Radical Chic Catastrophes: When Romanticism Trumps Reason
Remember the war against Franco,
That’s the kind where each of us belongs
He may have won all the battles
But we had all the good songs!
-- Tom Lehrer
The radical is always the more glamorous. People wear Che Guevara T-shirts. They don’t wear Samuel Gompers, A. Philip Randolph, Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, or Jean Jaures T-shirts, yet those largely forgotten social democratic and labor heroes achieved far more benefit for reform and workers without murdering a lot of people.
Rosa Luxemburg, the nastiest rich spoiled brat in Zamosc, is fondly remembered though her career was a disaster and her career helped create the conditions that eventually brought about Nazism. Who knows about Frances Perkins, who did far more to help workers and was the first woman ever to be in the cabinet of an American president?
Thus, two things are certain. The extremist has better public relations and the extremist fails. Either he’s defeated, perhaps killed (dying the secular equivalent of the martyr’s death), or gains power, becomes horribly repressive, and messes up society big-time. In modern times, Yasir Arafat has been the king (perhaps I should say sultan) of lost causes, a fact which made him lionized in Europe.
Ah, the romance of the lost cause. Once the province of Irish Republicans, Polish nationalists, and sons or daughters of the Confederacy, the lost cause has an intense emotional appeal. There’s something stirring about defeat. And if you lose, you can’t be one of those evil rulers who actually have to show what his policies can do. At Civil War reenactments there are always more people wanting to be Confederates than Union soldiers. But if the Confederacy had won the Civil War, the ensuing additional decades of slavery would have put a damper on contemporary enthusiasm.
The same applies to the slave labor camps of Joe Stalin, or at least it should. But if the radicals do gain power, Hollywood actors can always go to visit Venezuelan dictators and glory in the man of action with the big mouth and the iron fist as he stamps on his demonized but actually helpless enemies.
A Czech friend of mine who was a leading dissident (and paid the price for his genuine heroism) recalls how Western radicals came to his country during the Communist period. Some sucked up to the ruthless dictators as if they were people’s heroes; others lectured democratic reformers who were facing terrible repression about how Communism would really work if it were only managed somewhat differently.
All of these reflections come as a result of the open revival of the far left in the West, and especially in America. In recent years, the far left has prospered by pretending to be liberal. All of the dreams in the 1930s about infiltrating liberal organizations and taking over the Democratic Party have now come true.
But that doesn’t seem to be enough as the Occupy movement seeks to bring back the good old days of Stalinism. To hold such a position means that no one ever taught you at university anything about democratic political philosophy or the gaping holes in Marxism, not to mention the record of what Communism did when it was in power.
Marx famously wrote that history repeats itself the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. So what does that make the third time?