Reflection Paper Topics with Grading Rubric:
You will write a 1000-1500 word response to your chosen paper topic from the list below.
This assignment is worth 300 points, or 30% of your grade.
DO NOT USE ANY SOURCES OTHER THAN THE DALRYMPLE ARTICLE AND YOUR TEXTBOOK.
Students will demonstrate their ability to construct arguments about issues of both personal and universal significance. Their writing should demonstrate that they can construct cogent, concise, and logically coherent arguments.
Students should demonstrate that they can distinguish the relevant points that form a logically coherent argument. They should also be able to construct criticisms which effectively undermine, through the use of appropriate counter-examples, some premise of that argument.
Your assignment is to read any ONE of the following four articles:
How and How Not to Love Mankind.pdf
Roads to Sefdom.pdf
What We Have to Lose.pdf
Then, FOR THE ARTICLE YOU CHOOSE TO WRITE ON, you will type a 1000-1500 word response in which you address EACH of the following points IN YOUR OWN WORDS:
1) What is the author’s main argument?
2) How does he support his main argument (evidence, ancillary arguments, etc.)?
3) Do you agree or disagree with him?
4) Why or why not?
5) Apply the insights of at least two of the readings we have studied in this course (in chapters 1-9) to your analysis. Make sure to give a substantive explanation of how the philosophers’ insights are relevant to the topic you are discussing.
A WORD OF WARNING: These articles are rather long and complex. The author likes to make extensive use of his rather copious vocabulary, so I strongly urge you to have dictionary.com handy as you work your way through your chosen article. The purpose of this essay assignment is for you to demonstrate your ability to discuss, analyze, and evaluate complex philosophic arguments. I am confident that the reading assignments, tests, and discussion boards will have prepared you for this final, and no doubt challenging, essay assignment.
Note: I only allow one attempt on this assignment. Students who do not fully address all of the components of the assignment as stated in the instructions as well as the grading rubric below will have to be content with the grade they earned.
Please use MLA format.
Your paper will be graded according to the following rubric:
The following standards are numbered in order of importance for grading.
1.Essay demonstrates an understanding of the material: The student has correctly grasped a philosophical problem or question, has explained it accurately, and on the basis of a substantially correct interpretation of any texts involved. Key terms are used correctly. The essay shows evidence of the student’s independent thought, and is written in his or her distinctive voice. Short (one sentence) quotations are used (comprising no more than 10% of the body of the paper), when appropriate, to support the writer’s analysis, and an explanation is offered for each quotation. The use of block quotations will result in a severe point deduction.
2.Essay has clear and coherent argument: There is a clearly stated thesis, and support for this thesis in the body of the paper. Each paragraph contributes to this argument, and follows logically from the paragraph before it. The argument presented is persuasive. The insights of two other philosophers are incorporated into the analysis.
3.Essay fulfills assigned task: The essay addresses the entire assigned question or topic, elaborating on important ideas in satisfactory depth, but without bringing in anything extraneous or irrelevant. The introduction of the essay focuses and provides clarity for the paper. Important terms are clearly and accurately defined. Each paragraph conveys a coherent, organized thought. Short (one sentence) quotations are occasionally used, when appropriate, to support the writer’s analysis, and an explanation is offered for each quotation. No more than 10% of paper is made up of direct quotes. No block quotations.
4.Essay obeys standards for good persuasive writing: the writer shows that he or she is comfortable using philosophical language, and the prose is clear, not awkward. The structure of the sentences reflects the relationships between/among the ideas discussed.
5.Essay is technically correct: The essay has been carefully and thoughtfully proofread. The argument is written in complete sentences, with punctuation that does not mislead the reader. There are no mistakes in spelling, grammar, word choice, and punctuation.
The Frivolity of Evil
When prisoners are released from prison, they often say that they have paid their debt
to society. This is absurd, of course: crime is not a matter of double-entry bookkeeping.
When prisoners are released from prison, they often say that they have paid their debt to society. This is absurd, of course: crime is not a matter of double-entry bookkeeping.
You cannot pay a debt by having caused even greater expense, nor can you pay in
advance for a bank robbery by offering to serve a prison sentence before you commit it.
Perhaps, metaphorically speaking, the slate is wiped clean once a prisoner is released
from prison, but the debt is not paid off.
It would be just as absurd for me to say, on my imminent retirement after 14 years of my
hospital and prison work, that I have paid my debt to society. I had the choice to do
something more pleasing if I had wished, and I was paid, if not munificently, at least
adequately. I chose the disagreeable neighborhood in which I practiced because,
medically speaking, the poor are more interesting, at least to me, than the rich: their
pathology is more florid, their need for attention greater. Their dilemmas, if cruder,
seem to me more compelling, nearer to the fundamentals of human existence. No doubt
I also felt my services would be more valuable there: in other words, that I had some
kind of duty to perform. Perhaps for that reason, like the prisoner on his release, I feel I
have paid my debt to society. Certainly, the work has taken a toll on me, and it is time to
do something else. Someone else can do battle with the metastasizing social pathology of
Great Britain, while I lead a life aesthetically more pleasing to me.
My work has caused me to become perhaps unhealthily preoccupied with the problem of evil. Why do people commit evil? What conditions allow it to flourish? How is it best
prevented and, when necessary, suppressed? Each time I listen to a patient recounting
the cruelty to which he or she has been subjected, or has committed (and I have listened
to several such patients every day for 14 years), these questions revolve endlessly in my
No doubt my previous experiences fostered my preoccupation with this problem. My
mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and though she spoke very little of her life
before she came to Britain, the mere fact that there was much of which she did not speak
gave evil a ghostly presence in our household.
Later, I spent several years touring the world, often in places where atrocity had recently
been, or still was being, committed. In Central America, I witnessed civil war fought
between guerrilla groups intent on imposing totalitarian tyranny on their societies,
opposed by armies that didn’t scruple to resort to massacre. In Equatorial Guinea, the
current dictator was the nephew and henchman of the last dictator, who had killed or
driven into exile a third of the population, executing every last person who wore glasses
or possessed a page of printed matter for being a disaffected or potentially disaffected
intellectual. In Liberia, I visited a church in which more than 600 people had taken
refuge and been slaughtered, possibly by the president himself (soon to be videotaped
being tortured to death). The outlines of the bodies were still visible on the dried blood
on the floor, and the long mound of the mass grave began only a few yards from the
entrance. In North Korea I saw the acme of tyranny, millions of people in terrorized,
abject obeisance to a personality cult whose object, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, made
the Sun King look like the personification of modesty.
Still, all these were political evils, which my own country had entirely escaped. I optimistically supposed that, in the absence of the worst political deformations,
widespread evil was impossible. I soon discovered my error. Of course, nothing that I
was to see in a British slum approached the scale or depth of what I had witnessed
elsewhere. Beating a woman from motives of jealousy, locking her in a closet, breaking
her arms deliberately, terrible though it may be, is not the same, by a long way, as mass
murder. More than enough of the constitutional, traditional, institutional, and social
restraints on large-scale political evil still existed in Britain to prevent anything like what
I had witnessed elsewhere.
Yet the scale of a man’s evil is not entirely to be measured by its practical consequences.
Men commit evil within the scope available to them. Some evil geniuses, of course,
devote their lives to increasing that scope as widely as possible, but no such character has
yet arisen in Britain, and most evildoers merely make the most of their opportunities.
They do what they can get away with.
In any case, the extent of the evil that I found, though far more modest than the disasters
of modern history, is nonetheless impressive. From the vantage point of one six-bedded
hospital ward, I have met at least 5,000 perpetrators of the kind of violence I have just
described and 5,000 victims of it: nearly 1 percent of the population of my city—or a
higher percentage, if one considers the age-specificity of the behavior. And when you
take the life histories of these people, as I have, you soon realize that their existence is as
saturated with arbitrary violence as that of the inhabitants of many a dictatorship.
Instead of one dictator, though, there are thousands, each the absolute ruler of his own
little sphere, his power circumscribed by the proximity of another such as he.
Violent conflict, not confined to the home and hearth, spills out onto the streets.
Moreover, I discovered that British cities such as my own even had torture chambers:
run not by the government, as in dictatorships, but by those representatives of slum
enterprise, the drug dealers. Young men and women in debt to drug dealers are
kidnapped, taken to the torture chambers, tied to beds, and beaten or whipped. Of
compunction there is none—only a residual fear of the consequences of going too far.
Perhaps the most alarming feature of this low-level but endemic evil, the one that brings
it close to the conception of original sin, is that it is unforced and spontaneous. No one
requires people to commit it. In the worst dictatorships, some of the evil ordinary men
and women do they do out of fear of not committing it. There, goodness requires
heroism. In the Soviet Union in the 1930s, for example, a man who failed to report a
political joke to the authorities was himself guilty of an offense that could lead to
deportation or death. But in modern Britain, no such conditions exist: the government
does not require citizens to behave as I have described and punish them if they do not.
The evil is freely chosen.
Not that the government is blameless in the matter—far from it. Intellectuals
propounded the idea that man should be freed from the shackles of social convention
and self-control, and the government, without any demand from below, enacted laws
that promoted unrestrained behavior and created a welfare system that protected people
from some of its economic consequences. When the barriers to evil are brought down, it
flourishes; and never again will I be tempted to believe in the fundamental goodness of
man, or that evil is something exceptional or alien to human nature.
Of course, my personal experience is just that—personal experience. Admittedly, I have looked out at the social world of my city and my country from a peculiar and possibly
unrepresentative vantage point, from a prison and from a hospital ward where
practically all the patients have tried to kill themselves, or at least made suicidal
gestures. But it is not small or slight personal experience, and each of my thousands,
even scores of thousands, of cases has given me a window into the world in which that
And when my mother asks me whether I am not in danger of letting my personal
experience embitter me or cause me to look at the world through bile-colored spectacles,
I ask her why she thinks that she, in common with all old people in Britain today, feels
the need to be indoors by sundown or face the consequences, and why this should be the
case in a country that within living memory was law-abiding and safe? Did she not
herself tell me that, as a young woman during the blackouts in the Blitz, she felt perfectly
safe, at least from the depredations of her fellow citizens, walking home in the pitch
dark, and that it never occurred to her that she might be the victim of a crime, whereas
nowadays she has only to put her nose out of her door at dusk for her to think of nothing
else? Is it not true that her purse has been stolen twice in the last two years, in broad
daylight, and is it not true that statistics—however manipulated by governments to put
the best possible gloss upon them—bear out the accuracy of the conclusions that I have
drawn from my personal experience? In 1921, the year of my mother’s birth, there was
one crime recorded for every 370 inhabitants of England and Wales; 80 years later, it
was one for every ten inhabitants. There has been a 12-fold increase since 1941 and an
even greater increase in crimes of violence. So while personal experience is hardly a
complete guide to social reality, the historical data certainly back up my impressions.
