flesh
and blood dimension. Half a millennium ago, Columbus had just landed in
the Western hemisphere; half that again, America had not yet been
But a century has resonance for us, spanning the two or three lifetimes that we have touched. For example, I can trace my own grandparents' path back to Moravia and the Ukraine, though I can't go any further back than that. My
grandparents were married just before the turn of the last century, and
their children's lives began with it. Brief as this interval is
in the overall span of time, three generations is probably enough to
understand ourselves as human beings.
Looking behind us, this century of ours was mostly a stage for the
destructive dramas of a secular religious faith called "socialism." It
is a faith inspired by the dream of a social redemption realized through
human rather than divine power, through the force of politics and the
state. In its communist form, the efforts of this faith ruined whole
continents and destroyed a world of human lives. Have we learned from
these disasters, or will the passions of this faith follow us into the
century to come?
That is my millennium question.
For an answer, I turned to the pages of the Nation, an institution of the
left that participated in these dramas across the entire century, and
whose editorial stances on each defining moment of the communist project
have been utterly refuted by historical events. The editors of the
Nation supported the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist
collectivization, the infamous purge trials and the Nazi-Soviet Pact,
the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe and the Maoist tyranny in China,
the communist conquest of South Vietnam and Pol Pot's genocidal
revolution and, of course, Castro's long-lived dictatorship in Cuba.
During the Cold War to contain the expansion of the Soviet empire, the
editors of the Nation opposed the Truman Doctrine, the formation of
NATO and SEATO, and the efforts of western military and intelligence organizations generally to stem the Soviet tide.
Over five decades, the
editors of the Nation waged journalistic war against the defenders of
freedom in the West, against America's "cold warrior" presidents Truman
and Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan. At the same time the Nation was the defender of Soviet shills and Soviet spies like Harry Dexter White, Owen
Lattimore, John Stewart Service and the Rosenbergs. As recently as this
month -- the last of the century -- its editor was still defending Alger Hiss.
Like the Bourbons of old, the editors of the Nation
seem to have learned nothing essential and forgotten nothing as well.
During the slow unfolding of the Marxist collapse, the socialist
movement they foster as a faith was often fragmented and surreptitious.
Now, at this turn of a century, the movement itself is more influential
in American political and cultural life than it has been at any time in
the American past. Its adherents reach into the White House and the
Congress; they are the sitting leadership of the AFL-CIO and of the
principal academic, professional, and arts associations, and of many of the most important media institutions as well.
In this pre-millennial hour -- December 1999 -- the editors of the
Nation chose to run two stories -- an appraisal of the socialist century
past and a harbinger of the socialist century to come -- that provide
the answer to my question.
In the Dec. 13 issue, there is a long review article called
"Exploiting a Tragedy, or Le Rouge En Noir [The Red in Black],"
written by the magazine's longtime "European Editor," Daniel Singer, a
godson disciple of the Trotskyist writer Isaac Deutscher, and the
magazine's resident expert on the subject of the communist experience.
The main focus of Singer's article is "The Black Book of Communism," a French
treatise that attempts to sum up the human horror of the project to make
a better world. According to the book's authors, during the 20th century
between 85 and 100 million human beings were slaughtered in peacetime by
Marxists in the effort to realize their impossible dream. As a
foreword by Martin Malia reasonably suggests, "Any realistic
accounting of communist crime would effectively shut the door on
That is the minimal lesson one might expect to learn from the unbroken
record of the socialist utopias of the century just past. But it is
exactly the lesson the Nation fervently rejects. Writes Singer: "Our aim
-- let us not be ashamed to say so -- is to revive the belief in
collective action and in the possibility of radical transformation in
our lives." He refers to this passion for social redemption as "the
Promethean spirit of humankind," a term that reprises the precise
language Marx used when he launched his destructive project over 150
Socialism is dead. Long live socialism.
