Kors – Did Western Civilization Survive the 20th Century?
Did Western Civilization Survive the 20th Century?
Alan Charles Kors, Keynote Address to the April,
1999 National Meeting of the Philadelphia Society
(Copyright, Alan Charles Kors;
permission to use any part of this address must be granted by the author)
The very fact that this question might reasonably be posed is in itself alarming, but be not
unnecessarily dismayed. The West, in its various incarnations, has felt the end of its own civilization
almost from the beginning. We do ourselves and our civilization a great disservice, and with the
unbecoming hubris of selfportraiture as victims, if we imagine ourselves the unhappiest of souls at
the unhappiest of times or as the last bearers of the Western torch.
Imagine the question of the end of something akin to Western civilization posed when Athens fell;
when Christian Rome was sacked by barbarians; when the Norsemen ravaged settled Europe;
when feudal warlords reigned unchecked; when, at the end of the first millennium, all signs indicated
a divine disfavor that seemed to presage the of the world; when the Black Death left soul and
society without mooring. Imagine the question posed, by critics of the papacy, when visiting the
decadence and bad faith of 14thcentury Rome, or by Catholic apologists when they saw Western
Christendom rent first in two and then into a multitude of competing sects. Imagine the question
posed during the religious civil wars, or, indeed, during the devastation of the 30 Year’s War, when
Europe became of charnel house of competing militant creeds and dynastic interests. Imagine the
question posed during the Terror, the decades of Revolutionary and then Napoleonic Wars.
Indeed, imagine the question posed on the slaughterfields of World War I, or at Auschwitz, or in
the Gulag. The West is resilient beyond all seeming possibility, and something gives it that resiliency.
The West has survived its barbarians without andmore dreadful yetits own barbaric offspring
within. If it could outlast Attila the Hun, Julius Streicher, and Michael Suslov with nuclear arms, it
surely can outlast Jacques Derrida, Stanley Fish, and the Friends of Bill.
At each moment of seeming dissolution, there were diverse Jeremiahsprofound voices, in rightful
lamentation, who analyzed compellingly the depths to which we had fallen; the almost infinite
remove we were from any light; the loss of something that we never could recover….and yet the
West survived. There was something about its mind, its spirit.
Greece fell, but its philosophers conquered the minds of those who conquered its soil, and, indeed,
its muses touched consciousness and sensibility wherever its language became accessible. It fell, but
when the human bearers Christian Revelation sought a human voice of natural philosophy, by which
to explain, justify, and elaborate upon their beliefs, they found it, almost despite themselves, in
Greece…in first Platonic and neoPlatonic philosophers; later in Aristotle; sometimes, even, in the
Greek skeptics. Greece fell, but its mathematics still measures, actually and metaphorically, the
world. It fell, but its natural conceptual categories still organize our understanding of and debates
about reality and knowledge.
Rome fell, but its language became the lingua franca, and, thus, the natural definitional universe of
Christendom; its history became the great drama by which to understand the glory and the
baseness of political life. The barbarian tribes believed that they had conquered Rome, but Rome,
in greater part, had conquered them, and their descendants called their realm the Holy Roman
Empire, and these terms were not, until much later, empty words.
When the Norsemen came, learning fled to monasteries, and that learning, and, indeed, those
monasteries, eventually conquered the Norse, whose descendants, in Britain, founded universities
that live to this day. How utterly astonishing. It is the last thing that any frightened monk taking
desperate shelter in the 8th century ever could have imagined.
Through natural catastrophe, anarchy, war, and despotisms, the West survived, its religion teaching
always that the greatest of sins was despair, a lesson that each generation needs to relearn afresh.
