July/August 2002 -- BOOK REVIEW: Discontents: Postmodern & Postcommunist. By Paul Hollander. (Piscataway: New Jersey. Transaction Publishers, 2002. 430 pp. $39.95.) Buy at Amazon.com .
This is a collection of essays and reviews by an American sociologist who for some forty years has been slugging it out in academic journals, books, and, presumably, the classroom and faculty club with Left-liberal intellectuals and, more recently, postmodernists. Not infrequently, they are the same person, and in Paul Hollander's view the collapse of communism has had much to do with this morphing of the Left-liberal intellectual into the postmodernist. This becomes a premise for organizing a decade's worth of essays into a volume with seemingly disparate sections: "American Society and the Discontents of Postmodernity" and "Soviet Communism: Its Fall and Aftermath."
Melding these subjects makes sense if you have pondered some version of the following line of inquiry: Why has so much less been written about communist mass murder than the Nazi Holocaust? Why has one of the political earthquakes of our time, the collapse of Soviet communism, been so quickly forgotten by American academic social engineers? In particular, now that new information is being released about the Soviet record, where are the analyses of the connections between theory (Marxism) and practice—including the practice of mass murder—in communist societies?
How did, and do, intellectuals find Western societies so intolerably unjust with the examples of the Soviet Union, Cuba, Vietnam, and China as an obvious standard of comparison. And why, now that the market economy and political freedom have won the Cold War, demonstrating their appeal to peoples everywhere, have so many intellectuals intensified their attack on America as the epitome of inhumanity, corruption, and repression?
These are the questions that Hollander poses. He brings to the job not only the tools of the sociologist but a distinctive personal intellectual asset. He grew up in Hungary in a Jewish family and, with the defeat of the Nazis, hailed the Soviets as liberators, despite an orgy of rape and looting by the Red Army, which he witnessed. In "Growing Up in Communist Hungary" he describes the period of 1944 to 1956, the years when he was 16 to 28, which began with his embracing communism as the savior of the Jews. Step by step, his freedoms were drained away. Discussion was replaced by indoctrination; his family was forcibly relocated to a rural village because his uncle had been a "capitalist"; he was drafted into the army and put in a labor battalion (as the unreliable grandson of a capitalist); he was forced to attend political seminars (and look alert), and later told where to live and work. In 1956, when the Soviets invaded Hungary to put down the anticommunist revolt and the Hungarian freedom fighters failed for lack of assistance from the West, he joined the exodus over the border. "From then on," he writes, "I ceased to be buffeted by historical events and forces; in the West there were more choices to make and the problems to be faced were no longer political."
Without reading the essay, it is difficult for a Westerner to grasp fully the sense of relief and liberation expressed in that statement. In Hungary, under communism, Hollander was not imprisoned or tortured; he was not in a concentration camp. He went on with his daily life. He was quite simply no longer free. What is more, the system justified this repression by reference to his group identity, his inherited economic class. It is this experience that brings passion to his well-informed assessments of the postmodernist charges that America represses women, homosexuals, and minorities; that there was moral equivalence between America and the Soviet Union; that prosperity under capitalism smothers the soul; and that in the "politics of identity" lies the path to civic harmony.
Objectivists will not object to Hollander's characterization of postmodernism:
For the postmodernist "truth" and perceptions of reality are completely "contextual" and "situational."… Postmodernism is…associated with a wide range of anti-Western positions and especially the rejection of Western rationality, science, belief in reason, and other Enlightenment values.
Hollander writes that postmodernists "regard the Enlightenment and its values themselves as a tradition, and a particularly pernicious and oppressive one." By the way, he ascribes the first introduction of the concept to the historian Arnold Toynbee, who half a century ago saw in postmodernism the seeds of a fundamental attack on the structures of Western civilization.
It helps to map Hollander's conceptual geography, because in an essay collection the landscape necessarily is revealed in a series of overlapping passes. "Postmodern" refers to a philosophical framework, not a historical era. It is a framework defined largely by reaction against the Enlightenment view that reason can identify principles, values, a culture, and a society that, at least in their fundamentals, are valid for all men. Postmodernism rejects this and, writes Hollander, has "a special, new emphasis on localism, particularism, and relativism (moral, political, historical, and aesthetic)." The postmodernist admires primitive cultures (is tribalist), rejects principles (is anti-conceptual), and scorns an integrated view of man and the world (is anti-philosophical).
