Anti-Totalitarianism Is Better than Faux Liberalism

Many thanks to my three interlocutors for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully and thoroughly to my reflections on the thirtieth anniversary of the anti-totalitarian revolution of 1989. Flagg Taylor is indeed right: this is a glorious anniversary well worth celebrating. It was and remains a victory for human liberty and dignity, a triumph of human nature (or the “human condition”) against the ideological Lie in all its manifestations, against all the myriad inhuman and suffocating mechanisms of “organized lying.” It is a commonplace among Western political philosophers and political theorists to associate totalitarianism with tyrannical monism, the forcible imposition of a single idea on the pluralism natural to a free society. This relativistic critique was championed by Isaiah Berlin and is the only kind of anti-totalitarianism tolerated by liberals. In the end, it is most inadequate.

Ideocratic regimes of the Communist type did indeed enforce an unprecedented intellectual and linguistic tyranny where ideological clichés—utterly abstract, wooden, predictable, and uniform—predominated, as Flagg Taylor well notes. But this “langue du bois,” this wooden language, was never about the imposition of truth on recalcitrant human beings and societies. Instead, it was the only means of covering over the immense chasm between the reality ordinary human beings could see before their eyes and the mendacious “second reality” so brutally imposed by totalitarian ideologies which had no respect for the structure of reality or the common world in which real human beings live and breathe and interact with other persons. The ideological Lie was ultimately ontological; it denied the personhood, the moral and political agency, of human beings who could reflect and act in accord with the full range of human motives, motives which finally transcend all socioeconomic and historical determination.

The revolutionaries of 1989 were a most diverse group of thinkers and actors: believers and unbelievers, economic liberals and social democrats, patriots and cosmopolitans. But all had come to reject the moral and historical relativism that Communist ideology necessitates. In response to the totalitarian episode almost all had become partisans of the soul, that inner light and source of agency and responsibility. Only the soul points to a transcendent source of human liberty and dignity. Peter Mentzel’s reified distinction between “liberal individualism” and “national collectivism” would make no sense to them. The old nations of Europe were home to a common life, and historical memory, worth affirming. Communism had smothered, all at once, the self-governing nation, decent family life, free intellectual inquiry, the full range of public and private liberties, and the Christian religion that had informed the moral imagination of Europeans for nearly two millennia. In his sparkling essay, Krassen Stanchev, an Orthodox Christian, Bulgarian patriot, and free market economist, reminds us how broad and deep the opposition to Communism in East-Central Europe had been in the period between 1944 and 1962. The spirit of liberty lived in Poland, Romania, the Ukraine, the Baltic states, Hungary, and Bulgaria, to mention some notable cases. Russian peasants had risen up against Communism in Tambov and elsewhere after the Russian revolution and workers protested with courage and tenacity at Novocherkassk as late as the fall of 1962. These men and women loved liberty but they were not “liberals” in some abstract, ideological sense.

Peter Mentzel, in particular, misses the point that liberalism has been radicalized beyond recognition in the course of the last fifty years. It is now more aggressively secular, post-national, relativistic, and open to antinomian currents that reject the spiritual and cultural roots of Western—and European—civilization. It largely stands for a notion of liberty that has no “dialectical” relationship to sound mores, salutary national traditions, or religious piety. On the philosophical plane, modern liberals have severed the natural bond that connects truth to liberty. In so doing, their theorists have shamelessly and relentlessly “deconstructed” the most important elements of the good life—family, faith, and human dignity. A conservative liberal, such as myself—an admirer of Aristotle, Montesquieu, and Tocqueville—has no trouble identifying with the latter’s great call for “liberty under God and the laws.” But this humane and virile conception of liberalism is nothing but hopeless reaction to those who identify “pluralism” with a dogmatic aversion to the very idea of enduring and humanizing verities.

Never in my essay do I identify the “effectual truth” of 1989 with the premises or policies of the Law and Justice party in Poland or with Orbán’s Fidesz movement in Hungary. Nor do I abhor these essentially Christian Democratic parties and movements. Neither regime assaults public liberties, and neither is remotely fascist. I much prefer them to ex-Communists who never repented for their timeserving commitment to truly oppressive regimes or their shameless opportunism in the years after 1989. Neither Law and Justice nor Fidesz represent a “best regime” or ideal political vision or arrangement. But I cannot fault them for affirming what Pierre Manent calls the “Christian mark” of the European nation. Nor can I fault them for defending a conservative national-minded view of European liberty that resists immense external pressures to identify liberty with a rejection of the classical and Christian patrimony of Western civilization. True liberals should not war with that Christian legacy or with humane national loyalty. Nor should they oppose vigilance against extremist political Islam and the residues of the old totalitarian party-states at home. My liberalism respects the self-government of the Polish and Hungarian people. And I should note that Hungary is the best friend that Israel has among the members of the European Union. The reductio ad Hitlerum is old, tired, and in this case, an excuse for not confronting the anti-liberal animus of so much of the regnant, relativistic, faux liberalism that has appropriated the noble name of liberalism.

Let me applaud Flagg Taylor for his excellent discussion of the totalitarian—and ideological—assault on personhood. His is a phenomenological and philosophical analysis that goes to the heart of the matter. As Taylor points out, personhood is related to the inherent human capacity to tie speech and deeds, reflection and action together in ways that sustain personal dignity and a truly common world. “Being” never “precedes consciousness,” at least not among those who cultivate and safeguard their human dignity. Human beings are constituted in such a way that our minds, hearts, and souls are inclined “to think and act in ways that identify” (and not in merely arbitrary ways) “moral goods and evils in the course of everyday life.” Stanchev, Mentzel, and Taylor, to different degrees and with different emphases, appreciate that the denial of personhood, and with it speech and reason, are at the heart of the totalitarian subjugation of the human agent. Taylor deftly observes that totalitarian speech patterns persist in the Free West, where many see language as a weapon to take on and subjugate those in the “camp of reaction.” Once again, the natural directedness of the soul toward truth is the missing ingredient in postmodern circles determined to stigmatize any common-sense recognition of the primordial distinction between good and evil, truth and falsehood. Beginning with an empty relativism, these activists succumb to a splenetic moralism that is perfectly open to totalitarian appropriation. There is nothing remotely liberal about an individualism that rejects truth in the name of individual or collective will. It is a faux liberalism permeated by nihilistic and totalitarian assumptions.

Flagg Taylor notes that a quasi-totalitarian Leninism persists in China. He is quite right about that. The fact that young Chinese know so little about the truth of what happened in Mao’s China between 1949 and 1976 or what happened at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 4, 1989 is deeply disturbing, to say the least. The Chinese party has reconciled itself to “private property” at least if it is controlled, managed, and manipulated by a corrupt, oligarchic party. Uyghurs are sent to modern-day concentration camps where they languish in inhuman conditions. A Leninist party continues to rule and the ideological Lie remains its constant instrument. This is not Mao’s China in terms of the demographic costs of Communism (45 to 72 million lives), but it is a powerful reminder of the ability of the ideological Lie to mutate and hold on to life in an ostensibly post-totalitarian world.

Chances are the ideological Lie will continue to haunt a modern adventure that has lost its true sense of purpose.