Conservatives need to relearn that today. The 30 Years War seemed the end of civilization, but its
battles are mostly forgottenindeed, for most of today’s students unknownbut what remains of
that 17th century? Bacon; Galileo; Descartes; Hobbes; Pascal; Bayle; Boyle; Harvey; Huyghens;
Newton; Locke. Louis XIV is a tourist attraction at Versailles; his wars changed precious little. The
conceptual revolution of the West, however, changed a great deal in that same 17th century. It was
born of the very dynamics of the West’s models of learningdisputation, accounting for
appearances, refining inductive and deductive logic now linked to expanded education and to
printing. What happened in the minds of the graduates of Europe’s Christian universities changed
the human relationship to nature, to knowledge, to charity armed with scientia, to the rights of
inquiry and conscience, and to political and economic life. When Galileo was charged with offering
an astronomy that contradicted Scripture, he replied by citing the ancient Fathers of the Church
themselves, above all Augustine, who had insisted that there was but one truth, that it was
consistent, that it shone in nature also, and that no one had the right to tie the faith to what could be
proven false in the created natural world. The Christian West kept the traditions of Greek mind
alive, and, thus, of its own debates, it overthrew the presumptive authority of the past in matters of
natural knowledge and its application. The West believed that we were not cast fatally adrift in this
world, but that we could learn new things and that we could alter the sorry scheme of experience
closer to the heart’s desire for knowledge, order, and well being. It was not Faust, who dreamed of
occult knowledge that would make him a demigod, but Bacon, who commanded that knowledge
proceed from humility and charity, who became the prophet of the great scientific revolution of the
West. Louis XIV is a statue; Bacon is a living force wherever the West touches minds.
It is odd, for any of us at universities, that conservatives should question whether Western
Civilization has survived the 20th century, when all of our colleagues on the cultural Left define that
civilization as a singular hegemony that stands astride the globe. What, after all, is the
"multiculturalism" so ardently but desperately proclaimed in higher education but the belief that there
is a hegemonic Western Civilization that, unchallenged, frames all issues and that provides almost all
modes of understanding? For the socalled multiculturalists, the question is not whether what they
see without complexity as Western Civilization will survive into the 21st century, but whether
anything other than Western Civilization will so survive. Might it be that we should take heart from
their despair, a despair so intense that they are reduced to trying to save the world from us by
doing revolutionary social work among the children of the Ivy League?
What, after all, do they mean by the hegemony of the West? It is not physical colonialism and
imperialism that concern them anymoreas the moral depradations of these, they forget, concerned
so many of you and your heros. No, they see as far more ominous what they term the cultural
colonialism and imperialism of the West, a triumphant colonialism of the mind by a Civilization that
believes in universal categories that transcend its own civilization. The West believes its faiths and
values to be accessible to all human souls. The West believes its science to be a method by which
all human beings, everywhere, can rise above ignorance, superstition, helplessness, and prejudice.
The West believes that there are rights and obligations that belong to humanity qua humanity,
beyond the power of governments and political wills. We despair about our disappearance; the
cultural Left despairs about our transcendent success.
There are profound ironies about the multiculturalist Leftists, so many of which testify precisely to
the dynamism and inescapable appeal of precisely that Western Civilization to whose
dismemberment they are in theory committed. If we took the multiculturalists at their word, they
hold the view that there is no fixed point from which to value or to analyze cultures objectively.
They believe, in theory, that all cultures are inherently equal, rightfully judging themselves from
perspectives relative to themselves. If this were true, of course, their judgments of the injustice,
inequity, and malevolence of Western Culture compared to the rest of the world would be
selfcontradictory of their theory itself. Instead, of course, they sound, at times, like Biblical
prophets calling power to categorical moral duty; or, most commonly, like traditional Western
social critics who in this case have not thought out either their facts or their logic terribly well.
Their selfcontradictions betray their inability to escape from the Civilization they claim so to
despise. In their epistemologythey are the thirdrate heirs of the Greek skeptics and historians,
without even knowing, to their shame, that fact. Their assaults upon dogmatism, at their best, never
rise above the level of the subtleties and paradoxes handed down to us by Sextus Empiricus,
chronicler and compiler of the Greek skeptical tradition. Sextus Empiricus was a bestseller of the
16th century, and widely translated in the 17th century. His writings intellectually delighted
European men of letters, including clerics, many of whom embraced him as a tonic antidote to the
pride of human reason. Many philosophers modified their views of the claims of metaphysics in the
face of such skepticism. The West always has been concerned with the limits of reason and
knowledge, the role of received prejudice and custom, the appropriateness or arrogance of its
metaphysical conclusions, and with the phenomenon of paradox. Indeed, the West has authored
the formal exposition and mental pyrotechnics of such concerns. The heirs of the least subtle forms
of that tradition do not even know their parentage, but their inheritance attests to the dynamism, for
better or worse, of the Western intellectual dialogue itself.
