When the Berlin Wall came down we told by those who should have known better that the age of ideology was at an end. On the contrary, ideologies proliferated, driven by a quasi-religious compulsion to believe in the all-encompassing cause
It is shameful to admit it, perhaps, but now that it is gone I rather miss communism, or perhaps I should say Really Existing Socialism as it was sometimes known to its defenders, apologists and sympathisers. It was in some respects an invigorating, comforting, purifying experience to cross the Iron Curtain; it was to the soul what I suppose going to a health farm is to the body, or at least to the body of the pampered prosperous who pay a fortune to eat half a grapefruit a day in the utmost luxury.
Not that there was much luxury under communism, or even half a grapefruit if it came to that. Grapefruit for the workers was not the first call on Really Existing Socialism’s limited supply of hard currency. But I enjoyed my spells of freedom from choice that going across the Iron Curtain entailed, of urban foraging for something to eat that turned each meal into an achievement, if not into much of an aesthetic experience, rather than something that was merely to be expected. I loved the lack of animation and traffic in communist cities, the smell of badly-refined fuel, the street lighting that spread a kind of gloom at night rather than illumination. I loved the shadows everywhere and the feeling that one was being watched or even followed (I was briefly detained at Bucharest airport in the last days of Ceausescu), for to be watched and followed is to be accorded some kind of importance which, in my case, I otherwise lacked.
To cross over the Iron Curtain was automatically to count one’s blessings that at least one didn’t live here. If ever you felt down in the dumps, all you had to do to feel a little better was cross over to, say, Hungary or Czechoslovakia (the best of the Warsaw Pact countries). If you worried about pollution at home, you could go to Albania to find factories that produced nothing but pollution. By comparison with Elbasan, for example, Akron, Ohio, was as a mountain meadow. All industry pollutes, of course, but only communism took pollution as in itself a sign of progress: witness its iconography, with happily smoking chimneys always in the background. Western romantics dreamed of rural idylls; communist romantics of industrial ones.
It is a human trait to love what we hate, though not in the way that the founder of the Christian religion enjoined us to do, as a prelude to forgiveness, but rather to lend our life significance, purpose and clarity. Communist civilisation—if I may use the word civilisation here in a non-evaluative sense—was so obviously hateful and without redeeming feature that it made the limitation of its spread or even its total collapse (which long seemed impossible) a worthwhile transcendental goal in life, for which you therefore needed look no further. The world was neatly divided into good (or at least normal) and bad, and therefore required little hard thought.
I fully recognise that my nostalgia for the good old days in Eastern Europe, which were certainly not good for those who had actually to live them, is essentially frivolous and selfish: that it is quite wrong wistfully to consign the whole of Eastern Europe, even in one’s imagination, to the role of a theme park, or Disneyland, of political pathology. Even when communism had emerged from its heroic age of mass murder, as Eric Hobsbawm might have described it had he had the courage of his own brutality, it inflicted a kind of misery on the population under its sway that was sui generis, a life lived in a kind of all-encompassing and slowly-corrosive but not fatal treacle.
At the same time, however, Marxism, the doctrine upon which the civilisation of Really Existing Socialism was avowedly founded, was at least intellectually interesting; and many of its adherents, at least in that part of the world in which it had not become an official orthodoxy, had interesting if not always entirely honest or truthful things to say about history, literature and so forth. They tried, of course, to dissociate the doctrine from its baleful consequences in the countries in which it had been applied; but for myself, I always thought there was both a logical and psychological connection between Marxist epistemology and mass slaughter. For once you say that people think with their material interests (not as a matter of empirical generalisation, but as one of philosophical necessity), and furthermore that their interests are essentially opposed and can only be adjudicated by violence, then it is hardly surprising that dissentient opinion should be repressed by the utmost force once you have the power to do so: for a different opinion is a sign of existential incompatibility. But no one could deny that Marxists were, and still are, capable of writing interesting books.
When the Berlin Wall was dismantled I, like many other naive observers, supposed that the age of ideology was at an end. On the contrary, ideology proliferated, blossomed and balkanised; we underestimated people’s need, quasi-religious in nature, for an all-encompassing cause. They were all very dull, these fragmented ideologies, being not a patch on Marxism for interest; I remember some years ago being sent for review three books by feminists that were on very disparate subjects—Conan Doyle, the Cold War and the history of neurophysiology, if I remember rightly—and they all came to the same boring conclusion about the evils of patriarchy: a preordained conclusion on all questions of which, however, feminists seem never to tire. Conclusion first, subject afterwards, seems to be the motto, the method being the backward projection of current discontents.
One ideology that rushed in to fill the gap left by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its collateral damage to the prestige of Marxism (despite previous denials that the Soviet Union was truly Marxist) was Islamism. How many of us predicted that this current of something that only vaguely approximates thought, and is really more like an enflamed state of feeling, would become so important?
From the purely intellectual point of view, even gender studies are more interesting than Islamism. No doubt the history of the world is replete with absurd doctrines for the sake of which people have been ready to kill and to die, but one might have hoped that in the twenty-first century no part of mankind would be any longer susceptible to Münster-Anabaptist-type delusions.
Anyone who had read Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones, generally accepted not only as an inspiration for, but as an intellectual high point of modern Islamism, will quickly appreciate the almost pathetic thinness of the political thought behind it. For example, he asserts (argues is not quite the word for it) that man should live wholly and directly by God’s law, in every small particular of his life, and that all human authority is a usurpation of divine authority and therefore illegitimate: but the fairly obvious question of how God’s law is to be known, and once known imposed, by what authority imposed, does not occur to him. Presumably he thinks that, as God’s mouthpiece, the political power that Islamism wields is not its own, but God’s. This reminds me of Abimael Guzmán, the founder and leader of Sendero Luminoso of Peru, for whom history was God and who, by acting in accordance with its supposed dictates, was able to wield despotic power while claiming to be but the instrument of an inexorable demiurge. If Guzmán had been born in the Middle East, he would put himself forward as Caliph; if Qutb had been born in Peru, he would have tried to be the Fourth Sword of Marxism (as Guzmán let himself be known).
The appeal of Islamism is not to the head, of course, but to the gut. It is the solution, or seeming solution, to a psychological problem. Young European-born Muslims who go to join ISIS have biographies that are depressingly similar. Often (though not quite always) of poor educational attainment and economic prospects, and resentful of their subordinate place in society, they nevertheless take with enthusiasm and gusto to the less refined aspects of contemporary Western culture. Before conversion, as little boys go through a dinosaur stage, they go through a rap-music, drink, drug and petty-crime stage.
Islamism is the answer to their impasse, there now being no other on offer. Suddenly they are superior instead of inferior, important instead of insignificant, feared instead of despised; best of all, they are licensed to kill. Better a dead lion than a live rat.