What We Threw Away

What We Threw Away

Forty years ago I was quite impressed by the books of Jean François Revel in which he argued that The West was pretty much doomed because it was messy and indecisive. On the other hand, the communist world was decisive, centrally controlled, had a goal in mind and was patient and cunning in achieving that goal (the communisation of the planet, of course). They pushed on all fronts, where the West woke up and pulled itself together enough to push back, the communists recoiled, but the advance continued elsewhere. And so, bit by bit, the world became redder. These were, as I recall, the principal arguments of The Totalitarian Temptation (1977) and How Democracies Perish (1983). And there were plenty of other people bemoaning the fact that the inchoate Western democracies were frittering away valuable time.

And then, suddenly, the Warsaw Pact and the USSR fall apart and essentially took communism into the grave with them. The West was left standing. Still argumentative, inchoate, indecisive and all the rest of it but – and this is my point – still existing when the other was dead. And come to think of it, we'd outlasted that other stainless-steel perfection of centrally directed will and power, Nazi Germany. And there had been plenty of people in the 1930s who thought that, between communism and nazism, the West was doomed. This set me to thinking that Revel and the others had missed something in their analysis.

We outlived them. We survived, they didn't. And that what I wondered about – there must be something in the West's way of doing things that led to survival and something in the nazi or communist systems that led to death. I thought some more and the analogy that occurred to me is that there are many kinds of trees. Big ones, little ones, in-between sized ones. Some live in the wet, others in the dry, others half drowned by the sea and so on. There is in fact, a tree, or several trees, for almost any conceivable environmental condition. And therefore, there will always be trees. Why? Because instead of one Perfect Tree, there is a multitude of different trees. And of fishes, beetles, birds and so on. Nature is pluralistic: many many solutions for every imaginable situation and the ability to change to meet new challenges. Arnold Toynbee called this "challenge and response"; a society responds to a challenge: a good response and it survives to meet the next challenge, a bad response and it fades away.

Could this be the clue? Nazism and communism had One Big Answer for every question. That answer worked for a time until it met some questions it couldn't answer and down it went. To grossly oversimplify things: the nazis loved force and they went to war with everybody, but you can't win against everybody else, although you may do well for a while; a hammer and a sickle do not really mentally equip you for life in the later twentieth century; "a road to a blind alley" as Putin called it. Grossly simplified to be sure. If you prefer, ideological societies can only function inside the ontological assumptions of that ideology. But no ideology is any more than a small subset of boundless reality.

So what do we (or, sadly I have to ask, did we) have in the West? I think the three fundamental freedoms in the West are free speech, free politics and free enterprise. Looking at these through the lens of pluralism, they are pluralism of thought, pluralism of power and pluralism of action. Remember that the question I was trying to answer was why did the West survive? I wasn't asking who's better, more ideal, more moral; just why is one still around and the other two not? To me the answer was the same thing that allows us to be certain there will still be trees and beetles around in the future – pluralism: lots of different trees and beetles.

Take free speech or pluralism of thought. Everybody's different, everybody has different ideas, insights, points of view. Let's assume that, for some issue, mine is the winning idea today. But tomorrow you may have a better solution for the problem that appears tomorrow. If I suppressed you ("no man no problem", as Stalin used to say) or otherwise prohibited your irrelevant (today) but relevant (tomorrow) idea, we would be in trouble tomorrow and less likely to survive until the next day. So, since we don't know what tomorrow's problems are, it's best to let everybody think his thoughts because who can say whose ideas will be winners tomorrow? The same argument can be made for the other two pluralisms/freedoms. And so, by practising pluralism of thought, power and action, a society improves its chances of survival. That's all: survival. But that was the question I asked myself in the first place.

So, to my mind, that was the great secret that communism's fall had revealed – social or national survivability is best assured by pluralism of thought, power and action. So, in all humility, we should have understood that and proclaimed it. And, of course, the essence of pluralism is that you are free to be, and should be, yourself. All nations should be themselves: Russians should be Russian, Hungarians Hungarian and so on. Who can say who will have the next good idea? Who is so wise that he can direct his neighbour's life? That to me was what should have been done and, had that been the message the West had preached, I think we'd all be better off today.

What instead? We had the fatuous proclaiming of "values": we had 'em and they didn't. All over the West stuffed shirts got up in parliaments to boast of "our values". How we got them no one knew. Did God hand them out to some people but not to others? Russians, too lazy or shiftless or something, having missed the ceremony? Had they mysteriously grown in some national soil over long time? A relict of ancient Saxon customs that only their descendants could inherit? The product of centuries of learning? And what is a "value" anyway? A practical guide to action or a virtue that you either have or don't? Was it something innate or something learned? Could they get these values? Could they be taught? But, whatever, we had 'em and they didn't; we were virtuous, they weren't. And there was another tiresome thing about this, especially when, as it often was, the values were given the adjective "European". Franco, Hitler, Marx, Engels, Mussolini, Robespierre, Napoleon, Quisling and all the rest of them were Europeans. Every single one of them based his ideas and political views on sources deeply rooted in European thought and experience. And, for certain, had it not been for the Soviets and the Anglosphere, the “European values” Eurocrats and their flunkeys would have been boasting about today would have involved a lot more leather, jackboots and stiff-armed salutes. The whole enterprise resembled something from the movie Idiocracy: "Brawndo has what plants crave because plants crave what Brawndo has". It was weirdly fascinating to watch.

Our "values" and our "virtue" entitled us to rule the world. We were licensed to do just about anything because we had "what plants crave". And so triumphalist arrogance and complacent ignorance combined with the West's monopoly of exportable brutal power. And so it went. An unexamined conceit, frighteningly widespread, became the justification, and cover, for less noble actions.

But some responses to challenges are not so successful and we must ask what has become of our boasted "values" today? Well, we're still free to speak our minds. Not of course if it's hate speech or fake news; who could defend that? And not, certainly, to offend anyone's safe space. And you'd probably better not say anything in Russian. Political freedom? Not entirely gone I suppose, in those little corners not already bought up by lobbyists. And it would certainly be wrong to question anything said or done by "those brave men and women who put their life on the line for our safety". Free enterprise of course still flourishes. In whatever tiny spaces a few gigantic and well-connected corporations have not yet got to.

Altogether, we can't be very happy with the state of pluralism in the West. And if I'm correct that pluralism is the key to survival, how much longer do we have?

So who did win the Cold War in the end?

Tags: Communism  Nazism 

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