The Corner

Education

The Uses of History

When it comes to the crimes of communism there has been a dangerous forgetting  (to ascribe this phenomenon to simple forgetfulness is to imply too passive a process: Much of this failure of historical memory has been engineered).

Roger Scruton, writing in The Spectator:

Monuments to the victims of Nazism and fascism exist all across the continent. But communism’s millions of victims are remembered hardly at all. One standard history of modern times, widely used in our schools, praises the Russian Revolution as aiming at ‘the complete destruction of the Russian and European bourgeoisie’, necessary for ‘the victory of socialism’. This history (Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes) does not mention the abolition of the law courts, or the establishment of the Cheka (the secret police), or the vicious expropriations that destroyed the Russian economy, or the mass starvation inflicted on the Ukrainian peasants. It is inadmissible for a historian to write in any but disgusted terms of the Nazi destruction of the Jews; but the equally cruel ‘destruction of the bourgeoisie’ can be described in terms of unqualified approval.

When Hobsbawm died in 2012, I wrote a bit about him here and noted that:

[Hobsbawm] was never really called to any sort of intellectual or social account for his prolonged support for a cult/religion/philosophy/ideology (call it what you will) that revolves around purification by slaughter. Instead he was honored. To repeat the list I mentioned earlier today: New School for Social Research, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Royal Society of Literature, Stanford, King’s College, Cambridge, the British Academy, Companion of Honour, etc., etc.

Here’s what Tony Blair, noisy man of ‘faith’ and, allegedly, a fighter for Western values, had written about Hobsbawm just the day before:

He was a giant of progressive politics history, someone who influenced a whole generation of political and academic leaders. He wrote history that was intellectually of the highest order but combined with a profound sense of compassion and justice. And he was a tireless agitator for a better world.

Ah, a ‘better world’: the excuse of murderous millenarians for a long, long, time.

Scruton:

[I]t is surely time to establish museums devoted to the Marxist legacy. We have a model, indeed, in the House of Terror, established in Budapest in 2002 under the directorship of Maria Schmidt. This commemorates the victims of both fascism and communism, and has been controversial for that very reason. Even in Hungary, leftist intellectuals tell us that the two evils cannot be compared, and that to commemorate their victims in a single museum is to deny their most important difference: that the aims of communism were good, those of fascism bad. It is precisely in order to counter that kind of apology that Maria Schmidt has turned the same light on both ideologies. The aim of both, she insists, was the same. What difference does it make that one focused its resentment on the Jews, the other on the bourgeoisie, when the primary aim was in both cases the mass murder of their victims?

There were (in my view) differences between the two categories of mass murderer, differences  that  matter, but let’s be clear, the aims of communism were not good. Like other millenarians, including the Nazis (millenarians of a sort themselves), communists believed in creating a ‘better world’ for their definition of the Saved. The Nazis wanted a better world for the master race, communists wanted a better world for the suitably cleansed ‘masses’, better worlds (which would, in reality, be anything but) built on the bones of the slaughtered millions who did not make the grade.

Looking at the current political situation in the UK, where under-40s are enthused by a Labour Party led by men who are not democrats in any credible form, and who essentially believe in variants of old time communism, Scruton is concerned:

As the Momentum movement [a militant organization that operates within Labour] seduces more and more people towards historical oblivion and utopian exultancy, the need for a programme of public education about these matters is ever more urgent. But I fear that it may be too late.

And this is not, of course, a problem confined to Britain. Take the time to read a fine essay on Camille Paglia by Mark Bauerlein in First Things.

An extract:

Paglia believes there is a causal connection between young Americans’ ignorance of history and their dim view of present conditions. At a conference in Oxford, Paglia stated again, in response to a student who criticized her and others for telling youths not to be so sensitive and snowflaky, “There is much too much focus on the present.” Thanks to the (presumed) sensitivity of modern youth, Paglia says, students have not had a “realistic introduction to the barbarities of human history . . . . Ancient history must be taught . . . . I believe in introducing young people to the disasters of history.” Without that background, she implies, our only standard of appraising current circumstances is current circumstances plus a few utopian dreams.

Yes, build museums to the horrors of Communism (I’d recommend the Occupation Museums in Riga and Tallinn as  well as Budapest’s House of Terror), but teach history properly too in schools. For the facts wherever they may lead, for history’s often uncomfortable truths about human nature, and for history’s warnings about the temptations of Utopia, and where they lead.

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