Beware advice from those who prefer fantasy to history

Summary: Here James Bowman looks at people who prefer warm fantasy to harsh history. They recommend drastic changes in society in pursuit of utopian dreams. Taking their advice seldom ends well. A people who cannot clearly see the world cannot govern themselves.

Foresight

Trying times

By James Bowman in The New Criterion, 30 April 2018.

“It’s time to give socialism a try” wrote Elizabeth Bruenig, an opinion columnist, in The Washington Post in March.

As you may have heard, The Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos who, on the same day that Ms Bruenig’s article appeared, was identified as the richest person in the world, with a fortune of $112 billion. Within days, Forbes, which makes it its business to know such things, had amended that figure on the basis of a surge in the Amazon.com stock price to $130 billion. There is no record of any reproof by “the world’s first centi-billionaire” of his employee for denigrating the economic system which had enabled him to amass such fabulous riches, but since The Washington Post under his ownership has been moving inexorably in the ideological direction of The Daily Worker, you wouldn’t really expect there to be.

Mr. Bezos has become just the latest rich man in the tradition established by Friedrich Engels and continued by George Soros to try to ingratiate himself with potential anti-“capitalist” revolutionaries by subsidizing them.

Frederick Engels
Frederick Engels.

Not that Ms Bruenig would appear to know anything about that. The word “time” in her headline implies some sense of historical perspective, but there turns out to be none. Second only to “capitalism” among the things that she dislikes is what she calls “everyday Fukuyama-ism,” and yet she herself may be the only living exponent, not excepting Francis Fukuyama himself, of the pure “End of History” thesis. For her indeed, history is so far ended that it is as if it never existed.

If she is aware that the historical moment for giving socialism a “try” has ever occurred before in human history, there is no sign of it in the article.

After the Twitter-storm that blew up when it was published, she wrote another in reply suggesting that she hadn’t mentioned the Soviet Union or other “totalitarian” socialist examples because that would have implied she was herself a totalitarian socialist – and, by the way, she wasn’t. So her opponents’ bringing them up was to her a sign of their “bad faith,” a concept she thinks was invented by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Her eagerness to accuse anyone who disagrees with her of lying is just one more sign of the times on the Washington Post op ed pages. When someone else in the Twitter-thread mentioned Venezuela (Ms Bruenig is not in favor of that either, it seems), one of her stoutest defenders denied that Venezuela was socialist at all. Nicolás Maduro {president of Venezuela} thinks it is. Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro both thought it was. International fans of the Bolivarian Revolution like Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party, think it is. But what do these people know?

“Socialism,” for Ms Bruenig and the many who think like her, has only a sort of ideal existence – the sort which admits of one day, in the op-ed writer’s airily imagined future, being “tried” – because the past has been effectively abolished as an irrelevance in today’s political culture, as in today’s educational system. Socialism no longer means what it has meant or even what it does mean to most of the world, but only what she wants it to mean.

’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’”
— From Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.

Such claims to proprietorship over language are also a claim against history. One reason why Elizabeth Bruenig could think of no real-world examples of the economic régime she was advocating – she eventually settled on Norway  – was that real-life socialists themselves traditionally seek such mastery over their own past. “He who controls the past controls the future,” He who controls the past controls the future” That’s why, down at the Ministry of Truth they’re working overtime to alter the records of the past, in order to ensure the state’s control over memory, and thus the past, themselves.

Intellectuals In Action

Of course that’s all highly totalitarian, as Ms Bruenig would no doubt remind us, but it’s not as if she did not aspire to her own, though necessarily less-unlimited, Big Brother-like control of the past. If your project is to tear down what is in favor of what (you hope and believe) only might be, you were well-advised to keep people’s focus on that imaginary future instead of the actually existing past, which might start to look pretty good when change begins to get difficult, as socialist change has rather a habit of doing.

For the same reason, conservatives are now routinely charged with, among their many other sins, nostalgia – as if any appeal to the past must be treated as false and distorted by definition. Applied to marriage and the family, that is a favorite trope of Stephanie Coontz in books like The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (1992, with a new edition in 2016) which sees traditional views of marriage and family-formation as being hopelessly compromised by their own imperfections in practice.

The point of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014) is that America’s economy as well as its governing institutions were founded on slave labor and therefore, to that extent, must be treated as illegitimate. Any potential controversy about this claim has perhaps been limited because The Economist was forced to withdraw and apologize for a negative review of the book. (See “The Uses of Outrage” in The New Criterion of November, 2014). Like Ms Bruenig’s critics, the reviewer must have been guilty of bad faith. And the Baptist thesis has now become axiomatic for the school of black scholarship represented by Ta-Nahisi Coates. Tasha Williams goes even further by writing that “slavery was a critical factor in the economic growth of the U.S. and the rise of global capitalism.” (Emphasis added).