It was the Greeks and their heirsnot any 3rd World critics of postcolonialismwho obsessed so
creatively about the role of King Nomos, of received opinion, of education and prejudgment, of the
seeming relativity of values, beliefs, and taste to time, place, and accident of birth. Montesquieu, in
the 18th century, was profoundly struck by the malleability of the human condition, and by the
relativity of what might seem the most foundational aspects of human existence to geography, time,
and historical vicissitudes. He also saw, however, what our current social constructionists do not
see: that as undeniable as that malleability may be, there is a natural reality that underlies,
conditions, and sets limits to it, and that the relationship of human malleability and natural reality is
the appropriate subject of deep objective study. For Montesquieu, civilizations indeed may flourish
ephemerally without solving real problems of reciprocity, justice, and virtue, but they cannot
survive. Further, for Montesquieu, certain forms of human association may persist for as long as
terror and despotism coerce them, but there is a real human nature and a set of real human needs,
and these will out towards their true ends when that coercion is by chance or struggle lessened.
Montesquieu and, indeed, Enlightenment thinkers in general, often are equally loathed by
conservatives who believe them excessively relativistic and by postmodernists who see them as
excessively dogmatic. In fact, few in the Enlightenment would have disagreed with the observation
that Adam Smith made, in 1759, about "the necessity of justice to the existence of society."
Think on postmodern canon and politics fully to grasp the irony of their proclaimed alienation from
Western thought and value. Their ideologies derive not from nonWestern culture, but from the
internal debates of the West and the products of its educational vitality: from Marcuse, Gramsci,
Marx, Hegel, and Rousseaufrom, in short, the debates that the West always has had with itself.
Their kaleidescopic values eventually return to the West, also. They sought sanctuary in Christian
Churchesthat most medieval of protectionsfor the Leninists of Latin America. They campaign
against, and, indeed, seek asylum in America for the victims of involuntary female circumcision,
citing our notions of legal equality and universal human dignity, not their alleged commitments to the
relativity of all human values and cultures. They seek tenure at universities with medieval traditions
of what the West called "philosophical liberty." They wear ribbons for greater funding of Western
medical research into the causes and cures of AIDS and breast cancer. Hypocrites without
selfknowledge will not bring down this Civilization unless we join them in its demolition and work
even harder than they to do so.
Socalled multiculturalismthe triumph of selfproclaimed despisers of the West in our institutions
of learning and cultureis tragic by what it denies our students in the way of positive learning, but
these lamentable yet insignificant movements will not bring down the edifice of our civilization. They
do not even have the courage to present themselves to the world for what they are; the bolsheviks,
after all, did not present themselves as preserving capitalism.
As presented to the public, multiculturalism will invite the deep study, appreciation, and celebration
of a diversity of cultures, removing legitimacy from any and all claims of cultural superiority. Indeed,
college cafeterias occasionally have their Korean or African food days, cuisine being, in my view,
multiculturalism’s strongest suit. In fact, however, the primary, true meaning of "multiculturalism" is
quite different. It means precisely the following: there is one dominant culture in the West…Greek,
JudeoChristian, and Enlightenment in its sources; the enemy of authentic debate, human freedom,
and altruism everywhere; capitalistic, sexist, racist, and Eurocentric; spreading ignorance, injustice,
despotic power, and poverty everywhere. One hegemonic culture. Any voices that challenge it, and
only those voices that challenge it, are "multicultural," that is, progressive enemies of the singular,
dominant, Satanic culture. That is why neoMarxism in Africa or in among black academics is
multicultural but Thomas Sowell is not; that is why queer theory that attacks the scientific tradition is
multicultural, but gay Log Cabin Republicans are not; that is why the Sandinistas are multicultural,
but the Cuban entrepreneurs of Dade County are not.
