Wherever on this planet ideals of personal freedom and dignity apply, there you will find the cultural inheritance of England.
Most of the world for most of the time has lived under tyranny. Choice does not come into the matter. Years, centuries have to pass in order for people to be able to build the culture and supporting institutions of a democratic society—that is, one in which individuals have to be responsible for themselves and their choices. An highly complicated balance operates in a democracy between the myriad choices of individuals and the procedures of accountability they set up to adjudicate the moral, social, and political outcomes of their choices. There is no history, in Emerson’s shorthand for the hard-won primacy of the individual over tyranny, only biography.
To be autobiographical, then: among my earliest memories is the exodus from Paris in June 1940 to escape the incoming German army. An image of the blurred faces of refugees along the road has stayed with me. Together with relatives, in due course I was able to leave Vichy France and cross into Spain. Many people—the German literary critic Walter Benjamin for one—were not so fortunate on that same escape route.
Most of the world for most of the time has lived under tyranny. Choice does not come into the matter.
Grown-up, I began to come to grips with this experience. Why would unknown Germans have hunted down my relatives and my four-year-old self? How had this complete collapse of democratic France come about? I read what I could about Nazism. I spent a year in Israel, where I was able to attend the Eichmann trial, and to discover, to my surprise, that the death penalty served to protect the innocent more than to exact revenge. In Germany, I was to interview many Nazis, some of them of the highest rank, intimates of Hitler. Albert Speer was one. A day with him in his house in Heidelberg brought me to a different conclusion from that of his biographer Gitta Sereny, who believed she detected regret, if not repentance. Faced with a rerun of the past, it seemed to me, Speer would have made exactly the same choices. Power corrupts. Murder runs deep.
In the era of Brezhnev, I travelled in the Soviet Union and its satellites. In Memoir of Hungary, 1944–1948 (2001), a wonderfully evoked work, Sandor Marai describes how his very first sighting of Red Army soldiers in Hungary during March 1944 told him that these men were not going to bring him freedom; they couldn’t, because they hadn’t any for themselves. So I found it. Social and cultural permafrost had set in. In the presence of KGB minders, I sat in rooms with people unable to risk the simplest human exchanges. These encounters were initiations in tyranny. I knew I was contributing entries to their secret police dossiers and mine.
My relatives had had property in Hungary, deep in the countryside. The house was now a tank garage. The surrounding poverty was startling. The villagers wept; they beseeched me not to forget them. One day, they said, the Soviet occupation would be over. A former farm manager poured me a drink in a glass with my family’s monogram on it, and on the wall behind him hung a portrait of a lady in the splashiest fin-de-siècle style, evidently removed from my family’s house. I was glad that these token things had survived. Vladimir Nabokov made the point that he hadn’t minded the Communists taking away his fortune, but he did mind that they believed him to be the sort of person who would mind. I felt the same. As a boy, listening to stories of the past and looking at family photographs and my grandfather’s annotated copy of the poems of Petöfi, I cherished romantic fantasies about Hungary, its beautiful country houses, and the Budapest cafes like Gerbeaud’s, where the company would be the likes of Marai. More than material things, the Communists had stolen the freedom of the fully imagined life.
The Soviets had created a new type of man, it was widely held, whose identity was defined by class rather than nation. The Soviets and their satellites were also supposed to have built a socialist culture and an economy that, in the double negative of the persistent Stalinist apologist E. J. Hobsbawm, was in its own way “not unimpressive.” Yet touts in the streets of Moscow would offer to buy my jeans off me. On a subway train to East Berlin, I was intrigued by the presence of a throng of young men speaking Arabic. I followed as they disappeared into the interior courtyard of a gloomy and rundown Wilhelmine block. There, in front of peddlers offering dollars, surrealistically the young men took off their trousers, and then the many sets of underpants that they had been wearing. The reality of the five-year-plan was that smugglers alone provided basic garments.
Intellectuals come out of the twentieth century wretchedly. Those in favor of Nazism, to be sure, were few and too deranged to win much acceptance. On the other hand, the huge majority of those in a position to enjoy full freedom of expression regarded Communism as a peaceful and progressive utopia, when in fact it brought murder, tyranny, and poverty. Voluntarily, intellectuals were surrendering to others the responsibility of taking choices for themselves, and accountability, too. The resulting climate of opinion, loosely wrapped up under the label of fellow-traveling, was altogether a denial of reality. All manner of people had been in the clutches of Soviet Communism and escaped to bear witness. Among them were Stalin’s secretary Bazarov, Victor Serge, Anton Cilega, Franz Borkenau—truly impressive men. Systematically vilified, they were denied a hearing. Messianic delusions about Communism spread throughout the educated classes with a mass credulity and self-righteousness not seen since the Middle Ages.