Much of the labor of today’s historical profession, such as it is, now goes into this kind of demythologizing (and thus delegitimizing) of the past – ultimately in the service of the progressive project.

That, as Ms Bruenig’s article suggests, is not just the transformation of economic reality (which is a more accurate name for the socialist construct of “capitalism”) but the short-circuiting of all debate and all possibility of debate by the demand for putative victims’ rights over their own history. That’s why it has become not only bad taste but bad faith to bring up historical counter-examples, since that history can be ruled irrelevant, or false, at will. More importantly, the fantasy (“socialism”) can be put on a level with the reality (“capitalism”) as if it were simply a matter of moral and political will to choose one over another. Yet if it were so, who would not choose such a pleasant-sounding and apparently eminently achievable fantasy?

This is classic utopian reasoning – or perhaps we should call it billionaires’ reasoning, since there is no utopian like a billionaire with a social project in his sights and an absolute conviction of his own righteousness. Nor is it limited to economics. A couple of weeks before the Bezos-Post’s socialist apologia appeared, there was a small controversy in the British press sparked off by Colonel Tim Collins, Commander of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, who acquired a measure of fame in Britain and beyond for his stirring speech to his troops on the eve of battle. Col Collins, who has since retired from the army, complained that the BBC’s coverage of the centenary of World War I, which will reach its culmination this year, had been limited to the war’s most sanguinary and tragic aspects.

With the centenary of the end of the First World War looming (he wrote), one might not realise from the TV series recalling those momentous times that Britain and her Allies won the war. Last year’s coverage of the Passchendaele anniversary by the BBC was a prime example. While paying appropriate tribute to the sacrifice of the many soldiers who lost their lives, it was saturated in grief, in the horror and pity of war. When the time comes to mark 100 years since the Armistice later this year, I am calling on the BBC to also note that we are marking a victory.

This statement of simple historical fact was treated by some as a species of obscenity. It inspired an op ed in The Daily Telegraph  by the Australian author Paul Ham, who has written two books about the war, headed: “The ‘victory’ of 1918 destroyed our civilisation. Nothing can make that worthwhile.” By applying Catholic “Just War” theory to the war, Mr Ham finds it very easy to show that the horrible sacrifices on both sides were not “worth it” and therefore unjust, but it could be argued that this only shows what an academic exercise Catholic “Just War” theory is, and how limited its usefulness in real world situations like that of August, 1914, which did not admit, at least not for the Western Allies, of a third option between fighting the German invasion of Belgium and France and submitting to it.

Bleeding eye
“Bleeding Eye” by C. Bayraktaroglu.

We ought always to be suspicious about retrospective moralizing about the past, which didn’t have the luxury that we enjoy of being able to balance costs that had yet to be incurred against benefits that remained hypothetical in order to decide if a prospective course of action was “worthwhile” or not. Moreover, the men who took the world to war in 1914 were more clear-sighted than we are in at least one respect, since they well understood the binary choice that confronted them in a war fought for honor – as we, having deliberately wrecked the Western honor culture in response to that war’s sacrifices, no longer do.

Mr Ham believes that anything so terrible as the First World War should not have happened, and his wish that it should not, thereby becomes in his own mind a claim against the reality that it did. If he can wish against it a century later, therefore, the people who took the world to war could have done the same and the war would not have happened.

It is childish thinking and yet surprisingly common. So common as to be uncontroversial. Margaret MacMillan, author of The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (2013), one of the most highly respected histories of the war’s origins, also thinks that it could have been wished away. “If we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century,” she writes – and who doesn’t, after all? – “we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.”

Maybe so, but they are not always the choices we think they are. In the case of the men of 1914 the choice was not between the peaceful status quo ante and the slaughter to come – which, by the way, most of them did foresee, if only dimly – but, as all decisions to go to war end up being, between fighting and surrendering. Surrender may look to us like the preferred option in retrospect (as it always does to one side eventually), but at least we ought to be able to understand why it didn’t to our ancestors of a century ago. And it is merely silly to pretend that surrender is not the only alternative to fighting against an enemy invasion.

Besides, if the choice were a simple one between peace and war, what kind of monster and sociopath would you have to be to choose war? Utopian reasoning always allows you to set a more or less unsatisfactory present against a merely imaginary future and treat them as being on all fours with one another. Hm. Do I choose millions of dead and more millions of bereaved or a radiant golden future where wars don’t happen? Not difficult is it, when you put it like that? Which is the point of putting it like that, as our infantilized media now routinely do. …

Elizabeth Bruenig …appears to have enjoyed an education light on historical facts but very heavy indeed on historical certainties, the understanding of which provide one with a warm glow of confidence in one’s moral superiority to those without it that may be expected to last all one’s life long. It’s hard to see how such people can ever develop a capacity for reasoning that is not utopian and moralistic or any view of the past which is anything other than a struggle between the forces of light and darkness. But without the hope that they can, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for our country, or its self-understanding.

