When I began the project of describing this movement in the 1980s, the emergence of the left as a mainstream force in America’s political life was fairly recent and inadequately understood. Conservatives in particular often failed to appreciate the anti-American animus of the left and its apocalyptic goals. At the same time, conservatives imprudently accepted the left’s deceptive claims to be “liberal” and “progressive,” ascribing to it idealistic intentions that masked its malignant designs. The contents of these volumes were conceived as a corrective to these false and disarming impressions. This is the ninth and final volume of my writings about progressivism, a movement whose goals are the destruction of America’s social contract at home and the defeat of American power abroad.
The primary source of this confusion is the fact that left-wing politics are based on expectations of an imaginary future rather than assessments of a usable past. The left’s primary focus is not on practical improvements based on an analysis of previous practices, or a conception of the limits imposed by human nature, but on changes designed to satisfy the moral prejudices that make up the leftist faith.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the left’s quest for “equality,” which is the organizing principle of its “transformative” proposals. Equality before the law is a foundational principle of American democracy and its pluralistic community. But this is not the equality proposed by the left, which demands instead an unrealizable and destructive equality of outcomes. In the real world human inequalities of talent, intelligence, physical attributes and application are immutable facts of life, which result in inequalities of wealth and power. The seeds of social inequality are planted in the human genome and are nourished by disparate cultures, which include circumstances of birth and upbringing that governments cannot control. Attempts to establish such control have invariably resulted in the most repressive regimes in human history, and in the end have failed to produce either equality or wealth.
The ideal of an egalitarian future is doomed to failure because it is unanchored in any human reality. It is sustained as an ideal because it allows advocates to regard themselves as revolutionary pioneers of a “better world.” It further prompts believers to devalue the present and dismiss the past, which allows them to distance themselves from the destructive results of their social experiments. Thus progressives habitually dismiss the disasters they have engineered, however epic in scope, by attributing the monstrous results to inadvertent “mistakes,” when they were in fact the logical consequences of their Utopian ideas.
When the Soviet socialist system collapsed, progressives created an artificial distinction between the ideal, which they called “real socialism,” and the disaster, which they called “actually existing socialism.” This allowed them to avoid any recognition of their role in the human catastrophe they had supported and served for generations. Consequently, the experience had no lessons for progressives because in their self-absolving view it wasn’t “real socialism.” This delusion has now been passed to the next generations as a result of the left’s infiltration of America’s educational system and its transformation into a training and recruitment center for collectivist causes and ideas.
The current term leftists use to describe their Utopian vision of the future is “social justice” rather than communism or socialism.
The new name is part of a familiar process by which the left attempts to shed the disasters of its past. One would be hard-put to distinguish the goals encapsulated by “social justice” from the communist attitudes of previous generations. Like communism, “social justice” is a promise of harmony and redemption. Like communism it describes a future in which inequality, poverty, bigotry and the timeless corruptions of the human spirit are miraculously rectified by political parties and the state. Like communism, “social justice” requires for its realization a remake of humanity. Like communism, therefore, it can only be achieved through the destruction of individual freedom, and the thwarting of normal human desires and interests in order to achieve an allegedly greater social good.
The bloody history of progressive experiments during the 20th century should have buried the illusion that human beings can be transformed into creatures radically different from what they have been for the five thousand years in which their actions have been recorded. Human societies are reflections of the human beings who create them, not the other way around. Inequality, bigotry, hypocrisy and greed are elements of a genome that thousands of years of evolution have failed to alter or repair. As a result, progressive states dedicated to “social justice” have flooded the earth with the corpses of innocents who stood in their way, and created poverty and misery on an unprecedented scale. Yet the religious fantasy of a liberated future persists to this day among an alarming array of constituencies, and the left’s assault on individual freedom proceeds as though these historical tragedies had never taken place.
The tenacity of the progressive illusion and its imperviousness to experience are natural effects of its religious nature. The solace provided to believers through hope in a redeemed future is as existentially crucial as a belief in God or in life after death. It makes relinquishing the illusion as devastating as a loss of religious faith. How else explain the persistence of a fantasy that has proven so destructive?
Since the industrial revolution, the progressive illusion has been encouraged by advances in technology that might seem to augur human possibility without limit. Yet to date these advances, however impressive, have not led to dramatic improvements in human behavior—specifically its moral dimensions—let alone the degree of improvement that Utopian visions require. Meanwhile, the same advances have produced new technologies of totalitarian control along with vastly amplified means of destruction that serve to magnify human barbarism and put into question the very survival of civilization.
Half a century ago Friedrich Hayek described “social justice” as a mirage. Hayek observed that there is no entity called “society” to redistribute wealth, or to re-calibrate the social order. There are only individuals belonging to political factions that vie for power and then wield it through their power in the state. “Social justice,” therefore, is necessarily the work of individuals driven by the same greed, prejudice, and habits of deceit that created the injustices progressives propose to repair. In its real-world practice “social justice” is, and can only be, the self-justifying rationale of a new despotism—worse than the old because its first agenda is a war against freedom, in particular the freedom of individuals to resist the social redeemers and their plans.
This was the conclusion I reached forty years ago under the influence of Hayek and the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, and why I resolved to devote the second half of my life—and eventually the nine volumes of this work—to analyzing and opposing this destructive cause.