Motives related to fashion and careerism —and no doubt stupidity and ignorance— drove this failure of intellect. Consciously or unconsciously, there was also primary fear. Each totalitarian power evidently had an huge apparatus for war and state violence. With few exceptions, democratic politicians throughout the thirties followed policies to appease these powers. Fellow-traveling was the cultural arm of political appeasement. Far from offering any resistance, the eminent commentators of the day—the Webbs, Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells—accommodated themselves to the expected totalitarian future. Trotskyists, Fabians, socialists, Bloomsburyites, pacifists, Quakers rejoiced in finding more to blame in democratic societies than in totalitarianism. Everything was the fault of the British or of other empires, the white man’s prejudices, his law, or his capitalism. It is perhaps natural for many people to shirk a test of character, but here surely was also a plea for the continuation of privileges hitherto so effortlessly and pleasantly enjoyed.
Again with rare exceptions, defenders of democratic freedom were too apologetic to be effective. When E. M. Forster asserted that he would rather betray his country than a friend, he was characteristically obscuring the idea of a just cause. At that point, morality begins to rot. Quite forgotten now but a well known commentator in his day, Ramsay Muir was a decent liberal, absolutely representative in his worries, seeking to stiffen the weakening instinct for self-preservation in democratic countries. In 1934, in the aftermath of Hitler’s takeover, he published a pamphlet with the title Is Democracy A Failure? Yes, he thought, in large states it was “a thing of yesterday,” and all of us were drifting apathetically, losing the heritage of freedom our fathers had won. To ward off dictatorship he proposed to reform parliamentary procedure and introduce proportional representation, measures not likely to frighten off Hitler and Stalin. J. M. Keynes—hardly a conservative—observed in October 1939 that the left had been calling loudly for resistance to Nazism before the war. The moment war was declared, though, the left rediscovered its pacifism, to leave the fighting to “Colonel Blimp and the Old School Tie,” for which Keynes called for three cheers.
It is no exaggeration to say that without Churchill democracy might well have failed in the crucial test against Nazism. As the case of France proved, appeasement slid naturally into collaboration. In 1940 the French National Assembly voted in favor of its own abolition, an act of democratic surrender without precedent. Through will-power and personal example, Churchill in person refutes the Marxist theory of historical determinism, according to which the individual has no role to play in affecting the course of events.
Without President Truman, democracy might have failed in the crucial test against Communism. At the present moment in world history, as Truman put it in his famous declaration in 1947, “nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life.” One way of life was based on the will of the majority, and the other was based on the imposition of the will of the minority on the majority. Communist parties in France, Italy, Spain, and Greece were prepared to take power through revolution. Stalin’s preoccupation with digesting Red Army conquests in eastern and central Europe instead took priority. Without steadfast American input and inspiration, the Soviet challenge would have been left unanswered, and western Europe would have adopted the Pétainist solution of consummating appeasement in outright collaboration.
The week in culture.
Recommendations from the editors of The New Criterion, delivered directly to your inbox.
Throughout the Cold War, the degradation of intellectuals became more and more widespread. Communists could act with barbarity anywhere in the world and be sure to find enthusiastic apologists in the West. However many millions of victims fell to Communism in Hungary, in Cuba, in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and China, the Sartres and de Beauvoirs, the Lillian Hellmans and Norman Mailers, the Noam Chomskys and E. J. Hobsbawms applauded—and then accused their own democratic societies of every injustice and ill. “The white race is the cancer of human history,” exclaimed Susan Sontag. Between Friends (1995) consists of the correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy. From her New York apartment or her much prized house in Castine, Maine, McCarthy imagined herself leading “Resistance” to the Vietnam War as though she were living in Vichy France. Anti-Communism seemed to her more dangerous than Communism. Law and order, she held, existed only behind the Iron Curtain. Hannah Arendt did not think that fascism would prevail in the United States but prepared nonetheless for exile in the house she had bought in Switzerland. Comic though this flight from reality might seem, many in the educated classes shared it. Some future Edward Gibbon will have to do justice to this abuse of privilege and dereliction of intellect.
