Anyone desiring a quiet life has done badly to be born in the twentieth century.--L. Trotsky.

HISTORIANS of ideas, however scrupulous and minute they may feel it necessary to be, cannot avoid perceiving their material in terms of some kind of pattern. To say this is not necessarily to subscribe to any form of Hegelian dogma about the dominant rôle of laws and metaphysical principles in history -- a view increasingly influential in our time -- according to which there is some single "explanation" of the order and attributes of persons, things and events. Usually this consists in the advocacy of some fundamental "category" or "principle" which claims to act as an infallible guide both to the past and to the future, a magic lens revealing "inner," inexorable, all-pervasive historical laws, invisible to the naked eye of the mere recorder of events, but capable, when understood, of giving the historian a unique sense of certainty -- certainty not only of what in fact occurred, but of the reason why it could not have occurred otherwise, affording a secure knowledge which the mere empirical investigator, with his collections of data, his insecure structure of painstakingly accumulated evidence, his tentative approximations and perpetual liability to error and reassessment, can never hope to attain.

The notion of "laws" of this kind is rightly condemned as nothing but a metaphysical mystery; but the contrary notion of bare facts -- facts which are nothing but facts, hard, inescapable, untainted by interpretation of arrangement in man-made patterns -- is equally mythological. To comprehend and contrast and classify and arrange, to see in patterns of lesser or greater complexity, is not a peculiar kind of thinking, it is thinking itself. And we accuse historians of exaggeration, distortion, ignorance, bias or departure from the facts, not because they select, compare and set forth in a context and order which are in part, at least, of their own choosing, in part conditioned by the circumstances of their material and social environment or their character or purpose -- we accuse them only when the result deviates too far, contrasts too harshly with the accepted canons of verification and interpretation which belong to their own time and place and society. These canons and methods and categories are those of the normal "common sense" outlook of a given period and culture, at their best a sharpened, highly-trained form of this outlook, which takes cognizance of all the relevant scientific techniques available, but is itself not one of them. All the criticisms directed against this or that writer for an excess of bias or fantasy, or too weak a sense of evidence, or too limited a perception of connections between events, are based not upon some absolute standard of truth, of strict "factuality," of a rigid adherence to a permanently fixed ideal method of "scientifically" discovering the past "wie es eigentlicht gewesen ist," in contrast with mere theories about it, for there is in the last analysis no meaning in the notion of "objective" criticism in this timeless sense. They rest rather on the most refined concept of accuracy and objectivity and scrupulous "fidelity to the facts" which obtain in a given society at a given period, within the subject in question.

When the great Romantic revolution in the writing of history transferred emphasis from the achievements of individuals to the growth and influence of institutions conceived in much less personal terms, the degree of "fidelity to the facts" was not thereby automatically altered. The new kind of history, the account of the development, let us say, of public and private law, or government, or literature, or social habits during some given period of time, was not necessarily less or more accurate or "objective" than earlier accounts of the acts and fate of Alcibiades or Marcus Aurelius or Calvin or Louis XIV. Thucydides or Tacitus or Voltaire was not subjective or vague or fanciful in a sense in which Ranke or Savigny or Michelet was not. The new history was merely written from what is nowadays called a "different angle." The kinds of fact the new history was intended to record were different, the emphasis was different, a shift of interest had occurred in the questions asked and consequently in the methods used. The concepts and terminology reflect an altered view of what constitutes evidence and therefore, in the end, of what are the "facts." When the "romances" of chroniclers were criticized by "scientific" historians, at least part of the implied reproach lay in the alleged discrepancies in the work of the older writers from the findings of the most admired and trusted sciences of a later period; and these were in their turn due to the change in the prevalent conceptions of the patterns of human development -- to the change in the models in terms of which the past was perceived, those artistic, theological, mechanical, biological or psychological models which were reflected in the fields of inquiry, in the new questions asked and the new types of technique used, giving answers felt to be more interesting or important than those which had become outmoded.

The history of these changes of "models" is to a large degree the history of human thought. The "organic" or the Marxist methods of investigating history certainly owed part of their vogue to the prestige of the particular natural sciences, or the particular artistic techniques, upon whose model they were supposedly or genuinely constructed; the increased interest, for example, both in biology and in music from which many basic metaphors and analogies derived, is relevant to the historical writing of the nineteenth century, as the new interest in physics and mathematics is to the philosophy and history of the eighteenth; and the deflationary methods and ironical temper of the historians who wrote after the war of 1914-18 were conspicuously influenced by -- and accepted in terms of -- the new psychological and sociological techniques which had gained public confidence during this period. The relative proportions of, say, social, economic and political concepts in a once admired historical work throw more light upon the general characteristics of its time and for this reason are a more reliable index to the standards adopted, the questions asked, the respective rôles of "facts" to "interpretation," and, in effect, to the entire social and political outlook of an age, than the distance of the work in question from some imaginary, fixed, unaltering ideal of absolute truth, "factual" or "abstract." It is in terms of whether such shifts in the methods of treating the past or the present or the future, and of the idioms and the catchwords, the doubts and hopes, fears and exhortations which they expressed, that the development of political ideas -- the conceptual apparatus of a society and of its most gifted and articulate representatives -- can best be judged. No doubt the concepts in terms of which people speak and think are symptoms and effects of other processes, the discovery of which is the task of this or that empirical science. But this does not detract from their importance and paramount interest for those who wish to know what constitutes the conscious experience of the most characteristic men of an age or a society, whatever its causes and whatever its fate. And we are, of course, for obvious reasons of perspective, in a better situation to determine this in the case of past societies than for our own. But the very sense of contrast and dissimilarity with which the past affects us provides the only relevant background against which the features peculiar to our own experience stand out in sufficient relief to be adequately discerned and described.

The student of the political ideas of, for example, the mid-nineteenth century must indeed be blind if he does not, sooner or later, become aware of the profound differences in ideas and terminology, in the general view of things -- the ways in which the elements of experience are conceived to be related to one another -- which divide that not very distant age from our own. He understands neither that time nor his own if he does not perceive the contrast between what was common to Comte and Mill, Mazzini and Michelet, Herzen and Marx, on the one hand, and to Max Weber and William James, Tawney and Beard, Lytton Strachey and Wells, on the other; the continuity of the European intellectual tradition without which no historical understanding at all would be possible is, at shorter range, a succession of specific discontinuities and dissimilarities. Consequently, the remarks which follow deliberately ignore the similarities in favor of the specific differences in political outlook which characterize our own time, and as far as possible, solely our own.


The two great liberating political movements of the nineteenth century were, as every history book informs us, humanitarian individualism and romantic nationalism. Whatever their differences -- and they were notoriously profound enough to lead to a sharp divergence and ultimate collision of these two ideals -- they had this in common: they believed that the problems both of individuals and of societies could be solved if only the forces of intelligence and of virtue could be made to prevail over ignorance and wickedness. They believed, as against the pessimists and fatalists, both religious and secular, whose voices, audible indeed a good deal earlier, began to sound loudly only toward the end of the century, that all clearly understood questions could be solved by human beings with the moral and intellectual resources at their disposal. No doubt different schools of thought returned different answers to these varying problems; utilitarians said one thing, and neo-feudal romantics -- Tory democrats, Bonapartists, Pan-Germans, Slavophiles -- another. Liberals believed in the unlimited power of education and the power of rational morality to overcome economic misery and inequality. Socialists, on the contrary, believed that without radical alterations in the distribution and control of economic resources no amount of change of heart or mind on the part of individuals could be adequate; or, for that matter, occur at all. Conservatives and Socialists believed in the power and influence of institutions and regarded them as a necessary safeguard against the chaos, injustice and cruelty caused by uncontrolled individualism; anarchists, radicals and liberals looked upon institutions as such with suspicion as being obstructive to the realization of that free (and, in the view of most such thinkers, rational) society which the will of man could both conceive and build, if it were not for the unliquidated residue of ancient abuses (or unreason) upon which the existing rulers of society -- whether individuals or administrative machines -- leaned so heavily, and of which so many of them indeed were typical expressions.