A single case can be illuminating, especially when it is statistically banal—in other words, not at all exceptional. Yesterday, for example, a 21-year-old woman consulted me,
claiming to be depressed. She had swallowed an overdose of her antidepressants and
then called an ambulance.
There is something to be said here about the word “depression,” which has almost
entirely eliminated the word and even the concept of unhappiness from modern life. Of
the thousands of patients I have seen, only two or three have ever claimed to be
unhappy: all the rest have said that they were depressed. This semantic shift is deeply
significant, for it implies that dissatisfaction with life is itself pathological, a medical
condition, which it is the responsibility of the doctor to alleviate by medical means.
Everyone has a right to health; depression is unhealthy; therefore everyone has a right to
be happy (the opposite of being depressed). This idea in turn implies that one’s state of
mind, or one’s mood, is or should be independent of the way that one lives one’s life, a
belief that must deprive human existence of all meaning, radically disconnecting reward
A ridiculous pas de deux between doctor and patient ensues: the patient pretends to be
ill, and the doctor pretends to cure him. In the process, the patient is willfully blinded to
the conduct that inevitably causes his misery in the first place. I have therefore come to
see that one of the most important tasks of the doctor today is the disavowal of his own
power and responsibility. The patient’s notion that he is ill stands in the way of his
understanding of the situation, without which moral change cannot take place. The
doctor who pretends to treat is an obstacle to this change, blinding rather than
My patient already had had three children by three different men, by no means unusual
among my patients, or indeed in the country as a whole. The father of her first child had
been violent, and she had left him; the second died in an accident while driving a stolen
car; the third, with whom she had been living, had demanded that she should leave his
apartment because, a week after their child was born, he decided that he no longer
wished to live with her. (The discovery of incompatibility a week after the birth of a child
is now so common as to be statistically normal.) She had nowhere to go, no one to fall
back on, and the hospital was a temporary sanctuary from her woes. She hoped that we
would fix her up with some accommodation.
She could not return to her mother, because of conflict with her “stepfather,” or her
mother’s latest boyfriend, who, in fact, was only nine years older than she and seven
years younger than her mother. This compression of the generations is also now a
common pattern and is seldom a recipe for happiness. (It goes without saying that her
own father had disappeared at her birth, and she had never seen him since.) The latest
boyfriend in this kind of ménage either wants the daughter around to abuse her sexually
or else wants her out of the house as being a nuisance and an unnecessary expense. This
boyfriend wanted her out of the house, and set about creating an atmosphere certain to
make her leave as soon as possible.
The father of her first child had, of course, recognized her vulnerability. A girl of 16 living on her own is easy prey. He beat her from the first, being drunken, possessive, and
jealous, as well as flagrantly unfaithful. She thought that a child would make him more
responsible—sober him up and calm him down. It had the reverse effect. She left him.
The father of her second child was a career criminal, already imprisoned several times. A
drug addict who took whatever drugs he could get, he died under the influence. She had
known all about his past before she had his child.
The father of her third child was much older than she. It was he who suggested that they
have a child—in fact he demanded it as a condition of staying with her. He had five
children already by three different women, none of whom he supported in any way
The conditions for the perpetuation of evil were now complete. She was a young woman
who would not want to remain alone, without a man, for very long; but with three
children already, she would attract precisely the kind of man, like the father of her first
child—of whom there are now many—looking for vulnerable, exploitable women. More
than likely, at least one of them (for there would undoubtedly be a succession of them)
would abuse her children sexually, physically, or both.
She was, of course, a victim of her mother’s behavior at a time when she had little control over her destiny. Her mother had thought that her own sexual liaison was more
important than the welfare of her child, a common way of thinking in today’s welfare
Britain. That same day, for example, I was consulted by a young woman whose mother’s
consort had raped her many times between the ages of eight and 15, with her mother’s
full knowledge. Her mother had allowed this solely so that her relationship with her
consort might continue. It could happen that my patient will one day do the same thing.
My patient was not just a victim of her mother, however: she had knowingly borne
children of men of whom no good could be expected. She knew perfectly well the
consequences and the meaning of what she was doing, as her reaction to something that
I said to her—and say to hundreds of women patients in a similar situation—proved: next
time you are thinking of going out with a man, bring him to me for my inspection, and
I’ll tell you if you can go out with him.
This never fails to make the most wretched, the most “depressed” of women smile
broadly or laugh heartily. They know exactly what I mean, and I need not spell it out
further. They know that I mean that most of the men they have chosen have their evil
written all over them, sometimes quite literally in the form of tattoos, saying “FUCK OFF”
or “MAD DOG.” And they understand that if I can spot the evil instantly, because they know
what I would look for, so can they—and therefore they are in large part responsible for
their own downfall at the hands of evil men.
Moreover, they are aware that I believe that it is both foolish and wicked to have children
by men without having considered even for a second or a fraction of a second whether
the men have any qualities that might make them good fathers. Mistakes are possible, of
course: a man may turn out not to be as expected. But not even to consider the question
is to act as irresponsibly as it is possible for a human being to act. It is knowingly to
increase the sum of evil in the world, and sooner or later the summation of small evils
leads to the triumph of evil itself.
My patient did not start out with the intention of abetting, much less of committing, evil.
And yet her refusal to take seriously and act upon the signs that she saw and the
knowledge that she had was not the consequence of blindness and ignorance. It was
utterly willful. She knew from her own experience, and that of many people around her,
that her choices, based on the pleasure or the desire of the moment, would lead to the
misery and suffering not only of herself, but—especially—of her own children.
This truly is not so much the banality as the frivolity of evil: the elevation of passing
pleasure for oneself over the long-term misery of others to whom one owes a duty. What
better phrase than the frivolity of evil describes the conduct of a mother who turns her
own 14-year-old child out of doors because her latest boyfriend does not want him or her
in the house? And what better phrase describes the attitude of those intellectuals who see
in this conduct nothing but an extension of human freedom and choice, another thread
in life’s rich tapestry?
The men in these situations also know perfectly well the meaning and consequences of what they are doing. The same day that I saw the patient I have just described, a man
aged 25 came into our ward, in need of an operation to remove foil-wrapped packets of
cocaine that he had swallowed in order to evade being caught by the police in possession
of them. (Had a packet burst, he would have died immediately.) As it happened, he had
just left his latest girlfriend—one week after she had given birth to their child. They
weren’t getting along, he said; he needed his space. Of the child, he thought not for an
I asked him whether he had any other children.
“Four,” he replied.
“How many mothers?”
“Do you see any of your children?”
He shook his head. It is supposedly the duty of the doctor not to pass judgment on how
his patients have elected to live, but I think I may have raised my eyebrows slightly. At
any rate, the patient caught a whiff of my disapproval.
“I know,” he said. “I know. Don’t tell me.”
These words were a complete confession of guilt. I have had hundreds of conversations
with men who have abandoned their children in this fashion, and they all know perfectly
well what the consequences are for the mother and, more important, for the children.
They all know that they are condemning their children to lives of brutality, poverty,
abuse, and hopelessness. They tell me so themselves. And yet they do it over and over
again, to such an extent that I should guess that nearly a quarter of British children are
now brought up this way.
The result is a rising tide of neglect, cruelty, sadism, and joyous malignity that staggers and appalls me. I am more horrified after 14 years than the day I started.
Where does this evil come from? There is obviously something flawed in the heart of
man that he should wish to behave in this depraved fashion—the legacy of original sin, to
speak metaphorically. But if, not so long ago, such conduct was much less widespread
than it is now (in a time of much lesser prosperity, be it remembered by those who think
that poverty explains everything), then something more is needed to explain it.
A necessary, though not sufficient, condition is the welfare state, which makes it
possible, and sometimes advantageous, to behave like this. Just as the IMF is the bank of
last resort, encouraging commercial banks to make unwise loans to countries that they
know the IMF will bail out, so the state is the parent of last resort—or, more often than
not, of first resort. The state, guided by the apparently generous and humane philosophy
that no child, whatever its origins, should suffer deprivation, gives assistance to any
child, or rather the mother of any child, once it has come into being. In matters of public
housing, it is actually advantageous for a mother to put herself at a disadvantage, to be a
single mother, without support from the fathers of the children and dependent on the
state for income. She is then a priority; she won’t pay local taxes, rent, or utility bills.
As for the men, the state absolves them of all responsibility for their children. The state is
now father to the child. The biological father is therefore free to use whatever income he
has as pocket money, for entertainment and little treats. He is thereby reduced to the
status of a child, though a spoiled child with the physical capabilities of a man: petulant,
demanding, querulous, self-centered, and violent if he doesn’t get his own way. The
violence escalates and becomes a habit. A spoiled brat becomes an evil tyrant.
But if the welfare state is a necessary condition for the spread of evil, it is not sufficient. After all, the British welfare state is neither the most extensive nor the most generous in
the world, and yet our rates of social pathology—public drunkenness, drug-taking,
teenage pregnancy, venereal disease, hooliganism, criminality—are the highest in the
world. Something more was necessary to produce this result.
Here we enter the realm of culture and ideas. For it is necessary not only to believe that it
is economically feasible to behave in the irresponsible and egotistical fashion that I have
described, but also to believe that it is morally permissible to do so. And this idea has
been peddled by the intellectual elite in Britain for many years, more assiduously than
anywhere else, to the extent that it is now taken for granted. There has been a long
march not only through the institutions but through the minds of the young. When
young people want to praise themselves, they describe themselves as “nonjudgmental.”
For them, the highest form of morality is amorality.
There has been an unholy alliance between those on the Left, who believe that man is
endowed with rights but no duties, and libertarians on the Right, who believe that
consumer choice is the answer to all social questions, an idea eagerly adopted by the Left
in precisely those areas where it does not apply. Thus people have a right to bring forth
children any way they like, and the children, of course, have the right not to be deprived
of anything, at least anything material. How men and women associate and have
children is merely a matter of consumer choice, of no more moral consequence than the
choice between dark and milk chocolate, and the state must not discriminate among
different forms of association and child rearing, even if such non-discrimination has the
same effect as British and French neutrality during the Spanish Civil War.
