The Art of Defeat

For all you nervy centrists caught in the middle

Glasnost Goes West

Are we living through a new Cultural Revolution? As someone who has spent more than half an afternoon considering Chinese history, I have some very nuanced and complicated views on this question… Just kidding, of course we aren’t. I feel like I’m insulting my own intelligence spelling this out. If you are the kind of person who feels Maoist China is a reasonable comparison to our current situation, I recommend you press the X-button on top of this browser tab, because I’m not going to waste another word on this nonsense.

Good, now that those morons have left us, let’s look for a better comparison. Because merely debunking bad historical analogies never seems to work. They just keep coming back until they’re replaced by a stronger one. Yet until recently I struggled to find a good analogy to describe the “woke” movement. As happens so often in these cases though, I stumbled upon something when I wasn’t particularly looking for it.

People read newspapers and magazines and sat in stunned silence. They were overcome with unspeakable horror. How were we supposed to live with this? Many greeted the truth as an enemy. And freedom as well. “We don’t know our own nation. We don’t understand what the majority of people think about; we see them, we interact with them every day, but what’s on their minds? What do they want? We have no idea. But we will courageously take it upon ourselves to educate them. Soon, we will learn the whole truth and be horrified,” my friend would say in my kitchen, where we often sat talking.

That was Svetlana Alexievich on the intellectual atmosphere during the latter years of the Soviet Union. More specifically, she’s referring to Mikhael Gorbachev’s decision to throw open the archives. For the first time in Soviet history it became possible to see the founders in an unflattering light. Until then all the focus had been on the idealism of Lenin and his revolutionary comrades. The evidence from the archives though gave an uncomfortable insight into the ruthlessness with which they had pursued their grip on power. Otto von Bismarck supposedly called this the “sausage factory” of politics and recommended people with weak stomachs to look away. But the sudden media frenzy in 1980s Russia made it impossible to look away, and the history of the early Soviet Union came out of a very bloody factory indeed. According to Alexievich, the resulting disillusionment played a big part in the collapse of Soviet civilization.

Today we have entered a similar era of glasnost. Just like in the Soviet Union of Gorbachev, a significant number of people here in the “Free West” have started to question our own founding myths. We used to learn how the pioneering spirit of people like Columbus or James Cook allowed Europeans to discover the world. We revered the likes of Voltaire and Jefferson for defining our sense of political freedom. And most of all, we believed that it was the inventiveness embodied by James Watt and Thomas Edison that made us rich. Academic historians may have been sceptical about these myths for decades, but only in recent years their criticisms have started flooding into the mainstream. Go to any news outlet today, and you’ll find it’s impossible to avoid debates about slavery and genocide, about colonialism and imperial exploitation.

The strange thing is that it’s not exactly clear why we’re going through this right now. The historical facts have been known for decades and longer. The press had always been free to cover it if they wanted. So why now?

Indirectly, I think our own glasnost was itself caused by the fall of the Soviet Union. Many of its key points were already an integral part of Lenin’s critique of capitalism, which made it very difficult to air them in public without looking like a fifth columnist. With the communist bogeyman gone though, it became more palatable to give these views a platform. It started in the nineties with a pretty mellow form of political correctness, but then capitalism kicked in. Because when the media began to offer these new perspectives, they discovered there was a market for them, so of course that meant producing more. As always with exponential growth it was easy to miss in the beginning, but now all of a sudden it’s everywhere.

I expect that the Cultural Revolution analogy will remain more appealing to conservatives and centrist liberals. As chaotic and scary as that episode might look to them, in the end it did run out of steam. So maybe all this will pass too? The glasnost comparison is much more troubling. If so many people have peeked into the sausage factory of our own past, they aren’t going to forget what they saw. As a result, the foundations of Western self-esteem may have been critically undermined. Yet I think this is exactly where we are, and we should adapt our risk calculations accordingly.

For guidance we can look at the fate of the former Soviet Republics. There the immediate result of glasnost was a fierce debate between old guard communists and progressive reformers. The latter wanted to seize on the moment to move their country towards liberal democracy. The former refused to let go of their idealised image of Lenin and the revolution, and tried to cling to the old ideology. We now know that neither of them won this struggle. Instead, a bunch of amoral grifters used the confusion to make a grab for the levers of power and all the associated economic assets. Subsequently the entire region became a playground for kleptocratic oligarchs, with ordinary citizens footing the bill.

This is something we should keep in mind during our own moment of glasnost. As important as our ideological differences may be, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to get totally distracted by them. Otherwise we too may fail to notice the burglars slipping in through the back door.