In the sixties, a yet wider coalition assembled throughout the democratic countries of groups that resented or hated everything that had made them what they were. Most of these protesters came from comfortable and privileged backgrounds, taking for granted the freedoms they were so blithely abusing, only a collect call away from parents apparently willing to indulge them endlessly. “Counterculture” was a telling description for a nihilism that spread from pacifist flower children and hippies, to the drug-crazed disciples of Timothy Leary, to assorted terrorists, the Weathermen, the Irish Republican Army, the Baader-Meinhof gang, the Red Brigades. On the evidence, the democratic West was nurturing within itself those who would destroy it. For fear of the accusation of fascism, the governments under threat panicked, adding to their own destabilization. In fact, the terrorist groups almost without exception were armed and financed clandestinely by the Soviet Union, and were provided with safe houses and training behind the Iron Curtain. A few courageous journalists, Claire Sterling for one, gathered the evidence to that effect, only to be mocked for their “obsession” with the Cold War.
Violence—or “direct action” in the vocabulary of these groups—became counterproductive at the last minute. The murder of a range of innocent people, from security guards to businessmen and the Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, outraged the public. Though attributed to the Bulgarian secret police rather than to the KGB, the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981 seems to have been the last act in this widespread campaign of destabilization. By then, the Soviet Union was discontinuing a covert policy that so many Western intellectuals were consummating for them overtly.
The work of the Foucaults, Derridas, Lacans, and the shoals of their imitators extended political fellow-traveling throughout society and its culture. The French writer Jean Sevillia coined the apt phrase “intellectual terrorism” for the title of the book he wrote about the whole development. Contempt for democratic institutions was translated into contempt for the moral values that had underpinned those institutions. Henceforth, language was to be used against itself. If words are passing fancies without correlation to reality, then there can be no such thing as truth. Moral judgments are only so much hot air, nothing is what it seems, and everything can as easily be reversed into its opposite. Thus generosity is really a selfish indulgence; love is merely possessiveness; manliness is brutality, while femininity the submission to this brutality; art becomes whatever you want it to be; freedom itself is servitude.
George Orwell had the rare imagination to foresee such inhuman inversions, but he was long since dead. The thrust has been to break down and relativize every aspect of behavior in such a manner that nobody could confidently say what is right and what is wrong. Every act became its own justification; the more violent the act, the greater the justification. As the criminal becomes valued, the judge and the jail warden dwindle into servants of tyranny, the policeman into a “pig.” The artist or writer who produces something particularly offensive is “controversial” or “disturbing,” terms implying interest and acceptance on the part of right-minded people, leaving criticism— never mind forceful rejection—to the fools. Art and literature become auction-houses in which the most extreme transgressions fetch the highest prices, and there is not even the pretence of universal values. Such is the dead end of the humanist tradition that was Europe’s contribution to civilization.
The events of 1968 and their aftermath constituted nothing less than a vote of no-confidence in democracy, and this led spontaneously to what looked like a terminal appeasement of and collaboration with the Soviet Union. I heard a famous French filmmaker say, as though preaching ex cathedra, “I don’t read Solzhenitsyn, he’s a right-wing writer.” Two generations of intellectuals had taken a hard look at the balance of forces in the world, decided that the Soviet Union weighed in as the more powerful, and determined to have a career on the winning side. People thinking of their own skins prefer to be victimizers rather than victims.
Love is merely possessiveness; manliness is brutality, while femininity the submission to this brutality; art becomes whatever you want it to be; freedom itself is servitude.
“Because the trams run on time, they think it is a normal society,” was the bitter crack of Osip Mandelstam on the Communism that was to murder him—one among the tens of millions. Mikhail Gorbachev and those who elected him certainly thought it was a normal society. The veteran Andrei Gromyko characteristically announced that Gorbachev might have a nice smile but his teeth were iron. The railroad system functioned, the gulag was in good order. Gorbachev believed that Communism was perfectible through promulgation and exhortation and that his smile would prove more effective than his teeth for the purpose. Glasnost was a step in elementary truth-telling and perestroika an introduction of parliamentary representation, in however controlled a form. These reforms were enough to expose Gorbachev’s notion of Communism as an illusion.
