This Editor’s Note appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe to the journal, click here.


Thirty years ago, America’s leaders learned the wrong lesson from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Empire rotted from the periphery as satellite states whose people had never acquiesced in foreign-imposed Communist rule revolted for a final time. The Soviets had crushed the Hungarians in 1956 and the Czechs and Slovaks in 1968. But by 1989 the Soviet regime no longer had enough morale to employ the force that would have been necessary to keep the Berlin Wall standing. The Russian people were as sick of Communism as the Poles and Germans and other subjects of the Red Empire. And after the Eastern Europeans had freed themselves, the Russians had to wonder why their great nation should still bear the burden of the despotic bureaucracy that was Communism incarnate. A failed coup by hardliners in 1991 gave the Russians the occasion to bring the whole thing down. (Although it would be a few more months before the USSR formally ended on December 26.)

In the West, however, the rejection of communism by those who had lived under its oppression was interpreted instead as an embrace of liberalism by the entire planet. It was only a matter of time before the Islamic world also discovered the true path of liberal democracy, and China—which had mowed down protesters in Tiananmen Square mere months before the Berlin Wall came down—was already imagined to be well on the way to Western-style liberalism, thanks to the integration of the People’s Republic into the global market economy. For the next twenty-five years, America’s strategy toward China was aimed at accelerating its economic development and tightening its commercial relationship with the United States. History, our leaders were certain, could only move in one direction, and at its end everywhere lay modern American liberalism.

Rogue states such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq could only delay the inevitable. Once such a dictator was removed through regime change—brought about by U.S. military intervention if necessary—liberal democracy would spring up naturally. The Communists had been right: history had need of a vanguard. But the vanguard of history was not the Communist Party; it was America’s enlightened leaders, who wielded the power of the nation’s armed forces to remove what few obstacles remained to realizing the world’s destiny. The eschatology might have been expressed in secular terms, but this was a religious vision.

A religious vision without God, however, is a feeble thing. Marxism-Leninism was a secular faith that inspired great zeal for a time, sufficient to bring about revolutions. But as a scientific ideology (by its own lights), Marxism-Leninism not only could not draw upon a regime’s traditional sources of popular confidence, such as patriotism and faith in providence, but was opposed in principle to such sources. What did that leave as a justification for the Communist state? Only the promise of material prosperity and freedom from the oppressive rule of the capitalists and reactionaries. The prosperity, of course, never materialized in anything like the extent that Marx and his epigones had promised, and Communist freedom was a new and more comprehensive kind of slavery.

To the extent that America’s elite vanguard of history also rejects patriotism and traditional religion, it makes the same promise as the Communists of old. You may not have a soul to be saved, but you will be comfortable and entertained in the here and now. You will be free from all the old authorities, even if you stand to lose your job or your voice in public affairs if you say what the regnant ideology does not permit you to say. Is a social, economic, and political order predicated on such terms more secure in the end than Communism was? It may be far richer and much freer, but its foundations are just as limited. And if Communist China today seems confident in ways that the United States does not, that may be because the Chinese can boast of rising prosperity, and what they lack in freedom may be replaced by pride. China is still Communist in some ways, but it is not internationalist. Our own leaders are more like the Marxist ideologues of the early twentieth century in this regard. Patriotic pride was a power that Soviet Communism could not conquer in Eastern Europe. The Russian people are proud too, as are the Chinese. Americans, by contrast, are increasingly told by their leaders to be ashamed of their country and their ancestors. When Americans at the demotic level reject this teaching, they are told they are illiberal and a threat to democracy—as if liberalism and democracy can only mean what the vanguard say they mean.

If liberal democracy won the Cold War, it was a victory made possible only by faith and country: by Polish solidarity, by Czechs who longed for spiritual freedom, by Russian dissidents who would not abandon their old faith. These things endure when prosperity does not, and when what the ruling class calls freedom disappoints. But these are things that too many of our own leaders reject in principle and in practice—because they stand in the way of a scientific, material, post-national perfection. The peaceful end of the Soviet Union is a cause for rejoicing. It’s also an occasion to remember what really destroys tyranny and saves a nation.

Daniel McCarthy is editor-in-chief of Modern Age.