Lately I’ve been hearing abundant apocalyptic rhetoric about the collapse of traditional Western norms of critical thinking, free inquiry, and tolerance. The story, roughly, is that after a century of unprecedented intellectual freedom, a new generation of barbarians – mostly “social justice warriors,” with some alt-righters thrown in – has suddenly emerged in our midst. And they’re quite likely to get their way, because most of us have forgotten what critical thinking, free inquiry, and tolerance are all about.
As usual, I resist this doom-saying. For starters, there’s a massive historical blind spot. Marxism was the most influential ideology of the 20th century. Its founder had zero appreciation of intellectual freedom. His most influential followers – the Marxist-Leninists – took him literally. When they held power, they murdered and imprisoned even their mildest critics on a massive scale. When they lacked power, they used their intellectual freedom in the “bourgeois democracies” to pave the way for totalitarianism. Moderate Marxists were far less consistent and determined, but few embraced intellectual freedom on principle. Marxism’s dominance looks even greater once you realize that fascism was a Marxist heresy founded by Mussolini, former leader of the radical wing of the Italian Socialist Party. Western civilization is not at the tail end of a century of stable intellectual freedom.
So a mighty enemy of intellectual freedom was in our midst for the bulk of the 20th century. Does this mean we shouldn’t worry about the latest challenge? No, but we should keep matters in perspective. The last storm featured a juggernaut of an external threat combined with vocal internal sympathy for the juggernaut. Intellectual freedom weathered the storm nonetheless. A few thousand internet and campus activists are insignificant in comparison. A steely revolutionary like Lenin would have scorned them as soft, impulsive dreamers. This may be little consolation if protestors won’t let you speak, but things could be way worse. And not long ago, they were.