For Singer and the Nation, the unrelieved horror and failure of
socialist experiments over the course of a century is not a lesson in
sobriety for those who promoted and supported them, nor a reason to
reconsider the faith. It is just a tragedy of errors that need not
discourage them and need never be repeated. For the Nation this is the
story of "a revolution in a backward country failing to spread and the
terrible result then presented to the world as a model."
In other words,
had there been sufficient communists in America and Europe to make
revolutions there as well, the utopia that socialists had dreamed of
would have been realized in fact. With communists triumphant everywhere,
the Marxist fantasy would have come true.
And lo and behold, in the very next issue, a Nation editorial, "Street Fight
in Seattle," hails the eruption of political violence in the state of
Washington as a beacon of socialist renewal in the nation as a whole.
The protest against the emerging global market, the editorial gloats, is
"something not seen since the sixties" -- when the anti-capitalist,
anti-market, anti-property forces of the left last took their socialist
fantasies and nihilist agendas to America's streets.
The voices recorded are familiar ones: "A week ago no one even knew
what the World Trade Organization was," proclaimed Tom Hayden, one of
the most destructive luddites of the previous generation, who did not
miss the opportunity to join the demonstration. "Now these protests have
made WTO a household word. And not a very pretty word."
From generation to generation, the message has not changed one iota. Declaims the Nation: "A corporate-dominated WTO that puts
profits before people and property rights before human rights can no
longer sustain its current course." It quotes Gerald McEntee, a leader
of the government unions and a major power in Democratic Party politics:
"We refuse to be marketized." Quoting the famous words of a '60s
leader, McEntee proclaimed: "We have to name the system, and that
system is corporate capitalism."
In other words, the Nation's war is still directed against a system that
in the last 50 years has brought unimagined well-being to millions of
people previously excluded from all but the barest minimum of the fruits
of their labor -- a system which is the only creator of democratic
freedoms the world has ever known.
The Nation's mantra -- "Profits before people and property rights before
human rights" -- is the anathema on the system that was formulated by Marx
and is now resurrected in Seattle. But how is it possible for any
sentient human being to have lived through the 20th century without
coming to understand that property rights are the basis of any
rights that human beings have ever been able to secure, and that far
from conflicting with human needs, profits are the only practical engine
ever devised that even half-succeeded in fulfilling them.
Such willful ignorance does not stem from lack of intelligence, but has
a deeper source in human desires that can only be satisfied by religious
faith. The socialist dream of achieving a kingdom of heaven on earth is
as old as Eden. "You shall be as God," was the serpent's fatal promise
then. It is the "Promethean" dream that Marx identified as his own and
that the Nation editors are intent to keep alive. It is the idea of
putting a human design on the impersonal structures of the social order
beginning with the economic market and extending to the constitutional order. In wishing this, socialists fail to
understand that a market that human beings cannot control and a political process they are bound to respect are the very disciplines that human beings require in order to be human.
Without such restraints and the limits they impose, humanity quickly
descends into the barbarism the 20th century has made us all too familiar
with, yet whose lessons -- as we go into the 21st -- the Nation and its
comrades have not learned.
In the end, is there anything really new under the sun, as far as the passions that inspire and the reasons that guide us are concerned? The Homeric epics,
which are the first literature of our civilization, were written three
millennia ago, yet they are inhabited by people whose emotions and
calculations are familiar today. The ideas of Plato and Aristotle, the
ethics of the religious founders who lived more than two millennia ago,
pretty much encompass the ideas, ethics and religious faiths we see
around us today.
Call this continuity "human nature." We are bounded by who we are and
what we can learn. In the matter of how we live and react, what we can
learn about ourselves is pretty well set by the real individuals who
connect with us, and by whom we are touched. One or
two, or at most three generations encompass this extended family of
flesh and blood contacts. A century or so will do it.
So that's my millennial question: Have we learned from the Marxist disaster of this century, or are we doomed to repeat it in the next?