Arguments about the relative degree of the obligation of the individual to society and vice versa filled the air. It is scarcely necessary to rehearse these familiar questions, which to this day form the staple of discussion in the more conservative institutions of Western learning, to realize that however wide the disagreements about the proper answers to them, the questions themselves were common to liberals and conservatives alike. There were of course even at that time isolated irrationalists -- Stirner, Kierkegaard, in certain moods Carlyle; but in the main all the parties to the great controversies, even Calvinists and ultramontane Catholics, accepted the notion of man as resembling in varying degrees one or the other of two idealized types. Either he is a creature free and naturally good, but hemmed in and frustrated by obsolete or corrupt or sinister institutions masquerading as saviors and protectors and repositories of sacred traditions; or he is a being largely, but not wholly, free, and to a high degree, but not entirely, good, and consequently unable to save himself by his own wholly unaided efforts; and therefore rightly seeking salvation within the great frameworks -- states, churches, unions. For only these great edifices promote solidarity, security and sufficient strength to resist the shallow joys and dangerous, ultimately self-destructive liberties peddled by those conscienceless or self-deceived individualists who in the name of some bloodless intellectual dogma, or noble enthusiasm for an ideal unrelated to human lives, ignore or destroy the rich texture of social life, heavy with treasures from the past -- blind, leaders of the blind, robbing men of their most precious resources, exposing them again to the perils of a life solitary, brutish, nasty and short. Yet there was at least one premise common to the controversy, namely the belief that the problems were real, that it took men of exceptional training and intelligence to formulate them properly, and men with exceptional grasp of the facts, will power and capacity for coherent thought to find and apply the correct solutions.

These two great currents finally ended in exaggerated and indeed distorted forms as Communism and Fascism -- the first as the treacherous heir of the liberal internationalism of the previous century, the second as the culmination and bankruptcy of the mystical patriotism which animated the national movements of the time. All movements have origins, forerunners, imperceptible beginnings: nor does the twentieth century stand divided from the nineteenth by so universal an explosion as the French Revolution, even in our day the greatest of all historical landmarks. Yet it is a profound fallacy to regard Fascism and Communism as in the main more uncompromising and violent manifestations of an earlier crisis, the culmination of a struggle fully discernible long before. The differences between the political movements of the twentieth century and the nineteenth are very sharp, but they spring from factors whose full force was not properly realized until our century was well under way. For there is a barrier which divides what is unmistakably past and done with from that which most characteristically belongs to our day. The familiarity of this barrier must not blind us to its relative novelty. One of the elements of the new outlook is the notion of unconscious and irrational influences which outweigh the forces of reason; another the notion that answers to problems exist not in rational solutions, but in the removal of the problems themselves by means other than thought and argument. The interplay between the old tradition, which saw history as the battleground between the easily identifiable forces of light and darkness, reason and obscurantism, progress and reaction; or alternatively between spiritualism and empiricism, intuition and scientific method, institutionalism and individualism -- the conflict between this order and, on the other hand, the new factors violently opposed to the humane psychology of "bourgeois" civilization -- is to a large extent the history of political ideas of our time.


And yet to a casual observer of the politics and the thought of the twentieth century it might at first seem that every idea and movement typical of our time is best understood as a natural development of tendencies already prominent in the nineteenth century. In the case of the growth of international institutions, for instance, this seems a truism. What are the Hague Court, the old League of Nations and its modern successor, the numerous prewar and postwar international agencies and conventions for political, economic, social and humanitarian purposes -- what are they, if not the direct descendants of that liberal internationalism -- Tennyson's "Parliament of Man" -- which was the staple of all progressive thought and action in the nineteenth century, and indeed of much in the century before it? The language of the great founders of European liberalism -- Condorcet, for example, or Helvétius -- does not differ greatly in substance, nor indeed in form, from the most characteristic moments in the speeches of Woodrow Wilson or Thomas Masaryk. European liberalism wears the appearance of a single coherent movement, little altered during almost three centuries, founded upon relatively simple intellectual foundations, laid by Locke or Grotius or even Spinoza; stretching back to Erasmus and Montaigne, the Italian Renaissance, Seneca and the Greeks. In this movement there is a rational answer to every question. Man is, in principle at least, everywhere and in every condition, able, if he wills it, to discover and apply rational solutions to his problems. And these solutions, because they are rational, cannot clash with one another, and will ultimately form a harmonious system in which the truth will prevail, and freedom, happiness and unlimited opportunity for untrammeled self-development will be open to all.

True, the consciousness of history which grew in the nineteenth century modified the severe and simple design of the classical theory as it was conceived in the eighteenth century. Human progress was presently seen to be conditioned by factors of greater complexity than had been conceived of in the springtime of rationalist individualism: education, rationalist propaganda, were perhaps not always, nor everywhere, quite enough. Such factors as the particular and special influences by which various societies were historically shaped -- some due to physical conditions, others to more elusive emotional and what were vaguely classified as "cultural" factors -- were presently allowed to have greater importance than they were accorded in the oversimple scheme of Diderot or Bentham. Education, and all forms of social action, must, it was now thought, be fitted to take account of historical needs which made men and their institutions somewhat less easy to mould into the required pattern than had been too optimistically assumed in earlier and more naïve times.

Nevertheless, the original program continued in its various forms to exercise an almost universal spell. This applied to the Right no less than to the Left. The thinkers of the Right, unless they were concerned solely with obstructing the liberals and their allies, believed and acted upon the belief that, provided no excessive violence was done to slow but certain processes of "natural" development, all might yet be well; the faster must be restricted from pushing aside the slower, and in this way all would arrive in the end. This was the doctrine preached by Bonald early in the century, and it expressed the optimism of even the stoutest believers in original sin. Provided that traditional differences of outlook and social structure were protected from what conservatives were fond of describing as the "unimaginative," "artificial," "mechanical" levelling processes favored by the liberals; provided that the infinity of "intangible" or "historic" or "natural" or "providential" distinctions (which to them seemed to constitute the essence of fruitful forms of life) were preserved from being transformed into a uniform collection of homogeneous units moving at a pace dictated by some "irrelevant" or "extraneous" authority, contemptuous of prescriptive or traditional rights and habits; provided that adequate safeguards were instituted against too reckless a trampling upon the sacred past -- with these guarantees, rational reforms and changes were allowed to be feasible and even desirable. Given these guarantees, conservatives no less than liberals were prepared to look upon the conscious direction of human affairs by qualified experts with a considerable degree of approval; and not merely by experts, but by a growing number of individuals and groups, drawn from, and representing, wider and wider sections of a society which was progressively becoming more and more enlightened.

This is a mood and attitude common to a wider section of opinion in the later nineteenth century in Europe, and not merely in the West but in the East too, than historians, affected by the political struggles of a later or earlier period, allow us to see. One of the results of it -- in so far as it was a causal factor and not merely a symptom of the process -- was the wide development of political representation in the West whereby in the end, in the succeeding century, all classes of the population began to attain to power, sooner or later, in one country or another. The nineteenth century was full of unrepresented groups engaged in the struggle for self-expression, and later for control. Its representatives counted among them heroes and martyrs, men of the moral and artistic genius whom a genuine struggle of this kind brings forth. The twentieth century, by satisfying much of the social and political hunger of the Victorian period, did indeed witness a striking improvement in the material condition of the majority of the peoples of Western Europe, due in large measure to the energetic social legislation which transformed the social order.

But one of the least predicted results of this trend (although isolated thinkers like Tocqueville, Burckhardt, Herzen, and, of course, Nietzsche, had more than an inkling of it) was a steep decline in the quality of moral idealism, and of romantic, artistic rebelliousness, which marked the early struggles of the dissatisfied social groups during their heroic period when, deeply divergent though they were, they fought together against tyrants, priests and militant philistines. Whatever the injustices and miseries of our time -- and they are plainly no fewer than those of the immediate past -- they are less likely to find expression in monuments of noble eloquence, because that kind of inspiration seems to spring only from the oppression or suppression of entire classes of society. There arrives a brief moment when the leaders of the most articulate, and socially and economically most developed, of these suppressed groups are lifted by the common mood and for a moment speak not for their own class or milieu alone, but in the name of all the oppressed; for a brief instant their utterance has a universal quality.

