Historical Idealism: A View For Our Times
If asked about Marx’s legacy, most people will think of his ideas on economy and the ideologies spawned by it, foremostly Communism. Some will point to postmodernism and multiculturalism as current prominent offshoots. However, I see Marx’s most enduring and pervasive legacy in his methodology concerning history: historical materialism. The success of this legacy is testified by the fact that even many avowed anti-Marxists approach history from a viewpoint that has its origins in Karl Marx, and one of whose famous exemplars is the phrase, “Religion is the opiate of the masses”.
Historical materialism puts material and pragmatic concerns at the fore, and acknowledges spiritual and idealistic concerns only in so far as they serve or are shaped by the former two. It is a mechanistic and dysteleological view of history, seeking to reduce it all to the interactions between the multitude of self-interests (by which also the interests of particular groups is meant—a group is its own self, with its own interests). It takes Plato’s hypothesis of the Royal Lie, namely that religion is a lie fostered by the rulers for the purpose of keeping order in their states, and extrapolates it onto all ideology. Ideologies, according to historical materialism, are just cloaks tailored to make selfish interests look noble. And self-damaging or suicidal actions can only be explained by appeal to even higher self-interest.
This is no idle survey of an intellectual curiosity; historical materialism colors the perspective of anyone who holds to it, and today the fact that so many policymakers in the states of the world hold to it means that the disease of, if I may neologize, “pragmatosis” has been the unmitigated disaster of modern history, right from the aftermath of World War I in 1918.
Look at this gem of historical materialism from no less than former US president Bill Clinton (via The American Thinker):
Mr. Clinton also spoke of the danger of Iran developing a nuclear weapon, saying he was more worried about a terrorist group obtaining an Iranian bomb than the Islamic Republic using it itself. “Maybe some Iranian leader would think, maybe I can nuke Israel… but we can handle that with a phone call”, he said. “If a nuclear bomb ever exploded in the Middle East, even if it wiped out Israel, the main victims eventually would be all the Muslims around it who would be killed in the nuclear fallout.”
Priceless. The answer, as the author of that post, Ed Lasky, says, is obvious: “Did Hezb’allah care who it hit when it shelled the Galilee, which has a very substantial Muslim population?” (and the rest). Bill Clinton is just as blinded by the legacy of the Cold War as were the Interbellum statesmen by that of World War I: they might have history to support their theories, but history is vast and manifold, so here is a case of learning from the wrong period of history. World War II and the Islamic suicide terrorists point to the basic deficiency in historical materialism.
I do not deny the importance of pragmatic concerns, just as historical materialists seldom deny the impact of ideals; but the emphasis, the primacy of which over which, is the opposite. Historical idealism consists in holding that ideas have a life of their own—that ideas can impel their adherents to do things far beyond pragmatic benefits. Whereas the historical materialist says, “Reality is stronger than any ideology”, the historical idealist replies, “Except when ideology changes reality”. The historical idealist speaks of the faith that moves mountains. What is given as a better example of stability than mountains? The historical idealist takes this metaphor, pointing out how even the constants of the world, even the stable things that are held together by mutual interests and pragmatic benefits, are up for grabs as soon as there arises an ideological challenge to them. And more: the historical idealist holds that ideologues are more often than not true to their words.
The historiography of the materialists is replete with examples of how ideals have been bended, again and again, in the face of real-world constraints. What may have started as an attempt to show the hypocrisy of ideologues, poking holes in their schemes by pointing out their self-made exceptions to their own rules, has, under Marx’s tutelage, mushroomed into the rule of current historiography, with ideologues actually acting out their words the exception.
The real-world, political ramifications of this attitude can be catastrophic: if the default assumption is that all ideologues can be swayed to break their own rules and go back on their own words by means of material, pragmatic enticements, then diplomacy will be tried and tried and tried, relentlessly, no matter what all the reality checks show. This is the root of appeasement. But the bitter truth, as humanity learned in 1938 and is now insisting on learning the hard way again, is that appeasement can work only if the other side is not ideologically strong. Only if it is true that the other side’s ideology is a cloak over his pragmatic aims, a means to their material end—only then can material enticements and pragmatic concessions defuse the threat. But if the other side’s ideology is for real—if the other side really believes in the words he says—then appeasement is a recipe for disaster.
Even when the world was already in the thick of World War II, Hitler did something that makes no sense from the pragmatic point of view. I am talking about the Holocaust. It required the sending of soldiers specially to the locations of the Jews, the laying down of train tracks to the camps, the camps themselves—an elaborate array that took a great logistic toll on the German army. Quite possibly the invasion of Russia could have succeeded if the Nazis had spared the men and materials they expended on the Holocaust. But Hitler and his party had it as an imperative: the extermination of the Jews, no matter the cost.
Hitler was as good as his word from start to finish: he promised the world for Germany, and he set out to do exactly that; and he promised to exterminate the Jews, and he acted on it. Only the real failure and demise of Nazi Germany prevented those goals from being brought to completion. Only the victory of the Allies—and not the attempts to sate his hunger through concessions, of which the Western Betrayal of Czechoslovakia was the most famous. And the words of people, including Jews, dismissing his genocidal Jew-hating rhetoric as nothing more than hyperbole and bluster employed for its demagogic value, were proved totally, tragically wrong: Hitler did to the Jews just as he had said, and had the Allies not defeated Nazi Germany, he would have done it to the absolute end.
“If our long-term goal is to try to minimize the number of groups like Al Qaeda that want to conduct terrorism both within the Middle East or beyond, they wouldn’t all go away if the Palestinians and the Israelis made a comprehensive agreement, but half of the energy behind this would collapse”, Mr. Clinton said.
