The end of World War II found the universalist principle everywhere triumphant.
The two superpowers that inherited the world represented the two poles of democratic universalism at its most stringent and abstract. The United States, Lincoln had insisted at Gettysburg, stood apart from other nations in being dedicated to a “proposition”: that all were created equal. The history of the country could be interpreted as an immense odyssey, full of mishaps and struggle, toward the conclusions made necessary by this premise. Given the persistence of Jim Crow and political bossism, much distance remained on the journey – yet progress along this virtuous trajectory, by itself, allowed Americans to reject the contradiction between equality and freedom. To the American mind, both were God-given. Lincoln’s proposition unlocked an extensive domain of contingency in which everything became possible, including the reconciliation of the universal to the particular. The work of government, therefore, was to protect the rights of the individual in his pilgrimage to that vast frontier, no less than to enforce equality.
Despite the inevitable contradictions of American society, the US government assumed leadership of the free world as a universal mandate, unencumbered by hypocrisy or irony.
The Soviet Union, for its part, espoused universal doctrines at their most extreme – but with a difference. Stalin ruled a one-party dictatorship in the name of democracy, and he institutionalized state terror to impose equality. The moral inversions of revolution were for him extended indefinitely in time. The USSR was governed as if by a small band of conspirators, with constant denunciations of “deviationists” and “saboteurs,” opaquely sectarian trials, and deportations, assassinations, and massacres on an unprecedented scale. The bloodshed was sanctified in the birth of a “new man”: Marxism-Leninism always claimed ownership of the perfect future. That was its seductive charm. The classless society, final solution to all human contradictions, hovered just beneath the horizon. Stalin invented the totalitarian state and terrorized his own people to end, by brute force, the oppressive cycles of history. After two world wars, many thoughtful observers were willing to embrace this Faustian bargain.
The 45-year collision between the US and the USSR – that is, between unequal freedom and undemocratic equality – has been called the Cold War, but the label scarcely does justice to the realities of the age. Tens of millions were put to death in the Marxist nations alone, an ideology-driven crime spree that has yet to receive full accounting. The battleground nations – Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, Angola – suffered almost as severely.
The conflict was perceived to be a “war of ideas,” and was hedged with abstractions to a degree unmatched even by the Wars of Religion of the seventeenth century. Universal principles were inflated to the full dimensions of reality, squeezing out the exceptional and the particular. Nationalism was masked in revolutionary jargon. Dictatorships became “democratic republics.” The hot wars of the period were fought for universal reasons in inconsequential places like Korea and Nicaragua. The United Nations, a conflicted, inept bureaucracy, nonetheless retained a sort of science-fictional legitimacy as global arbiter. Other transnational institutions proliferated with abandon, for purposes of war and peace: NATO, SEATO, the Warsaw Pact, the World Trade Organization, COMECON, the Common Market, the various tariff-reduction “rounds.”
Given the terms of the struggle, advantage lay with whichever side could claim the most complete and sincere surrender to democratic universalism. By a curious paradox, this largely favored the totalitarian state. It had crushed individual freedom, ostentatiously, on behalf of “real” democracy and economic justice. The revolutionary faith tolerated judgment only from the skewed perspective of the future: all present horrors would be applauded retrospectively. In the decades after World War II, Marxism-Leninism spread far beyond the European homeland, penetrating nations, Furet writes, with little previous exposure to democracy or Christianity. American failure to hold on to South Vietnam gave this tendency the feel of inevitability. Hordes of Western artists and intellectuals jumped on the Soviet bandwagon, afraid to be left behind by history.
In contrast, the US faced the charge that it was a merely bourgeois democracy: an empire of selfishness and alienation festering under the cover of individual rights. Marxist analysis, which many intellectuals endorsed, denied the universal reach of the American adventure. To be bourgeois was to be ruled by money – the most repulsive kind of particularism. Events, from Vietnam and race riots to campus revolts and the baffling Watergate scandal, appeared to confirm that the nation was indeed a house divided. By 1979, a sitting president could warn of “the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives” and “the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”
Yet Jimmy Carter was an anomaly. US governments and elites responded to the Cold War with a sustained effort to align national life with the universal abstractions it was expected to embody. The particularism of the South with regards to race was finally obliterated. Local political machines were reformed out of existence. The welfare state grew enormously to compensate for the inequalities of freedom. Intermediate entities, like the states and the parties, were drained of much of their authority. The presidency towered over politics, and the political process was made more inclusive and democratic, hence more unpredictable. From 1945 to 1980, the pull of the universal transformed American society. The election of Ronald Reagan completed the process by raising to office the most visionary American leader since Woodrow Wilson – and the most militant defender of personal freedom, it may be, since Thomas Jefferson.
There is no doubt that material causes featured prominently in the discrediting of Marxism-Leninism and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Soviet economy couldn’t compete with the US. Reagan’s weapons build-up pushed the old men in the Kremlin to desperate measures. In this context, the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev appear as a forlorn attempt to lash the egalitarianism of the one-party dictatorship to the productive superiority of liberalism. The gamble proved fatal: Gorbachev, putative savior of the USSR, made history as its undertaker. The contradiction he sought to bridge was too immense and fundamental.
Other contradictions, arising from the “war of ideas,” contributed to the downfall of the Soviet system.
The Soviet Union was a nation and an engine of revolution. It had particular interests and a universal mission. Tension was inevitable and could not be papered over by phrases like “national Bolshevism” or “socialism in one country.” Stalin openly stoked Russian patriotism in response to the German invasion of 1941. The Third International was dissolved in 1943. After the war, Soviet troops occupied East Europe and set up puppet regimes by brute force rather than revolution. Revolts were suppressed in blood and iron. The 1968 “Prague Spring,” which held out hope for “socialism with a human face,” was crushed under the tread of Soviet tanks – alienating, at long last, much of the European intellectual class. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union began a long march to particularism that would end only with its own dismemberment. The schism with Mao Zedong’s China was a decisive juncture along this path. If the two great Marxist-Leninist nations were now divorced, who retained ownership of the future?
The idea of revolution stood at the heart of the riddle. Revolution was the reason for the Soviet Union’s existence, yet by the 1960s the heirs to October 1917 ruled over a nuclear superpower and a restive empire. Radical political change was a threat, not a friend. Neither Marx nor his philosophy of history, in any case, had much to say about the atomic age. The fires of Leninism had failed to forge a new Soviet humanity: the classless society, like the Christian end-times, retreated to the realm of myth and hope. At the same time, the savagery of the Soviet past, long buried under a mass of propaganda, began to seep into the light. Khrushchev repudiated Stalin’s “cult of personality,” before being shunted off to make way for a succession of cautious Party apparatchiks. The publication of The Gulag Archipelago in 1973 showed the totalitarian state to be (in the words of Bernard-Henri Lévy) “barbarism with a human face.” Intellectuals in need of revolutionary heroes began to look outside the USSR, among exotic avatars like Mao and Castro. Yet these men were nationalists rather than world redeemers – and Mao’s regime displayed, to the edge of madness, every pathological excess associated with the dream of revolution.
It took a genuine proletarian revolution in Gdansk, Poland, in 1981, to confront the Marxist-Leninist system with the sum of its paralyzing contradictions. The Polish proletariat demanded freedom from the dictatorship of the proletariat. It chose indeterminacy over equality. In the national elections of June 1989 it got just that, setting in motion the process that would lead, five months later, to the fall of the Berlin wall and the cracking apart of the Soviet empire in East Europe.