But a situation where all or nearly all the great sections of society have been, or are on the point of being, in at any rate the formal possession of power is unfavorable to that truly disinterested eloquence -- disinterested partly at least because fulfillment is remote, because principles shine forth most clearly in the darkness and void, because the inner vision is still free from the confusions and obscurities, the compromises and blurred outlines of the external world inevitably forced upon it by the beginnings of practical action. No body of men which has tasted power, or is within a short distance of doing so, can avoid a certain degree of that cynicism which, like a chemical reaction, is generated by the sharp contact between the pure ideal nurtured in the wilderness and its realization in some unpredicted form which seldom conforms to the hopes or fears of earlier times. It therefore takes an exceptional effort of the imagination to discard the context of later years, to cast ourselves back into the period when the views and movements which have since triumphed and lost their glamor long ago were still capable of stirring so much vehement idealistic feeling: when, for example, nationalism was not in principle felt to be incompatible with a growing degree of internationalism, or civil liberties with a rational organization of society; when this was believed by conservatives almost as much as by their rivals, and the gap between the moderates of both sides was only that between the plea that reason must not be permitted to increase the pace of progress beyond the limits imposed by "history" and the counterplea that "la raison a tou-jours raison," that memories and shadows were less important than the direct perception of the real world in the clear light of day. This was a time when liberals in their turn themselves began to feel the impact of historicism, and to admit the need for a certain degree of adjustment and even control of social life, perhaps by the hated state itself, if only to mitigate the inhumanity of unbridled private enterprise, to protect the liberties of the weak, to safeguard those basic human rights without which there could be neither happiness nor justice nor freedom to pursue the ends of life.

The philosophical foundations of these liberal beliefs in the mid-nineteenth century were somewhat obscure. Rights described as "natural," "inherent," absolute standards of truth and justice, were not compatible with tentative empiricism and utilitarianism; yet liberals believed in both. Nor was faith in democracy strictly consistent with belief in the inviolable rights of minorities or dissident individuals. But so long as the right-wing opposition set itself against all those principles, the contradictions could, on the whole, be allowed to lie dormant, or to form the subject of peaceful academic disputes, not exacerbated by urgent need for immediate factual application. Thus the contradictions further enhanced the rôle of rational criticism by which, in the end, all questions could and would one day be settled. The Socialists on their part resembled the conservatives in believing in the existence of inexorable laws of history, and, like them, accused the liberals of legislating "unhistorically" for timeless abstractions -- an activity for which history would not neglect to take due revenge. But they also resembled the liberals in believing in the supreme value of rational analysis, in policies founded on theoretical considerations deduced from "scientific" premises, and with them accused the conservatives of misinterpreting "the facts" to justify the miserable status quo, of condoning misery and injustice; not indeed like the liberals by ignoring history, but by misreading it in a manner consciously or unconsciously calculated to preserve their own power upon a specious moral basis. But genuinely revolutionary as some among them were, and a thoroughly new phenomenon in the Western world, the majority of them shared with the parties which they attacked the common assumption that men must be spoken and appealed to in terms of the needs and interests and ideals of which they were, or could be made to be, conscious.

Conservatives, liberals, radicals, Socialists differed indeed in their interpretation of historical change. They disagreed about what were in fact the deepest needs and interests and ideals of human beings, and who held them, and how deeply or widely or for what length of time, or about their validity in this or that situation. They differed about the facts, they differed about ends and means, they seemed to themselves to agree on almost nothing. But what they had in common -- too obviously to be clearly realized -- was the belief that their age was ridden with social and political problems which could be solved only by the conscious application of truths upon which all men endowed with adequate mental powers could agree. The Marxists did indeed question this in theory, but not in practice: even they did not seriously attack the thesis that when ends were not yet attained, and the choice of means was limited, the proper way of setting about adapting the means to the ends was by the use of all the skill and energy and intellectual and moral insight available. And while some regarded these problems as akin to those of the natural sciences, some to those of ethics or religion, while others supposed that they were altogether sui generis and needed altogether unique methods, they were agreed -- it seemed too obvious to need stating -- that the problems themselves were genuine and urgent and intelligible in more or less similar terms to all clearheaded men, that all solutions were entitled to a hearing, and that nothing was gained by ignorance or the supposition that the problem did not exist.

This set of common assumptions -- they are part of what the word "enlightenment" means -- were, of course, deeply rationalistic. They were denied implicitly by the whole Romantic movement, and explicitly by isolated thinkers -- Carlyle, Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, Tolstoy, Nietzsche. And there were obscurer prophets -- Büchner, Kierkegaard, Bakunin, Leontiev -- who protested against the prevailing orthodoxy with a depth and originality which became clear only in our own time. Not that these thinkers represent any one single movement, or even an easily identifiable "trend;" but in one relevant particular they display an affinity. They denied the importance of political action based on rational considerations, and to this extent they were rightly abhorred by the supporters of respectable conservatism. They said or implied that rationalism in any form was a fallacy derived from a false analysis of the character of human beings, because the springs of human action lay in regions unthought of by the sober thinkers whose views enjoyed prestige among the serious public. But their voices were few and discordant, and their eccentric views were ascribed to psychological aberrations. Liberals, however much they admired their artistic genius, were revolted by what they conceived as a perverted view of mankind, and either ignored it or rejected it violently. Conservatives looked upon them as allies against the exaggerated rationalism and infuriating optimism of both liberals and Socialists, but treated them nervously as queer visionaries, a little unhinged, not to be imitated or approached too closely. The Socialists looked on them as so many deranged reactionaries, scarcely worth their powder and shot. The main currents both on the Right and on the Left flowed round and over these immovable, isolated rocks with their absurd appearance of seeking to arrest or deflect the central current. What were they, after all, but survivals of a darker age, or interesting misfits, sad and at times fascinating casualties of the advance of history, worthy of sympathetic insight -- men of talent or even genius born out of their time, gifted poets, remarkable artists, but surely not worthy of detailed attention on the part of serious students of social and political life?

There was (it is worth saying again) a somewhat sinister element dimly recognized from its very beginning in Marxism -- in the main a highly rationalistic system -- which seemed hostile to this entire outlook, denying the importance of reason in their choice of ends and in effective government alike on the part of individuals or groups. But the worship of the natural sciences which Marxism shared with its liberal antagonists was unpropitious to a clearer perception of its own true nature; and so this aspect of it lay largely unrecognized until Sorel brought it to life and combined it with the Bergsonian anti-rationalism by which his thought is very strongly colored; and until Lenin, stemming from a very different tradition, translated it into an all too effective practice. But Lenin did not, and his followers to this day do not, seem aware of the degree to which it influenced their actions. Or, if aware, they did not and do not admit it. This was so when the twentieth century opened.


Chronological frontiers are seldom landmarks in the history of ideas, and the current of the old century, to all appearances irresistible, seemed to flow peacefully into the new. Presently the picture began to alter. Humanitarian liberalism encountered more and more obstacles to its reforming zeal from the conscious or unconscious opposition both of governments and other centers of social power, as well as the passive resistance of established institutions and habits. It gradually found itself compelled to organize those classes of the population on whose behalf it fought into something sufficiently powerful to work effectively against the old establishment.