The consequences to the children and to society do not enter into the matter: for in any
case it is the function of the state to ameliorate by redistributive taxation the material
effects of individual irresponsibility, and to ameliorate the emotional, educational, and
spiritual effects by an army of social workers, psychologists, educators, counselors, and
the like, who have themselves come to form a powerful vested interest of dependence on
So while my patients know in their hearts that what they are doing is wrong, and worse than wrong, they are encouraged nevertheless to do it by the strong belief that they have
the right to do it, because everything is merely a matter of choice. Almost no one in
Britain ever publicly challenges this belief. Nor has any politician the courage to demand
a withdrawal of the public subsidy that allows the intensifying evil I have seen over the
past 14 years—violence, rape, intimidation, cruelty, drug addiction, neglect—to flourish
so exuberantly. With 40 percent of children in Britain born out of wedlock, and the
proportion still rising, and with divorce the norm rather than the exception, there soon
will be no electoral constituency for reversal. It is already deemed to be electoral suicide
to advocate it by those who, in their hearts, know that such a reversal is necessary.
I am not sure they are right. They lack courage. My only cause for optimism during the
past 14 years has been the fact that my patients, with a few exceptions, can be brought to
see the truth of what I say: that they are not depressed; they are unhappy—and they are
unhappy because they have chosen to live in a way that they ought not to live, and in
which it is impossible to be happy. Without exception, they say that they would not want
their children to live as they have lived. But the social, economic, and ideological
pressures—and, above all, the parental example—make it likely that their children’s
choices will be as bad as theirs.
Ultimately, the moral cowardice of the intellectual and political elites is responsible for
the continuing social disaster that has overtaken Britain, a disaster whose full social and
economic consequences have yet to be seen. A sharp economic downturn would expose
how far the policies of successive governments, all in the direction of libertinism, have
atomized British society, so that all social solidarity within families and communities, so
protective in times of hardship, has been destroyed. The elites cannot even acknowledge
what has happened, however obvious it is, for to do so would be to admit their past
responsibility for it, and that would make them feel bad. Better that millions should live
in wretchedness and squalor than that they should feel bad about themselves—another
aspect of the frivolity of evil. Moreover, if members of the elite acknowledged the social
disaster brought about by their ideological libertinism, they might feel called upon to
place restraints upon their own behavior, for you cannot long demand of others what you
balk at doing yourself.
There are pleasures, no doubt, to be had in crying in the wilderness, in being a man who
thinks he has seen further and more keenly than others, but they grow fewer with time.
The wilderness has lost its charms for me.
I’m leaving—I hope for good.
How—and How Not—to Love Mankind
Almost every intellectual claims to have the welfare of humanity, and particularly the
welfare of the poor, at heart: but since no mass murder takes place without its
perpetrators alleging that they are acting for the good of mankind, philanthropic
sentiment can plainly take a multiplicity of forms.
Almost every intellectual claims to have the welfare of humanity, and particularly the welfare of the poor, at heart: but since no mass murder takes place without its
perpetrators alleging that they are acting for the good of mankind, philanthropic
sentiment can plainly take a multiplicity of forms.
Two great European writers of the nineteenth century, Ivan Turgenev and Karl Marx,
illustrate this diversity with vivid clarity. Both were born in 1818 and died in 1883, and
their lives paralleled each other almost preternaturally in many other respects as well.
They nevertheless came to view human life and suffering in very different, indeed
irreconcilable, ways—through different ends of the telescope, as it were. Turgenev saw
human beings as individuals always endowed with consciousness, character, feelings,
and moral strengths and weaknesses; Marx saw them always as snowflakes in an
avalanche, as instances of general forces, as not yet fully human because utterly
conditioned by their circumstances. Where Turgenev saw men, Marx saw classes of men;
where Turgenev saw people, Marx saw the People. These two ways of looking at the
world persist into our own time and profoundly affect, for better or for worse, the
solutions we propose to our social problems.
The resemblances between the careers of these men begin with their attendance at Berlin
University at overlapping times, where both were deeply affected—even intoxicated—by
the prevailing Hegelianism. As a result, both considered careers as university teachers of
philosophy, but neither ever held a university post. They had many acquaintances in
common in Berlin, including Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian aristocrat who later became a
revolutionary anarchist, the philosopher Bruno Bauer, and the radical poet Georg
Herwegh. They shared a carelessness with money, perhaps because they were both born
into easy circumstances and therefore assumed that money would never be a problem.
Both started their writing careers as romantic poets, though more of Turgenev’s poetry
than Marx’s was published.
Their literary influences and tastes were similar. Each read widely in the Greek and Latin
classics; each could quote Shakespeare in the original. Both learned Spanish in order to
read Calderón. (Turgenev, of course, also learned it to speak the native language of the
great, but unsatisfactory, love of his life, the famous prima donna Pauline Viardot.) The
two men were in Brussels at the outbreak of the 1848 revolution against the July
monarchy in France, and both left to observe the events elsewhere. Turgenev’s closest
Russian friend, Pavel Annenkov, to whom he dedicated some of his work, knew Marx
well in Brussels—and left an unflattering description of him.
The secret police spied upon both men, and both lived most of their adult lives, and died,
in exile. Each fathered a child by a servant: a youthful indiscretion in Turgenev’s case, a
middle-aged one in Marx’s. Unlike Marx, however, Turgenev acknowledged his child and
paid for her upbringing.
Both men were known for their sympathy with the downtrodden and oppressed. But for
all their similarities of education and experience, the quality of each man’s compassion
could not have been more different: for while one’s, rooted in the suffering of
individuals, was real, the other’s, abstract and general, was not.
To see the difference, contrast Turgenev’s 1852 story “Mumu” with Marx’s Communist Manifesto, written four years earlier. Both works, almost exactly equal in length, took
shape in difficult circumstances: Marx, expelled from France for revolutionary activity,
was residing in Brussels, where he had no wish to be and no income, while Turgenev was
under house arrest at Spasskoye, his isolated estate southwest of Moscow, for having
written his Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, an implicitly anti-serfdom—and therefore
subversive—book. The censor who allowed it to be published was dismissed and stripped
of his pension.
“Mumu” is set in Moscow in the days of serfdom. Gerasim is a deaf and dumb serf of
enormous stature and strength, whose owner, an old and tyrannical feudal landowner,
has had him brought to the city from the countryside. Unable to express himself in
words, Gerasim clumsily woos a peasant girl called Tatyana, also owned by the
landowner. On a whim, however, the landowner, a sour and embittered widow who is
never named, decides to marry Tatyana off to another of her serfs, a drunken cobbler
called Kapiton, thus dashing Gerasim’s hopes.
Not long after, Gerasim finds a young puppy drowning in a muddy creek. He rescues her
and looks after her until she is a healthy, full-grown dog. He calls her Mumu, the nearest
he can come to articulating a word, and everyone in the landowner’s Moscow
establishment soon knows the dog by that name. Gerasim grows passionately fond of the
dog, his only true friend, whom he allows to live with him in his little room, and who
follows him everywhere. The dog adores Gerasim.
One day the landowner sees Mumu through the window and asks for the dog to be
brought to her. But Mumu is afraid of the landowner and bares her teeth to her. The
landowner instantly conceives a dislike of the dog and demands that she be gotten rid of.
One of the landowner’s servants takes the dog away and sells it to a stranger. Gerasim
searches for Mumu frantically but fails to find her. However, Mumu finds her way back
to him, to his overwhelming joy.
Unfortunately, Mumu barks on the following night and wakes the landowner, who
believes herself to be sorely tried by this interruption of her sleep. She demands that the
dog, this time, be destroyed. Her servants go to Gerasim and, by means of signs, pass on
her demand. Gerasim, recognizing the inevitable, promises to destroy the dog himself.
There follow two passages of almost unbearable pathos. In the first, Gerasim takes Mumu to the local tavern: “In the tavern they knew Gerasim and understood his sign
language. He ordered cabbage soup and meat and sat down with his arms on the table.
Mumu stood beside his chair, looking at him calmly with her intelligent eyes. Her coat
literally shone: clearly she had only recently been combed. They brought Gerasim his
cabbage soup. He broke some bread into it, cut up the meat into small pieces and set the
bowl down on the floor. Mumu started eating with her customary delicacy, her muzzle
hardly touching the food. Gerasim studied her for a long time; two heavy tears rolled
suddenly out of his eyes: one fell on the dog’s forehead, the other into the soup. He
covered his face with his hand. Mumu ate half the bowl and walked away licking herself.
Gerasim stood up, paid for the soup and left.”
He takes Mumu down to the river, picking up a couple of bricks en route. At the
riverbank, he gets into a boat with Mumu and rows out some distance.
“Finally Gerasim sat up straight, hurriedly, with a look of sickly bitterness on his face,
tied the bricks together with string, made a noose, placed it round Mumu’s neck, lifted
her over the river, looked at her for the last time. . . . Trustingly and without fear she
looked at him and slightly wagged her tail. He turned away, grimaced and let go. . . .
Gerasim heard nothing, neither the whining of the falling Mumu, nor the heavy splash in
the water; for him the noisiest day was still and soundless, as not even the quietest night
can be soundless for us; and when he again opened his eyes the little waves were as ever
hurrying along the river’s surface, as if racing after each other, as ever they rippled
against the sides of the boat, and only far behind one or two broad rings rippled towards
We learn that after Mumu’s death Gerasim runs away back to his village, where he works
like a slave in the fields: but never again does he form a close attachment to man or dog.
When the cultivated, aristocratic, revolutionary Russian exile Alexander Herzen read the story, he trembled with rage. Thomas Carlyle said it was the most emotionally
affecting story he had ever read. John Galsworthy said of it that “no more stirring protest
against tyrannical cruelty was ever penned.” And one of Turgenev’s relatives, to whom
the author read “Mumu,” wrote afterward, “What a humane and good man one must be
to understand and give expression to the experience and torments of another’s heart in
The story is autobiographical, and the tyrannical, captious, arbitrary, and selfish
landowner is the author’s mother, Varvara Petrovna Turgeneva. Widowed early, she was
an absolute monarch on her estate. Many stories have come down to us of her cruelty,
though not all have been authenticated: for example, that she had two serfs sent to
Siberia for having failed to make their obeisances to her as she passed—because they did
not see her. And the model for Gerasim was a deaf and dumb serf belonging to Varvara
Petrovna called Andrei.