The so-called multiculturalists do not mean celebration, deep study, and appreciation of evangelical
Protestants, traditionalist Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, black American Pentacostals., or, to say
the least, or of the gender roles of orthodox Jewish or of Shiite Islamic cultures. They do not mean
a celebration, deep study, and appreciation of any assimilationist immigrant cultures, or of white,
rural Southern cultures. They also do not mean the serious study of West African Benin culture or
of Confucian culture, both requiring linguistic accomplishment and rigorous Western inquiry to
achieve understanding. All that they mean is the appreciation, celebration, and deep study of those
Westernized intellectuals who think exactly the way they do about the nature and causes of
oppression, wherever they are found, and however nonrepresentative those thinkers are of the
broader groups they allegedly represent. They are not multiculturalists….they are Western radicals,
in the Western radical tradition, with the most imperial, dogmatic, and absolutist aspirations of all.
Further, they are the beneficiaries of the Western commitment to intellectual debate instead of
coerced intellectual conformity in the Republic of Letters. They are the beneficiaries of our Western
tolerance of dissent and extreme heterodoxy. They are the beneficiaries of our traditionfrom
Aristotle’s insistence that we overcome all possible arguments against our beliefs; to the medieval
insistence upon sed contra objections in its formal disputations; to Mill’s insistence that beliefs
untested by free criticism are no longer truly alivethat we must consider radical dissent. They are
the beneficiaries of our own philosophical pluralism, and, indeed, of its constant extension. As they
deny to others those values of which they are themselves beneficiaries, however, they will lose, by
their own hypocrisy and arrogance, any legitimate claim upon the protections that these values
offer, and there will be a day of reckoning. It may take time, but it truly is as simple as that. They
are here by our forbearance.
The current barbarians within also remind us that the West is, again and again, the author of its own
worse follies and abuses, compared to most of which the postmodernists pale into virtual
insignificance. We are the authors of our own religious wars and persecutions, our own
enthusiastical superstitions, our own conquests of lands and peoples over which and whom we had
no rights, our own ultimate nightmares of National or Leninist Socialism, which drowned our world
in blood unimaginable in any century but the twentieth, and which truly threatened to bring this
Civilization to an awful end. We have had the will, however, to learn from depravity and from
reality, and to bear ultimate witness to the higher sides of our being. What Civilization ever has
engaged in more searing analysis and soulsearching of its own sins? Having defeated the National
Socialists and the Communists within, the bearers of the best of this Civilization have reason for a
moment of optimistic pride.
What often denies us both optimism and pride, however, is the very stringency of our selfjudgment
untempered by historical realism. It is a dangerous intellectual error to imagine that goodness,
wisdom, order, justice, peace, freedom, legal equality, mutual forbearance, and kindness are the
default state of things in human affairs, and that it is malice, folly, disorder, war, coercion, legal
inequality, murderous intolerance, and cruelty that stand in need of historical explanation. The West,
in theory, always has understood that man has a lower side to which he is drawn, that man is a wolf
to man, and that we are governed more by prejudice and passion than by the rational capacity of
our minds. The West, in theory, always had understood that knowledge, including moral
knowledge, is a hard won acquisition, and that its application is even harder.
If that is so, however, then we err grievously in our assumptions of what it is that requires particular
explanation in the world. We understand the defaults; what should astonish us is the ability to
change them. Rousseau and the postmodernists have it all wrong in this domain. It is not aversion to
difference, for example, that requires historical explanationaversion to difference is the human
condition; rather, it is the West’s partial but breathtaking ability to overcome tribalism and exclusion
that demands explanation, above all in the singular American accomplishment. It is not the injustice
of difference in America that requires historical explanation, as if this were the odd phenomenon of
human affairs. That injustice indeed requires reflection, so that we never lose sight of human moral
weakness in general or of our own malice in particular, but historically, it is the existence and
agency of Western values by which that injustice has been and is being progressively overcome that
truly should excite our curiosity and awe. Antisemitism is not surprising; the opening of Christian
America to Jews is what should amaze. Racial aversion and injustice are not the source of
wonderment; the fourteenth amendment and its gradual implementation are what should astonish. It
is not the abuse of power that requires explanationthat is the human conditionbut the Western
rule of law. Similarly, it is not coerced religious conformity should leave us groping for
understanding, but the forging of values and institutions of religious toleration. Most dramatically, of
course, it is not slavery that requires explanationslavery is one of the most universal of all human
institutionsbut, rather, the values and agency by which the West identified slavery as an evil, and,
