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Illusions of Progress

by Fergus Downie (February 2013)


One may say almost anything one likes about history except that it is rational. The very word sticks in one’s throat. 
                                               — Joseph Conrad

Connoisseurs of Joseph Conrad’s grimly dystopian novels will be familiar with the vivid portrayals of the anarchist revolutionaries who stalked Europe at the tail end of the Belle Époque, bringing with them the Russian fad for political assassinations which was to rock its major capitals, and create something akin to a moral panic in bourgeoisie society. If for the most part these acts of violence were perpetrated against the kind of minor public official immolated in the opening scene of Under Western Eyes, the disciples of Bakunin and Nechayev nevertheless managed to pull off some spectacular coups – in 1881 the Liberator Tsar Alexander ll was murdered, to be followed by King Umberto of Italy (July 1900) and President McKinley (September 1901). If political power, almost by definition, evaded them, their violent enactments of propaganda by deed have nevertheless left a powerful imprint on the western mind. Modern terrorism, and its idea of refashioning the world through spectacular acts of apocalyptic violence is largely a product of these morbid nihilist speculations turned into deeds.

Not all anarchist followed Nechayev by any means, and earlier generations of anarchist terrorist were in any case sparing of innocent civilians. The Socialist Revolutionary leader Savinkov called off an attack on a Tsarist admiral when it became clear civilians would be killed in the attempt, but this fastidiousness could only appear quaint once Judaeo-Christian morality had been explained away as fetters on the authentic individual. Once the vegetarian quaker prattle went, all that was left was the kind of violent iconoclasm and conspicuous immorality depicted by Dostoyevsky (a key influence on Conrad) in The Possessed; a grim portent of the ideology of murder as self expression later handed down to New Left gurus of progressive violence in the sixties. More of these sordid crutches soon followed. Delivering a thinly veiled defence of McKinley’s murder the singularly noxious Emma Goldman observed that ‘the accumulated forces in our social and economic life, culminating in acts of violence, are similar to the terrors of the atmosphere, manifested in storm and lightning’ an inelegant anticipation of Marxist theories of structural violence which gave so many terrorists in the Red Brigades a catechism in place of a conscience. To have a truly revolutionary impact however more was required than an accumulation of shabby murders of business notables and bureaucrats; the consummate act of terror would be both bloody and powerfully symbolic, and it was in the USA that the most spectacular attack was carried out. The Wall Street bombing of 1920, carried out by followers of the Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani and killing 38 bystanders was the biggest terrorist attack on American soil until the Oklahoma bombing and amounted to precisely that act of gratuitous blasphemy rehearsed in Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent.

Based on a real life attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory by anarchist conspirators, the book contains a striking scene where the handler of an agent provocateur enters imaginatively into the mind of a nihilist terrorist and contemplates the most destructive blow against liberal bourgeoisie society. Advising him on the choice of terrorist targets, Verloc, the Russian First Secretary is clear that such a strike must strike against the spirit of the age

The sacrosanct fetish of today is science, notes Verloc, and only an attack on its temples would have the power to provoke the desired reaction. Such actions must be beyond rationalization;

an attack against a restaurant or a crowded theatre would not serve as an object lesson in the principles of revolutionary anarchism precisely because it could be explained away as an act of wounded pride and class envy’.

Only an attack on science, ‘believed in some mysterious way to be the source of their prosperity’ would be truly effective;

You anarchists should make it clear that you are perfectly determined to make a clean sweep of the whole of creation.

Having an explicitly non-utilitarian character such actions are more likely to instill the atomizing terror which they seek:

Madness alone is truly terrifying in as much as you cannot placate it by threats, persuasion or bribes.

This needless to say is exactly the strategy employed by al Qaeda and its kindred spirits; its vision is resolutely apocalyptical and detached from any localized political objectives. The perennial liberal urge to ascribe a rational purpose to its acts of terrorism persist but this is a self-inflicted delusion – no movement could have made clearer its desire to make a clean sweep of the modern world. To a great extent this failure of imagination is a constitutive rather than incidental error; liberalism is the strongest variant of what Michael Oakeshott referred to as Rationalism in Politics, an intellectual malady which is incapable of picturing politics as concerned with anything other than rational problem solving. If the economy can be moved by the rational pursuit of self interest so can politics which in the Enlightenment schema more often than not collapses into the former. For Both Marxists and Liberals political questions are essentially material ones; the sacrosanct fetish of today is economics. Islamists might murder in a trance of lofty piety declaring we love death as you love life but this must surely be a reflex of material deprivation. Countless Western tax dollars have been wasted on the Gaza strip in the deluded expectation that the politics of potholes will supplant a politics of martyrdom which defies all western canons of reason d’état.

Paul Berman has picked up on this weakness with some aplomb, and his seminal Terror and Liberalism is required reading for anyone who may have missed the parallels with an earlier movement afflicted by the same faux profound aphorisms and bad poetry. In the Thirties countless over-enlightened minds misread Nazism’s cult of bloody martyrdom as a surface grammar emanating from more profound and ultimately scientific causes. The strategy of appeasement rested on the associated delusion that the Nazi state was a rational actor with clearly circumscribed goals (a mistake we are in danger of making with Iran). It should always be borne in mind that the most enlightened minds of the thirties were in the pro-appeasement camp, and few intellectuals epitomized their naïve rationalism more than H.G.Wells, whose works are an encomium to liberal visions of progress in which the scientist replaces the warrior, and the politics is replaced by rational administration. It was Orwell, that great prophet of the 20th century, and himself no stranger to the adolescent charms of Wells' progressivism, who pointed out the dangers of this vision. In the modern age, advanced technology could be pressed into the service of pre-modern beliefs and his inability to shed the ideological delusions of the progressive middle class left him ill prepared to confront the supreme counter-Enlightenment of National Socialism, which for all its horrors could draw on a real motive force.

As Orwell noted:

The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.

Orwell, for his part was convinced that even his progressive creed of socialism would have to be built on the bones of a reconditioned blimp. Men whose hearts had never fluttered at the sight of a union jack would almost certainly flinch when the hour of revolution came, and even Wells at times seemed to realize the inertia of a passionless secular liberalism. His advocacy of a liberal fascism, which Jonah Goldberg has made much mischief with, was recognition of its feeble will to power, and ultimately it was an authentic representative of the ancient regime who was called upon to save the Enlightenment from itself. No less than a hundred years behind the times Churchill harboured a reactionary worldview which served the Free World better than Wells’ desiccated empiricism. He understood fascism well precisely because he felt some of its affective force, and having an essentially tragic vision of the world he could summon the will to choose enemies and fight them with the sense of purpose which our therapeutic delusion is eroding.

The author is a low ranking and over-credentialled functionary of the British welfare state.


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