A thought occurred to me as I was traveling through the North Carolina Piedmont last week. The notion didn’t have to do with my location but was instead prompted by the lecture I was listening to on the way.
It was one of an excellent series on the world’s political hot spots issued by a company called Knowledge Products. Part history, part current affairs, these productions were an excellent introduction to unfamiliar places and a good refresher on familiar ones.
Listening to the lecture on the history of Central Europe got me thinking about Germany’s role in the rise of totalitarianism. It didn’t start with the Nazis in the 1920s. The seeds were planted decades before, in London of all places. There, German expatriates Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels gave the European socialist movements of the 19th century a harder and more revolutionary edge with their publication of The Communist Manifesto and other works.
The spread of Marxism prompted a reaction from threatened elites and European intellectuals who tried to articulate a “Third Way” between communism and capitalism. Their efforts resulted in Otto von Bismarck’s welfare state and copycat quasi-socialist legislation in France, Britain, Scandinavia, and South America. (American populism and progressivism at the turn of the century were relatively moderate reflections of this worldwide revolution in ideas; it took war and depression to pave the way for true social-democratic legislation in the U.S.)
Later, post-WWI socialists such as Mussolini and Hitler married their totalitarian economics with national (Italy) or racial (Germany) appeals to create fascism. Both Marxism and fascism were then exported from Europe into the Third World, where regimes as disparate as Peron in Argentina, the strongman states of liberated Africa, Chinese Communists, and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia all adapted collectivist ideologies to their own nefarious ends.
What’s my point? The ensuing regimes weren’t simply glorified kleptocracies. They weren’t just new versions of the old-style despotisms of hereditary kings and nomadic khans who’d ruled over most of the globe for most of human history. These were ideological states where millions of people were persuaded to embrace and act on ideas that were, at their heart, evil.
The results were destitution, destruction, and death. Tens of millions of deaths — of civilians at the instigation of their leaders, not counting deaths of combatants in wartime.
I say all of this to make a point about ideas. Conservatives like to quote North Carolina native Richard Weaver’s observation that “ideas have consequences.” The phrase is intended as a rebuttal to those, often firmly ensconced in the Neverland of academia, who see history as merely the unfolding of class conflicts or other impersonal forces.
Ideas are powerful. They change minds and motivate behavior. They are also potentially dangerous. To take ideas seriously in an academic context should be to examine them thoroughly, to seek real understanding by considering alternative explanations and competing points of view. Provocation is not the goal. Mere familiarity is not the goal. During much of the 20th century, elites from around the world sent their children to Paris to study at “universities” that consisted of little more than indoctrination factories for the fashionable socialist ideologies of the day. These students learned, all right. They learned just enough of this rot to go home and try it out on their countrymen, many of whom suffered and starved and died.
By all means, young people should study influential ideas. They should study evil ideas. I certainly believe students should read The Communist Manifesto. But they should also read selections from perceptive critiques of totalitarianism, such as North Carolina native Thomas Sowell’s masterful book Marxism and Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies. With these works under their belts, students can view modern history’s pageant of tragedies with clearer eyes.
This is an example of taking ideas seriously. And seriousness is what they deserve. Never let anyone suggest that a book can’t be dangerous. Millions of ghosts would beg to differ.