Out of the Dustbin

1968 was a very good year for the Detroit Tigers, who won the World Series behind the improbable three victories of Mickey Lolich. It was also a good year for a mimeographed broadside born as a labor of love that now, more improbable than anything Lolich tossed up against the Cardinals, has lived to celebrate its 25th birthday.

That just about exhausts the good side of 1968. On nearly every other front, grimness abounded. Despite repeated alleged sightings of the light at the end of the tunnel, the United States found itself mired in the muck of Vietnam and didn't know how to get out. Mao's minions waved little red books, whipped themselves into the frenzy of the great Cultural Revolution, and swore implacable hostility to the paper tiger United States. The wall disfiguring the face of Berlin like an ugly scar had for the past seven years served its architects' objective as prison gate and site of impromptu executions.

In 1968 Soviet troops, fraternally accompanied by Warsaw Pact cronies, marched across the borders of Czechoslovakia to terminate with extreme prejudice Prague's experiment in Communism with a Human Face. Leonid Brezhnev explained to the world that peaceful coexistence was all well and good, but of course it could not in any way impugn the historical imperative that not one square inch of territory that had been liberated from capitalist imperialist oppression would ever be allowed to wander from the socialist fold.

At home, too, it was bad. A Kennedy and a King were gunned down by assassins, and American cities were put to the torch. People protested in the streets and parks outside the Democratic convention in Chicago and, for their troubles, had their heads broken by police night sticks. An economy overheated by competing tugs of guns and butter had begun to fibrillate. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was grating badly, and a rehabilitated Richard Nixon, proclaiming a secret plan for ending the war, was making his second run for the presidency. He would be successful despite the presence in the race of a third-party candidate purveying populist rhetoric with a Southern twang.

How much difference has a quarter of a century made? Domestically, remarkably little. Police still crack heads open, and a great city burns. Citizens rendered grumpy by two years of economic despond toss out a tired administration and replace it with one brandishing a new set of promises. (The third candidate's cracker-barrel manner plays well on the tube but doesn't measure up in the vote column.) The gulf between black and white, rich and poor, the housed and the homeless grows. Or perhaps it shrinks, but not enough to put any social policy wonks out of business. And the amazing Richard Nixon, riding the crest of his latest resurrection, is the pundits' most quotable senior statesman.

But if within American borders the more things change the more they stay the same, it's quite otherwise on the international stage. Change has been nothing less than seismic. Communist Czechoslovakia is no more, Czechoslovakia is no more, the erstwhile Soviet oppressor is no more. Shards of the Berlin Wall are 10,000 souvenirs of freedom.

China has decided that to become rich is good, and even Vietnam is considering how market arrangements might lift its basket case of an economy out of the doldrums. Of the old guard only Fidel remains, but his country is even grayer and more frayed than his beard. The Brezhnev doctrine is as defunct as its formulator; now it is liberal democracy whose march seems inevitable. Coining a phrase from Hegel, Francis Fukuyama has dubbed this denouement the "End of History."

Soviet totalitarianism's demise is good news, the very best news. The editors of REASON, a congenitally modest lot, decline to take all the credit for these glad tidings, but only a churl would complain if they do some basking during this month of anniversary celebration. The world during the next 25 years will almost certainly be a safer place, most likely a more prosperous place, and already it is a place orders of magnitude freer than was the case only a short while ago.

No one supposes that we have seen the last of petty despots; they will thrive in the future as they have in the past. But the essential point is that these despots are indeed petty. They are not the vanguard of a wave that threatens inch by inch to overtake free societies. The overtaking is now proceeding in the other direction, and it advances with breathtaking quickness. The happiest scenario one can envisage is that these next 25 years will be a mopping-up exercise, and that REASON will be there to keeps its readers apprised of the details.

In 1968 to be a pessimist about world freedom was to be a realist. (That is why Henry Kissinger's doleful Central European vocal inflections and hangdog countenance were even more appropriate to his times than were his policies.) Are 1993's realists, by way of contrast, the optimists? Perhaps. But before concluding that the great ideological wars that have been waged since the French Revolution have now been terminated, with liberal democracy and free-market economics the undisputed victor, it would be well to consider from where other challengers might emerge. Victories have a way of proving all too temporary.

Recall that during the 1930s it was the fascist dictatorships that seemed to be the tide of the future. While the Great Depression ravaged the democracies, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Tojo flexed. 1945 put paid to their aspirations, and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. But rather than moving into an era of peace and freedom, we immediately lurched into four decades of cold war. One formidable threat replaced by another: Might that not be the menu for the '90s and beyond?

Generals are notorious for preparing to fight the last war. That's foolish. But it is even more foolish to suppose that the war one has fought was the war to end all wars: It takes a celebrated statesman or an intellectual to entertain an idea that grand. (The sorry follow-up to World War I is largely attributable to the fact that Woodrow Wilson was both.) Pentagon brass who lobby to carry on as if the Cold War were still at its delicious peak merit little credence.

But neither do those who, itching to spend the "peace dividend" a hundred different ways, declare that the international order is now assured. Challenges to liberal democracy will almost certainly be less apocalyptic than they have been during the post-World War II era, but they may, nonetheless, be nasty. And, contrary to the "end of history" thesis, they are apt to be more blatant than those launched by the commissars. The ideological battles to come, I wish to suggest, will be waged at a level even deeper than those of the past. Explaining why that is so is my excuse for a brief excursion into political theory.

Although communism and liberalism have been sworn enemies for most of the preceding century, their fight has been internecine. Each is a child of the Enlightenment, and each professes a universalism grounded in reason and history, indeed in a history that is billed as rendering itself progressively more rational through becoming more universal. Both communism and liberalism present themselves as prescriptions not simply for this regime or that one, but potentially for all peoples and all states. The "potentially" indicates that not every society as it currently exists is ready to receive and to sustain the recommended political structure. Evolution from ignorance to awareness is required before the desirable culmination can be achieved. That is why history and reason are said to go hand in hand.

Early liberals contested the prerogatives of the crown in the name of the time-immemorial rights of Englishmen. But by the time these rebels found their philosophical spokesmen, the rights for which they struggled had been extended beyond the confines of the British Isles to all human beings. John Locke identified natural rights to life, liberty, and property as the birthright of all, knowable through the light of reason. American and French revolutionaries altered Locke's language at the margin but concurred.

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