Clearly “Mumu” is an impassioned protest against the exercise of arbitrary power of one
person over another, but it is not politically schematic. Though it is obviously directed
against serfdom, the story does not suggest that cruelty is the prerogative of feudal
landowners alone, and that if only serfdom were abolished, no vigilance against such
cruelty would be necessary. If power is a permanent feature of human relationships—and
surely only adolescents and certain kinds of intellectuals, Marx included, could imagine
that it is not—then “Mumu” is a permanent call to compassion, restraint, and justice in
its exercise. That is why “Mumu” does not lose its power to move 140 years after the
abolition of serfdom in Russia; while it refers to a particular place at a particular time, it
is also universal.
In making his general point, Turgenev does not suggest that his characters are anything but individuals, with their own personal characteristics. He does not see them just as
members of a group or class, caused by oppression to act in predetermined ways like
trams along their rails: and his careful observation of even the humblest of them is the
most powerful testimony possible to his belief in their humanity. Grand aristocrat that
he was, and acquainted with the greatest minds of Europe, he did not disdain to take
seriously the humblest peasant, who could not hear or speak. Turgenev’s oppressed
peasants were fully human beings, endowed with free will and capable of moral choice.
He contrasts Gerasim’s tenderness toward Mumu with the landowner’s selfish
fractiousness. “Why should that dumb man have a dog?” she asks, without the thought
entering her head for a moment that “that dumb man” might have interests and feelings
of his own. “Who allowed him to keep a dog out in my yard?”
Turgenev does not suggest that the landowning widow’s quasi-absolute power is in any
way enviable. Although religious in a superficial and sententious way, she regards God as
a servant, not a master, and she acknowledges no limits, either God’s or the law’s, to the
exercise of her will. The result for her is misery, a permanent state of irritation,
dissatisfaction, and hypochondria. The satisfaction of her whims brings no pleasure,
precisely because they are whims rather than true desires; and—used as she is to
obedience, and deserving of it as she believes herself to be—she experiences all
resistance, even that of time, as intolerable.
For example, when Mumu is brought in, the landowner talks to her in a syrupy,
ingratiating manner; but when the dog fails to respond, she changes her tune. “Take her
away! A disgusting little dog!” Unlike Gerasim, who has nurtured Mumu with tender
devotion, the landowner wants the dog to love her immediately, just because she is who
Her power renders her dishonest and incapable of introspection. When Gerasim
disappears after drowning Mumu, “she flew into a temper, shed tears, ordered him to be
found no matter what happened, avowed that she’d never ordered the dog to be
destroyed and finally gave [her steward] a dressing down.” Her denial of responsibility is
breathtaking. Power corrupts, Turgenev knows; and the failure to accept any limitation
to one’s thoughtless wishes makes happiness impossible. But no set of social
arrangements, he understands, will eliminate these dangers altogether.
Nor does Turgenev believe that the people who are subject to the power of the landowner are, by virtue of their oppression, noble. They are scheming and conniving
and sometimes thoughtlessly cruel, too. Their mockery of Gerasim is limited only by
their fear of his physical strength, and they do not sympathize in the least with his
predicament. When Gavrila, the landowner’s steward, goes at the head of a delegation of
serfs to tell Gerasim that he must get rid of Mumu once and for all, he bangs on
Gerasim’s door and shouts “’Open up!’ There came the sound of smothered barking; but
no answer. ’I’m telling you to open up!’ he repeated.
“’Gavrila Andreich,’ remarked Stepan from below, ’he’s deaf, he doesn’t hear.’ Everyone
burst out laughing.”
There is no compassion in their laughter, not then and not at any other time in the story.
Cruelty is not the province only of the landowner, and the heartlessness of the serfs
toward Gerasim always reminds me of a scene from my childhood, when I was about 11
years old. I had gone to line up for tickets to a soccer match—in those days, for reasons I
can no longer recapture, I was enthusiastic about the game. The line was long, and there
was at least a two-hour wait. An old blind man with an accordion passed along the line,
singing “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo,” while a companion held out a
cap for alms. They passed some young working-class men who had a radio, and who
turned the volume up to drown out his song. They laughed loudly at his bewilderment as
his companion led him away, reduced to silence.
No one intervened or told the young men how abominably they had behaved; I was too
cowardly to do so. But in that little scene, I saw man’s permanent capacity for
inhumanity to man, a capacity that transcends social condition, class, or education.
An incident when I practiced medicine many years later on an island in the Pacific Ocean
reinforced this lesson. Next to the small psychiatric hospital, with its yard enclosed by a
high wire fence, was the leper colony. Every afternoon, the lepers would gather at the
fence to mock the lunatics as they were let out for their exercise, performing their strange
dances and shouting at unseen persecutors.
The victory over cruelty is never final, but, like the maintenance of freedom, requires
eternal vigilance. And it requires, as in “Mumu,” the exercise of the sympathetic
Turning from Turgenev to Marx (although the Manifesto appears under the names of both Marx and Engels, it was almost entirely Marx’s work), we enter a world of infinite
bile—of rancor, hatred, and contempt—rather than of sorrow or compassion. It is true
that Marx, like Turgenev, is on the side of the underdog, of the man with nothing, but in
a wholly disembodied way. Where Turgenev hopes to lead us to behave humanly, Marx
aims to incite us to violence. Moreover, Marx brooked no competitors in the
philanthropic market. He was notoriously scathing about all would-be practical
reformers: if lower class, they lacked the philosophic training necessary to penetrate to
the causes of misery; if upper class, they were hypocritically trying to preserve “the
system.” Only he knew the secret of turning the nightmare into a dream.
In fact, the hecatombs his followers piled up are—to the last million victims—implicit in
the Manifesto. The intolerance and totalitarianism inhere in the beliefs expressed: “The
Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties. They
have no interest separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.”
In other words, there is no need for other parties, let alone individuals with their own
personal quirks: indeed, since the Communists so perfectly express the interests of the
proletariat, anyone opposed to the Communists must, by definition, be opposed to the
interests of the proletariat. Moreover, since the Communists “openly declare that their
ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions,” it
follows that Lenin and Stalin were perfectly right in eliminating their opponents by force.
And since, according to Marx, the ideas that people have are determined by their
position in the economic structure of society, it is not even necessary for people to
declare their enmity: it can be known ex officio, as it were. The killing of the kulaks was
the practical application of Marxist epistemology.
As you read the Manifesto, a ghostly procession of Marxist catastrophes seems to rise up from it, as from the witches’ brew in Macbeth. Take for example points 8 and 9 of the
Communist program (interestingly, as in God’s program published on Mount Sinai,
there were ten in all): “8. Equal liability to work. Establishment of industrial armies,
especially for agriculture. 9. Combination of agriculture with industry, promotion of the
gradual elimination of the contradictions between town and countryside.” Those who
experienced Pol Pot’s regime, and Ceauüsescu’s “systematization,” which demolished
villages and replaced them with half-completed high-rise apartments in the middle of
fields, will have no difficulty in recognizing the provenance of their misfortunes.
The Manifesto makes no mention of individual human life, except to deny its possibility
under present conditions. True, Marx mentions a few authors by name, but only to pour
heavily Teutonic scorn and contumely upon them. For him, there are no individuals, or
true humans, at all. “In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality,
while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.”
It is no wonder, then, that Marx speaks only in categories: the bourgeois, the
proletarian. For him, individual men are but clones, their identity with vast numbers of
others being caused not by the possession of the same genes, but by that of the same
relations to the economic system. Why study a man, when you know Men?
Nor is this the only generalization in the Manifesto that reduces the entire population of men to mere ciphers: “On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family,
based? On capital, on private gain. . . . But this state of things finds its complement in the
practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution. . . .
The bourgeois claptrap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of
parent and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of modern
industry, all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children
transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labor. . . . The
bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. . . . Our bourgeois, not
content with having the wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to
speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other’s wives.
Bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common and thus, at the most, what
the Communists might possibly be reproached with, is that they desire to introduce, in
substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalized community of women.”
There is no mistaking the hatred and rage of these words; but anger, while a real and
powerful emotion, is not necessarily an honest one, nor is it by any means always
ungratifying. There is a permanent temptation, particularly for intellectuals, to suppose
that one’s virtue is proportional to one’s hatred of vice, and that one’s hatred of vice is in
turn to be measured by one’s vehemence of denunciation. But when Marx wrote these
words, he must surely have known that they were, at best, a savage caricature, at worst a
deliberate distortion calculated to mislead and to destroy.
As a family man, he himself was not an unqualified success. Although he lived a
bourgeois existence, it was a disorderly, bohemian one, flamboyantly squalid. Two of his
daughters, Laura and Eleanor, committed suicide, partly as a result of his interference in
their lives. But not even his worst enemy could claim that he saw in his wife, Jenny von
Westphalen, “a mere instrument of production,” a spinning jenny, so to speak. Half his
youthful poems were addressed to her in the most passionate and romantic terms only a
few years before he wrote the Manifesto; and though their relations had later cooled, he
was nevertheless deeply affected by her death and did not long survive her. Even he,
whose information about people came mainly from books, must have known that the
Manifesto’s depiction of the relations between men and women was grossly distorted.
His rage was therefore—as is so much modern rage—entirely synthetic, perhaps an
attempt to assume a generosity of spirit, or love of mankind, that he knew he did not
have but felt he ought to have.
His lack of interest in the individual lives and fates of real human beings—what Mikhail
Bakunin once called his lack of sympathy with the human race—shines out in his failure
to recognize the often noble attempts by workingmen to maintain a respectable family
life in the face of the greatest difficulties. Was it really true that they had no family ties,
and that their children were mere articles of commerce? For whom were they mere
articles of commerce? It is typical of Marx’s unrigorous mind that he should leave the
answer ambiguous, as if commerce could exist independently of the people carrying it
on. Only his outrage, like the grin of the Cheshire cat, is clear.
Marx’s firm grasp of unreality is also evident in his failure to imagine what would happen
when, through the implementation of the ideas of radical intellectuals influenced by his
mode of thinking, the bourgeois family really would break down, when “the practical
absence of the family” really would become an undeniable social fact. Surely the
increased sexual jealousy, the widespread child neglect and abuse, and the increase in
the interpersonal violence (all in conditions of unprecedented material prosperity)
should have been utterly predictable to anybody with a deeper knowledge than his of the
Compare Marx’s crudity with Turgenev’s subtlety, alluded to by Henry James, who knew Turgenev in Paris and wrote an essay about him a year after his death: “Like all
men of a large pattern, he was composed of many different pieces; and what was always
striking in him was the mixture of simplicity with the fruit of the most various
observation. . . . I had [once] been moved to say of him that he had the aristocratic
temperament: a remark which in the light of further knowledge seemed singularly inane.