As the Soviet empire was falling, I was convinced that Gorbachev would reveal his true nature by imposing military rule, massacring thousands as an example to others, declaring a state of emergency, and instigating whatever else he might deem necessary to hold on to power, including threatening a nuclear exchange. Afterwards Gorbachev claimed that no such ideas had entered his or anyone’s head. But after questioning a great many first secretaries and ideological secretaries throughout the empire, I realized that they too had expected some such major showdown. By the time the use of force became imperative for the survival of Communism, it was too late to resort to it. People had the chance to take responsibility for themselves and hold their oppressors to account. Freedom spread with the speed of a bush fire. At the fall of the Bastille, Charles James Fox had exclaimed, “How much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world! And how much the best!” The breaking of Communism in an almost carnival atmosphere was an event still greater. A true believer to the end, Gorbachev did the world a service by default. It still seems to shock him that his idealization of Communism bore no relation to its reality.
With a symbolism that leaves its stamp on history, eager crowds of anonymous people broke through the Berlin Wall one night, emerging into the open like the prisoners in the last act of Fidelio. They had the highest expectations of the West. On a continental scale, here was the mirror-image of the moment in 1944 when Sandor Marai had looked to the arrival of Soviet soldiers for freedom. These hopefuls have been disappointed. The seventy or so years of Communism had emptied daily life in the Soviet bloc of moral content. Right and wrong had become void concepts to a population reduced to the simple purpose of survival. Now one alienated mass gazed at another. The West, it turns out, has had nothing very much to convey beyond an interest in material possessions: it demonstrated no great interest in the extraordinary fact that millions of people had suddenly been released from tyranny and were in urgent need of the institutions of democracy and the rule of law.
Russia has the resources to finance a society with democratic institutions. But, the few with the will for such an end lack power to do much about it. Boris Yeltsin ruled the new Russia by decree, signing perhaps as many as 15,000 a year, far too many to read, and most of them put before him by unscrupulous courtiers. The Clinton administration took at face value the assertion of Yeltsin and his entourage that the content of these decrees was in the public interest. “Go, Boris, go!” was President Clinton’s advice, as though he were in a sports stadium. Yeltsin held elections, and not even the subsequent shelling of his own parliament was enough to staunch the aid and subsidies. Who knew—or cared—into whose pockets the money went?
The Europeans were wrapped in their own exclusive concerns. Through the decades since the last war, Germany and France have been trying to come to terms with the historic enmity between them. A series of treaties have brought into existence what has eventually become the European Union. The collapse of Communism and the consequent unification of the two Germanys alarmed the French President Mitterand. He believed that the only brake he could devise on future German strength was to merge the French franc and other European Union currencies with the deutsche mark. The German Chancellor Helmut Kohl agreed on the ostensible grounds that otherwise a too powerful Germany might not be responsible for its actions in the future, tempted—as two of Kohl’s close aides put it—to settle relationships with their neighbors “in the traditional manner.” The effort to integrate East Germany has already cost a sum in the order of a hundred billion dollars, a figure likely to double. Far from feeling grateful, half the former East Germans still hanker after Communism. Once the consequences of glasnost and perestroika were spelling the end of the Party’s monopoly on power, the nomenklatura looked to its future. Claim as they might to be the vanguard of the proletariat, these people were in reality privileged thieves, living off the fat of the land, exclusive managers of state enterprises, with access to the best houses, cars, and aircraft, as well as foreign currency and travel. The one thing missing was title to the wealth they enjoyed. Privatization, they were quick to grasp, would provide them with title. They had only to devise the paperwork for conveying to themselves the public property in their hands. The era of Boris Yeltsin completed a national asset-stripping launched in the era of Gorbachev.
This gigantic redistribution of wealth has been a civilian version of wartime plundering. On the one hand, it was a bribe huge enough to buy off the nomenklatura from resorting to a widespread massacre in defence of privilege and monopoly. On the other hand, it was a continuation by other means of that same privilege and monopoly. Blatantly corrupt on behalf of himself, his family, and his cronies, Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin as his successor in a bargain that exempted him from investigation into his affairs. The stealing goes on as before. Every year tens of billions of dollars are transferred abroad illegally, and whole countries like Cyprus and Slovenia lend themselves to money-laundering. The Russian government has difficulties holding the center together, paying wages, and collecting taxes.
Thousands of secret policemen, gulag camp personnel, and mass-murderers continue to receive pensions and wear their medals proudly. Not one has been brought to trial. To draw a line under the past, and once more to affirm the difference between right and wrong, the state ought to have initiated a judicial process for these criminals. The failure to do so leaves Communism like a virus in the blood stream. The guilty have got away with their crimes. The concept of responsible citizenship goes by default. Decades will have to pass before Russia becomes a country under the rule of law, and even then the unaddressed legacy of Communism will haunt the collective memory.