The history of the transformation of gradualist and Fabian tactics into the militant formations of Communism and Syndicalism, as well as the milder formations of Social Democracy and trade unionism, is a history not so much of principles as of their interplay with new material facts. In a sense Communism is doctrinaire humanitarianism driven to an extreme in the pursuit of effective offensive and defensive methods. No movement at first sight seems to differ more sharply from liberal reformism than does Marxism, yet the central doctrines -- human perfectibility, the possibility of creating a perfect society by a natural means, the belief in the compatibility (indeed the inseparability) of liberty and equality -- are common to both. The historical transformation may occur continuously, or in sudden revolutionary leaps, but it must proceed in accordance with an intelligible, logically connected pattern, abandonment of which is always foolish, always utopian. No one doubted that liberalism and Socialism were bitterly opposed both in ends and in methods: yet at their edges they shaded off into one another. Marxism is a doctrine which, however strongly it may stress the class-conditioned nature of action and thought, nevertheless in theory sets out to appeal to reason, at least among the class destined by history to triumph -- the proletariat. In the Communist view the proletariat alone can face the future without flinching, because it need not be deterred into falsification of the facts by fear of what the future may bring. And, as a corollary, this applies also to those intellectuals who have liberated themselves from the prejudices and superstitions of their economic class, and have aligned themselves with the winning side in the social struggle. To them, since they are fully rational, the privileges of democracy and of free use of all their intellectual faculties may be accorded. They are to Marxists what the enlightened philosophes were to the Encyclopedists: their task is to transform all those who are historically capable of it into their own liberated and rational likeness.

But in 1903 there occurred an event which marked the culmination of a process which has altered the history of our world. At the conference of the Russian Social Democratic Party held in that year, which began in Brussels and ended in London, during the discussion of what seemed at first a purely technical question -- how far centralization and hierarchical discipline should govern the behavior of the Party -- a delegate named Posadovsky inquired whether the emphasis laid by the "hard" Socialists -- Lenin and his friends -- upon the need for the exercise of absolute authority by the revolutionary nucleus of the Party might not prove incompatible with those fundamental liberties to whose realization Socialism, no less than liberalism, was officially dedicated. He asked whether the basic, minimum civil liberties -- "the sacrosanctity of the person" -- could be infringed and even violated if the party leaders so decided. He was answered by Plekhanov, one of the founders of Russian Marxism, and its most venerated figure, a cultivated, fastidious and morally sensitive scholar of wide outlook, who had for 20 years lived in Western Europe and was much respected by the leaders of western Socialism, the very symbol of civilized "scientific" thinking among Russian revolutionaries. Plekhanov, speaking solemnly, and with a splendid disregard for grammar, pronounced the words, Salus revolutiae suprema lex. Certainly, if the revolution demanded it, everything -- democracy, liberty, the rights of the individual -- must be sacrificed to it. If the democratic assembly elected by the Russian people after the revolution proved amenable to Marxist tactics, it would be kept in being as a Long Parliament; if not, it would be disbanded as quickly as possible. A Marxist Revolution could not be carried through by men obsessed by scrupulous regard for the principles of bourgeois liberals. Doubtless whatever was valuable in these principles, like everything else good and desirable, would ultimately be realized by the victorious working class; but during the revolutionary period preoccupation with such ideals was evidence of a lack of seriousness.

Plekhanov, who was brought up in a humane and liberal tradition, did, of course, later retreat from this position himself. The mixture of utopian faith and brutal disregard for civilized morality proved too repulsive to a man who had spent the greater part of his civilized and productive life among Western workers and their leaders. Like the vast majority of Social Democrats, like Marx and Engels themselves, he was too European to try to realize a policy which, in the words of Shigalev in Dostoevsky's "The Possessed," "starting from unlimited liberty ends in unlimited despotism." But Lenin accepted the premises, and being logically driven to conclusions repulsive to most of his colleagues, accepted them easily and without apparent qualms. His assumptions were, perhaps, in some sense, still those of the optimistic rationalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: the coercion, violence, executions, the total suppression of individual differences, the rule of a small, virtually self-appointed minority, were necessary only in the interim period, only so long as there was a powerful enemy to be destroyed. It was necessary only in order that the majority of mankind, once it was liberated from the exploitation of fools by knaves and of weak knaves by more powerful ones, could develop -- trammeled no longer by ignorance or idleness or vice, free at last to realize to their fullest extent the infinitely rich potentialities of human nature. This dream may indeed have affinites with the dreams of Diderot or St. Simon or Kropotkin, but what marked it as something relatively novel was the assumption about the means required to translate it into reality. And the assumption, although apparently concerned solely with methods, and derived from Babeuf or Blanqui or Marx or the French Communards, was very different from the practical program set forth by the most "activist" and least "evolutionary" Western Socialists towards the end of the nineteenth century. The difference was crucial and marked the birth of the new age.

What Lenin demanded was unlimited power for a small body of professional revolutionaries, trained exclusively for one purpose, and ceaselessly engaged in its pursuit by every means in their power. This was necessary because democratic methods, and the attempts to persuade and preach used by earlier reformers and rebels, were ineffective: and this in its turn was due to the fact that they rested on a false psychology, sociology and theory of history -- namely the assumption that men acted as they did because of conscious beliefs which could be changed by argument. For if Marx had done anything, he had surely shown that such beliefs and ideals were mere "reflections" of the condition of the socially and economically determined classes of men, to some one of which every individual must belong. A man's beliefs, if Marx and Engels were right, flowed from the situation of his class, and could not alter -- so far, at least, as the mass of men was concerned -- without a change in that situation. The proper task of a revolutionary therefore was to change the "objective" situation, i.e. to prepare the class for its historical task in the overthrow of the hitherto dominant classes.

Lenin went further than this. He acted as if he believed not merely that it was useless to talk and reason with persons precluded by class interest from understanding and acting upon the truths of Marxism, but that the mass of the proletarians them-selves were too benighted to grasp the rôle which history had called on them to play. He saw the choice as between, on the one hand, the gradual stimulation among the army of the dispossessed of a "critical spirit" (which would awaken them intellectually, but lead to a vast deal of discussion and controversy similar to that which divided and enfeebled the intellectuals), and on the other, the turning of them into a blindly obedient force held together by a military discipline and a set of perpetually ingeminated formulae (at least as powerful as the patriotic patter used by the Tsarist régime) to shut out independent thought. If the choice had to be made, then it was mere irresponsibility to stress the former in the name of some abstract principle such as democracy or enlightenment. The important thing was the creation of a state of affairs in which human resources were developed in accordance with a rational pattern. Men were moved more often by irrational than reasonable solutions. The masses were too stupid and too blind to be allowed to proceed in the direction of their own choosing. Tolstoy and the populists were profoundly mistaken; the simple agricultural laborer had no deep truths, no valuable way of life, to impart; he and the city worker and the simple soldier were fellow serfs in a condition of abject poverty and squalor, caught in a system which bred fratricidal strife among themselves; they could be saved only by being ruthlessly ordered by leaders who had acquired a capacity for knowing how to organize the liberated slaves into a rational planned system.

Lenin himself was in certain respects oddly utopian. He started with the belief that with sufficient education, and a rational economic organization, almost anyone could be brought in the end to perform almost any task efficiently. But his conclusion was in practice strangely like that of those reactionaries and Fascists who believed that man was everywhere wild, bad, stupid and unruly, and must be held in check and provided with objects of unreasoning worship. This must be done by a clear-sighted band of organizers, acting in accordance with the truths perceived by such men as Nietzsche, Pareto, or the French absolutist thinkers from De Maistre to Maurras, and indeed by Marx himself -- men who by some process superior to scientific reasoning had grasped the true nature of social development, and in the light of their discovery saw the liberal theory of human progress as something unreal, thin, pathetic and absurd. Whatever his crudities and errors, on the central issue, Hobbes, not Locke, turned out to be right: men sought neither happiness nor liberty nor justice, but, above all and before all, security. Aristotle, too, was right: a great number of men were slaves by nature, and when liberated from their chains did not possess the moral and intellectual resources with which to face the prospect of responsibility, of too wide a choice between alternatives; and therefore, having lost one set of chains, inevitably searched for another or forged new chains themselves. It follows that the wise revolutionary legislator, so far from seeking to emancipate human beings from the framework without which they feel lost and desperate, will seek rather to erect a framework of his own, corresponding to the new needs of the new age brought about by natural or technological change. The value of the framework will depend upon the unquestioning faith with which its main features are accepted; otherwise it no longer possesses sufficient strength to support and contain the wayward, potentially anarchical and self-destructive creatures who seek salvation in it. The framework is that system of political, social, economic and religious institutions, those "myths," dogmas, ideals, conventional categories of thought and language, modes of feeling, scales of values, "socially approved" attitudes and habits (called by Marx "superstructure") representing "rationalizations," "sublimations" and symbolic representations which cause men to function in an organized way, prevent chaos, fulfill the function of the Hobbesian state. This is not so very remote from De Maistre's central and deliberately unprobed mystery -- the supernatural authority whereby and in whose name rulers can rule and inhibit their subjects' unruly tendencies, above all the tendency to ask too many questions, to question too many established rules. Nothing can be permitted which might even a little weaken that sense of reliability and security which it is the business of the framework to provide. Only thus (in this view) can the founder of the new free society control whatever threatens to dissipate human energy or to slow down the relentless treadmill which alone prevents men from stopping to commit acts of suicidal folly, which alone protects them from too much freedom, from too little restraint, from the vacuum which mankind, no less than nature, abhors.