The "discontents" of the book's title are linked to postmodernism in different ways: some as emotional consequences, some as ideological implications, and some as excuses for attacking what postmodernists dislike. Thus, the discontents range from old-fashioned alienation from the self-responsibility required by capitalism; to a genuine sense of uneasiness that our values no longer yield satisfaction; to the tantrums of the radical feminists, protestors against global capitalism, and sundry ethnic groups. Hollander looks longest at this last: the "comprehensive rejection of [Western] society" as racist, patriarchal, and Eurocentric—in short, a society in need of multiculturalism, egalitarianism, and affirmative action. Those who once saw communism as a cure for the ills of modernity have turned to identity politics and the new industry of discovering groups of victims who must be compensated for injustices inflicted by American society.
Although Hollander's characterization of postmodernism identifies its essentials, he approaches his subject as a sociologist (a good one, that is, since he has much to say about the failures of his discipline). He puts flesh on the bones of postmodernism in its impact on education, literature, films, science, sociology, law enforcement, and anthropology, to name but a few. For example, the book's lead essay, "Godfather II: The New American Tragedy," probes the moral bewilderment of our era and the ugly quest for salvation in power (but, weirdly, also in traditional values).
The experiment with a better society is even now being made on the campuses of colleges and universities under the name "political correctness." This society is self-righteously racist, making decisions such as admissions and, increasingly, the content of the curriculum based on racial profiling. It is repressive, prescribing speech codes in the name of multiculturalism and sensitivity. It is decidedly anti-intellectual because ideas, principles, and reason itself are interpreted away as rationalizations of power-seeking by one group or another (unless the ideas relate to political correctness itself, and are thus absolute truths). And it is, quite simply, not doing its job—education—very well. Hollander writes: "Also associated with PC is the decline in academic standards across the board and grade inflation. PC is behind the multiplication of special-interest-group programs…and curricular changes based on non-intellectual criteria."
Postmodernists have an enemy, however, and have no doubt about its identity. In "The Attack on Science and Reason," Hollander asks: "What really ails the academic Left, the ideological survivors of the sixties, and the adversary culture…?" His answer is "modernity itself" and what makes it possible—reason and science:
As the representatives of the protest movements of the sixties and adherents of the adversary culture settled down to academic life, the attacks on science emerged as their major shared preoccupation.
The attack is seldom (yet) on science as such. Just as the Nazis rejected "Jewish science" and Marxists rejected
"bourgeois science," postmodernists reject Western science but embrace multiculturalist, Afrocentrist, or feminist versions of science as more authentic. In so doing, they contribute to scientific illiteracy as "whole school districts adopt texts produced by manifestly unqualified people." Still worse, the ability to communicate, which rests on acceptance of reason and standards of evidence, declines. Hollander writes that "hopes of persuasion through rational argument are greatly diminished; the notion of rationality itself is under attack." The issue becomes not the idea but its source: Is it a duly recognized postmodernist group? This is decadence, the rotting away of the standards that support modern society as such.
There is an element of farce in political correctness, a sense of being suffocated under an avalanche of frivolity. In "Imagined Tyranny," Hollander's dissection of political correctness, he notes that more than 80 percent of Smith College girls reported in a survey being subjected to some type of discrimination or insensitivity. There is no lighter side, however, when Hollander turns to his other subject: how twentieth-century intellectuals have treated communism—its ideals and actuality, its mass murders, and its unpredicted collapse across Europe.
The experiment with communism during the twentieth century must be ranked among the worst catastrophes in human history. This catastrophe engulfed more than one third of the world's population, who lost their freedom, their wealth, and often their lives. Further, the experiment began at a time when most of the world was moving—sometimes slowly, sometimes headlong—toward increased freedom and economic well-being. Parts of the world that did not come under communism were forced into massive expenditures of manpower and money to defend themselves against it. They also lost the contributions of trade, discovery, invention, and other human achievement that freer societies would have brought to the world.
