Earlier this week emailer George sent me a link to a new article by Gary Saul Morson, a professor of Humanities at Northwestern University. As many of you will already know, Morson is fascinated by parallels between the current crisis of our constitutional order and the pre-Revolutionary period in Russian history. His latest article focuses on the almost mind boggling upsurge of revolutionary terror in Russia during the first decade of the 20th century--and the liberal embrace of this virtual orgy of violence. That liberal reaction--which Morson wants us to see in our current "mainstream" progressives and liberals--led directly to the Bolshevik Revolution, with violence on a scale unparalleled in previous history.
I'll provide some fairly extensive excerpts and you can judge for yourself as to the aptness of the comparisons between Russian liberals and those of our own day and in our own country. For all the historical, social, and political differences between then in Russia and now in America, I do find the parallels to be striking. Morson clearly wants us to consider those parallels and to find common elements that underlie revolutionary violence, and it's there that I question whether his explanation of the common elements is completely satisfactory.
What I'd like to do here is to point out elements of current events that remind one of central themes in the thought of Mircea Eliade. Eliade saw many parallels between the thinking and acting of "archaic man," the man of "traditional" societies of any age, and the ideologies of the modern Western world. Thus:
Eliade notes that, in traditional societies, myth represents the absolute truth about primordial time. According to the myths, this was the time when the Sacred first appeared, establishing the world's structure—myths claim to describe the primordial events that made society and the natural world be that which they are. Eliade argues that all myths are, in that sense, origin myths: "myth, then, is always an account of a creation."
That may seem abstract, so let's draw out some more concrete implications. For "archaic" man, the ordered, structured world is brought forth by the gods from a primordial chaos. Creation or, better, origin myths expresses this worldview. However, for the man of any society, we are faced with the reality that our existence always threatens to slip back into chaos--more so at some times than at others. Thus, a key part of traditional religion has always been to seek to "regenerate" the ordered world through rituals. Those rituals typically occur at the New Year--or other significant times, such as the spring planting or harvest. The rituals often include elements that invoke an overturning of the entire order of the world or of human society, to make way for the new creation or regeneration of a perfect order. Such disorder can obviously lapse into outright violence.
So, for example, in The Myth of the Eternal Return (1949), Eliade describes the ancient Babylonian New Year rituals:
The first act of the ceremony ... marks a regression into the mythical period before the Creation; all forms are supposed to be confounded ... every feature suggests universal confusion, the abolition of order and hierarchy, "orgy," chaos. We witness, one might say, a "deluge" that annihilates all humanity in order to prepare the way for a new and regenerated human species. (p. 57)
I suggest that what we are seeing in the chaotic riots and "peaceful" violence is an unconscious reenactment of these types of rituals--indeed, the ritual element in Leftist demonstrations should be very apparent. The prominence that sexual disorder has for the modern Left--the "trans" movement (I think 'movement' is the right word) epitomizes and evokes the 'abolition of order'--is a strong indication of what's going on: a ritual evocation of chaos that will, by magical reenactment, lead to a 'regenerated human species.'
Of course, for the man of traditional society, for whom regeneration is achieved by a return to a divinely ordered reality, a clear goal remains in view. But for modern revolutionaries of a Marxist bent, man has taken over the divine ordering role: man will create or reorder his own reality. Once again, the "trans" movement is a perfect expression of this revolutionary magic ritualism. Trannies are the perfect symbol of the New Man of the Left who lead their devotees to a new world order. This is simply an updating of the Marxist myth:
Thus, at the end of the Marxist philosophy of history, lies the age of gold of the archaic eschatologies. ... Here, for the militant Marxist, lies the secret ... the aggravation of evil hastens the final deliverance, so the militant Marxist of our day reads, in the drama provoked by the pressure of history, a necessary evil, a premonitory symptom of the approaching victory that will put an end forever to all historical "evil." (p. 149)
And with the end of all historical evil will come the regeneration of the human species. This is what the deliberate evocation of chaos, the upheaval in social order and the abolition of human nature is about. Not, as for archaic man, a regeneration of divinely instituted order, but a new reality created by the absolutized will of man. This is the urge to totalitarian social control that we see so clearly expressed in current events.
So, excerpts from Suicide Of The Liberals. See if you think it fits in with what Eliade is describing. Recall--Morson is describing the reaction of Russian "liberals" to revolutionary violence--the deliberate aggravation of chaos through violence that was supposed to regenerate the human species and led to the Bolshevik attempt at just that regeneration. My contention is that the elites, having lost their religious faith, had no spiritual resources to fall back on to resist the urges of revolutionary will. This is the situation Western man finds himself in. Having lost Christian faith, our elites are susceptible to the radicalized Marxist version of ancient myths:
How did educated, liberal society respond to such terrorism? What was the position of the Constitutional Democratic (Kadet) Party and its deputies in the Duma (the parliament set up in 1905)? Though Kadets advocated democratic, constitutional procedures, and did not themselves engage in terrorism, they aided the terrorists in any way they could. Kadets collected money for terrorists, turned their homes into safe houses, and called for total amnesty for arrested terrorists who pledged to continue the mayhem. Kadet Party central committee member N. N. Shchepkin declared that the party did not regard terrorists as criminals at all, but as saints and martyrs.
Not just lawyers, teachers, doctors, and engineers, but even industrialists and bank directors raised money for the terrorists. Doing so signaled advanced opinion and good manners. ... when the Bolsheviks gained control, their organ of terror, the Cheka, “liquidated” members of all opposing parties, beginning with the Kadets. Why didn’t the liberals and businessmen see it coming?
