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Backward Progress

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To the editors,

Re: "Thunder on the Left," March 29

At first blush it's difficult not to feel a twinge of admiration for anyone with the intestinal fortitude to go his own way, defying the hobgoblins of his time. To be a communist like Nelson Peery, in a country where four-fifths of the scoundrels have prospected for gold in the mines of anticommunism, must predispose one in his favor. Who can doubt that the reputation of Karl Marx has profited through the years from the recommendation of his detractors. And yet . . .

"Revolution is the process of creating a society that conforms to the means of production," says Peery. Here, it seems to me, is a good example of the fact that revolutionaries tend to accept the presuppositions of their antagonists. After all, what was the antebellum south (or America today) but a society that conformed to the means of production!

It is also high time that we ask whether society is something purposefully "created" or planned (like a machine), or something that unconsciously grows--like a plant or an animal? If it is the latter, then proceeding as though it were the former must--regardless of good intentions--lead to violence and destruction. The holocausts of the 20th century make this no idle speculation.

I must confess that I have grown exceedingly skeptical of the concept of historical progress. "Historical Progress" are the words inscribed over the portal of the temple consecrated to the bitch goddess. Success is the meanest of the gods, and her devotees tend to be cruel.

Before the Civil War James Hammond, who was both a governor and a senator from South Carolina, wrote: "Though they [the blacks] might be perpetual bondsmen, still they would emerge from darkness to light, from barbarism to civilization, from idolatry to Christianity--in short from death to life." Here is another picture of progress.

Slavery is enjoying a renaissance today in Asia and there is scarcely a journalistic hack, an academic whore, or a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute who does not discern progress in the fact. The arguments employed by such commentators are roughly the same as those employed by those who saw the wave of the future in the former Soviet Union some 60 years ago. (Mr. Peery's admiration of Stalin is defiantly unreconstructed.) But we have seen the future--and it doesn't seem to work very well.

Let us hope that the 21st century will be freed from the curse of militant ideology, as the 18th strove to be free of intolerant theology.

Failing that--Circe awaits us.

Rex Johnson

W. Fargo

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