Twenty-five years ago, a crowd filled with an uneasy mixture of joy and rage tore down the Berlin Wall. There was joy for the end of Germany’s partition and the end of tyranny. There was rage against generations of fear. One fear was of communist oppression. The other fear was of the threat of a war, which had loomed over Europe and Germany since 1945. One fear was moral and ideological, while the other was prudential and geopolitical. As in all defining political moments, fear and rage, ideology and geopolitics, blended together in an intoxicating mix.
Twenty-five years later, we take for granted the moral bankruptcy of Soviet communism, along with its geopolitical weakness. It is difficult for us to remember how seductive Marxism was, and how frightening Soviet power was. For my generation, at the better universities, Marxism was not an exotic form of oriental despotism but a persuasive explanation of the world and how it worked, as well as a moral imperative that a stunning number of students and faculty were committed to. The vast majority of Marxists in what was called the New Left adopted it as fashion more than passion. A small segment of the New Left, particularly in Europe and supported by Soviet intelligence, took direct action and took risks, killing, wounding, kidnapping and blowing things up in the pursuit of political aims. The latter had courage; the former were shallow and cynical. There is no doubt that the shallow and cynical were more praiseworthy.
Still, ideologically, Marxism in its several varieties had a persuasive power that is difficult for even those of us who lived through it to recall. Its pull had little to do with industrial democracy, although songs from the labor movement were sung regularly. It was far less about the proletariat and more a revolt against what was seen as the shallow one-dimensionality of affluence. It was never clear to me what Marxists had against affluence, as I was relatively poor, but the venom against the previous generation’s capitulation to ordinary life was intense.
Marxism had become the ideology of the young, who celebrated its moral superiority. This should not be dismissed. The young have driven European revolutions since 1789, and they have always been driven by a deep sense of moral superiority. The passion of the young Karl Marx, writing amid the risings of 1848, led directly to Lenin and then Stalin. The self-righteous young have consequence, something no one attending a major Euro-American university in the decades before the collapse of the Soviet empire could ignore. Bitterness against those over 30 (then considered old) was a greater driver than class struggle. That the young feel superior to the old is built into the Enlightenment. We believe in progress, and the young have more of a future than the old.
In looking a