He was not subject to any definition of that sort, and to say that he was democratic would
be (though his political ideal was democracy) to give an equally superficial account of
him. He felt and understood the opposite sides of life; he was imaginative, speculative,
anything but literal. . . . Our Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, moralistic, conventional standards
were far away from him, and he judged things with a freedom and spontaneity in which I
found a perpetual refreshment. His sense of beauty, his love of truth and right, were the
foundation of his nature; but half the charm of his conversation was that one breathed an
air in which cant phrases and arbitrary measurements simply sounded ridiculous.”
I don’t think anyone could have said this of Marx. When he wrote that “the workingmen
have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got,” he wrote as a man
who, as far as is known, had never taken the trouble to canvass the living views of anyone
but himself. His pronouncement of the death of nationalist feeling was premature, to say
the least. And when he wrote that the bourgeois would lament the cultural loss that the
proletarian revolution inevitably entailed, but that “that culture . . . is, for the enormous
majority, a mere training to act as a machine,” he failed to acknowledge the profoundly
moving attempts of workingmen in Britain to acquire that very culture as a liberating
and ennobling agency. It needs very little effort of the imagination to understand what
fortitude it took to work in a Victorian factory by day and read Ruskin and Carlyle, Hume
and Adam Smith by night, as so many workingmen did (volumes from their lending
libraries and institutes are still to be found in British secondhand bookshops); but it was
an effort that Marx was never prepared to make, because he did not consider it
worthwhile to make it. One might ask whether he has not set a pattern for hordes of
cultivated brutes in the academy, who have destroyed for others what they themselves
have benefited from.
Very different from all this, the sympathy that Turgenev expressed for the downtrodden
was for living, breathing human beings. Because he understood what Henry James called
“the opposite sides of life,” he understood that there was no denouement to history, no
inevitable apocalypse, after which all contradictions would be resolved, all conflicts
cease, when men would be good because arrangements were perfect, and when political
and economic control would turn into mere administration for the benefit of everyone
without distinction. Marx’s eschatology, lacking all common sense, all knowledge of
human nature, rested on abstractions that were to him more real than the actual people
around him. Of course, Turgenev knew the value of generalizations and could criticize
institutions such as serfdom, but without any silly utopian illusions: for he knew that
Man was a fallen creature, capable of improvement, perhaps, but not of perfection. There
would therefore be no hecatombs associated with Turgenev’s name.
Marx claimed to know Man, but as for men other than his enemies—he knew them not.
Despite being a Hegelian dialectician, he was not interested in the opposite sides of life.
Neither kindness nor cruelty moved him: men were simply the eggs from which a
glorious omelette would one day be made. And he would be instrumental in making it.
When we look at our social reformers—their language, their concerns, their style, the categories in which they think—do they resemble Marx or Turgenev more? Turgenev—
who wrote a wonderful essay entitled “Hamlet and Don Quixote,” a title that speaks for
itself—would not have been surprised to discover that the Marxist style had triumphed.
By a curious twist of fate, the coldhearted Marxist utopians in Russia found a cynical use
for Turgenev’s story “Mumu,” which they printed in tens of millions of copies, to justify
their own murderous ruthlessness in destroying every trace of the former society. Could
any more terrible and preposterous fate have befallen Turgenev’s tale than that it should
have been used to justify mass murder? Could there be any more eloquent example of
the ability of intellectual abstraction to empty men’s hearts and minds of a sense of
shame and of true feeling for humanity?
Let us recall, however, one detail of Turgenev’s and Marx’s biographical trajectory in
which they differed. When Marx was buried, hardly anyone came to his funeral (in poetic
revenge, perhaps, for his failure to attend the funeral of his father, who adored and
sacrificed much for him). When the remains of Turgenev returned to St. Petersburg from
France, scores of thousands of people, including the humblest of the humble, turned out
to pay their respects—and with very good reason.
The Roads to Serfdom
People in Britain who lived through World War II do not remember it with anything
like the horror one might have expected. In fact, they often remember it as the best time
of their lives.
People in Britain who lived through World War II do not remember it with anything like the horror one might have expected. In fact, they often remember it as the best time
of their lives. Even allowing for the tendency of time to burnish unpleasant memories
with a patina of romance, this is extraordinary. The war, after all, was a time of material
shortage, terror, and loss: what could possibly have been good about it?
The answer, of course, is that it provided a powerful existential meaning and purpose.
The population suffered at the hands of an easily identifiable external enemy, whose evil
intentions it became the overriding purpose of the whole nation to thwart. A unified and
preeminent national goal provided respite from the peacetime cacophony of complaint,
bickering, and social division. And privation for a purpose brings its own content.
The war having instantaneously created a nostalgia for the sense of unity and
transcendent purpose that prevailed in those years, the population naturally enough
asked why such a mood could not persist into the peace that followed. Why couldn‟t the
dedication of millions, centrally coordinated by the government—a coordinated
dedication that had produced unprecedented quantities of aircraft and munitions—be
adapted to defeat what London School of Economics head Sir William Beveridge, in his
wartime report on social services that was to usher in the full-scale welfare state in
Britain, called the “five giants on the road to reconstruction”: Want, Disease, Ignorance,
Squalor, and Idleness?
By the time Beveridge published his report in 1942, most of the intellectuals of the day assumed that the government, and only the government, could accomplish these
desirable goals. Indeed, it all seemed so simple a matter that only the cupidity and
stupidity of the rich could have prevented these ends from already having been achieved.
The Beveridge Report states, for example, that want “could have been abolished in
Britain before the present war” and that “the income available to the British people was
ample for such a purpose.” It was just a matter of dividing the national income cake into
more equal slices by means of redistributive taxation. If the political will was there, the
way was there; there was no need to worry about effects on wealth creation or any other
For George Orwell, writing a year before the Beveridge Report, matters were equally
straightforward. “Socialism,” he wrote, “is usually defined as „common ownership of the
means of production.‟ Crudely: the State, representing the whole nation, owns
everything, and everyone is a state employee. . . . Socialism . . . can solve the problems of
production and consumption. . . . The State simply calculates what goods will be needed
and does its best to produce them. Production is only limited by the amount of labour
and raw materials.”
A few, equally simple measures would help bring about a better, more just and equitable
society. Orwell recommended “i) Nationalization of land, mines, railways, banks and
major industries”; “ii) Limitation of incomes, on such a scale that the highest does not
exceed the lowest by more than ten to one”; and “iii) Reform of the educational system
along democratic lines.” By this last, he meant the total prohibition of private education.
He assumed that the culture, which he esteemed but which nevertheless was a product of
the very system he so disliked, would take care of itself.
It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that, by the time Orwell wrote, his collectivist
philosophy was an intellectual orthodoxy from which hardly anyone in Britain would
dare dissent, at least very strongly. “We are all socialists now,” declared Bernard Shaw
40 years before Orwell put forward his modest proposals. And before him, Oscar Wilde,
in “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” accepted as incontrovertible—as not even worth
supporting with evidence or argument, so obviously true was it—that poverty was the
inescapable consequence of private property, and that one man‟s wealth was another
man‟s destitution. And before Wilde, John Ruskin had argued, in Unto This Last, that a
market in labor was both unnecessary and productive of misery. After all, he said, many
wages were set according to an abstract (which is to say a moral) conception of the value
of the job; so why should not all wages be set in the same way? Would this not avoid the
unjust, irrational, and frequently harsh variations to which a labor market exposed
Ruskin was right that there are indeed jobs whose wages are fixed by an approximate
notion of moral appropriateness. The salary of the president of the United States is not
set according to the vagaries of the labor market; nor would the number of candidates for
the post change much if it were halved or doubled. But if every wage in the United States
were fixed in the same way, wages would soon cease to mean very much. The economy
would be demonetized, the impersonal medium of money being replaced in the
allocation of goods and services by personal influence and political connection—precisely
what happened in the Soviet Union. Every economic transaction would become an
expression of political power.
The growing spirit of collectivism in Britain during the war provoked an Austrian economist who had taken refuge there, F. A. von Hayek, to write a polemical
counterblast to the trend: The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944. It went through six
printings in its first year, but its effect on majority opinion was, for many years to come,
negligible. Hayek believed that while intellectuals in modern liberal democracies—those
to whom he somewhat contemptuously referred as the professional secondhand dealers
in ideas—did not usually have direct access to power, the theories that they diffused
among the population ultimately had a profound, even determining, influence upon their
society. Intellectuals are of far greater importance than appears at first sight.
Hayek was therefore alarmed at the general acceptance of collectivist arguments—or
worse still, assumptions—by British intellectuals of all classes. He had seen the process—
or thought he had seen it—before, in the German-speaking world from which he came,
and he feared that Britain would likewise slide down the totalitarian path. Moreover, at
the time he wrote, the “success” of the two major totalitarian powers in Europe, Nazi
Germany and Soviet Russia, seemed to have justified the belief that a plan was necessary
to coordinate human activity toward a consciously chosen goal. For George Orwell, the
difference between the two tyrannies was one of ends, not of means: he held up Nazi
Germany as an exemplar of economic efficiency resulting from central planning, but he
deplored the ends that efficiency accomplished. While the idea behind Nazism was
“human inequality, the superiority of Germans to all other races, the right of Germany to
rule the world,” socialism (of which, of course, the Soviet Union was the only exemplar at
the time) “aims, ultimately, at a world-state of free and equal human beings.” Same
means, different ends: but Orwell, at this point in his intellectual development, saw
nothing intrinsically objectionable in the means themselves, or that they must inevitably
lead to tyranny and oppression, independently of the ends for which they were deployed.
Against the collectivists, Hayek brought powerful—and to my mind obvious—arguments,
that, however, were scarcely new or original. Nevertheless, it is often, perhaps usually,
more important to remind people of old truths than to introduce them to new ones.
Hayek pointed out that the wartime unity of purpose was atypical; in more normal times, people had a far greater, indeed an infinite, variety of ends, and anyone with the
power to adjudicate among them in the name of a conscious overall national plan,
allowing a few but forbidding most, would exert vastly more power than the most bloated
plutocrat of socialist propaganda had ever done in a free-market society.
Orwell‟s assertion that the state would simply calculate what was needed airily
overlooked the difficulties of the matter, as well as his proposal‟s implications for
freedom. The “directing brains,” as Orwell called them, would have to decide how many
hairpins, how many shoelaces, were “needed” by the population under their purview.