astonishment of astonishments, abolished it. Finally, it is not relative pockets of poverty in the West
that should occasion our wonderwe used to have a different name almost infinitely worse
absolute levels of poverty, namely, "the human condition"but, rather, the values, institutions,
knowledge, risk, ethics, and liberties that created such prosperity that we even notice such poverty
at all, yet alone believe that it is eradicable. We are surprised, in a failure of intellectual analysis, by
all of the wrong things, and we lose our wonder at the accomplishments and aspirations of our
Civilization as a tragic result. Depravity never should startle us; rather, the identification and naming
of depravity should amaze us, and the attempt, frequently successful, to contain it should fill us with
That attempt, indeed, has been so successful in the West, relative to the human condition, that the
other world fantasized by the multiculturalists seeks entrance, again and again, at our doors. I see
the alleged victims of Western Civilization hopefully seeking entrance to it; I do not see the
intellectual despisers and wouldbe despoilers of this civilization beating down the doors of the
cultures they claim or claimed to celebrate or find equal. Leave Harvard for Sierra Leone, MIT for
the Khmer Rouge’s Kampuchea or contemporary Vietnam? Gender feminists escaping the
oppression of the West for Kenya, Guatemala, Cuba, Afghanistan, India, or the territories of the
Inuits? I think not. Has Western Civilization survived? If it hasn’t, a lot of hopeful choices of
residence make precious little sense. Those choices do, however, in fact, make perfect sense.
Some might argue that there is a prosperity that draws, but it would be odd to hear the
multiculturalists argue that, odd for so many to have been willing to die merely for the prosperity of
their neighbors, and odd to think that the prosperity of the West does not reflect the fruits, in
productivity, of its values, its freedom, its notions of individuality liberty and responsibility, its faiths,
its institutions of law and legal equality, its commitment to reciprocity, and its intellectual realism.
Let me talk a moment about that latter trait of the West, its intellectualits philosophical realism.
While various extreme epistemological and ontological skepticisms and various radical
irrationalisms have flourished, sometimes with brilliance and profundity in our history, Western
Civilization always has had at its core a belief that there is a reality independent of our wishes for
and ideas of it; that natural knowledge of that reality is possible, and, indeed, indispensable to
human dignity, and that such knowledge must be acquired through a discipline of the will and mind;
and that central to that discipline is a compact with reason. The West has willed, in theory at least,
to reduce the chaos of the world to natural coherence by the powers of the mind. When some
Christian voices condemned such efforts at impious, the great doctors of the Church proclaimed
such efforts indispensable to a coherence on which even a human understanding of the faith
depended. The Christian universities of the West began higher education is philosophy, and to
reason badly or against strawmen was always deemed an error of grave import.
The Greek principle of selfcontradiction as the touchstone of error, and thus, its avoidance as a
touchstone of truth, is the formal expression of a commitment to reason well that the West always
understood to separate us from beasts and madmen. To live with selfcontradiction was not merely
to fail an introduction to philosophy, it was to be less than human, less than coherent, less than sane.
Induction from experience always had a logic, and the exploration of that logic was one of the great
and ultimately triumphant pursuits of the Western mind. The Christian universities of Europe did not
believe, emphatically, that their enemy was the logic of deduction and induction applied to a
knowable natural reality. To the contrary, they believed that philosophy was the friend of the faith,
and that while it was not necessary to salvation, it was necessary to a coherent natural
understanding of the creed, to reasoned belief, and to full human dignity.
It was not surprising, therefore, that those Christian universities were far more dynamic and
productive of intellectual innovation than their caricaturistseither their rebellious sons or their later
historiansever allowed. The great minds whom we associate with the conceptual revolutions of
the 17th and 18th centuries, however, were almost all educated by those universities, and they
remained true to the call to know an independent reality be means of human inquiry and reason,
avoiding logical error, false induction, and a failure to account for appearances. There were many
radical ruptures in the history of certain disciplines in the West; there were no radical ruptures with
the Western compact with reality and reason.
It is that compact that led to a civilization in which religion itself led the selfscrutiny against
superstition that gave rebirth to critical scholarship and, ultimately, to a tolerated heterodoxy that
could question the West’s religion itself; a civilization in which the mind could appeal against the
irrational with ultimate successhowever slow the appellate processto the rational; a civilization
in which belief in learning as a constant selfcorrection, the goal of which was understanding of a
reality that did not depend on a human self, led to the sciences that have changed both the entire
human relationship to nature, economics, or society and our sense of human possibilities tempered
by our knowledge of human nature.