Lenin, ..., was by no means the only bloodthirsty Russian radical. In 1907, Ivan Pavlov ... published The Purification of Mankind, which divided humanity into ethical races. In this analysis, exploiters, vaguely and broadly identified, constituted a race, “morally inferior to our animal predecessors,” which must be exterminated, children and all, by the morally superior race, whose best members were the terrorists themselves. Remarkably enough, this program evoked no indignation, among other Maximalists or even among other socialists, however moderate. ...
And yet the liberals refused to use their position in the Duma to make constitutionalism work. They would not participate in determining the government budget but confined their activities to denouncing the government and defending terrorists.
Next, Morson describes a book written by a Russian liberal (Struve) of the time who opposed the terrorism. The book was almost universally rejected and even condemned by the liberal elites:
The volume’s unforgivable sin, Frank explained, lay in its
"criticism of the basic sacred dogma of the radical intelligentsia—the “mystique” of revolution."
Criticism, in other words, of the dogma of revolutionary abolition of order. The notion that radical upheaval is healing and regenerating--an unconscious appeal to mythic thought. But we know when this urge is dominated by the raw human will and urge for power that it leads only to tragedy.
Next Morson recounts the description of the "intelligent"--the typical member of the intelligentsia, shallowly educated but imbued with radical ideology. That ideology leads to a total alienation from normal human values, a transvaluation of values for the New Man of the supposed New Order--in the imagination of Marxist true believers who have excised acceptance of a divine order from their minds:
Three characteristics identified a classical intelligent. To begin with, an intelligent identified primarily as an intelligent, rather than by his social class, profession, ethnic group, or other social category.
In other words, the intelligent has separated himself from his fellow man. Those who disagree with him are, for all intents and purposes, a different and lower species, without value. We hear this rhetoric constantly now.
Most important, and of greatest concern, was how intelligents thought. An intelligent signed on to a set of beliefs regarded as totally certain, scientifically proven, and absolutely obligatory for any moral person. A strict intelligent had to subscribe to some ideology—whether populist, Marxist, or anarchist—that was committed to the total destruction of the existing order and its replacement by a utopia that would, at a stroke, eliminate every human ill. This aspiration was often described as chiliastic (or apocalyptic), and, as has been observed, it is no accident that many of the most influential intelligents, from Chernyshevsky to Stalin, came from clerical families or had studied in seminaries. For Struve, the mentality of the intelligentsia constituted a cruel parody of religion, preserving “the external features of religiosity without its content.”
An intelligent could not be a believer, which is another reason no one would have considered Tolstoy (let alone that conservative Dostoevsky) an intelligent. They accepted atheism on faith, were spiritually devoted to materialism, and proselytized determinism. They based these commitments on “science,” a word they used to mean not a disinterested process of discovery based on experiment and evidence, but—and here the reason became perfectly circular —a metaphysics of materialism and determinism.
Still worse, intelligentsia “science” entailed an assertion that the world worked by blind, purposeless force and yet, as if guided by providence, was guaranteed to progress in human terms and reach moral perfection. (As people say today, the arc of history bends toward justice.) Berdyaev quoted theologian Vladimir Soloviev’s paraphrase of “the intelligentsia syllogism”: “Man is descended from the apes; therefore love one another.” In the same spirit, Bulgakov observed that “the intelligentsia asserts that the personality is wholly a product of the environment, and at the same time suggests to it that it improve its surroundings, like Baron Münchausen pulling himself out of the swamp by his own hair.”
For the intelligentsia, science is the handmaiden of ideology. "Settled science" means simply that it conforms to the vision of a reality that can lead to total transformation.
If there was one “philosopheme” (Struve’s term) shared by intelligents it was the assumption that all questions must be judged politically. Thus, one could discredit a scientific theory not by logic or evidence but by calling its implications “reactionary” (“and what don’t we call reactionary!”). The Soviets banned, at one time or another, genetics, relativity, and quantum theory—not on criteria from their respective disciplines, but on the basis of their supposed incompatibility with “dialectical materialism.”
Such politicism disparaged philanthropy as “a betrayal of all mankind and its eternal salvation for the sake of a few individuals close at hand.” During the famine of 1891–92, when Tolstoy and Chekhov engaged in famine relief, Lenin advocated hoarding food to bring revolution closer (“the worse, the better”).
And yet liberals, who declined to actually engage in terrorism even as they supported it, having lost any connection to a viable faith in the divine order of creation, were powerless to resist the siren call to revolution:
Though some liberals recognized their differences from the radicals, most acted like intelligentsia wannabes who were unwilling to acknowledge, even to themselves, that their values were essentially different. Socialized to regard anything conservative as reprehensible—and still worse, as a social faux pas—they contrived ways to justify radical intolerance and violence as forced, understandable, and noble. They had to, since the fundamental emotional premise of liberalism—hostility to those ignorant, bigoted, morally depraved people on the right—almost always proved more compelling than professed intellectual commitments.
How often do we hear the old chestnut, that anyone who isn't a liberal when young lacks a soul? The presumption is that they'll grow out of the craziness, but we see in the progressive political elite that the craziest are also among the oldest, in very many cases:
One sometimes hears that “the pendulum is bound to swing back.” But how does one know there is a pendulum at all, rather than—let us say—a snowball accelerating downhill? It is unwise to comfort oneself with metaphors. When a party is willing to push its power as far as it can go, it will keep going until it meets sufficient opposition.