Like Communism, nationalism did not bring freedom in the twentieth century but proved another instrument in the rule of the strong over the weak. Nationalism mobilized people, and contributed to the break-up of empires, European as well as Russian. Gamal Abdul Nasser, President Suharto, Kim Il Sung, Saddam Hussein, Colonel Mengistu, Mao Tse Tung, and the rest have sought legitimacy in Communism or nationalism, or more frequently in a blend of the two doctrines that allowed them the time-honored practice of establishing themselves as undisputed tyrants. For them, the Cold War was a blessed opportunity to maneuver by playing one side against another without scruple. Taken together, these tyrants have devastated whole peoples, and with them a great part of the world’s stock of civilization and culture.
“Go, Boris, go!” was President Clinton’s advice, as though he were in a sports stadium.
Africa, the Muslim and Arab world, almost all of Asia, are in the hands of one-man or dynastic rule, tyrannies made yet worse by the modern technology that holds them implacably in place. Of the two hundred or so states in the world, nearly half are failed societies, lawless arenas of war and civil war. Some self-proclaimed Beloved Leader and President for Life plunders the national wealth, and television screens world-wide show the victims of the resulting starvation and ethnic cleansing, if not genocide. Dissidents here and there analyze truthfully the condition of their society. As a rule, only the fortunate among them are able to find refuge somewhere in the West before they are imprisoned and killed.
Escape is the final choice for the Third World masses. A multi-billion dollar industry has lately arisen of people-smugglers arranging for an extortionate price clandestine journeys to faraway places. In their millions, the poor and desperate are on the move. Sometimes their corpses are found suffocated in the heavy-duty vehicles in which they were hiding to cross frontiers, or washed up from unseaworthy boats onto Mediterranean beaches. In their failed societies, there is no intimation of how some political process might start that would give these victimized people a better choice or some say in deciding their fate.
The 1968 generation is now in power throughout the West. President Clinton dodged the Vietnam draft but did not inhale his marijuana joints. Prime Minister Blair explains, “I am a modern man. I am part of the rock-and-roll generation: the Beatles, color TV.” A high proportion of his cabinet, including himself, belonged to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and opposed the stationing of NATO cruise missiles in Europe. The French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was a Trotskyite activist and anti-American agitator. Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, was a left-wing extremist, closely associated with terrorists and photographed at the time attacking policemen. Daniel Cohn-Bendit came to prominence for his leadership in the Paris rioting of 1968, and is now a member of the European parliament. What these contemporaries have in common is a self-righteous certainty that the world begins anew with them, that they know all that’s worth knowing, and therefore whatever they do is virtuous by definition.
High culture once vitalized the necessary link between freedom and the institutions guaranteeing that freedom. Replacing high culture, contemporary popular culture has instead introduced the debased belief that freedom is only “doing your thing,” detached from morality and even more remote from the institutions that protect morality. President Clinton, to give the outstanding example, disgraced his office. Any previous president would have resigned in the wake of revelations about his relationship with a young intern and his public lies about it. Clinton ignored the moral dimension, and the public humored him as though he were a wayward teenager. Clinton seems set to enter the history books as a moral curiosity. His conduct damaged himself, and by association his party, in the subsequent election, rather than the office of presidency. American democracy, in other words, still retains sufficient vitality to overcome the personal defects of those who represent it.
In Europe, the Sixties generation is attempting to consummate a process begun half a century ago, namely the construction of a transnational and ultimately federal union. The United States has backed the construction of such a Europe since its inception. A federal Europe, it was safely assumed, would be the Siamese twin of a federal United States, all the more valuable an ally as a bloc than individual states. The reality is turning out very differently. Henry Kissinger is only one among a number of influential voices now warning that the emergence of a unified Europe is “one of the most revolutionary events of our time.” There were always some Europeans ungrateful that America rescued them from Nazism and Communism, and others who suffered from an assortment of superiority or inferiority complexes. Subterranean resentments of the kind are now evolving into an ideology that pits the European Union against the United States in another bipolar world. Just as the Soviet bloc fragmented after the collapse of Communism, so now the democratic world is sundering.