The fruits of that civilization have been an unprecedented ability to modify the remediable causes of
human suffering, to give great agency to utility and charity alike; to give to each individual a degree
of choice and freedom unparalleled in all of human history; to offer a means of overcoming the
station in life to which one was born by the effort of one’s labor, mind, and will.
With merely those fruits, the civilization of the West might well have been a parochial one to the rest
of the world, closed, xenophobic, and allconquering. There have been those, indeed, who wished
and worked for that, and there have been depradations occasioned by our arrogance which we
study and restudy in almost all domains of social, political, and moral knowledge. The drama,
however, is that this civilization of the West, for all of its faults and sins, believed that its values and
knowledge were not parochial, but universal, the birthright of every human life and soul. It believed,
in the final analysis, that its values transcended its own geographical space. To believe, at the
multiculturalists do, that this is source of suffering, not hope, in the world, as the twentieth century
ends, is to break the compact with reality, with reason, and with the logic of inductive inference. Let
the inhabitants of the world take or leave that offeringwe have come, by our own dynamic, to
treasure voluntary, not coerced, exchangebut to the extent that West Civilization survives, the
hope of the world survives to eradicate unnecessary suffering; to speak a language of human
dignity, responsibility, and rights linked to a common reality; to minimize the depradations of the
irrational, the unexamined, the merely prejudicial in our lives; to understand, with the possibility of
both interest and charity applying that knowledge for good, the world in which we find ourselves.
Has that Civilization survived? That is to ask, has a human relationship to the world based upon the
assumption of a knowable reality, reason, and a transcendent value to human dignity and
responsibility survived? Has a will to know oneself and the world objectively survived? Has a
recognition of human depravity and the need to limit the power of men over men survived? It is also
to ask if human beings, observing the fruits of different ways of being human, find foundational
importance in the way of the West? I do not think that free men and women will abandon that
hardwon shelter from chaos, ignorance, parochial tribalism, irrationalism, and, ultimately,
helplessness. There is a reality principle; the world does operate by laws and ways that are
independent of the will of man; knowledge and the belief that such knowledge is ultimately universal
are our only means of coexisting with that reality. Multiculturalism, if analyzed properly, does not
mean what it says. Multiculturalism, if taken at its word, is a visible hell where few sane souls would
enter of their own accord.
Popular culture appalls conservatives for the same reason that pockets of poverty so appall the
Left: what had been the human condition now, given the triumph of civilization, is visible as
something that shocks one’s sensibilities. The Christians of the late Roman Empire, let us never
forget, preserved and sustained the bloody circuses and games of slaughter of the Coliseum.
Popular amusements of the medieval and earlymodern world would make one turn one’s head
away. I think that we can live even with Jerry Springer in exchange. If we have the will to fight for
decent culture, by example and moral criticism; if we have the will to fight with confidence the new
barbarians in our midst, the future belongs to realism, critical mind, reason, notions of rights and
responsibilities that transcend mere time and place, and the bountiful fruits of those extraordinary
There is work to be done, and that work involves the will the preserve the fruits, in the late 20th
century, of Western Civilization, and to debate with our opponents on the current terrain of the real.
For generations, the great defenders of the humane consequences of the allocation of capital by
free markets rather than central planners have remained either unexplored, marginalized, or
dismissed as absurd by most American intellectualsmost students simply do not know of Mises,
or Hayek, or Friedman. For generations, the lionized intellectuals dreamed about and debated how
to make the inevitable transition from unproductive capitalism to the cornucopia of central planning.
For at least a generation, Western academics have viewed the West as the contemptible and
primary obstacle to justice and peace. Now, after the collapse of both the Soviet Empire and of
Marxist theory (everywhere but at Western universities)the victory of the greatest good the
world ever has witnessed over the greatest evil the world ever has witnessed Western
intellectuals will teach this historyunless we win the war of ideasas simply the Soviet
self-correction that showed how absurd Western fears were from the start, or, as merely the
economic collapse of Communists who in various ways betrayed their ideals or failed to temper
them with adequate pragmatism.