In "The Crimes of Communism," Hollander reviews a book recently published in France that undertakes to catalog in just under 900 pages the human toll of communism worldwide. This is Hollander's brief résumé of the approximately 100 million victims killed (not including by planned famines and wars): USSR, 20 million (a rather conservative estimate); China, 65 million; Cambodia, 2 million; North Korea, 2 million; Afghanistan, 1.5 million; Eastern Europe, 1 million; Latin America, 150,000.
Wouldn't you think a catastrophe of this size would warrant serious study, impassioned discussion in classrooms, a PBS special or two, an occasional movie, and a persistent effort to understand why? These things exist, of course, but in numbers so modest—and so largely outside the American intellectual establishment and so ignored by it—as to indict the motives of generations of intellectuals. In "American Sociology and the Collapse of Communism," Hollander asks: "Why had so many social scientists missed the opportunity to examine the major and monumental experiment in social engineering...?" And: "Why had they no appetite for comparing the two outstanding bloodbaths of the century and the conditions that made them possible, the Nazi campaigns of extermination and the mass murders associated with Stalin?"
His answers are perceptive. As befits a sociologist, he talks about different groups of intellectuals in different contexts and with different motives. For some, like his fellow sociologists, their conceptual tools are no longer up to the job. A generation of scholars who routinely dismiss objectivity have turned their discipline into an arena for political struggle.
"Theory building" is dismissed as "abstract, academic, and irrelevant to the urgent political tasks of the day." They no longer know how to raise important questions and seek truthful answers. For the many Marxists, the essential, self-evident ethical superiority" of communism's goals makes it obvious, in advance of any analysis, that Soviet-communist practice cannot have been the result of Marxist theory. Besides, there are benefits to moving on "to new preoccupations like multiculturalism, identity politics, postmodernism, deconstruction, or radical feminism." This new packaging of tribalism and anticapitalism is in any case more congenial to postmodernists. Marxism, after all, still retains a concern with Enlightenment values such as rationality and material progress.
Although he deals at length with the idealism of the early socialists, and even quotes Marxists who were led to the cause through Christianity, he nowhere suggests what Ayn Rand identified as the core issue: that socialism is the embodiment of the altruist morality, its results the logical consequences of altruism, and that few—even among anticommunists—dare indict altruism and uphold rational selfishness. Hollander gets as far as suggesting that communism justified murder in the name of transforming human nature in the image of its ideal. But what ideal? The perfect human society. But perfect by what code of morality, by what standard? The answer he does not give is the one, ironically, that the decades have made the most widely quoted of Marx's principles: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."
Refusing to question the morality of sacrificing ability to need, intellectuals of the Left first advocated communism and led its revolutions. They then ignored its devastation and whitewashed its record as long as possible. They then justified the means, the unending brutality, by reference to the ends. They attacked and belittled anticommunists. They equated their own country with the Soviet Union as two dangerous, corrupt giants. They supported communist wars of liberation around the world, hoping to see "real" socialism emerge at last in Vietnam, Cambodia, or Nicaragua. They ignored the landmark political event of the twentieth century or, when they commented on it, studiously avoided linking communist theory and ideals with communist practice and its collapse. They then tried to forget the whole thing and turned the full force of their criticism and scorn on their real enemy: the country founded to protect man's right to pursue his own individual happiness.
Readers of Navigator may wonder—as they watch Hollander seek the roots of the communist mentality, asking repeatedly why so few intellectuals looked at communist theory in the light of its practice—if he ever mentions Ayn Rand. After all, here is a man who has taught in American universities for four decades, carefully studied the fortunes of anticommunists on the American scene, and himself escaped as a young man from a communist country. It seems that he might have run across Ayn Rand's name. If so, you cannot tell from this book, which never once mentions her in 430 pages rich with discussion of writers, intellectuals, actors, and academics.
I do not wish to belabor this. In an era obsessed with "victims," Discontents summons us to look at the reality of 100 million unnecessary, mostly agonizing deaths in the name of an altruist moral ideal that we still venerate, that still cloaks the steady growth of political power, and that still actuates hostility to the essence of the American dream. Hollander's is not a dispassionate postmortem on the toll taken by altruism and its political expression, which is collectivism. It is ample evidence that the virus of altruism mutates into protean forms, disarms its victims and their potential defenders, and leaves in its wake mass graves.
Walter Donway , a trustee of The Atlas Society, is editor of Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science, a quarterly published by the Dana Press.
This article was originally published in the July/August issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.