In contrast to the American precedent in the eighteenth century, this European federation of states has grown opportunistic step by opportunistic step, as its leaders seized every opportunity to promote their project. The fifteen constituent members are due to take in another twelve countries, including Greek Cyprus (at the expense of Turkey), Malta, and countries in central and eastern Europe right up to the Ukrainian and Russian borders. Whatever the intentions of the European founding fathers, further treaties in recent years have endowed the European Union with the clear contours of empire.
In Brussels, its capital, the EU today has a bewildering structure in which there is no link between its institutions and the freedom they are supposed to ensure. At the apex are a president and twenty commissioners, appointed to office by national governments in a process invisible to the public. Not elected, they cannot be dismissed. The commission, and its subordinate councils of ministers drawn from national countries, have executive and legislative powers, and some judicial ones as well. These politicians are accountable to nobody but themselves. Here is the only legislative body in the democratic world that meets and deliberates in secret. A European court of justice was established with the political mission of granting legal force to the commission’s work; its members are also appointed and may not be removed; there is no right of appeal. Commission and court combine to impose throughout the continent whatever they decree. A variety of instruments are available, including regulations that are binding, directives open to interpretation, recommendations, opinions, and resolutions. Nearly 30,000 civil servants are employed, spread over two-hundred buildings, with no fewer than seven-hundred standing committees. The paperwork is overwhelming. Already in force, something in the order of 80,000 resolutions have changed the daily routines and realities in every sphere of work and play in Europe. The so-called European parliament of more than six-hundred members is a token with no legislative or revisory powers. No speech there may last more than two minutes.
Empire-building is far advanced. The commission collects taxes and wants more. A European central bank exists, with the euro as common currency for the majority of members. A Growth and Stability Pact supposedly prevents one country from borrowing or incurring debts that the others will have to pay. There is a European defense force, and a police force, Europol, with powers of arrest and deportation not answerable to habeas corpus. A European legal code is forming. An immense range of goods and services and industries has been centralized and homogenized—in the cases of agriculture and fishery with disastrous commercial and ecological effects for producers and consumers everywhere in the continent.
Government now concerns itself with whole areas of public and private life where by common consent it has had no previous business. Some of these are no less onerous because absurd. Committees have been discussing the permissibility of British milk chocolate for thirty years; deciding on the circumference of home-grown peaches; contemplating which variety of tree may be planted on road verges. As European and national regulations gather into an avalanche, nothing is too trivial to escape attention. Without a specific license, as one critic has pointed out, a rural property owner in Britain “is not allowed to build a house, convert a barn, fell a wood, plant a copse, sow a field of corn, breed a calf, catch a trout, dredge a pond, move a footpath, drill an oil well or alter a hedge line.” A joyless gray pall of uniformity is squeezing out the choices and energies of hitherto free people.
The experiment runs counter to the historic thrust of democracy. The central institution of democracy has been the nation-state, and Nazism and Communism consequently made sure to attack it. Imperfect as it often was in relation to minorities within its borders, the nation-state brought together and enfranchised populations under the rule of law, thus defining their identity. Sovereignty was genuine in the sense that it was a two-way contract whereby citizens fulfilled their social responsibilities under the law because they had had a say in choosing those acting in their name. In perhaps unwitting or unconscious emulation of Nazism and Communism, the commission in Brussels is deconstructing the nation-state, draining the meaning out of national identity, destroying the sovereignty without which obedience to the law of the land becomes derelict. Parliamentary proceedings are everywhere reduced to rubber-stamping the tide of regulation and decree sweeping in from Brussels. Except under duress in Vichy in 1940, there is no previous example of elected parliamentarians surrendering of their own free will the duty of representation that their own electors granted them.
An alternative sovereignty is under construction, one that requires a European identity. There is no such thing, never has been, nor could there be, granted the differences in languages, religion, law, and national histories. The past and its achievements, both good and bad, are vanishing. In the wisecrack of a character in a Tennessee Williams play, “Europe is just a fire-sale.” In the absence of any non-residual traces of high culture, the commission is spending huge sums concocting the new fictitious identity, complete with what are known as European values, which turn out to be fantasies about Charlemagne or a common popular culture. On inspection this proves a matter of soccer matches, transnational golf teams, and pop concerts. Social or cultural unity is at the level prescribed by the Beatles: “All you need is love.”
