By Chris Trotter*
On March 10, 1948, Jan Masaryk, the Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, was found dead below his bathroom window. His death was ruled a suicide, but very few Czechs believed the official story. Everyone knew that Masaryk, son of the country’s first president, Thomas Masaryk, had for months been a thorn in the side of the Communist -dominated government of Czechoslovakia. While he remained in office, it was still possible for liberals and conservatives to believe that the democratic state over which his father had presided still breathed. Jan Masaryk’s murder and the murder of democracy in Czechoslovakia occurred at precisely the same moment, at the hands of the same Soviet assassins.
Six months after Masaryk’s assassination, the Berlin Airlift was in full swing. Determined to drive the Western allies out of the Soviet Zone of Eastern Germany, Joseph Stalin had ordered the city’s land corridors to the west blocked-off. Without the food and fuel delivered to West Berlin by road and rail, the city would be forced to capitulate, and another thorn in the side of the new Soviet masters of Eastern Europe would be removed. What Stalin hadn’t counted on was American airpower. After nearly a year of Berliners being supplied by US aeroplanes, the Soviets threw in the towel. West Berlin remained a free city.
These brief historical snapshots from the late-1940s reveal exactly why the governments of the Western states, soon to be grouped under the aegis of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) had grown increasingly alarmed at the behaviour of their former wartime ally. Why, within the security services and across the government departments of the Western democracies, anti-communist attitudes began to harden, and serious questions began to be asked about the loyalty of individuals known to be sympathetic to the Left in general and to the Soviet Union in particular.
With the explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb in 1949, and the subsequent exposure of the extent to which Soviet espionage had made it possible, Western suspicion of the Left metastasised into full-blown political paranoia. The years that followed, known as the McCarthy Era (after the Wisconsin Senator who put himself at the head of the Red Scare) were notorious for the “witch-hunts” that saw people turned out of their jobs, imprisoned, and even executed for the “crime” of being a communist. Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Association counted for little in the Cold War battle against the “Global Communist Conspiracy”.
Seventy years later, the word “McCarthyism” is again on people’s lips. Politicians and journalists point to the current persecution of individuals whose ideas do not sit comfortably with the “Powers That Be”, and attempt to construct an argument of equivalence.
It isn’t that hard. Once again, persons expressing unpopular opinions are risking their employment. Once again lists of required beliefs are being drawn up to weed out politically unacceptable aspirants to government funding and/or government jobs. People who once spoke freely to mass audiences are being “de-platformed” – lest their evil notions attract followers.
There is, however, a huge difference between the persecution of communists that took place in the decade following World War II, and the attacks on those giving voice to heterodox opinions in the early years of the Twenty-First Century.
The first and most obvious difference is that the Soviet Union was a brutal, totalitarian, nuclear power whose leaders openly boasted that their Marxist-Leninist ideology would “bury” capitalism. The Soviets did operate a global network of spies – some of whom, like Kim Philby, rose to the highest echelons of the Western security apparatus. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics thus constituted a real threat to the freedom and security of the capitalist West. While the state authorities, egged-on by an aggressive news media, may have caught up far too many innocent citizens in their anti-communist witch-hunts, no one can say, truthfully, that their fear and their zealotry were without at least some justification.
Identifying the equivalent of the Soviet Union behind the persecution of today’s conservatives and liberals poses real difficulties for contemporary political analysts. What, exactly, is the source – or sources – of the fear and antagonism currently coursing through the public service, academia and the mainstream news media? What is it that reduces hitherto voluble civil servants, professors and journalists to wary silence? What sets an entire government off on a quest to extirpate “Hate Speech” from all public discourse – even at the cost of putting a match to the Bill of Rights Act?
There are those on the Right who are adamant that what they call the “woke” are nothing more nor less that the children and grandchildren of the Marxists who commenced what they called “the long march through the institutions” way back in the 1960s and 70s, and who have now risen to positions of power and influence in the public service, academia and the mainstream news media.
From these “commanding heights” of our society and culture, argues the Right, these “woke commissars” are overseeing the deliberate dismantling of our liberal-democratic capitalist institutions. Like a grim spectre, the Communism which most people in the West thought dead and buried has risen from the grave to exact a terrible revenge.
A slightly less paranoid explanation identifies “wokeism” as the ideological terminus of the so-called “new social movements” of the 1960s and 70s: anti-racism, feminism, gay liberation and environmentalism. With the economic, social and political doctrines of actually existing socialism buried beneath the triumph of liberal capitalism in the 1990s, these new movements, often grouped under the heading “identity politics”, became the only “left-wing” game in town.
Backed, as they are, by the Centre-Left parties of the major Western powers: the Democratic Party of the USA; the Labour, Social-Democratic and Green parties of Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; the politics of identity can boast sponsors every bit as powerful as the Communist International (Comintern) of the 1920s and 30s.
If it was Stalin’s murderous totalitarianism that terrified the nations of the West in the years after World War II, igniting the Cold War, and causing them to lash-out at anyone considered a “fellow traveller” of the people who murdered Jan Masaryk and blockaded Berlin, then we can only assume that it is the West’s alleged racism, sexism, homophobia, and hatred of the natural world, that has mobilised the identity politicians behind the woke witch-hunts.
Putting his own eccentric spin on this explanation, the prominent English historian, David Starkey, has posited “wokeism” as a Twenty-First Century echo of the Protestant Reformation of the Sixteenth. He likens the social-media of today to the cutting-edge communications technology of the printing-press back in the days of Martin Luther. A technology which spread Protestantism’s revolutionary credo across Europe with unprecedented speed. Starkey’s entertaining “The Woke Reformations: Historical Parallels” is available on You Tube.
Whatever it is that drives the persecution of old-fashioned liberals and conservatives in the Twenty-First century West: Marxism Redux; Identity Politics; or the social-mediated, quasi-religious fervour identified by Starkey; its promoters would be wise to ponder the common fate of History’s witch-hunters. The intensification of ideological pressures is bearable for only so-long before ordinary men and women reassert the virtues of tolerance and common sense.
The Enlightenment robbed religious extremism of its political heft. McCarthy was censured by the US Senate. The Soviet Union fell. The Czechs are once again a free people. Wokeism, with all its militant intolerance of debate, will also fail.
As Jan Masaryk said, paraphrasing the motto of the Czechoslovak state: Pravda vítězí, ale dá to fušku. – “The truth prevails, but it’s a chore.”
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.