Ronald Reagan famously observed that “freedom is never more than one generation from extinction. We didn’t hand it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected and handed on for them to do the same ….”
In The Utopian Conceit and the War on Freedom, Juliana Geran Pilon brilliantly shows us why. Her latest book could have been subtitled “How the Intellectuals’ Dream of a Perfect Society Leads Not to Equality but Mass Murder.”
Senior fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, Geran Pilon is the author of The Art of Peace: Engaging a Complex World; Soulmates: Resurrecting Eve and other penetrating works of political philosophy. With The Utopian Conceit she insightfully examines The Bad Idea that will not die, not at least among many Western intellectuals.
Geran Pilon sees the fatal conceit, that rises vampire-like in each generation, in the belief that imperfect human beings can create a perfect society – especially if led by an irresistible elite proclaiming it acts for the good of the people according to an immutable law of God or history. Members of this ideological aristocracy “purport to be altruistic humanists,” self-appointed “champions of benevolent authoritarianism” come “to safeguard the spiritual interests of humanity at large.”
The Word-Deed Connection
The author spotlights the repeated word-deed connection, from an ideology that must not be contradicted to the necessary mass slaughters of those – early Christians, the bourgeoise, capitalists, kulaks, natives, blacks, whites, Jews, Zionists or any “other” depending on time and place – whose beliefs or very existence contradict the true believers.
Americans can hear the one-size-must-fit-all demand for perfectibility, for utopia, in the intolerance of today’s “woke progressives.” The anti-liberal left detests the capitalism that sustains it, capitalism resting on private property and the personal liberty to acquire and use it.
“Every billionaire is a policy failure” goes one progressive slogan. The movement denigrates rights of free speech, religion, press and private property as tools of what it derides as white privilege and class oppression. Such Manichean “us-or-them” language hints at what believers would do in power.
The Siren Call
Geran Pilon’s wide research and illuminating connections unwrap the utopian conceit’s history and fatal allure. She shows how, generation after generation and regardless of previous bloody failures, the siren call reappears. Never mind the French Revolution and its Terror. Discount the terrorisms of Russia’s Bolsheviks, Italy’s fascists, Germany’s Nazis, China’s Maoists, Iran’s mullahs and revolutionary brutalists from Cuba and Venezuela to Afghanistan under the Taliban and the “caliphate” of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Many Western ideocrats looked at the Russia of Lenin and Stalin and imagined they saw the future, found that Mussolini made Italy’s trains run on time, believed Hitler was rebuilding a dysfunctional Germany, described Mao replacing an impoverished Chinese feudalism with agrarian reform and discerned in Khomeini something of a saint. Why, when all were or would become brutal dictators and three – Mao, Hitler, and Stalin – history’s biggest mass murderers?
Because, says Geran Pilon, the shimmering lure of the kingdom of God on Earth – either without God or without tolerance of others’ Gods – persists. Vocabularies and personnel may differ, but the underlying justifications for totalitarian rule closely parallel each other. They promise a perfectly equal, perfectly just, essentially classless society here and, if not now, then soon. As soon as the remaining class enemies, enemies of the people, of the faith, of the race, of the party can be eliminated.
The Danger for Jews
The utopian conceit has been especially dangerous for Jews. Geran Pilon quotes the path-finding Austrian free market economist Friedrick Hayek. In 1944, while the death camps still operated, Hayek said “the fact that German anti-Semitism and anti-capitalism come from the same root is of great importance for the understanding of what has happened there …. [though] it would be a mistake to believe that the specific German rather than the socialist element produced totalitarianism.”
Geran Pilon writes that in 1996, the West – including the intellectual class – “hardly noticed Osama bin Laden’s call to the Islamic community (the ummah) …. ‘The people of Islam [having] awakened and realized that they are the main target for the aggression of the Zionist-Crusaders alliance … [the] utmost effort should be made to prepare and instigate the Ummah against the enemy, the American-Israeli alliance.’”
Embodying George Orwell’s “streamlined men who think in slogans and talk with bullets,” bin Laden proclaimed a fatwa (Islamic religious ruling). This post-modern medievalist declared “the walls of oppression and humiliation cannot be demolished except in a rain of bullets.” Geran Pilon says the al-Qaeda leader was acting as “The Voice of the latest version of the Apocalypse.” Bin Laden’s biggest attempt to spark apocalypse came on Sept. 11, 2001.
Apocalyptic thinking, the author details, precedes and justifies revolutionary destruction necessary to clear the way for utopian reconstruction. That’s the enduring conceit, anyway, regardless of what “ism” it travels under and how many mass graves it requires.
Intellectuals, those who deal in words, ideas, abstractions – repeatedly have shown themselves vulnerable to utopian ideologies. But since human beings are infinitely diverse, the promised utopia must be one of coerced conformity. So, Geran Pilon details, self-anointing, morally self-justifying elites, parties and clerics enforce the will of their omniscient duces, fuehrers, chairmen, brother leaders, or ayatollahs.
To carry out that will, to bring utopia into being, the enemy in the way – conveniently, the intellectual savior always finds such an enemy – must be destroyed. Ideological extremism substitutes for, or in the case of Islamism, combines with religious extremism. Time and again, the author says, the revolutionary and would-be revolutionary ideologues’ replacement for the anti-Christ is the capitalist exploiter of the working class. The capitalist and those who seem to benefit greatly from capitalism and its alleged oppression of the masses, the Jews.
