The Historical Resonance of Ideas

5 June 2009


This photo of Robert Kagan looking serious (if not sad) is used on the inside back flap of Of Paradise and Power; the photo on the inside back flap of The End of History is rather more jovial.

This photo of Robert Kagan looking serious (if not sad) is used on the inside back flap for Of Paradise and Power; the photo on the inside back flap of The End of History is rather more jovial.

In a couple of previous posts (Doctrinaire and Inorganic Democracy, Anniversary of a Massacre) I have discussed Robert Kagan’s The Return of History and the End of Dreams, and today I want to pick apart one particular claim in this book. Lest I appear to be merely quibbling with Kagan, I assure the reader than the objection I make is not for the sake of finding a pretext to quarrel, but rather to highlight a principle that will hopefully become plain in the course of the present exposition.

Kagan describes the ebullient hopes following the end of the Cold War and the expansion of institutions that many believed would fill the vacuum of power left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. While I don’t disagree with everything he wrote in this connection, I will take issue with what he wrote about Poland’s relation to the EU. In The Return of History Kagan wrote:

The European Union exerted a powerful magnetic force, especially on the states around it. It was a continent-sized island of relative stability in a global ocean of turmoil. With Russia prostrate, the attraction of Europe, along with the promise of the American security guarantee, pulled just about every nation to the east into the western orbit. Former Warsaw Pact nations, led by Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, entered the EU, along with the Baltic states. (p. 21)

While from a stylistic point of view I have to wonder about the mixed metaphors of electricity and gravitation (I suppose the case could be made that both are natural forces), that isn’t why I quote the passage. What is most interesting here is the misrepresentation of Poland’s relation to Europe, and, by extension, the ideology of liberal democracy and western institutions represented by Europe.

In this passage Kagan implies (without directly claiming) that Poland after the Cold War was attracted by what Europe represented, and, while Kagan partially positions himself as amending what he wrote in Of Paradise and Power, Europe here for Kagan still represents a post-modern paradise of prosperous, peaceful plenty. This begs a question: was Poland enticed by the seductions of Europe away from an eastern orbit into a western orbit?

No. Emphatically no. Like the Baltic states, Poland has long seen itself as being part of the west, and, again like the Baltic states, had a communist government imposed upon it and found itself forced into an eastern orbit by the intervention of the Red Army and the post-conflict settlement of the Second World War.

It is crucially important to understand that communism had no resonance in Poland. Communist ideas did not have a great intellectual enthusiasm in Poland as they have had in many parts of the world. Poland already had an ideology: Catholicism. The spiritual weakness of communism in Poland is and has been proportional to the spiritual strength of Catholicism in Poland; the two can scarcely be separated. At the end of the Second World War (after Poland had already been divided by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), Poland and the Poles were not casting about for a new ideology to replace a past that they had come to view as corrupt. There were many peoples who did feel this way at this time, but not the Poles.

At the end of the Second World War, the Poles knew clearly what they wanted: a restored and unified Poland with its Polish traditions, including the Catholic Church, intact. The Poles wanted a viable and independent Polish nation-state for the first time in the modern era. But that eventuality had to wait. The Russians and the Red Army had other plans for Poland, and the Allies did not have the stomach or the resources to challenge Stalin on this point. Poland was sacrificed after the war as Neville Chamberlain had been prepared to sacrifice Czechoslovakia before the war.

Probably it is better not even to try to discuss the historical resonance of ideas in public, as it is likely to be misconstrued, but intellectual honesty compels me to do so. We will fail to understand history — perhaps spectacularly, perhaps tragically — if we fail to acknowledge the historical resonance of ideas, and that this resonance can change over time or from region to region. This is probably an impossible notion to quantify or to discuss scientifically. It even, at times, has the ring of disingenuousness to it, as when someone argues against “foreign ideas” or excuses intolerance and oppression based on the supposed alien character of that which has been oppressed.

Nevertheless, there is an historical resonance to ideas, and I say: He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. We could even say (to pick up a thread that I have employed in this forum) that an idea has resonance where the climate of opinion (a phrase due to Alfred North Whitehead) gives it historical viability.

In stark contradistinction to Poland, where it is Catholicism that resonates, I have been fascinated with the resonance of communist ideas in South America. This was first made clear to me in 1994 when I was in Cuzco. Often when I travel I seek out bookstores to see what is being sold and what people are reading, preferably a used bookstore in which one can see what titles have been read with the greatest care and intensity, as betrayed by the physical wear of the book and the underlining and marginal notes. I am sure that you will know what I mean when I mention that if you go to a used book store in the US and they have a generically titled “religion” section, you will find that the section consists entirely of books about Christianity. Just so, in the used book store I found in Cuzco, I sought out the philosophy section, and all the books in the philosophy section were about Marx and communism. Thus, in a loose sense, Marxism has a relationship to philosophy in South America not unlike the relationship that Christianity has to religion in North America.

Of course, my experiences cannot be considered definitive or representative. Nevertheless, I have followed up on this theme, and I have continued to look into the resonance of Marxist ideas in South America. I am sure that if I said the above to someone in conversation, they would point out to me the historical role of the Catholic Church in South America, which is admittedly strong. But Catholicism in South America is a very different thing than Catholicism in Poland.

In South America, the Catholic Church is pervasive, but it does not have the same kind of roots as it does in Poland. South America had a long history and many mature cultures before the Spanish and the Portuguese brought Catholicism. The intellectual tradition in these lands is thus as mixed as the racial composition. Poland is ethnically almost as homogeneous as Japan; South America is the literal “melting pot” that North America never became. There are many peoples and many traditions in South America, and they all exist simultaneously and side by side.

I hope to pick up this thread again of the resonance of Marxist ideas in South America in future posts to this forum.

library books

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2 Responses to “The Historical Resonance of Ideas”

  1. geofftop said

    Good article. I am interested in history and it was a good read.

    But you have a spelling error:
    “In stark contradistinction to Poland”

    I think you meant contradiction. Sorry to nitpick, but why not improve a already great article?

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Geofftop,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you found it to be a good read. The word you pointed out was not a spelling error; “contradistinction” is a distinct word from “contradiction.”


      Nick Nielsen

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