Never underestimate the power of ideas. Ever. Philosophical geeks like me that have a strange fascination with the power of ideas know that ideas can enrich humanity immeasurably or transform free societies into genocidal nightmares that are cruel beyond human comprehension. I follow ideas where they lead, turning over every intellectual stone, trying to comprehend how simple thoughts and opinions transform lives and nations.
The twentieth century demonstrates the contrast that the power ideas have to shape the world. The century was a conundrum as cruel as any in history. The people of the West thrived in prosperity, while those in Marxist nations suffered under unimaginable circumstances. All because of the ideas that drove their intellectual imaginations. During the twentieth century, the ideology of your country, the ideas your leaders embraced determined your fate, whether you lived life in relative comfort or faced genocide. Ideas created peace or unimaginable suffering, causing ordinary people to rise above their circumstances or become extraordinary monsters. They are the ultimate force shaping humanity and the fate of nations.
Ideas give, and ideas take away.
Pursuing liberty and individual determination created immeasurable prosperity and security for the West, lifting more people out of poverty than any other ideology the world has ever known. These ideas were the pinnacle of Enlightenment thought and created a revolution of freedom and prosperity unlike the world has ever known. Anyone fortunate to be born in Western nations that embraced these ideals experienced wealth no other everyday individuals had in all human history.
But ideas aren’t always so kind. While the West enjoyed safety and security, Marx’s theory of exploitation and equity led his disciples to starve tens of millions to gain control of societies. Their pursuit of social justice by achieving equity at all costs created a nightmare beyond comprehension. While the Western families had food in abundance, starvation and famines became powerful tools for Marxists to subdue populations.
Stalin and Mao used hunger and death to force compliance with communist philosophy, and the results were horrific. People were intentionally starved through protracted famines. Hunger and starvation became valuable tools to break people’s will, forcing them into submission. Marxist ideologues pushed millions beyond their limits; the pain of hunger became so unbearable that people resorted to eating their children. During the Holodomor, the great famine that resulted from Stalin’s collectivization of Ukrainian farms, Soviet posters kindly reminded people, “To Eat Your Children is a Barbarian Act.” Soviet ideologues forced starvation upon millions yet dared to chide people about resorting to the unthinkable because the pain of hunger pushed them beyond the limits of humanity.
Mao Zedong used similar tactics to reorganize Chinese society to conform to Marxist principles during the period known as “The Great Leap Forward,” starving tens of millions to death. He knew of the horror, yet he pushed forward; suffering was necessary because the ends always justified the means. Marxists achieve their utopian visions regardless of the cost. Millions suffered. People resorted to cannibalism, and parents were forced to murder their children when hunger drove kids to scrounge even the tiniest scrap of excess food. Such self-preservation violated the Marxist virtues of economic equity. They had to pay, and parents were forced to execute their children for their “disobedience.”
Most Americans are unaware that these nightmares occurred throughout the twentieth century. We think humanity had progressed beyond the unimaginable, abolishing ideas that produced genocide, banishing them with the defeat of the Third Reich. It wasn’t true; cruelty was alive and well. Historians generally agree that Marxist atrocities led to the murder of over one hundred million people in the twentieth century in their pursuit of a utopian society. We will never know the actual number. Genocide was a constant plague upon the world even after World War II. The worst of Moa’s atrocities occurred between 1958 and 1962 – the end of the Eisenhower and the beginning of the Kennedy administrations.
Consider the contrasts.
For those who lived under the protection of the ideology of the West, the twentieth century was a gilded age of prosperity and relative safety unlike any the world has known. Yet, the twentieth century brought horrors that neither you nor I even want to try to imagine to people living under Marxism. They died by the tens of millions. In 1959, our grandparents were basking in the mythical aura of Eisenhower’s America while Lennon and McCartney began to take flight in the Quarrymen. In that same year, the people of China were faced with the pain of hunger so maddening that they chose to eat their neighbors, while many were forced to murder their children who gleaned spilled grains of rice from fields trying to survive.
America and the West remain blissfully unaware.
One of the things I learned while overturning intellectual stones is how we are dangerously unaware that genocidal ideas wreaked havoc all over the world. At the same time, we lived in the comparative safety and comfort of twentieth-century America. We didn’t know or want to know that toxic ideas in the hands of madmen destroyed nations and incited a universal madness among their people during the gilded age of America and the West. Our public schools and universities failed to tell you and me that Soviet people were dying in gulags and the Chinese were eating their neighbors, killing their children during the golden age of 1950s America.
We didn’t know such genocide was happening during America’s heyday. Our ignorance led us to believe that Marxism, buried under the Berlin Wall’s rubble, was never a legitimate threat. We created the convenient myths that genocidal ideas no longer roamed the earth seeking whom they could destroy and that American exceptionalism protects us from within. This can’t happen here. America is bulletproof. We don’t have to worry. We can continue with our God-given destiny, enjoying unparalleled comfort and prosperity without the inconvenience of getting involved in protecting and preserving the unique ideology of America and the West.
We aren’t immune; America is vulnerable. Variants of Marxism, the ideological tradition that created the horrors for the Soviets and Chinese, are now the moral paradigm of the Progressive Left. They’re advancing through our institutions, transforming America from within. The ideas that caused Ukrainians to eat their children have come to America. The days of blissful ignorance and detached hubris for conservatives have ended. We’ve ignored school board elections to our kid’s peril and conceded so much cultural ground that America is becoming unrecognizable. All because, in our ignorance, we didn’t understand the power of ideas, wanting to believe that America was immune. We desperately want to believe the myth that the things we didn’t know were happening during America’s gilded age can never happen here.
The truth is, they can.
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize winner who survived a decade in Soviet gulags, reminds us that such hubris is deadly.
“If it were possible for any nation to fathom another people’s bitter experience through a book, how much easier its future fate would become and how many calamities and mistakes it could avoid. But it is very difficult. There is always this fallacious belief: It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.”
Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.” (The Gulag Archipelago, Introduction to the abridged version)
Ignorance and hubris only increase the opportunities for bad ideas to take root in our backyard. The Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese, and Cambodians all believed the myth we believe today – such things are impossible here. And yet we see Marxism rising as the new moral vision for the Progressive Left and America. Take the Marxists at their word and Solzhenitsyn at his, “Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.” Which means our backyard. Enjoy comfort and security, but never underestimate the power of ideas. They can make you rich and make you eat your children, even in America.