Recall 25 years ago: the joy at American defeat in Indochina; the excitement over Eurocommunism;
the anticipation of 1, 10, 100 Vietnams (which Clinton may give us yet); the contempt for
Jean-François Revel’s The Totalitarian Temptation; the ubiquity of theories of moral equivalence;
the thrill of hammers and sickles in Portugal; the justifications of the movement of Cuban troops into
those great hopes for mankind, Angola and Mozambique; the loathing of all efforts of Western
Recall the early 1980s: the romanticization of the kleptomaniacal and anti-democratic Castroite
Sandinistas and, indeed, of the homicidal megalomanic Mengitsu of Ethiopia; the demonization of
Ronald Reagan and the mockery of his description of the Soviet Union as the "evil empire" and of
Communism as a vision that would end on "the dustbin of history"; the outrage when Susan Sontag
declared the audience of Readers Digest better informed than readers of The Nation about the
history of the USSR. If it is only the cultural Left that bears witness, all of that will be rewritten,
forgotten, indirectly justified, and incorporated into a world-view that still views the West as empire
and the rest of the world as victim. Who will tell the tale most compellingly, then, those of us who
knew, or those who were plunged in blindness and folly?
Cognitive dissonance is an astonishing phenomenon, and, on the Left, it prevents the truth from
being told, so let us be clear about 1989 and beyond, and whatever our own disagreements, let us
bear witness to realism, reason, and shared values against the voices of irreality and unreason. The
following things are obvious, and they cannot be taught enough:
1. The most murderous regime in-all-of-human-history, the Bolsheviks in power, has fallen: its
agents were guilty of irredeemable crimes against humanity and its apologists should do penance for
the remainder of their lives. Its apologists, whatever their intentions, were warriors for human
misery and slavery. The most that can be said in Communism’s favor is that it was capable of
building, by means of slave labor and terror, a simulacrum of Gary, Indianaonce onlyand minus
the good stuffand without even the means of maintenance or repair.
2. Free markets create the means of prosperity and diverse social options and are a precondition of
individuation and freedom; regimes of central planning create poverty, and bring forth ineluctable
developments towards totalitarianism and agencies of the worst abuses of power. Dynamic
free-market democracies have altered the entire human conception of freedom and dignity; the
entire "socialist experiment" has ended in stasis, in ethnic hatreds, in the absence of even the minimal
preconditions of economic, social and political renewal; and in categorical contempt for both
individuation and minority rights.
On the whole, however, to say the least, Western intellectuals do not revel in these triumphs. The
indifference of the West has been extraordinary. Where is the celebration and where is the
accounting? Ask American high-school or even college students to number Hitler’s or Christopher
Columbus’s victims: they will answer, for both, in the tens of millions. Ask them to number Stalin’s
victims: if my experience is typical, they will answer in the thousands. Such is their education! Even
The absence of engagement and accounting on the Left is understandable. Convinced that the West
has been the agent of creating artificial relationships of dominance, subservience, and the
commodification of human life, Leftist intellectuals have little interest in an objective analysis of the
manifest data about free markets, or the data about the conditions of life and death under the
Bolsheviks and their heirs, or in the confirmation and disconfirmation of various theories in the
crucible of the Cold War. Less obvious, but equally striking, in some ways, has been the absence
of celebration on the intellectual Right. The most dangerous barbaric threatfrom within, no
lessof the late 20th century, the European Communist threat, military and ideological, is over,
and, sadly, one sees already on the right a certain nostalgia for the good old days when things were
clear. Well, three things are clear: the cruelest regime in the history of mankind has fallen; the model
of free-markets and accountable governments has at least a chance of being the wave of the future;
we have achieved, by our sacrifice of wealth and, at times, our lives, the possibility of a humane
future. How extraordinary that these should not be the cause of at least some jereboams of
champagne amid the jeremiads! Has Western Civilization survived, its principle of reality justified
and intact? Yes indeed. The demand for perfection is antinomian, illogical, and empirically absurd.
The triumph of the West is flawed but real. Ladies and gentlemen, let us celebrate.
Alan Charles Kors is Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of many
books and articles on the 17th and 18th centuries, and he is the EditorinChief of the Oxford
Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. He is the coauthor, with Harvey A. Silvergate, of The
Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (The Free Press, 1998).