Part One of this concluding volume features three essays on themes which have more or less defined my life’s work. “The Fate of the Marxist Idea” originated as a chapter in The Politics of Bad Faith (1998). It is composed of two letters to former comrades announcing my break with the left, and explaining the reasons why anyone concerned about humanity or justice should do the same. The first letter was written to Carol Pasternak Kaplan, a childhood friend whose father Morris was a cell leader in the local Communist Party. The second was written to Ralph Miliband, my political mentor and friend, as well as father of David Miliband, a future British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, and of Ed Miliband, a future leader of the British Labour Party.
In the quarter-century since I published these reflections, there have been no attempts by progressives to answer them. This would be explicable if leftists considered my views unworthy of their attention. But that is not the case. I have been the subject of unflattering feature profiles in leftwing magazines such as The Nation and Tablet, and in papers of record (also on the left) such as The New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education and The Washington Post. The Internet is a repository of tens of thousands of leftist posts, including entire websites, filled with anti-Horowitz abuse. What is lacking is an intellectual argument to refute my views and specifically my reasons for rejecting the left; or reference to a historical record that would provide a critical response to the case I have made.
“Slavery and the American Idea” is about the destructive ends to which progressive aspirations lead, in particular the determination to destroy the American social contract and the constitutional system that supports it. Race has been a primary weapon in this attack, which is why Volume 6 in this series is devoted to the subject. This essay attempts to retrieve the historical record and celebrate the America Idea, which is responsible for ending slavery and encapsulates the vision that is opposed to all the destructive themes documented in these volumes. “Slavery and the American Idea” first appeared as the concluding chapter of Uncivil Wars, an account of the 2001 controversy I provoked by opposing the demand for reparations more than a century after slavery was abolished. It has been edited for inclusion in this volume.
These two ideas—the American and the Marxist—may be said to constitute an ideological thesis and antithesis of the modern world. The resolution of the conflict between them will shape the course of human freedom for generations to come.
“America’s Second Civil War” locates the source of the deep division of America’s political life in the adoption of “identity politics” as the left’s “progressive” creed. In this extension of Marx’s faulty model of domination and oppression, the left is now committed to a political crusade that is racist and collectivist, and thus the antithesis of the principles that are the cornerstones of America’s social contract.
“The Two Christophers” is an effort to define the parameters of the left through an essay on the life and thought of radical contrarian Christopher Hitchens, whom I first met in England in the 1960s and befriended in the last years of his life. Some have regarded Christopher’s intellectual path as similar to mine because of his support for America’s war in Iraq, and his belated recognition of the virtues of a country with which he was once at war. This is an unwarranted reading of Christopher’s odyssey. In reflecting on Christopher’s political course, I have attempted to show how utopianism and the romantic idea of a revolutionary transformation continued to shape his political choices and kept him from having consistent (or even coherent) second thoughts. His political trajectory clearly marks the differences between us, and allows me to measure the distance I traveled in leaving the left. It thus provides a way to understand what it means to be the kind of progressive examined in these volumes, so it may function as a useful guide to the great schism of our times.
Part Two of Ruling Ideas provides several aids for readers of my work. The first is an account of my life and work by my friend and colleague, Dr. Jamie Glazov, appropriately the son of a courageous Soviet dissident. Dr. Glazov’s article is an updated version of an essay that first appeared as the introduction to Left Illusions, an earlier collection of my writings published in 2003. Dr. Glazov’s account is both accurate and insightful, and will be a helpful guide to those interested in my work.
The second is a bibliography of my writings compiled by Mike Bauer, who has also provided invaluable help in editing all the texts in this series.
Finally, David Landau, who has copy-edited and indexed the entire series, has also prepared a summary index to all nine volumes.
See Volume 8 in this series, The Left In The University. Cf. also https://www.nas.org/projects/making_citizens_report/the_report
Friedrich von Hayek, Law Legislation and Liberty: The Mirage of Social Justice, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1976
In fact I have on occasion invited academic leftists into the pages of Frontpagemag.com to construct such arguments. But the exercise has merely demonstrated their inability to do so. This was the case with leftist historian Kevin Mattson, the author of Rebels All!, a book which describes me as a seminal figure of the modern right, an exemplar of “the post-modern conservative intellectual.” Unfortunately, Mattson was incapable of getting the most basic elements of my conservative views straight, and was uninterested in correcting his mistakes when they were pointed out to him. See “Getting This Conservative Wrong,” in Volume 1 of this series, pp. 121 et seq.
Volume 6 of this series, Progressive Racism, contains an account of my conflict with the left over reparations and the American idea.
Table of Contents
Introduction to Ruling Ideas…………………………………..i
- The Fate of the Marxist Idea…………………………….1
- Slavery and the American Idea……………………….87
- America’s Second Civil War…………………………..129
- The Two Christophers
(or, The Importance of Second Thoughts)……..139
- The Life and Work of David Horowitz
(an essay by Jamie Glazov)…………………………..189
- End Note by David Horowitz…………………………229
- The Writings of David Horowitz
(a bibliography by Mike Bauer)………………………231
- Index for Volume IX, Ruling Ideas…………………..287
- Summary Index for The Black Book of the
- American Left (by David Landau)…………………..303