In August 1977, in the middle of the Soviet Union’s Brezhnev regime, the British journalist and broadcaster Bernard Levin made the most impressive prediction of the twentieth century. Writing in the Times of London, he predicted the Soviet Empire would fall in 1989. Levin turned out not only to be right about the fall but also why it would happen: not from external pressure but from the internal dissatisfaction of its captive populations. He was also right about how it would happen: those who rose up through the Soviet system would eventually lose faith in it and loosen their control. And he predicted, almost to the day, when it would happen: he nominated the two hundredth anniversary of the fall of the Bastille in Paris, that is, July 14, 1989. The Berlin Wall actually fell on November 9 of that year. Levin’s confidence in his prediction came from his belief that the thirst for freedom and decency among millions of people who had suffered repression for decades could not remain unslaked. “It is simply not credible,” he wrote, “that forces which have moved men and women in countless millions throughout the ages exist only in sketchy form in the Soviet Union, in the hearts of the few who speak openly of them. The charge is there, packed tight, tamped down and waiting. The fuse is laid. All that remains is the match.”
After 1989, it seemed for a time it was the revolutionary Left, rather than the capitalism it tried to overthrow, that had been consigned to the dustbin of history. The enormity of the failure of communism, which from 1917 to its peak in the late 1970s rose to govern one-third of the world’s population, should have meant the Left had no future. Yet today, when the United States has elected a President with the most left-wing CV of anyone ever to occupy the office, and when the Australian government, with a Prime Minister of very similar political background, is endorsing a radical agenda drawn from environmentalism and sexual politics, that is obviously not so.
In the nineteenth century, the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky made a prediction of his own, not as dramatic as Levin’s but just as prescient. In 1872, in his novel The Possessed (also translated as The Devils), Dostoevsky predicted the brutality and murder that would follow if his own generation of Russian revolutionaries got into power. Dostoevsky also described accurately the social milieu that bred the radicals of his era and those that followed. They were not workers, peasants or serfs, nor were they poor, uneducated and hungry. Instead, those attracted to radical politics came from the intellectual and artistic avant garde. Rather than the wretched of the earth, its members saw themselves as the cream of their society: an elite whose taste and intellect made them a superior caste, estranged from the cultural mainstream. Dostoevsky introduced the character Stepan Trofimovich Verhovensky, an occasional writer and university lecturer: “He fondly loved, for instance, his position as a ‘persecuted’ man and, so to speak, an ‘exile’. There is a sort of traditional glamour about those two little words that fascinated him once and for all and, exalting him gradually in his own opinion, raised him in the course of years to a lofty pedestal very gratifying to vanity.”
Although most of the radicals Dostoevsky described had some religious upbringing, they had given up religion to seek a secular cause worth living for and worth dying for. They imagined themselves people of the highest ideals, and believed they were transforming humanity and the world for the better. But their rejection of religion left them unrestrained by morality, and their grand ambitions quickly led them to murder those who stood in their way. In The Devils, their first target was one of their own group who sought to abandon the cause. Had he lived to see it, Dostoevsky would hardly have been surprised at the mass homicide perpetrated by the Bolsheviks and Maoists, whose millions of victims included many of their own communist collaborators.
There has long been, of course, another political choice on the Left, the social democratic or Labor Left. From the perspective of the revolutionary Left, the social democrats are naive and gullible to imagine they might provide an alternative route to the perfectly just society or, in Australian idiom, the Light on the Hill. Vladimir Lenin described social democrats and their kind as “useful idiots”, as allies of the revolutionaries who did not actually realise they were allies.
Dostoevsky foretold this too in The Devils. One of his revolutionary conspirators, Pyotr Stepanovich Verhovensky, the abandoned son of the literary “exile” introduced above, explained to his cohorts: “A teacher who laughs with his children at their God and at their cradle is on our side … The juries who acquit every criminal are ours. The prosecutor who trembles at a trial for fear he should not seem advanced enough is ours, ours. Among officials and literary men we have lots, lots, and they don’t know it themselves.”
The Gillard government, which could be forced by a minority of young idealists and old Marxists in the Greens party to introduce an economically and electorally damaging policy like carbon taxation, increasingly resembles Lenin’s useful idiots the longer it survives. But this is far from the whole story. To remain in office, social democrats must also adopt some policies that are not only electorally popular but genuinely in the national interest. The recent visit to Australia of Barack Obama demonstrated this clearly. Obama’s proposal, enthusiastically endorsed by Gillard, to create a Pax Americana in the Pacific, that is, a regime of free trade guaranteed by American military power, did not spring from his own cabinet, let alone his own principles. The concept originally arose in discussions several years ago between George Bush and John Howard. In fact, as Alexander Downer observed in a recent edition of Spectator Australia, it was officially launched in 2006 by Dick Cheney, Brendan Nelson and Downer himself. It is no wonder the Greens and the ALP’s Left faction were kept out of the loop until Obama’s announcement could be presented as a fait accompli.
Apart from delivering on the big debt she owes to the trade union movement, Gillard’s most ambitious left-wing agenda item is to make the population conform to state-approved codes of taste, speech, sexual behaviour, parenting, body fat, and gambling habits. Gillard also has a target for 40 per cent of young people to go to university, a piece of social engineering designed, as she says, to produce more people like herself. The Left’s main objective today is no longer democracy or liberty but conformity. In short, while leftists can adopt conservative reforms on some issues, they still cannot jettison their conviction that they are superior beings who have the right to dictate to others how they should live.
It is becoming equally clear, however, that social democracy is today facing its historical moment of truth. The Keynesian economics that justified continued deficit spending has met its dead end in the current global debt crisis. No one is talking any more about spending their way out of this predicament. Investors are worried not only about the ability of countries the size of Italy and Spain to pay back their money, but even of the United States. Consequently, the likely career trajectory of many social democratic politicians is typified by the fate of George Papandreou, the now ex-Prime Minister of Greece. Papandreou was once a political idealist, the leader of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, PASOK. As recently as 2006, he was President of the Socialist International. Last November, after a failed attempt to introduce a program of capitalist reforms to stave off Greek bankruptcy, he resigned in ignominy, to be replaced by an unelected economist. In other words, no capitalist economy can be run on the principle of radical redistribution any more, let alone anything resembling socialism. For social democrats today, the Light on the Hill is no longer affordable. What they once saw as a noble calling no longer exists.
If this scenario is accurate, and we have entered an age of political mediocrity with no place for heroic values, then it is likely many young people will perceive this as a vacuum to be filled. Given Dostoevsky’s insight that a secular culture will always produce youthful idealists seeking a cause to live and die for, in what direction might today’s highly educated, ardent young intellectuals turn?
At present, the Occupy Wall Street protest movement and its attempt to revive old Marxist concerns about the evils of bankers and capitalism has attracted very little support. Indeed, in Australia it is an embarrassing failure. But if the global debt crisis spreads from Europe to the United States, and there are too few jobs for the next generation of graduates, we will probably see a re-emergence of something like the much more violent anti-globalisation protest movement of the late 1990s. But even if this does not occur, there are already enough radical issues just as capable of generating the sense of personal righteousness many young graduates crave: environmentalism, animal rights, global poverty and Islamic jihad, to name the more obvious contenders. Each of these issues has the potential to cause enough damage to Western society to satisfy the demand.
Fortunately, however, human nature can also be relied upon to produce adversaries for whatever variety of leftism inevitably emerges. As Bernard Levin rightly observed about the rule of European communism, the hunger for freedom of captive populations will always be there too, a charge waiting for its detonator. The human condition being what it is, the Left will always be with us. But so will be its opposition, the lovers of freedom.