The EU is best described as a command-bureaucracy, and as such it is a mutation of previous totalitarian systems. It pays the usual lip-service to human rights but has already passed, or is in the process of passing, decrees that will outlaw political parties opposed to it, and that will constrain freedom of speech. In Austria, Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party has rather mild reservations about the EU, but its success in a free election provoked the EU as a whole to boycott Austria. As one among many confusing features of the system, each country has its turn setting the European agenda. It was Sweden’s turn when Haider was elected, and its then prime minister Goran Persson led the pack on the grounds that Austria was “out of line with EU values.” Critics of the EU have already been penalized by laws concerning blasphemy. Bland words about human rights cloak a formidable machinery for future coercion and repression.
Replacing high culture, contemporary popular culture has instead introduced the debased belief that freedom is only “doing your thing.”
Totalitarian systems exist to privilege those who run them. The EU is no exception. Kohl and Mitterand oversaw the treaties that finalized the empire-building. In pursuit of their political goals, they engaged in all manner of illegal deals and payments that somehow escape full investigation. President Chirac of France claims that his status permits him not to answer charges of corruption. Roland Dumas, the head of the French constitutional court, no less, has been found guilty of bribery and corruption. An astonishing range of French, Italian, and Spanish politicians and their business associates have been charged with corruption, and a few are even in prison. Year after year, auditors refuse to certify EU accounts, because too much of its budget —up to ten billion dollars a year, by some estimates—goes missing. So great are the vested interests that a blind eye is turned to all manner of fraud and malpractice, even when identified in the media. To complete the comparison with the former Soviet Union, the commissioners and their bureaucrats award themselves huge salaries, allowances, expenses, subsidized food and drink—all tax free. Absolute power once more is corrupting absolutely. None of the statesmen or public servants of pre-1914 Europe would have considered, let alone actually profited from, any such plundering of the public purse.
Machiavelli wrote that “principalities are liable to danger when they are passing from the civil to the absolute order of government.” It may be that people will rise up as their forebears did in defence of the institutions embodying the freedom for which they once fought, and trample down the command-bureaucracy now enveloping them. Confident in its Sixties-style self-righteousness, the EU leadership appears unaware that it is fostering the malign nationalism that it supposedly exists to cure. Opinion polls in every European country reflect a rising sense of dismay and outrage. Norwegians, Danes, Irish, and the Swiss have voted against further integration. Germany pays by far the largest net contribution to the EU budget, with the result that Germans see themselves obliged to carry other people towards whom they have no obligation. No German leader has ever risked a vote or referendum on the subject, out of well-founded fear that the result might blow apart the EU.
The European president, Romano Prodi (against whom corruption charges were levelled in his native Italy), has complained that alienation from the EU is “a malaise that affects people in all states,” but in the next breath adds that “The objective of an enlarged Europe must be realized.” In response to reasoned objections, Wim Duisenburg, head of the European Central Bank, spoke for the nomenklatura: “I hear but I do not listen.” At a moment when Denmark rejected the euro in a referendum, it was Belgium’s turn to set the European agenda, and its foreign minister Louis Michel gave a definitive statement of the consideration Brussels has for public opinion. “I personally think it’s very dangerous to organize referendums when you’re not sure you’re going to win them. If you lose it that’s a big problem for Europe.” Insulated from reality, these would-be absolute rulers are offering people the choice between submission and a revolution likely to have the form of a nationalist—even a fascist—backlash.
Between the wars, the Czech writer Karel Capek visited Britain to write a book, published shortly before his death at a time when the Germans marched into Prague. “Wherever on this planet ideals of personal freedom and dignity apply,” he wrote, “there you will find the cultural inheritance of England.” This was once a judgment common to Britain’s friends, as well as to opponents of its ideals of freedom and dignity. Now the British must look to themselves to weigh the value of this inheritance, which amounts to deciding what kind of people they are. Their culture provides little help. The political and intellectual elite —heirs of E. M. Forster and Ramsay Muir —has long since accepted that right and wrong are relative, neither absolute nor worth fighting for. Britain has already handed jurisdiction of its affairs in many fields to the commission in Brussels. Decisions affecting its social, commercial, and business interests, even its defence and foreign policy, are now taken abroad by people of other nationalities. In several areas, European law takes precedence over British law.
Opinion polls in Britain, however, show the picture of a rising majority against the EU, with a fast-growing minority who wish to repatriate the powers handed over to Brussels and to quit the EU altogether. Historical experience has bred deep in the bone the Churchillian sense that they have to go it alone—against the whole continent if need be, as so often before—on the grounds that it is better to be poor but free than rich and not responsible for yourself. When Tony Blair won the 1997 election, one of his closest cabinet associates (later disgraced for corruption) warned that “the era of representative democracy may be coming to an end.” Blair believes that he will be able to persuade the British to redefine the independence and freedom they have for so long taken for granted and acquiesce in full political and economic integration with the EU. It would be an ironic coda to a long and on the whole successful history if the prime minister who could so recast British identity were to be rewarded with the presidency of Europe.