They would have to make untold millions of such decisions, likewise coordinating the
production of all components of each product, on the basis of their own arbitrary notions
of what their fellow citizens needed. Orwell‟s goal, therefore, was a society in which the
authorities strictly rationed everything; for him, and untold intellectuals like him, only
rationing was rational. It takes little effort of the imagination to see what this control
would mean for the exercise of liberty. Among other things, people would have to be
assigned work regardless of their own preferences.
Collectivist thinking arose, according to Hayek, from impatience, a lack of historical
perspective, and an arrogant belief that, because we have made so much technological
progress, everything must be susceptible to human control. While we take material
advance for granted as soon as it occurs, we consider remaining social problems as
unprecedented and anomalous, and we propose solutions that actually make more
difficult further progress of the very kind that we have forgotten ever happened. While
everyone saw the misery the Great Depression caused, for example, few realized that,
even so, living standards actually continued to rise for the majority. If we live entirely in
the moment, as if the world were created exactly as we now find it, we are almost bound
to propose solutions that bring even worse problems in their wake.
In reaction to the unemployment rampant in what W. H. Auden called “the low
dishonest decade” before the war, the Beveridge Report suggested that it was
government‟s function to maximize security of income and employment. This
proposition was bound to appeal strongly to people who remembered mass
unemployment and collapsing wages; but however high-minded and generous it might
have sounded, it was wrong. Hayek pointed out that you can‟t give everyone a job
irrespective of demand without sparking severe inflation. And you can no more protect
one group of workers‟ wages against market fluctuations without penalizing another
group than you can discriminate positively in one group‟s favor without discriminating
negatively against another. This is so, and it is beyond any individual human‟s control
that it should be so. Therefore, no amount of planning would ever make Beveridge‟s
goals possible, however desirable they might be in the abstract.
But just because a goal is logically impossible to achieve does not mean that it must be
without effect on human affairs. As the history of the twentieth century demonstrates
perhaps better than any other, impossible goals have had at least as great an effect on
human existence as more limited and possible ones.
The most interesting aspect of Hayek‟s book, however, is not his refutation of collectivist ideas—which, necessary as it might have been at that moment, was not by any means
original. Rather, it is his observations of the moral and psychological effects of the
collectivist ideal that, 60 years later, capture the imagination—mine, at least.
Hayek thought he had observed an important change in the character of the British
people, as a result both of their collectivist aspirations and of such collectivist measures
as had already been legislated. He noted, for example, a shift in the locus of people‟s
moral concern. Increasingly, it was the state of society or the world as a whole that
engaged their moral passion, not their own conduct. “It is, however, more than doubtful
whether a fifty years‟ approach towards collectivism has raised our moral standards, or
whether the change has not rather been in the opposite direction,” he wrote. “Though we
are in the habit of priding ourselves on our more sensitive social conscience, it is by no
means clear that this is justified by the practice of our individual conduct.” In fact, “It
may even be . . . that the passion for collective action is a way in which we now without
compunction collectively indulge in that selfishness which as individuals we had learnt a
little to restrain.”
Thus, to take a trifling instance, it is the duty of the city council to keep the streets clean;
therefore my own conduct in this regard is morally irrelevant—which no doubt explains
why so many young Britons now leave a trail of litter behind them wherever they go. If
the streets are filthy, it is the council‟s fault. Indeed, if anything is wrong—for example,
my unhealthy diet—it is someone else‟s fault, and the job of the public power to correct.
Hayek—with the perspective of a foreigner who had adopted England as his home—could
perceive a further tendency that has become much more pronounced since then: “There
is one aspect of the change in moral values brought about by the advance of collectivism
which at the present time provides special food for thought. It is that the virtues which
are held less and less in esteem and which consequently become rarer are precisely those
on which the British people justly prided themselves and in which they were generally
agreed to excel. The virtues possessed by the British people in a higher degree than most
other people . . . were independence and self-reliance, individual initiative and local
responsibility . . . non-interference with one‟s neighbour and tolerance of the different
and queer, respect for custom and tradition, and a healthy suspicion of power and
He might have added the sense of irony, and therefore of the inherent limitations of
human existence, that was once so prevalent, and that once protected the British
population from infatuation with utopian dreams and unrealistic expectations. And the
virtues that Hayek saw in them—the virtues immortalized in the pages of Jane Austen
and Charles Dickens—were precisely the virtues that my mother and her cousin also saw
when they first arrived in Britain as refugees from Germany in 1938. Orwell saw (and
valued) them, too, but unlike Hayek did not ask himself where they came from; he must
have supposed that they were an indestructible national essence, distilled not from
history but from geography.
The British are sadly changed from Hayek‟s description of them. A sense of irony is the first victim of utopian dreams. The British tolerance of eccentricity has also evaporated;
uniformity is what they want now, and are prepared informally to impose. They tolerate
no deviation in taste or appearance from themselves: and certainly in the lower reaches
of society, people who are markedly different, either in appearance because of the
vagaries of nature, or in behavior because of an unusual taste they may have, especially
for cultivation, meet with merciless ridicule, bullying, and even physical attack. It is as if
people believed that uniformity of appearance, taste, and behavior were a justification of
their own lives, and any deviation an implied reproach or even a declaration of hostility.
A young patient of mine, who disliked the noise, the vulgarity, and the undertone of
violence of the nightclubs where her classmates spent their Friday and Saturday nights,
was derided and mocked into conformity: it was too hard to hold out. The pressure to
conform to the canons of popular taste—or rather lack of taste—has never been stronger.
Those without interest in soccer hardly dare mention it in public, for fear of being
considered enemies of the people. A dispiriting uniformity of character, deeply shallow,
has settled over a land once richer in eccentrics than any other. No more Edward Lears
for us: we prefer notoriety to oddity now.
The British are no longer sturdily independent as individuals, either, and now feel no
shame or even unease, as not long ago they would have felt, at accepting government
handouts. Indeed, 40 percent of them now receive such handouts: for example, the
parents of every child are entitled not merely to a tax reduction but to an actual payment
in cash, no matter the state of their finances. As for those who, though able-bodied and
perfectly able to work, are completely dependent on the state for their income, they
unashamedly call the day when their welfare checks arrive “payday.” Between work and
parasitism they see no difference. “I‟m getting paid today,” they say, having not only
accepted but thoroughly internalized the doctrine propounded in the Beveridge Report,
that it is the duty of the state to assure everyone of a decent minimum standard of life
regardless of his conduct. The fact of having drawn 16 breaths a minute, 24 hours a day,
is sufficient to entitle each of them to his minimum; and oddly enough, Hayek saw no
danger in this and even endorsed the idea. He did not see that to guarantee a decent
minimum standard of life would demoralize not only those who accepted it, but those
who worked in the more menial occupations, and whose wages would almost inevitably
give them a standard of living scarcely higher than that of the decent minimum provided
merely for drawing breath.
In any case, Hayek did not quite understand the source of the collectivist rot in Britain. It
is true, of course, that an individualist society needs a free, or at least a free-ish, market;
but a necessary condition is not a sufficient one. It is not surprising, though, that he
should have emphasized the danger of a centrally planned economy when so prominent
a figure as Orwell—who was a genuine friend of personal liberty, who valued the
peculiarities of English life, and who wrote movingly about such national eccentricities
as a taste for racy seaside postcards and a love of public school stories—should so little
have understood the preconditions of English personal liberty that he wrote, only three
years before Hayek‟s book was published: “The liberty of the individual is still believed
in, almost as in the nineteenth century. But this has nothing to do with economic liberty,
the right to exploit others for profit.”
It is depressing to see a man like Orwell equating profit with exploitation. And it is
certainly true that Britain after the war took no heed of Hayek and for a time seemed
bent on state control of what were then called “the commanding heights of the
economy.” Not only did the Labour government nationalize health care, but also coal
mining, electricity and gas supply, the railways and public transportation (including the
airlines), telecommunications, and even most of the car industry. Yet at no time could it
remotely be said that Britain was slipping down the totalitarian path.
The real danger was far more insidious, and Hayek incompletely understood it. The destruction of the British character did not come from Nazi- or Soviet-style
nationalization or centralized planning, as Hayek believed it would. For collectivism
proved to be not nearly as incompatible with, or diametrically opposed to, a free, or free-
ish, market as he had supposed.
In fact, Hilaire Belloc, in his book The Servile State, predicted just such a form of
collectivism as early as 1912. Like most intellectuals of the age, Belloc was a critic of
capitalism, because he held it responsible for the poverty and misery he saw in the
London slums. His view was static, not dynamic: he did not see that the striving there
could—and would—lift people out of their poverty, and he therefore argued that the
liberal, laissez-faire state—“mere capitalist anarchy,” he called it—could not, and should
not, continue. He foresaw three possible outcomes.
His preferred resolution was more or less the same as Carlyle‟s half a century earlier: a
return to the allegedly stable and happy medieval world of reciprocal rights and duties.
There would be guilds of craftsmen and merchants in the towns, supplying mainly
handmade goods to one another and to peasant farmers, who in turn would supply them
with food. Everyone would own at least some property, thereby having a measure of
independence, but no one would be either plutocrat or pauper. However desirable this
resolution, though, even Belloc knew it was fantasy.
The second possible resolution was the socialist one: total expropriation of the means of
production, followed by state ownership, allegedly administered in the interests of
everyone. Belloc had little to say on whether he thought this would work, since in his
opinion it was unlikely to happen: the current owners of the means of production were
still far too strong.
That left the third, and most likely, resolution. The effect of collectivist thought on a
capitalist society would not be socialism, but something quite distinct, whose outlines he
believed he discerned in the newly established compulsory unemployment insurance.
The means of production would remain in private hands, but the state would offer
workers certain benefits, in return for their quiescence and agreement not to agitate for
total expropriation as demanded in socialist propaganda.
Unlike Orwell or Beveridge, however, he realized that such benefits would exact a further
price: “A man has been compelled by law to put aside sums from his wages as insurance
against unemployment. But he is no longer the judge of how such sums shall be used.
They are not in his possession; they are not even in the hands of some society which he
can really control. They are in the hands of a Government official. „Here is work offered
to you at twenty-five shillings a week. If you do not take it you shall certainly not have a
right to the money you have been compelled to put aside. If you will take it the sum shall
stand to your credit, and when next in my judgment your unemployment is not due to
your recalcitrance and refusal to labour, I will permit you to have some of your money;
not otherwise.‟ ”
What applied to unemployment insurance would apply to all other spheres into which
government intruded, Belloc intuited; and all of the benefits government conferred, paid
for by the compulsory contributions of the taxpayer, in effect would take choice and
decision making out of the hands of the individual, placing them in those of the official.