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James Bowman

About James Bowman

Bowman is a Resident Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

He has worked as a freelance journalist, serving as American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London from 1991 to 2002, as movie critic of The American Spectator since 1990 and as media critic of The New Criterion since 1993. He has also been a weekly movie reviewer for The New York Sun since the newspaper’s re-foundation in 2002. He has also contributed to a wide range of other major papers.

Mr. Bowman is perhaps best known for his book, Honor: A History, and his essay “The Lost Sense of Honor” in The Public Interest.

See his collected articles at his website, including his film reviews going back to 1994.

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About Bowman’s great book.

It is about a lost but vital element from our culture. I recommend reading Honor: A History. From the publisher…

“The importance of honor is present in the earliest records of civilization. Today, while it may still be an essential concept in Islamic cultures, in the West, honor has been disparaged and dismissed as obsolete.

“In this lively and authoritative book, James Bowman traces the curious and fascinating history of this ideal, from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment and to the killing fields of World War I and the despair of Vietnam. Bowman reminds us that the fate of honor and the fate of morality and even manners are deeply interrelated.”

12 thoughts on “Beware advice from those who prefer fantasy to history

  1. I’m particularly struck by the part on MacMillan’s book on the Great War. Where she rips “their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice”, EXACTLY what were the available choices, apart from OKing the rape of Belgium? And, just HOW could anyone “stand up” to WHICH “warmongers”?

    I’m not going to plow through 784 pages, to see if she somewhere deigned to address such concerns. But I do see, on p. 630, her ONE reference to B. Tuchman’s “extraordinary account” of how leaders blundered into war. If Tuchman’s book is so good, why not just refer us to it (e.g in a magazine article), instead of using 784 pages to rehash Tuchman’s widely admired work?
    If this recent book is not just such a rehash, why doesn’t MacMillan address Tuchman’s ARGUMENTS, or at least do readers the courtesy of summarizing them, instead of just blowing them off?
    Or, does her ducking of these concerns show her book to be, just one long orgy of virtue signaling?

  2. ‘It is childish thinking’
    I have read this quite a lot recently in relation to the proclamations of the left. While I think it a little offensive to children, it has some appeal. But what is the advantage for leftists in behaving in this way? It mystifies me.

    1. NB,

      The best analogy is, imo, to the equivalent behavior on the right: the Right’s love of fiction. Faux economics, faux history, etc. The unifying characteristic (after all, they’re both Americans) is gullibility. Modern Americans appear to have a tendency to be useful idiots. It makes us easy to govern.

      Hence the decline of the Republic. When I first wrote about this in 2004, it was controversial. Now almost everybody sees it. But, like children, we blame everybody for it but ourselves. Unfortunately, in a Republic everybody gets the government they deserve.

  3. “… the Right’s love of fiction. Faux economics, faux history, etc.” Eh??? What are you talking about?

    “Modern Americans appear to have a tendency to be useful idiots.” That sounds like the sort of condescending remark that could have come straight from a Hillary Clinton campaign speech.

    It is your blog, sir, and you can say what you want. But I sincerely hope that the words you wrote were simply a very poor representation of the concepts you were trying to express.

  4. The Brits get upset about WW1 because they had to do an awful lot of dying to get the job done. If they had suffered few causulites and the Germans had done all the dying, well then I’m sure they would look back on how things turned out with a bit more fortitude.

    Views of the WW1 are of course colored by what came next, WW1 triggered the eclipse of Europe, the rise of Communist Russia, created a traumatized and bitter Germany, did little to defuse the tensions in Europe, within 20 years you had two violent and expansionist totalitarian dictatorships and WW2. This does raise legitimate questions as to benefits of victory in this case.
    Two quotes
    “Another victory like this and we are finished”
    “The only thing sadder than a battle won is a battle lost”

    That said, for the Allies at the time, the end of war was greeted with great celebration, there was no doubt in there mind that this was a heroic victory won at great cost, and was to be treated as such. We however look at things through the telescope of history, we cannot avoid that.

    Agree completely with his broader point about Utopian thinking.

  5. The piece is spot on about socialism and its contemporary advocacy. No more to be said.

    On WWI, it indulges in exactly the refusal to know and understand the specifics of history as it is criticizing. It is extraordinary, and its what really deserves analysis, that the author wishes to rewrite history on that particular episode. His points would be fully valid if made about WWII. But about WWI they are getting the history totally wrong, and they are also missing the main point.

