July 14, 2015

UNDERSTANDING TYRANNY AND TERROR: FROM THE FRENCH REVOLUTION TO MODERN ISLAMISM, as explored by Waller R. Newell in a recent article at the Heritage Foundation:

Millenarian revolutions seem to be more violent in societies where the claim of pre-modern tradition and authority is still very strong. The values of the Enlightenment begin to erode the power of pre-modern authority before managing to establish individual liberties and self-government firmly, leading to nostalgia for the mythical memory of a “lost” communal wholeness before the benefits of the modern age have been fully experienced. This trend also began in the French Revolution.

The Glorious and American Revolutions took place in societies where the values of economic self-interest, religious tolerance, and self-government had already become widely influential. In France, by contrast, when the revolution broke out, it faced fierce opposition from an aristocratic and ecclesiastical establishment that was still extremely powerful and deeply hostile to the entire modern era. That old order could only be blasted away by the political equivalent of dynamite.

This combustible moment of a stalled or only partially successful conversion to Enlightenment values that produces the longing for a “lost” community of the past, requiring massive violence in order to reverse the still very limited gains of the modern age while seeking a purer community of the primordial origins, is a recurrent trend throughout the great revolutions that were to come in Russia, China, Cambodia, and Iran. The way forward is the way back behind the modern age of the rights of the individual to the communal bliss of the origins.

As Virginia Postrel mentioned to Brian Lamb on C-Span’s Booknotes program in 1999 when discussing The Future and its Enemies, Los Angeles’ many Cambodian refugees who arrived starting in the mid-1970s, “were escaping from a static utopia. The Khmer Rouge sought to start over at year zero, and to sort of create the kind of society that very civilized, humane greens write about as though it were an ideal. I mean, people who would never consider genocide. But I argue that if you want to know what that would take, look at Cambodia–to empty the cities and turn everyone into peasants again. Even in a less developed country, let alone in someplace like the United States, that these sort of static utopian fantasies are just that.”

But a frequently recurring fantasy among totalitarians.

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