– from the same link as the previous quote
Now this disease of “pragmatosis” has been carried over to the current situation. The historical materialists have engraved it in stone, as inviolable and unquestionable orthodoxy, that the role of Islam is that of cloak. Islamic rhetoric, they contend, is always the cover, the rallying-cry, behind the material grievances and desires of “third-worlders disgruntled by Western discrimination”. The Israel/“Palestine” conflict is the beginning and end for this view: they begin by saying it has always been a land struggle between two equal claimant nations, and only recently has been given the dressing of an Islamic jihad in order to rally more supporters to it; and they end by extrapolating this to all Islamic terrorism, and by suggesting, as Bill Clinton does in the above quote, that the world could be brought back to manageable tranquility (I guess “peace” is just too much to ask for…) by solving this local conflict. Have you ever wondered why the Leftists’ attention to Darfur is a fraction of that which they give to the Israel/“Palestine” conflict, although Darfur is a clear-cut case of racism and genocide while Israel is anything but? It is because—that is what they believe and actually say—the Israel/“Palestine” conflict “fuels the hatred of the world toward the US”, while the Darfur genocide does nothing of the sort. It is not, then, about high ideals like “justice” and “equality” that they really worry about, but about saving their sorry little behinds. They are impervious, however, to the evidence that screams that the enemy is an ideological one, an enemy whose hunger will not be sated by a few concessions here and there.
The Israel/“Palestine” conflict has always been an Islamic jihad against non-Muslims, just dressed with the clothing of a nationalistic land dispute in order to prettify it to bien-pensant Western eyes. This I know because, after some study, its patterns do not fit the patterns of other nationalistic land disputes, while they do fit the patterns of Islamic imperialism everywhere else. The pattern of employing suicide terrorism to force land concessions, and then, when finally made, continuing under some pretext, is not unique to the Land of Israel—it is there in Southern Thailand also. The pattern of making demands for autonomy, in a sheerly brazen and impudent way, is there both in Israel and at universities in the West. The pattern of rioting, burning, pillaging and murdering after some trumped-up excuse appears not only after a Jewish leader visits the Temple Mount (Sharon in September 2000, after which the Al Aqsa Intifada broke out) but also after a Christian leader quotes a 14th-century Byzantine Emperor (Pope Benedict XVI, quoting Manuel II Palaiologos, in September 2006). The common thread runs through all those events and conflicts.
There is no more insane, in the pragmatic view, than the suicide bomber. It is said humans’ strongest drive is the drive for survival, yet here there are those who blow themselves up for an ideal. They are not, as it is commonly held mistakenly, the downtrodden of their societies either—the 19 men who crashed the planes into the World Trade Center came from affluent Saudi families. A historical materialist might answer that they do it for the self-interest of the 72 virgins or the group-interest of Islamic caliphate. But if we assume, as we must, that anyone who blows himself up cannot be materially guaranteed to see those rewards reaped, but has to take them on faith, then we have before us an admission—an implicit admission, but an admission still—that ideology does have the power to affect reality! Ideology has the power to override even the basic human drive for survival, or the basic human instinct of familial love, which goes away to the depths of hell in societies where the mothers raise their children to be suicide bombers. The Islamic world has plenty of people and resources (especially under the ground); prosperity is easily within its reach, except that they choose to follow their ideology, the Islamic ideology, of world domination instead, even though that way is fraught with the risk of failure and misery.
Historical materialism, then, suffers from a failure of imagination: it underestimates the level of risk humans could be willing to take for the sake of their ideals. Historical idealism goes from the facts, and concludes that ideas can have a life of their own, controlling the humans who adhere to them, driving them to take risks that the rational mind would regard as psychotic. And historical idealism recognizes the ability of ideology to make or break whole nations.
“Demography is destiny”, says Mark Steyn. The West’s demographic decline in the face of the Muslims’ meteoric rise is now well-known, even if contested by the Leftists. Less dwelled upon is the ideological reason for it: the collapse of the ideal of marriage first, and of the pragmatic reasons for marriage after that. Given a free hand, humans (especially males) are more inclined to spend many years indulging in the evolutionary drive, and maybe later, drawing to the age of 40, will decide they wish to settle down. There were two stop-gaps against such a natural course: first, the religious ideal of marriage, as a divine institution and duty for all, and second, the pragmatic factor of the unreliability of contraceptives. The decline of religion did away with the first stop-gap, so that only the fear of becoming a father or getting pregnant kept the institution of marriage obligatory. However, the invention of the birth-control pill spelled the end of the second safety-valve as well, and it is no coincidence that the attack (called “exploration” by its proponents—apt, I think, just like in “tasting the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden”)—on marriage commenced at that time, in the 1960’s. With no fear of the consequences, and no desire to take on the responsibility of family, the demographic decline of the West is no mystery.
The ideological influences the material, in an ongoing fashion: this demographic decline, brought about by the demise of the ideal of marriage and family, has the real-world consequences of high taxation, excessive freeloading upon the welfare state, mass immigration (to fill up the votes) and, finally, Islamization. Many of those who are distressed by these developments have opted to emigrate to better places, thus aggravating the situation. None of these predicaments are beyond cure, and many of them (especially Islamization) can be solved by well-placed, decisive action (shooting those rioters who burn cars, expelling Muslims in droves); but, as we can see, mere words, such as the new French President’s “racaille” (“scum”) for the car-burners when he was Minister of the Interior, are shouted down as being “inflammatory”, so how can the right actions be expected? The power is there, the means are there, all the material requirements are present, but there is a state of mind that no longer has the old, life-giving ideals to follow, and that erroneously assumes that all people are like that, and that all of world history can be viewed that way.
And that is why historical idealism, the view that ideas are significant, that ideas are actually taken seriously by their adherents, even in the face of the constraints of reality, is a view for our times. It makes sense of the present, and it bears good, practical solutions for the future.