M. Bergson had, of course, been speaking of something not too unlike this when he had contrasted the flow of life with the forces of critical reason which cannot create or unite, but only divide, arrest, make dead, disintegrate. Freud, too, contributed to this; not in his work of genius as the greatest healer of our time, but as the originator, however innocent, of the misapplication of psychological and sociological methods by muddleheaded fools of good will and quacks and false prophets of every brand and hue. By giving currency to exaggerated versions of the view that the true reasons for a man's beliefs were most often very different from what they themselves thought them to be, being frequently caused by events and processes of which they were neither aware nor in the least anxious to be aware, these eminent thinkers helped, however unwittingly, to discredit the rationalist foundations upon which their own doctrines purported to rest. For it was but a short step from this to the view that what made men most permanently happy was not -- as they themselves supposed -- the discovery of solutions to the questions which perplexed them, but rather some process natural or artificial whereby the problems were made to vanish altogether. They vanished because their psychological "sources" had been diverted or dried up, leaving behind only those less exacting questions whose solutions did not demand resources beyond the patient's strength.

That this short way with the troubled and the perplexed, which underlay much right-wing thought, should be advocated from the left, was new indeed. It is this change of attitude to the function and value of the intellect that is perhaps the best indication of the great gap which divides the twentieth century from the nineteenth.


The central point which I wish to make is this: during all the centuries of recorded history the course of intellectual endeavor, the purpose of education, the substance of controversies about the truth or value of ideas, presupposed the existence of certain crucial questions, the answers to which were of paramount importance. How valid, it was asked, were the various claims to the best methods of discovering absolute knowledge and truth made by such great and famous disciplines as metaphysics, ethics, theology, and the sciences of nature and of man? What was the right life for men to lead, and how was it discovered? Did God exist, and could His purposes be known or even guessed at? Did the universe, and in particular human life, have a purpose? If so, whose purpose did it fulfil? How did one set about answering such questions? Were they or were they not analogous to the kind of questions to which the sciences or common sense provided satisfactory, generally accepted, replies? If not, did it make sense to ask them?

And as in metaphysics and ethics, so in politics too. The political problem was concerned with asking why any individual or individuals should obey other individuals or associations of individuals. All the classical doctrines which deal with the familiar topics of liberty and authority, sovereignty and natural rights, the ends of the state and the ends of the individual, the General Will and the rights of minorities, secularism and theocracy, functionalism and centralization -- all these are but various ways of attempting to formulate methods in terms of which this fundamental question can be answered in a manner compatible with the other beliefs and the general outlook of the inquirer and his generation. Great and sometimes mortal conflicts have arisen over the proper techniques for the answering of such questions. Some sought answers in sacred books, others in direct personal revelation, some in metaphysical insight, others in the pronouncements of infallible sages or in speculative systems or in laborious empirical investigations. The questions were of vital importance for the conduct of life. There were, of course, skeptics in every generation who suggested that there were, perhaps, no final answers, that solutions hitherto provided depended on highly variable factors such as the climate in which the theorist's life was lived, or his social or economic or political condition, or those of his fellows, or his or their emotional disposition, or the kinds of intellectual interests which absorbed him or them. But such skeptics were usually treated as either frivolous and so not important, or else unduly disturbing and even dangerous; so that in times of instability they were liable to persecution. But even they -- even Sextus Empiricus or Montaigne or Hume -- did not actually doubt the importance of the questions themselves. What they doubted was the possibility of obtaining final and absolute solutions.

It was left to the twentieth century to do something more drastic than this. For the first time it was now asserted that the way to answer questions, particularly those recurrent issues which had perplexed and often tormented original and honest minds in every generation, was not by employing the tools of reason, still less those of the more mysterious capacities called "insight" and "intuition," but by obliterating the questions themselves. And this method consists not in removing them by rational means -- by proving, for example, that they are founded on intellectual confusion or verbal muddles or ignorance of the facts -- for to prove this would in its turn presuppose the need for rational methods of logical or psychological argument. Rather it consists in so treating the questioner that problems which appeared at once overwhelmingly important and utterly insoluble vanish from the questioner's consciousness like evil dreams and trouble him no more. It consists, not in developing the logical implications and elucidating the meaning, the context, or the relevance and origin of a specific problem -- in seeing what it "amounts to" -- but in altering the outlook which gave rise to it in the first place. Questions for whose solution no ready-made technique could easily be produced are all too easily classified as obsessions from which the patient must be cured. Thus if a man is haunted by the suspicion that, for example, full individual liberty is not compatible with coercion by the majority in a democratic state, and yet continues to hanker after both democracy and individual liberty, it may be possible by appropriate treatment to rid him of his idée fixe, so that it will disappear to return no more. The worried questioner of political institutions is thereby relieved of his burden and freed to pursue socially useful tasks, unhampered by disturbing and distracting reflections which have been eliminated by the eradication of their cause.

The method has the bold simplicity of genius: it secures agreement on matters of political principle by removing the psychological possibility of alternatives, which itself depends, or is held to depend, on the older form of social organization, rendered obsolete by the revolution and the new social order. And this is how Communist and Fascist states -- and all other quasi- and semitotalitarian societies and secular and religious creeds -- have in fact proceeded in the task of imposing political and ideological conformity.

For this the works of Karl Marx are not more directly to blame than the other tendencies of our time. Marx was a typical nineteenth century social theorist, in the same sense as Mill or Comte or Buckle. A policy of deliberate psychological conditioning was as alien to him as to them. He believed that many of the questions of his predecessors were quite genuine, and thought that he had solved them. He supported his solutions with arguments which he honestly supposed to conform to the best scientific and philosophical canons of his time. Whether his outlook was in fact as scientific as he claimed, or his solutions as plausible, is another question. What matters is that he recognized the genuineness of the questions he was attempting to answer and offered a theory with a claim to being scientific in the accepted sense of the term; and thereby poured much light (and darkness) on many vexed problems, and led to much fruitful (and sterile) revaluation and reinterpretation.

But the practice of Communist states and, more logically of Fascist states (since they openly deny and denounce the value of the rational question-and-answer method), is not at all the training of the critical, or solution-finding, powers of their citizens, nor yet the development in them of any capacity for special insights or intuitions regarded as likely to reveal the truth. It consists in something which any nineteenth century thinker with respect for the sciences would have regarded with genuine horror -- the training of individuals incapable of being troubled by questions which, when raised and discussed, endanger the stability of the system; the building and elaboration of a strong framework of institutions, "myths," habits of life and thought intended to preserve it from sudden shocks or slow decay. This is the intellectual outlook which attends the rise of totalitarian ideologies -- the substance of the hair-raising satires of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley -- the state of mind in which troublesome questions appear as a form of mental perturbation, noxious to the mental health of individuals and, when too widely discussed, to the health of societies. This is an attitude which looks on all inner conflict as an evil, or at best as a form of futile self-frustration; which considers the kind of friction, the moral or emotional or intellectual collisions, the particular kind of acute spiritual discomfort which rises to a condition of agony from which great works of the human intellect and imagination, inventions, philosophies, works of art, have sprung, as being no better than purely destructive diseases -- neuroses, psychoses, mental derangements, genuinely requiring psychiatric aid; above all as being dangerous deviations from that line to which individuals and societies must adhere if they are to continue in a state of well-ordered, painless, contented, self-perpetuating equilibrium.