Although the benefits offered by the government were as yet few when Belloc wrote, he
foresaw a state in which the “whole of labour is mapped out and controlled.” In his view,
“The future of industrial society, and in particular of English society . . . is a future in
which subsistence and security shall be guaranteed for the Proletariat, but shall be
guaranteed . . . by the establishment of that Proletariat in a status really, though not
nominally, servile.” The people lose “that tradition of . . . freedom, and are most
powerfully inclined to [the] acceptance of [their servile status] by the positive benefits it
And this is precisely what has happened to the large proportion of the British population
that has been made dependent on the welfare state.
The state action that was supposed to lead to the elimination of Beveridge‟s five giants of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness has left many people in
contemporary Britain with very little of importance to decide for themselves, even in
their own private spheres. They are educated by the state (at least nominally), as are
their children in turn; the state provides for them in old age and has made saving
unnecessary or, in some cases, actually uneconomic; they are treated and cured by the
state when they are ill; they are housed by the state, if they cannot otherwise afford
decent housing. Their choices concern only sex and shopping.
No wonder that the British have changed in character, their sturdy independence
replaced with passivity, querulousness, or even, at the lower reaches of society, a sullen
resentment that not enough has been or is being done for them. For those at the bottom,
such money as they receive is, in effect, pocket money, like the money children get from
their parents, reserved for the satisfaction of whims. As a result, they are infantilized. If
they behave irresponsibly—for example, by abandoning their own children wherever
they father them—it is because both the rewards for behaving responsibly and the
penalties for behaving irresponsibly have vanished. Such people come to live in a limbo,
in which there is nothing much to hope or strive for and nothing much to fear or lose.
Private property and consumerism coexist with collectivism, and freedom for many
people now means little more than choice among goods. The free market, as Hayek did
not foresee, has flourished alongside the collectivism that was—and, after years of
propaganda, still is—justified by the need to eliminate the five giants. For most of the
British population today, the notion that people could solve many of the problems of
society without governmental Gleichschaltung, the Nazi term for overall coordination, is
Of course, the majority of Britons are still not direct dependents of the state. “Only”
about a third of them are: the 25 percent of the working population who are public
employees (the government has increased them by nearly 1 million since 1997, no doubt
in order to boost its election chances); and the 8 percent of the adult population either
unemployed or registered as disabled, and thus utterly dependent on government
handouts. But the state looms large in all our lives, not only in its intrusions, but in our
thoughts: for so thoroughly have we drunk at the wells of collectivism that we see the
state always as the solution to any problem, never as an obstacle to be overcome. One
can gauge how completely collectivism has entered our soul—so that we are now a people
of the government, for the government, by the government—by a strange but
characteristic British locution. When, on the rare occasions that our Chancellor of the
Exchequer reduces a tax, he is said to have “given money away.” In other words, all
money is his, and whatever we have in our pockets is what he, by grace and favor, has
Our Father, which art in Downing Street. . . .
What We Have to Lose Theodore Dalrymple
Whenever we learn of events of world-shaking significance, of catastrophes or massacres, we are inclined not only to feel ashamed (all too briefly) of our querulous preoccupation with our own minor tribulations but also to question the wider value of all our activities. I do not know whether people who are faced by death in a few seconds’ time see their lives flash before them, as they are said to do, and pass final judgment upon them; but whenever I read something about the Khmer Rouge, for example, or the genocide in Rwanda, I reflect for a time upon my own life and dwell a little on the insignificance of my efforts, the selfishness of my concerns, the narrowness of my sympathies.
So it was when I first learned of the destruction of the two towers of the World Trade Center. I was settling down to write a book review: not of a great work, but of a competent, conscientious, slightly dull biography of a minor historical figure. Could any activity have been less important when set beside the horrible fate of thousands of people trapped in the then flaming—and soon collapsing—buildings? A book review, compared to the deaths of over 300 firemen killed in the course of their duty, to say nothing of the thousands of others? What was the point of finishing so laboriously insignificant a task as mine?
In my work as a doctor in a prison, I save a few lives a year. When I retire, I shall not in my whole career have saved as many lives as were lost in New York in those few terrible moments, even counting the time I spent in Africa, where it was only too easy to save human life by the simplest of medical means. As for my writing, it is hardly dust in the balance: my work amuses a few, enrages some, and is unknown to the vast majority of people in my immediate vicinity, let alone to wider circles. Impotence and futility are the two words that spring to mind.
Yet even as I think such self-regarding thoughts, an image recurs in my mind: that of the pianist Myra Hess playing Mozart in London’s National Gallery even as the bombs were falling during the Second World War. I was born after the war ended, but the quiet heroism of those concerts and recitals, broadcast to the nation, was still a potent symbol during my childhood. It was all the more potent, of course, because Myra Hess was Jewish, and the enemy’s anti-Semitism was central to its depraved view of the world; and because the music she played, one of the highest peaks of human achievement, emanated from the very same land as the enemy’s leader, who represented the depths of barbarism.
No one asked, “What are these concerts for?” or “What is the point of playing Mozart when the world is ablaze?” No one thought, “How many divisions has Myra Hess?” or “What is the firepower of a Mozart rondo?” Everyone understood that these concerts, of no account in the material or military sense, were a defiant gesture of humanity and culture in the face of unprecedented brutality. They were what the war was about. They were a statement of the belief that nothing could or ever can vitiate the value of civilization; and no historical revisionism, however cynical, will ever subvert this noble message.
I recall as well a story told by the philosopher Sir Karl Popper, an Austrian refugee who made his home in Britain. Four cultivated men in Berlin, as they awaited their expected arrest by the Gestapo, spent their last night together—possibly their last night on earth—playing a Beethoven quartet. In the event, they were not arrested; but they too had expressed by their action their faith that civilization transcends barbarism, that notwithstanding the apparent inability of civilization at the time to resist the onslaught of the barbarians, civilization was still worth defending. Indeed, it is the only thing worth defending, because it is what gives, or should give, meaning to our lives.
Of course, civilization is not only an attachment to the highest peaks of human achievement. It relies for its maintenance upon an infinitely complex and delicate tissue of relations and activities, some humble and others grand. The man who sweeps the streets plays his part as surely as the great artist or thinker.
Civilization is the sum total of all those activities that allow men to transcend mere biological existence and reach for a richer mental, aesthetic, material, and spiritual life.
An attachment to high cultural achievement is thus a necessary but not sufficient condition of civilization—for it is said that concentration-camp commandants wept in the evening over Schubert lieder after a hard day’s mass murder—and no one would call such men civilized. On the contrary, they were more like ancient barbarians who, having overrun and sacked a civilized city, lived in the ruins, because they were still far better than anything they could build themselves. The first requirement of civilization is that men should be willing to repress their basest instincts and appetites: failure to do which makes them, on account of their intelligence, far worse than mere beasts.
I grew up in secure and comfortable circumstances, give or take an emotional problem or two; but an awareness of the fragility of civilization was instilled early, though subliminally, by the presence in London during my childhood of large numbers of unreconstructed bomb sites that were like the gaps between the rotting teeth in an old man’s mouth. Often I played in small urban wildernesses of weeds and rubble, and rather regretted their gradual disappearance; but even so, I could hardly fail to see, in the broken fragments of human artifacts and in the plasterwork with wallpaper still attached, the meaning of the destruction that had been wrought before I was born.
Then there were the bomb shelters, in which I passed a surprising number of childhood hours. They were ubiquitous in my little world: in the school playgrounds and the parks, for example. That entry to them was forbidden made them irresistibly attractive, of course. Their darkness and fungal dampness added to their attraction: they were pleasantly frightening; one never quite knew who or what one might find in them. Had I been inclined to smoke, instead of being instantly sickened by nicotine, that is where—like so many of my friends—I would have learned to do so. And many a first sexual exploration took place in those inauspicious surroundings.
Despite the uses to which we put them, however, we were always aware of the purpose for which they had been built. Somehow, the shades of those who had sheltered in them, not so very long before, were still present. The Blitz was within every adult’s living memory: my mother’s apartment building had been bombed, and she woke one morning with half of it gone, one of her rooms now open directly to the air. In my house, as in many other households, there was a multivolume pictorial history of the war, over which I pored for entire mornings or afternoons, until I knew every picture by heart. One of them was ever present in my mind when I entered a bomb shelter with my friends: that of two young children, both blind, in just such a shelter, their sightless eyes turned upward to the sound of the explosions above them, a heartrending look of incomprehension on their faces.
More than anything else, however, the fact that my mother was herself a refugee from Nazi Germany contributed to my awareness that security—the feeling that nothing could change seriously for the worse, and that the life that you had was invulnerable—was illusory and even dangerous. She showed us, my brother and me, photographs (some of them sepia) of her life in pre-Nazi Germany: a prosperously bourgeois existence of that time, from the look of it, with chauffeurs and large cars, patriarchs in winged collars conspicuously smoking cigars, women in feather boas, picnics by lakes, winter in the mountains, and so forth. There were photos of my grandfather, a doctor decorated for his military service during the Great War, in his military uniform, a loyal subject of the Kaiser. And then—suddenly—nothing: a prolonged pictorial silence, until my mother emerged into a new, less luxurious but more ordinary (because familiar), life.
She had left Germany when she was 17 and never saw her parents again. If it could happen to her, why not to me or indeed to anyone? I didn’t believe it would, but then neither had she or anyone else. The world, or that little part of it that I inhabited, that appeared so stable, calm, solid, and dependable—dull even—had shakier foundations than most people most of the time were willing to suppose.
As soon as I was able, I began to travel. Boredom, curiosity, dissatisfaction, a taste for the exotic and for philosophical inquiry drove me. It seemed to me that comparison was the only way to know the value of things, including political arrangements. But travel is like good fortune in the famous remark of Louis Pasteur: it favors only the mind prepared. To an extent, one brings back from it only what one takes to it: and I chose my countries with unconscious care and thereby received many object lessons in the fragility of the human order, especially when it is undermined in the abstract name of justice. It is often much easier to bring about total disaster than modest improvement.