    In the UK we do not celebrate WWI as a victory because the incompetence of its conduct, and the values of the governing class that were revealed in the persistence of this incompetence, far overshadow the eventual victory. This is the lesson the country learned from Passchaendale and The Somme and Ypres. If you want to understand this, enquire into Haigh, his command, his limitations, and why he was kept in office.

    Someone asks earlier in the thread:

    EXACTLY what were the available choices, apart from OKing the rape of Belgium?

    Wrong question, though there were many, and it wasn’t ‘the rape of Belgium’, it was the potenial loss of the Channel Ports to Germany.

    Right question: what were the alternatives to the Somme and Paschaendale?

    In the end the British, without ever officially admitting the scale and nature of the disaster, and having killed off most of their aristocracy and previous office class in this orgy of incompetence, in the last couple of years of the war reformed their armed forces from the ground up, and the result was shown in WWII. In a very British way, this was never spoken about, but the results of this can be seen also in public attitudes. In 1933 the Oxford Union voted they would not fight for King and Country. They were thinking back to the old officer class and the old army and the old rhetoric. In 1940, they did join up.

    The first thing is to understand and accept the history. As the author points out in his introduction. Just that on WWI he hasn’t done it, whereas on socialism, he has.

    Read Liddell Hart by the way, if the military aspects interest you. To be read critically for sure, but to be read.

    1. As a Brit, I agree on British attitudes to WWI. However, I am not sure that this undermines the author’s main point. Perhaps WWI serves as a counter-example in that the lessons of that debacle were indeed learned – by Germans and British, if not the Russians.

    2. George, of course specifics matter, but I challenge your spin on them.

      I’ll wager that in the UK, you do not celebrate WWI as a victory, less because the incompetence of its conduct, than because the incompetence, and brutal results, of those negotiating its AFTERMATH.
      Were the Treaty of Versailles to have held up as long as did the 1815 Treaty, peoples of the Allied countries would indeed be celebrating the victory, and should be celebrating the wisdom of the statesmen thereafter.
      Alas, these statesmen frittered away valuable time haggling over comparative trivialities (e.g. Trieste), and scraped-up a RUSH-JOB when dealing with matters involving Germany. This, despite knowledge that Germany, in these CRUCIAL months, was being rocked by huge Communist uprisings in most major cities, esp. Berlin, Bremen, Dresden, Munich, and Leipzig. (This is largely why the Reichstag had to meet in the much less significant Weimar.)

      These statesmen had three broad options: 1) conciliate Germany enough, for her to eschew revenge; 2) deprive her the power to seek revenge; or 3) arrange a vibrant, detailed oversight mechanism, whereby she could be easily nudged away from revenge, or prevented from building up more of the means for it. This Versailles bunch chose none of these, and, to boot, rushed to the Germans a DIKTAT ultimatum, which revolted/ enraged the vast bulk of them. (The Congress of Vienna GAVE the French a seat at the table, from the beginning.)

      Until Lefty intellectuals start paying more attention to the real issues of post-war peacemaking, than they devote to virtue-signaling, and until Righty intellectuals start paying more attention to post-war peacemaking, than they devote to their pals in powerful bureaucracies (e.g. in the Deep State), our thinking will be dominated by the blind leading the blind.

    3. And, reading Liddell Hart is good, but I’ll add B. Tuchman and A.J.P. Taylor.
      As to the issue of Belgium vs the channel ports, the point remains, HOW could Asquith and Grey have gotten the Central Powers to hold off their bid, to put the German army where it had been in 1871, and where it (and its navy) ended up in 1940?

  6. Other rich men who have funded the left have had sincere leftist views themselves – Jeff Bezos does not have not such opinions. His funding of the far left Washington Post is entirely cynical.

    As for someone who thinks “Norway” is socialist – they are hopelessly confused. Norway does have generous government spending (financed by massive oil wealth and a very small population), but it is no more socialist than I am from the planet Mars.

    On the First World War – GERMANY is rather left out of the accounts of the “war was avoidable” school. Germany did not send one final letter to the Russian government – it delivered two, one letter saying that Germany was declaring war because the Russians were mobilising, the other saying that even if Russia changed policy Germany would declare war anyway. In the West the German Declaration of War on France was a pack of lies (it even pretended the French were bombing Bavaria) and the attack on Belgium was without even pretended justification – the idea that the Imperial German government would have left this island alone (had they succeeded in taking over the rest of Europe) is absurd.

  7. The tactics followed by British Generals such as General Haig in the First World War is not the same subject as the origins of the war itself. Even the German Ambassador to London (Prince Lichnowsky – Karl Max) understood that the Imperial German Government forced war on the other powers. The Imperial German Government turned a Balkan War (there had been several Balkan Wars) into a general European War.

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