This is a truly far-reaching conception, and something far more powerful than the pessimism or cynicism of thinkers like Plato or Machiavelli, Swift or Carlyle, who looked on the majority of mankind as unalterably stupid or incurably vicious, and therefore concerned themselves with how the world might be made safe for the exceptional, enlightened or otherwise superior minority or individual. For their view did at least concede the reality of the painful problems, and merely denied the capacity of the majority to solve them; whereas the more radical attitude looks upon intellectual perplexity as being caused either by a technical problem to be settled in terms of practical policy, or else as a neurosis to be cured, that is made to disappear, if possible without a trace. This leads to a novel conception of the truth and of disinterested ideals in general, which would hardly have been intelligible to previous centuries. To adopt it is to hold that outside the purely technical sphere (where one asks only what are the most efficient means towards this or that practical end) words like "true," or "right," or "free," and the concepts which they denote, are to be defined in terms of the only activity recognized as valuable, namely, the organization of society as a smoothly-working machine providing for the needs of such of its members as are permitted to survive. The words and ideas in such a society will reflect the outlook of the citizens, being adjusted so as to involve as little friction as possible between, and within, individuals, leaving them free to make the "optimum" use of the resources available to them.

This is indeed Dostoevsky's utilitarian nightmare. In the course of their pursuit of social welfare, humanitarian liberals, deeply outraged by cruelty, injustice and inefficiency, discover that the only sound method of preventing these evils is not by providing the widest opportunities for free intellectual or emotional development -- for who can tell where this might not lead? -- but by eliminating the motives for the pursuit of these perilous ends, by suppressing any tendencies likely to lead to criticism, dissatisfaction, disorderly forms of life. I shall not attempt here to trace historically how this came to pass. No doubt the story must at some stage include the fact that mere disparity in tempo and extent between technical development and social change, together with the fact that the two could not be guaranteed to harmonize -- despite the optimistic promises of Adam Smith -- and indeed clashed more and more often, led to increasingly destructive and apparently unavertable economic crises. These were accompanied by social, political and moral disasters which the general framework -- the patterns of behavior, habits, outlook, language, that is the "ideological superstructure" of the victims -- could not sustain. The result was a loss of faith in existing political activities and ideals, and a desperate desire to live in a universe which, however dull and flat, was at any rate secure against the repetition of such catastrophes. An element in this was a growing sense of the greater or lesser meaninglessness of such ancient battle-cries as liberty or equality or civilization or truth, since their application to the surrounding scene was no longer as intelligible as it had been in the nineteenth century.

Together with this development, in the majority of cases, there went a reluctance to face it. But the once hallowed phrases were not abandoned. They were used -- robbed of their original value -- to cover the different and sometimes diametrically opposed notions of the new morality, which in terms of the old system of values, seemed both unscrupulous and brutal. The Fascists alone did not take the trouble to pretend to retain the old symbols, and while political diehards and the representatives of the more unbridled forms of modern big business clung half cynically, half hopefully, to such terms as freedom or democracy, the Fascists rejected them outright with theatrical gestures of disdain and loathing, and poured scorn upon them as the outworn husks of ideals which had long ago rotted away. But despite the differences of policy concerning the use of specific symbols there is a substantial similarity between all the variants of the new political attitude.

Observers in the twenty-first century will doubtless see these similarities of pattern more easily than we who are involved can possibly do today. They will distinguish them as naturally and clearly from their immediate past -- that hortus inclusus of the nineteenth century in which so many writers both of history and of journalism and of political addresses today still seem to be living -- as we distinguish the growth of romantic nationalism or of naïve positivism from that of enlightened despotism or of patrician republics. Still, even we who live in them can discern something novel in our own times. Even we perceive the growth of new characteristics common to widely different spheres. On the one hand, we can see the progressive and conscious subordination of political to social and economic interests. The most vivid symptoms of this subordination are the open self-identification and conscious solidarity of men as capitalists or workers; these cut across, though without destroying, national and religious loyalties. On the other, we meet with the conviction that political liberty is useless without the economic strength to use it, and consequently implied or open denial of the rival proposition that economic opportunity is of use only to politically free men. This in its turn carries with it a tacit acceptance of the proposition that the responsibilities of the state to its citizens must and will grow and not diminish, a theorem which is today taken for granted by masters and men alike, in Europe perhaps more unquestioningly than in the United States, but accepted even there to a degree which seemed utopian only 30, let alone 50, years ago. This great transformation, with its genuine material gains, and no less genuine growth in social equality in the least liberal societies, is accompanied by something which forms the obverse side of the medal -- the elimination, or, at the very best, strong disapproval of those propensities for free inquiry and creation which cannot, without losing their nature, remain as conformist and law-abiding as the twentieth century demands. A century ago Auguste Comte asked why, if there was rightly no demand for freedom to disagree in mathematics, it should be allowed and even encouraged in ethics or the social sciences. And indeed, if the creation of certain "optimum" patterns of behavior and thought and feeling in individuals or entire societies is the main goal of social and individual action, Comte's case is unanswerable. Yet it is the degree of this very right to disregard the forces of order and convention, even the publicly accepted "optimum" goals of action, that forms the glory of that bourgeois culture which reached its zenith in the nineteenth century and of which we have only now begun to witness the beginning of the end.


The new attitude, resting as it does upon the policy of diminishing strife and misery by the atrophy of the faculties capable of causing them, is naturally hostile to, or at least suspicious of, disinterested curiosity (which might end anywhere), and looks upon the practice of all arts not obviously useful to society as being at best forms of social frivolity. Such occupations, when they are not a positive menace, are, in this view, an irritating and wasteful irrelevance, a trivial fiddling, a dissipation or diversion of energy which is difficult enough to accumulate at all and should therefore be directed wholeheartedly and unceasingly to the task of building and maintaining the well-adjusted -- sometimes called the "well-integrated" -- social whole. In this state of mind it is only natural that such terms as truth or honor or obligation or beauty become transformed into purely offensive or defensive weapons, used by a state or a party in the struggle to create a community impervious to influences beyond its own direct control. The result can be achieved either by rigid censorship and insulation from the rest of the world -- a world which remains free at least in the sense that its inhabitants continue to say what they wish, in which words are relatively unorganized, with all the "dangerous" consequences thereby brought about; or else it can be achieved by extending the area of strict control until it stretches over all possible sources of anarchy, i.e. the whole of mankind. Only by one of these two expedients can a state of affairs be achieved in which human behavior can be manipulated with relative ease of technically qualified specialists -- adjusters of conflicts and promoters of peace both of body and of mind, engineers and other scientific experts, psychologists, sociologists, economic and social planners and so on. Clearly this is not an intellectual climate which favors originality of judgment, moral independence or uncommon powers of insight. The entire trend of such an order is to reduce all issues to technical problems of lesser or greater complexity, in particular the problem of how to survive, get rid of maladjustments, achieve a condition in which the individual's psychological or economic capacities are harnessed to producing the maximum of unclouded social contentment; and this in its turn depends upon the suppression of whatever in him might raise doubt or assert itself against the single all-embracing, all-clarifying, all-satisfying plan.

The tendency has taken acute forms in, for example, the Soviet Union. There subordination to the central plan, and the elimination of disturbing factors, whether by education or repression, has been enacted with that capacity for believing in the literal inspiration of ideologies -- in the ability and duty of human beings to translate ideas into practice fully, rigorously and immediately -- to which Russian thinkers of all schools seem singularly addicted. The Soviet pattern is clear, simple and correctly deduced from "scientifically demonstrated" premises. The task of realizing it must be entrusted to technically trained believers who look on the human beings at their disposal as material which is infinitely malleable within the confines revealed by the sciences. Stalin's remark that creative artists are "engineers of human souls" is a very precise expression of this spirit. The presence of it in the various Fascist societies destroyed by the recent war, with intuition or instinct substituted for science, and cynicism for hypocrisy, are equally clear for all to see. In Western Europe this tendency has taken the milder form of a shift of emphasis away from disagreement about political principles (and from party struggles which sprang from genuine differences of moral and spiritual outlook) towards disagreements, ultimately technical, about methods -- about the best ways of achieving that degree of minimum economic or social stability without which arguments concerned with fundamental principles and the ends of life are felt to be "abstract," "academic" and unrelated to the urgent needs of the hour. Hence that noticeably growing lack of interest in long-term political issues -- as opposed to current day-to-day economic or social problems -- on the part of the populations of the Western European continent which is occasionally deplored by shocked American and British observers who falsely ascribe it to the growth of cynicism and disenchantment with ideals.