Humans, the author says, are natural utopians. “Foremost among man’s dreams is heaven.” Heaven “is all that this world is not: a place of plenty, where poor, naked, fragile man is cared for by Someone All-Powerful and All-Good. The place could be called Eden. Or Paradise. Or Utopia.”
But “the Western world is unique in the extraordinary profusion of ideal imagined worlds, and a peculiar obsession with a type of revolutionary utopia modeled on religious narratives.” From the Hebrew Bible’s Tower of Babel, the ancient Egyptian myth of Isis and the Greek’s Prometheus, Geran Pilon traces a human desire to uncover nature’s secrets or act as gods or God. Unfortunately, this desire often overshoots humane cooperation for limited ends and reaches hubris, the unreasoning pride that aims for unlimited ends and foreordains the fall.
The first modern, spectacular and still banefully influential fall was that of the French Revolution. From different directions, Sir Francis Bacon, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau “all shared the conviction that modern times had indeed arrived, and it was time to create an ideal society. Utopia.”
But to create a flawless world with flawed people required a certain type of revolutionary. Geran Pilon notes that Rousseau was “almost pathologically empathy-challenged.” He once confessed “I have no liking for the world. I live here in a world of fantasies, and I cannot tolerate the world as it is … Mankind disgusts me.”
Empathy, human fellow-feeling, turns out to be a hindrance to utopia creation. Jump from the Reign of Terror’s nearly 30,000 victims to the terror of Mao Tse Tung’s Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution and other attempts to bulldoze old China to make way for Marxist-Maoist perfection: an estimated 65 million direct and indirect fatalities would be necessary.
But as young Mao revealed in school writings, “people like me want to … satisfy our hearts to the full, and in doing so we automatically have the most valuable moral codes. Of course, there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me.”
If Mao’s hubristic view of himself as god-like wasn’t clear enough, Geran Pilon says, he added, “‘People like me only have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people.’ And most ominously, ‘I do not think these [commands like ‘do not kill,’ ‘do not steal,’ and ‘do not slander’] have to do with conscience. I think they are only out of self-interest for self-preservation.”
Similarly, Adolf Hitler. Geran Pilon notes that three years before his Nationalist Socialist German Workers Party took power promising an Aryan utopia, the Nazi chancellor-in-waiting wrote that “in the socialism of the future … what counts is the whole, the community of the Volk. The individual and his life play only a subsidiary role. He can be sacrificed – he is prepared to sacrifice himself should the whole demand it, should the commonweal call for it.” From Rousseau’s “General Will” to Der Fuehrer’s totalitarianism.
If “psychopaths who choose revolutionary leadership as a career have an evident genetic advantage,” as the author suggests, what about the free Western intellectuals who champion them? “Remorse is a rare quality among Communist sympathizers like Jean-Paul Sartre, who praised the ‘revolutionary violence’ of Mao as ‘profoundly moral.’”
Most Western admirers prefer their “revolutionary violence” at a distance – other people murdering those deemed reactionary or subversive. But Geran Pilon says the ideas underlying programs of revolutionary utopias, “couched in disinformation and wishful thinking … penetrated the West and survive to this day.”
For example, they helped make the keffiyeh of Yasser Arafat – “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” – a fashion item for the radically chic. Arafat’s anti-Israel slogan was “it is a revolution until victory.” A revolution to a Palestinian utopia without a Jewish state.
So too for the Che Guevara posters and T-shirts still frequently spotted. Fashionable despite the fact that Guevara was Fidel Castro’s chief executioner, boasting at the United Nations of his firing squads implementing utopia Cuban-style. No coincidence, then, as Geran Pilon shows, that Che influenced Abu Ubayd Al-Qurashi, who also drew on Mao’s writings in formulating al-Qaeda’s version of anti-Western guerrilla warfare.
In their pursuit of earthly utopia, with themselves in charge, too many Western intellectuals reject the classical liberalism of the Founders who led the American Revolution. Geran Pilon recalls that these widely read practical men of experience did not overthrow an existing social order yet devised something new on Earth. This was constitutionally limited government, strong enough to protect individual citizens enjoying their God-given rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but lacking power to disregard or dispose of those rights.
By contrast, the French Revolution attempted to level the ancien regime and replace it with a new society, new calendar, new civic religion, new citizens proclaiming “liberte, egalite and fraternite.” With utopia. Of course, Geran Pilon says, governmentally decreed equality and brotherhood being at odds with the diversity that results from liberty and innumerable personal choices, terror and eventually the imperial dictatorship of Napoleon followed.
Nevertheless, the utopian conceit is such that ideocrats have continued seek heaven on earth, with strikingly similar destructive results, ever since. Everyone concerned about the politically correct, woke progressive attempt to do likewise in today’s United States will profit from reading The Utopian Conceit and the War on Freedom.
If anything mars this powerful and timely work, it is the number of typographical errors in the text. It is to be hoped these will be corrected in subsequent printings.
Eric Rozenman is communications consultant to The Jewish Policy Center and author of Jews Make the Best Demons: “Palestine” and the Jewish Question. Disclosure: The author and this reviewer are friends of long-standing.