The suicide attacks of September 11 on the United States served to rally democratic states, postponing any sundering into potentially divided blocs, at least for the short term. Affirming that Britain stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the United States, Blair at once provided military support. Other European countries have preferred to remain spectators cheering from the grandstand. When the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi stated the obvious—that Western civilization might in some ways be better than Islam because it is more free—he was forced to backpedal all round for what the British Home Secretary called “offensive, inappropriate and culturally inaccurate remarks.” Moral relativism bears such fruit.
Islamic extremists have proved themselves the latest in the series of external enemies of democracy capable of doing great damage. Their primary strategic objective is to replace targeted regimes in the Muslim and Arab world, and no mechanism exists for the purpose except force. In the event that Islamic extremists were to seize power, one absolute system would replace another, in the manner of Ayatollah Khomeini’s coup against the former Shah of Iran. So multiple are the motives and emotions in play that the focus of the threat is variable. For a long time now, Muslims have been encountering the West with ambivalence. On the one hand, the West brings material wealth, medicine, education, communications. On the other, these desirable things call into question the Muslim order that does not deliver them. An intolerable sense of humiliation and impotence arises. Opposed as they are in their declared view of what a Muslim state ought to be, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden deploy the same vocabulary of Western “arrogance” and a countervailing need to rescue Muslim honor and pride. Within this framework jostles an immense range of age-old sectarian, ethnic, and tribal struggles, each with its appeal to ancestral loyalties.
The United States appears to influence or to block any outcome of these various regional struggles that would favor extremists, whether Islamic or secular. What looks to the West like the hindrance of civil war and the pursuit of stability looks to the extremists like the wanton frustration of their political ambitions. The more incomplete this perception of reality, the more Islam becomes a fulfilling identity for the extremists, a call for mobilization, and the unfailing source of fanaticism and hate. So they strike at the United States as a tactic in the strategy of reclaiming the whole Muslim world.
In terms of numbers and weaponry, Islamic extremists are not the Red Army. In terms of politics, though, they are quite as baleful as the Soviet Union. As usual, murder runs deeps. Their absolute hostility to America presents the Muslim world with difficult, polarizing choices: whether to be for or against the war on terror; whether to prevaricate or to dissemble in the old non-aligned game of saying one thing and doing another; whether to play both sides off against each other. In short, the Muslim world must decide whether democracy and Islam are two beautiful but incompatible ideals. The Cold War lasted for a good four decades, and during its course countries shifted allegiance one way and the other. Should the war on terror extend over a period of years, any country that already faces an extremist challenge—Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt—risks civil war and collapse. Profit and loss considerations might also impel a country that is anti-American by definition—Iran, Iraq, Syria—to recalculate. Opportunists are many, but those who prefer to end on the losing side are few and far between.
It is time to reappraise the climate of defeatism and guilt that intellectuals have spread so far and wide throughout the West. Some still do so, continuously alienated from their own civilization and its values. Whatever contempt they feel for themselves and the democracy in which they live and work, though, none go so far as to advocate the adoption of a Taliban regime, as their forerunners in the Thirties used to agitate on behalf of the Soviet system. Terror and terror-states challenge even the most self-righteous among us.
The Muslim world must decide whether democracy and Islam are two beautiful but incompatible ideals.
A new organizing principle is emerging. The Anglo-American concept of freedom is incompatible with the Islamic conception of freedom put forward by Muslim extremists. Compromise is impossible between absolutism and democracy, between the state’s imposed decree and the individual’s need to be responsible for himself. What is freedom to the Muslim extremists looks in the West like subjection and slavery. People everywhere will be compelled to decide what exactly freedom means to them. To refer again to Truman, nations must choose between alternative ways of life. Here is the making of another Cold War, to be waged across an ideological divide. It is a measure of geopolitical change that Russia in this new perspective is an ally of democracy.
Resolve, the will to see things through to a right ending, is the end-product of the choices of the millions of individuals whose biographies make up the culture and the identity of a democratic state. Unquantifiable and fashion-tossed as resolve may be, the survival of the culture depends on it.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 4, on page 4
Copyright © 2018 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com