Many of the countries I visited—Iran, Afghanistan, Mozambique—soon descended into the most terrible chaos. Their peace had always been flawed, of course: as which is not? I learned that the passion to destroy, far from being “also” a constructive one, as the famous but foolish remark of the Russian anarchist Bakunin would have it, soon becomes autonomous, unattached to any other purpose but indulged in purely for the pleasure that destruction itself brings. I remember watching rioters in Panama, for example, smashing shop windows, allegedly in the name of freedom and democracy, but laughing as they did so, searching for new fields of glass to conquer. Many of the rioters were obviously bourgeois, the scions of privileged families, as have been the leaders of so many destructive movements in modern history. That same evening, I dined in an expensive restaurant and saw there a fellow diner whom I had observed a few hours before joyfully heaving a brick through a window. How much destruction did he think his country could bear before his own life might be affected, his own existence compromised?
As I watched the rioters at play, I remembered an episode from my childhood. My brother and I took a radio out onto the lawn and there smashed it into a thousand pieces with croquet mallets. With a pleasantly vengeful fury, as if performing a valuable task, we pursued every last component with our mallets until we had pulverized it into unrecognizability. The joy we felt was indescribable; but where it came from or what it meant, we knew not. Within our small souls, civilization struggled with barbarism: and had we suffered no retribution, I suspect that barbarism’s temporary victory would have been more lasting.
But why did we feel the need to revolt in this fashion? At such a remove in time, I cannot reconstruct my own thoughts or feelings with any certainty: but I suspect that we rebelled against our own powerlessness and lack of freedom, which we felt as a wound, by comparison with what we saw as the omnipotence and complete freedom of action of the grown-ups in our lives. How we longed to grow up, so that we might be like them, free to do as we liked and give orders to others, as they gave orders to us! We never suspected that adulthood would bring its own frustrations, responsibilities, and restrictions: we looked forward to the time when our own whim would be law, when our egos would be free to soar wherever they chose. Until then, the best we could do was to rebel against a symbol of our subjection to others. If we could not be as adults were, we could at least destroy a little of the adults’ world.
I saw the revolt against civilization and the restraints and frustrations it entails in many countries, but nowhere more starkly than in Liberia in the midst of the civil war there. I arrived in Monrovia when there was no longer any electricity or running water; no shops, no banks, no telephones, no post office; no schools, no transport, no clinics, no hospitals. Almost every building had been destroyed in whole or in part: and what had not been destroyed had been looted.
I inspected the remains of the public institutions. They had been destroyed with a thoroughness that could not have been the result of mere military conflict. Every last piece of equipment in the hospitals (which had long since been emptied of staff and patients) had been laboriously disassembled beyond hope of repair or use. Every wheel had been severed by metal cutters from every trolley, cut at the cost of what must have been a very considerable effort. It was as if a horde of people with terrible experiences of hospitals, doctors, and medicine had passed through to exact their revenge.
But this was not the explanation, because every other institution had undergone similar destruction. The books in the university library had been one and all—without exception—pulled from the shelves and piled into contemptuous heaps, many with pages torn from them or their spines deliberately broken. It
was the revenge of barbarians upon civilization, and of the powerless upon the powerful, or at least upon what they perceived as the source of their power. Ignorance revolted against knowledge, for the same reasons that my brother and I smashed the radio all those years before. Could there have been a clearer indication of hatred of the lower for the higher?
In fact there was—and not very far away, in a building called the Centennial Hall, where the inauguration ceremonies of the presidents of Liberia took place. The hall was empty now, except for the busts of former presidents, some of them overturned, around the walls—and a Steinway grand piano, probably the only instrument of its kind in the entire country, two-thirds of the way into the hall. The piano, however, was not intact: its legs had been sawed off (though they were by design removable) and the body of the piano laid on the ground, like a stranded whale. Around it were disposed not only the sawed-off legs, but little piles of human feces.
I had never seen a more graphic rejection of human refinement. I tried to imagine other possible meanings of the scene but could not. Of course, the piano represented a culture that was not fully Liberia’s own and had not been assimilated fully by everyone in the country: but that the piano represented not just a particular culture but the very idea of civilization itself was obvious in the very coarseness of the gesture of contempt.
Appalled as I was by the scene in the Centennial Hall, I was yet more appalled by the reaction of two young British journalists, also visiting Monrovia, to whom I described it, assuming that they would want to see for themselves. But they could see nothing significant in the vandalizing of the piano—only an inanimate object, when all is said and done—in the context of a civil war in which scores of thousands of people had been killed and many more had been displaced from their homes. They saw no connection whatever between the impulse to destroy the piano and the impulse to kill, no connection between respect for human life and for the finer productions of human labor, no connection between civilization and the inhibition against the random killing of fellow beings, no connection between the book burnings in Nazi Germany and all the subsequent barbarities of that regime. Likewise, the fact that the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution in China had destroyed thousands of pianos while also killing 1 million people conveyed no meaning or message to them.
If anything, they “understood” the destruction of the piano in the Centennial Hall and even sympathized with it. The “root cause” of Liberia’s civil war, they said, had been the long dominance of an elite—in the same way, presumably, that poverty is often said to be the “root cause” of crime. The piano was an instrument, both musical and political, of that elite, and therefore its destruction was itself a step in the direction of democracy, an expression of the general will.
This way of thinking about culture and civilization—possible only for people who believe that the comforts and benefits they enjoy are immortal and indestructible—has become almost standard among the intelligentsia of Western societies. The word civilization itself now rarely appears in academic texts or in journalism without the use of ironical quotation marks, as if civilization were a mythical creature, like the Loch Ness monster or the Abominable Snowman, and to believe in it were a sign of philosophical naïveté. Brutal episodes, such as are all too frequent in history, are treated as demonstrations that civilization and culture are a sham, a mere mask for crassly material interests—as if there were any protection from man’s permanent temptation to brutality except his striving after civilization and culture. At the same time, achievements are taken for granted, as always having been there, as if man’s natural state were knowledge rather than ignorance, wealth rather than poverty, tranquillity rather than anarchy. It follows that nothing is worthy of, or requires, protection and preservation, because all that is good comes about as a free gift of Nature.
To paraphrase Burke, all that is necessary for barbarism to triumph is for civilized men to do nothing: but in fact for the past few decades, civilized men have done worse than nothing—they have actively thrown in their lot with the barbarians. They have denied the distinction between higher and lower, to the invariable advantage of the latter. They have denied the superiority of man’s greatest cultural
achievements over the most ephemeral and vulgar of entertainments; they have denied that the scientific labors of brilliant men have resulted in an objective understanding of Nature, and, like Pilate, they have treated the question of truth as a jest; above all, they have denied that it matters how people conduct themselves in their personal lives, provided only that they consent to their own depravity. The ultimate object of the deconstructionism that has swept the academy like an epidemic has been civilization itself, as the narcissists within the academy try to find a theoretical justification for their own revolt against civilized restraint. And thus the obvious truth—that it is necessary to repress, either by law or by custom, the permanent possibility in human nature of brutality and barbarism—never finds its way into the press or other media of mass communication.
For the last decade, I have been observing close-up, from the vantage point of medical practice, the effects upon a large and susceptible population of the erosion of civilized standards of conduct brought about by the assault upon them by intellectuals. If Joseph Conrad were to search nowadays for the heart of darkness—the evil of human conduct untrammeled by the fear of legal sanction from without or of moral censure from within—he would have to look no further than an English city such as mine.
And how can I not be preoccupied with the search for the origins and ramifications of this evil when every working day I come upon stories like the one I heard today—the very day I write these words?
It concerns a young man aged 20, who still lived with his mother, and who had tried to kill himself. Not long before, his mother’s current boyfriend, a habitual drunkard ten years her junior, had, in a fit of jealousy, attacked the mother in the young man’s presence, grabbing her round the throat and strangling her. The young man tried to intervene, but the older man was not only six inches taller but much stronger. He knocked the young man to the ground and kicked him several times in the head. Then he dragged him outside and smashed his head on the ground until he was unconscious and blood ran from a deep wound.
The young man regained consciousness in the ambulance, but his mother insisted that he give no evidence to the police because, had he done so, her lover would have gone to jail: and she was most reluctant to give up a man who was, in his own words to the young man’s 11-year-old sister, “a better f—k than your father.” A little animal pleasure meant more to the mother than her son’s life; and so he was confronted by the terrifying realization that, in the words of Joseph Conrad, he was born alone, he lived alone, and would die alone.
Who, in listening to such cases day after day and year after year, as I have, could fail to wonder what ideas and what social arrangements have favored the spread of conduct so vile that its contemplation produces almost physical nausea? How can one avoid driving oneself to distraction by considering who is more to blame, the man who behaves as I have described, or the woman who accepts such behavior for the sake of a moment’s pleasure?
This brutality is now a mass phenomenon rather than a sign of individual psychopathology. Recently, I went to a soccer game in my city on behalf of a newspaper; the fans of the opposing teams had to be separated by hundreds of policemen, disposed in military fashion. The police allowed no contact whatever between the opposing factions, shepherding or corraling the visiting fans into their own area of the stadium with more security precautions than the most dangerous of criminals ever faces.
In the stadium, I sat next to a man, who appeared perfectly normal and decent, and his 11-year-old son, who seemed a well-behaved little boy. Suddenly, in the middle of the match, the father leaped up and, in unison with thousands of others, began to chant: “Who the f—k do you think you are? Who the f—k do you think you are?” while making, also in common with thousands of others, a threatening gesture in the direction of the opposing supporters that looked uncommonly like a fascist salute. Was this the example he wanted to set for his son? Apparently so. The frustrations of poverty could hardly explain his conduct: the cost of the tickets to the game could have fed a family more than adequately for a week.
After the game was over, I saw more clearly than ever that the thin blue line is no metaphor. Had it not been for the presence of the police (whose failures I have never hesitated to criticize), there would have been real violence and bloodshed, perhaps even death. The difference between an event that passed off peacefully and one that would end in mayhem, destruction, injury, and death was the presence of a relative handful of resolute men prepared to do their duty.
Despite the evidence of rising barbarism all around us, no betrayal is too trivial for the Quislings of civilization to consider worthwhile. Recently, at the airport, I noticed an advertisement for a firm of elegant and costly shirt- and tie-makers, headquartered in London’s most expensive area. The model they chose to advertise their products was a shaven-headed, tattooed monster, with scars on his scalp from bar brawls—the human type that beats women, carries a knife, and throws punches at soccer games. The advertisement is not ironical, as academic cultural critics would pretend, but an abject capitulation to and flattery of the utmost coarseness and brutality. Savagery is all the rage.
If any good comes of the terrible events in New York, let it be this: that our intellectuals should realize that civilization is worth defending, and that the adversarial stance to tradition is not the beginning and end of wisdom and virtue. We have more to lose than they know.