No doubt all abandonment of old values for new must appear to the surviving adherents of the former as conscienceless disregard for morality as such. But this is a great delusion. There is all too little disbelief, whether conscienceless or apathetic, of the new values. On the contrary, they are clung to with unreasoning faith and that blind intolerance towards skepticism which springs, as often as not, from a profound inner bankruptcy, the hope against hope that here is a safe haven at least, narrow, dark, cut off, but secure. Growing numbers of human beings are prepared to purchase this sense of security even at the cost of allowing vast tracts of life to be controlled by persons who, whether consciously or not, act systematically to narrow the horizon of human activity to manageable proportions, to train human beings into more easily combinable parts -- interchangeable, almost prefabricated -- of a total pattern. In the face of such a strong desire to stabilize, if need be, at the lowest level -- upon the floor from which you cannot fall, which cannot betray you, "let you down" -- all the ancient political principles begin to vanish, feeble symbols of creeds no longer relevant to the new realities.

This process does not move at a uniform pace everywhere. In the United States perhaps, for obvious economic reasons, the nineteenth century survives far more powerfully than anywhere else. The political issues and conflicts, the topics of discussion, and the idealized personalities of democratic leaders are far more reminiscent of Victorian Europe than anything to be found on that continent now.

Woodrow Wilson was a nineteenth century liberal in a very full and unqualified sense. The New Deal and the personality of President Roosevelt excited political passions far more like those of the battles which raged round Gladstone or Lloyd George, or the anti-clerical governments at the turn of the century in France, than anything actually contemporary with it in Europe; and this great liberal enterprise, certainly the most constructive compromise between individual liberty and economic security which our own time has witnessed, corresponds more closely to the political and economic ideals of John Stuart Mill in his last, humanitarian-Socialist phase than to left-wing thought in Europe in the thirties. The controversy about international organization, about the United Nations and its subsidiaries, as well as the other postwar international institutions, like the controversies which in the years after 1918 surrounded the League of Nations, are fully intelligible in terms of nineteenth century political ideals, and therefore occupied far more attention and meant much more in America than in Europe. The United States may have disavowed President Wilson, but it continued to live in a moral atmosphere not very different from that of Wilson's time -- the easily recognizable black-and-white moral world of the Victorian values. The events of 1918 preyed on the American conscience for 25 years, whereas in Europe the exalté atmosphere of 1918-1919 disappeared without a trace -- a brief moment of illumination which in retrospect seems more American that European, the last manifestation in Europe of a great but dying tradition in a world already living, and fully conscious of living, in a new medium, too well aware of its differences from, and resentful of, its past. The break was not sudden and total, a dramatic coup de théâtre. Many of the seeds planted in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries have flowered only in the twentieth: the political and ethical climate in which trade unions were founded in Germany, or England, or France did of course contain as elements the old, familiar doctrines of human rights and duties which were the common property, avowed or not, of almost all parties and views in the liberal, humanitarian, expansionist hundred years of peaceful progress.

The main current of the nineteenth century does, of course, survive into the present, and especially in America and the British Dominions; but it is not what is most characteristic of our time. For in the past there were conflicts of ideas, whereas what characterizes our time is not the struggle of one set of ideas against another but the mounting wave of hostility to all ideas as such. Since ideas are considered the source of too much disquiet, there is a tendency to suppress the conflict between liberal claims to individual political rights and the economic injustice which results from their satisfaction (which forms the substance of Socialist criticism) by the submersion of both in an authoritarian régime which removes the free area within which such conflicts can occur. What is genuinely typical of our time is a new concept of the society, the values of which derive not from the desires or the moral sense of this or that individual's view of his ultimate ends but from some factual hypothesis or metaphysical dogma about history, or race, or national character in terms of which the answers to the question what is good, right, required, desirable, fitting, can be "scientifically" deduced, or intuited, or expressed in this or that kind of behavior. There is one and only one direction in which a given aggregate of individuals is conceived to be travelling, driven thither by quasi-occult impersonal forces, such as their class structure, or their unconscious selves, or their racial origin, or the "real" social or physical roots of this or that "popular" or "group" "mythology." The direction is alterable only by tampering with the hidden cause of behavior -- those who wish to tamper being, according to this view, free to determine their own direction and that of others by having an understanding of the machinery of social behavior and skill in manipulating it.

In this sinister fashion have the words of St. Simon's prophecy finally come true -- words which once seemed so brave and optimistic: "The government of man will be replaced by the administration of things." The cosmic forces are conceived as omnipotent and indestructible. Hopes, fears, prayers cannot wish them out of existence; but the élite of experts can canalize them and control them to some extent. The task of these experts is to adjust human beings to these forces and to develop in them an unshakable faith in the new order, and unquestioning loyalty to it, which will anchor it securely and forever. Consequently the technical disciplines which direct natural forces and adjust men to the new order must take primacy over humane pursuits -- philosophical, historical, artistic. Such pursuits, at most, will serve only to prop up and embellish the new establishment. Turgenev's naïve materialist, the hero of his novel "Fathers and Sons," the nihilist Bazarov, has finally come into his own, as St. Simon and his more pedestrian follower Comte always felt sure that he would, but for reasons very different from those which seemed plausible a century ago. Bazarov's faith rested on the claim that the dissection of frogs was more important than poetry because it led to the truth, whereas the poetry of Pushkin did not.

The reason given today is more devastating: anatomy is superior to art because it generates no independent ends of life, provides no experiences which act as independent criteria of good or evil, truth or falsehood, and which are therefore liable to clash with the orthodoxy which we have created as the only bulwark strong enough to preserve us from doubts and despairs and all the horrors of maladjustment. To be torn this way and that emotionally or intellectually is a form of malaise. Against it nothing will work but the elimination of alternatives so nearly in equal balance that choice between them is -- or even appears -- possible.

This is, of course, what the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky's "Brothers Karamazov" maintained with deadly eloquence: that what men dreaded most was freedom of choice, to be left alone to grope their way in the dark; and the Church by lifting the responsibility from their shoulders made them willing, grateful and happy slaves. The Grand Inquisitor stood for the dogmatic organization of the life of the spirit: Bazarov for its theoretical opposite -- free scientific inquiry, the facing of the "hard" facts, the acceptance of the truth however brutal. But by an irony of history (not unforeseen by Dostoevsky) they have formed a pact, they are allies, and today are almost indistinguishable. Buridan's ass, we are told, unable to choose between two equidistant bundles of hay, starved to death. Against this fate the only remedy is blind obedience and faith. Whether the refuge is a dogmatic religion or a dogmatic natural science matters relatively little: for without such obedience and faith there is no confidence and no hope, no optimistic, "constructive," "positive" form of life.


At this point it might be said that the situation I have described is not altogether new. Has not every authoritarian institution, every irrationalist movement, been engaged upon something of this kind -- the artificial stilling of doubts, the attempt either to discredit uncomfortable questions or to educate men not to ask them? Was this not the practice of the great organized churches, indeed of every institution from the national state to small sectarian establishments? Was this not the attitude of the enemies of reason from the earliest mystery cults to the romanticism, anarchistic nihilism or surréalism of the last century and a half? Why should our age be specially accused of addiction to the particular tendency which formed the central theme of the social doctrines of Plato, or of the sect of the mediæval Assassins, or of much Eastern thought and mysticism?

But there are two great differences which separate the political characteristics of our age from their origins in the past. In the first place, the reactionaries or romantics of previous periods, however much they might have advocated the superior wisdom of institutional authority or the revealed word over that of individual reason, did not in their moments of wildest unreason minimize the importance of the questions to be answered. On the contrary they maintained that so crucial was it to obtain the correct answer that only hallowed institutions, or inspired leaders, or mystical revelation, or divine grace could vouchsafe a solution of sufficient depth and universality. No doubt a hierarchy of the relative importance of questions underlies any established social system -- a hierarchy the authority of which is itself not intended to be open to question. Moreover, the obscurity of some among the answers offered has in every age concealed their lack of truth or their irrelevance to the questions which they purported to solve. And perhaps much hypocrisy has traditionally been necessary to secure their success. But hypocrisy is very different from cynicism or blindness. Even the censors of opinion and the enemies of the truth felt compelled to pay formal homage to the vital importance of obtaining true answers to the great problems by the best available means. If their practice belied this, at least there was something to be belied: traitors and heretics often keep alive the memory -- and the authority -- of the beliefs which they are intent on betraying.

The second difference consists in the fact that in the past such attempts to becloud the nature of the issues were associated specifically with the avowed enemies of reason and individual freedom. The alignment of forces has been clear at any rate since the Renaissance; progress and reaction, however much these words have been abused, are not empty concepts. On one side stood the supporters of authority, unreasoning faith, suspicious of, or openly opposed to, the uncontrolled pursuit of truth or the free realization of individual ideals. On the other, whatever their differences, were those supporters of free inquiry and self-expression who looked upon Voltaire and Lessing, Mill and Darwin and Ibsen as their prophets. Their common quality -- perhaps their only common quality -- was some degree of devotion to the ideals of the Renaissance and a hatred of all that was associated, whether justly or not, with the Middle Ages -- darkness, suppression, the stifling of all heterodoxy, the hatred of the flesh and of gaiety and of the love of natural beauty. There were of course many who cannot be classified so simply or so crudely; but until our own day the lines were drawn sharply enough to determine clearly the position of the men who most deeply influenced their age. A combination of devotion to scientific principles with "obscurantist" social theory seemed altogether unthinkable. Today the tendency to circumscribe and confine and limit, to determine the range of what may be asked and what may not, to what may be believed and what may not, is no longer a distinguishing mark of the "reactionaries." On the contrary, it comes as powerfully from the heirs of the radicals, the rationalists, the "progressives," of the nineteenth century as from the descendants of their enemies. There is a persecution not only of science, but by science and in its name; and this is a nightmare scarcely foreseen by the most Cassandra-like prophets of either camp.

We are often told that the present is an age of cynicism and despair, of crumbling values and the dissolution of the fixed standards and landmarks of our civilization. But this is neither true nor even plausible. So far from showing the loose texture of a collapsing order, the world is today stiff with rigid rules and codes and ardent, irrational religions. So far from evincing the toleration which springs from cynical disregard of the ancient sanctions, it treats heterodoxy as the supreme danger.

Whether in the East or West, the danger has not been greater since the ages of faith. Conformities are called for much more eagerly today than yesterday; loyalties are tested far more severely; skeptics and liberals and individuals with a taste for private life and their own inner standards of behavior, if they do not take care to identify themselves with an organized faith, are objects of fear or derision and targets of persecution for either side, execrated or despised by all the embattled parties in the great ideological wars of our time. And although this is less acute in societies traditionally averse to extremes -- Great Britain, say, or Switzerland -- this makes little difference to the general pattern. In the world today individual stupidity and wickedness are forgiven more easily than failure to be identified with a recognized party or attitude, to achieve an approved political or economic or intellectual status. In earlier periods, when more than one authority ruled human life, a man might escape the pressure of the state by taking refuge in the fortress of the opposition -- of an organized church or a dissident feudal establishment. The mere fact of conflict between authorities allowed room for a narrow and shifting, but still never entirely non-existent, no-man's-land, where private lives might still precariously be lived, because neither side dared to go too far for fear of too greatly strengthening the other. Today the very virtues of the paternalistic state, its genuine anxiety to reduce destitution and disease and inequality, to penetrate all the neglected nooks and crannies of life which may stand in need of its justice and its bounty -- its very success in those beneficent activities -- has narrowed the area within which the individual may commit blunders, has curtailed his liberties in the interest (the very real interest) of his welfare or of his sanity, his health, his security, his freedom from want and fear. His area of choice has grown smaller not in the name of some opposing principle -- as in the Dark Ages or during the rise of the nationalities -- but in order to create a situation in which the very possibility of opposed principles, with all their unlimited capacity to cause mental stress and danger and destructive collisions, is eliminated in favor of a simpler and better regulated life, a robust faith in an efficiently working order, untroubled by agonizing moral conflict.

Yet this is not a gratuitous development: the social and economic situation in which we are placed, the failure to harmonize the effects of technical progress with the forces of political and economic organization inherited from an earlier phase, do call for a greater measure of social control to prevent chaos and destitution, no less fatal to the development of human faculties than blind conformity. And certainly it is morally unthinkable that we give up our social gains and meditate for an instant the possibility of a return to ancient injustice and inequality and hopeless misery. The progress of technological skill makes it rational and indeed imperative to plan, and anxiety for the success of a particular planned society naturally inclines the planners to seek insulation from dangerous, because incalculable, forces which may jeopardize the plan. And this is a powerful incentive to "autarky" and "Socialism in one country" whether imposed by conservatives, or New Dealers, or isolationists, or Social Democrats, or indeed imperialists. And this in its turn generates artificial barriers and increasingly restricts the planners' own resources. In extreme cases it leads to repression of the discontented and a perpetual tightening of discipline, until it absorbs more and more of the time and ingenuity of those who originally conceived it only as a means to a minimum of efficiency. Presently it grows to be a hideous end in itself, since its realization spells ruin to the system now caught in a vicious circle of repression in order to survive and of survival mainly to repress. So the remedy grows to be worse than the disease, and takes the form of those orthodoxies which rest on the simple puritanical faith of individuals who never knew or have forgotten what douceur de vivre, free self-expression, the infinite variety of persons and of the relationships between them, and the right of free choice, difficult to endure but more intolerable to surrender, can ever have been like.

The dilemma is logically insoluble: we cannot sacrifice either freedom or a minimum standard of welfare. The way out must therefore lie in some logically untidy, flexible, and even ambiguous compromise: every situation calls for its own specific policy, since out of the crooked timber of humanity, as Kant once remarked, no straight thing was ever made. What the age calls for is not (as we are so often told) more faith or stronger leadership or more rational organization. Rather is it the opposite -- less Messianic ardor, more enlightened skepticism, more toleration of idiosyncrasies, more frequent ad hoc and ephemeral arrangements, more room for the attainment of their personal ends by individuals and by minorities whose tastes and beliefs find (whether rightly or wrongly must not matter) little response among the majority. What is required is a less mechanical, less fervent application of general principles, however rational or righteous, a more cautious and less self-confident application of accepted, scientifically tested, general solutions in unexamined individual cases. We must not submit to authority because it is infallible but only for strictly and openly utilitarian reasons, as a necessary evil. Since no solution can be guaranteed against error, no disposition is final. And therefore a loose texture and a measure of inefficiency and even muddle, even a degree of indulgence in idle talk, idle curiosity, aimless pursuit of this or that without authorization -- "conspicuous waste" itself -- may allow more spontaneous, individual variation (for which the individual must in the end assume full responsibility), and will always be worth far more than the neatest and most delicately fashioned imposed pattern. Above all, it must be realized that the kinds of problems which this or that method of education or system of scientific or religious or social organization of life is guaranteed to solve are eo facto not the central questions of human life. They are not, and never have been, the fundamental issues which embody the changing outlook and the most intense preoccupation of their time and generation. It is from absorbed preoccupation with these fundamental issues and these alone, unplanned and at times without technical equipment, more often than not without conscious hope of success, still less of the approbation of the official auditor, that the best moments come in the lives of individuals and peoples.

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  • ISAIAH BERLIN, Fellow of New College and University Lecturer in Philosophy at Oxford; attached to the British Embassy in Washington, 1942-45, and in Moscow, 1945-46, with rank of First Secretary; visiting professor at Harvard, 1949; author of "Karl Marx" and other works
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