The Reactionary Utopian
                     August 8, 2006

by Joe Sobran

     Intellectuals like to notice and savor subtleties 
that other people miss. But the really valuable 
intellectuals are those who notice the things that are 
too obvious for most of us to see, a category I like to 
call the "superobvious."

     As G.K. Chesterton put it, "Men can always be blind 
to a thing, so long as it is big enough." Once somebody 
does point out the superobvious, you wonder how you 
failed to notice it yourself, and you aren't likely to 
forget it again.

     Reviewing a book on "comparative genocide" in the 
remarks that "there is something disheartening in the 
very existence of a rubric like 'comparative genocide.'"

     Well, now that you mention it, yes. The practice of 
destroying whole peoples, as a matter of official policy, 
has become so frequent in this century that whole books 
are written weighing the relative horrors of various 

     Mr. Bernstein also cites Robert Conquest's 
alternative phrase (coined to describe Stalin's "great 
terror"): "nation-killing." That phrase eerily echoes the 
optimistic phrase "nation-building." They go together.

     In the past, most governments saw it as their duty 
to preserve the social fabric and keep peace among their 
subjects. Government was so inherently conservative that 
nobody used the word "conservative," because there was 
hardly any other kind of regime. Even the most brutal 
rulers were blessedly free of the modern utopian idea of 
"building a new society." The Roman Empire conquered many 
countries, but it didn't try to remake them on some 
abstract model. The American Revolution was largely an 
attempt to preserve the traditional liberties of 
Englishmen against an encroaching monarch.

     It was only in the age of the modern nation-state 
that rulers began defining some of their own subjects as 
"aliens," not because those subjects came from abroad, 
but because they were, according to official ideologies, 
racial or class enemies. A Jew who had lived in Germany 
all his life was no longer a "true" German. A Russian 
whose ancestry was purely Russian found himself redefined 
as a "counterrevolutionary element." Japanese Americans 
suddenly found themselves deprived of constitutional 
rights for racial reasons.

     "Building a new society" has generally meant the 
preliminary destruction of an old one to make way for a 
utopian perfection that never seems to arrive. The 
revolutionary "leader" often excites intellectuals with 
his dynamism and genius; various members of the brainy 
set have fawned on Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, 
and others whose chief achievements, in retrospect, have 
been the purge and the systematic massacres we've come to 
call "genocide." Most of these have been peacetime 
policies, not wartime measures -- except in the sense 
that the "new society" is at war with the traditional 

     Until recently, the intellectuals, sneering at 
religion and "bourgeois" morality, have accepted the 
ambition to remake society as self-evidently laudable. 
They're a little more subdued these days. As we look back 
on the 20th century, the big question isn't which utopia 
has turned out best, but which has inflicted the most 
horror on its subjects. This question has now yielded a 
new academic field: the aforementioned "comparative 

     If this blighted century yields one clear lesson, 
it's that concentrated political power is the most deadly 
danger the human race faces. "Well," it will be said, "we 
already knew that." Yes, we did. But somehow we forgot 
it, and kept forgetting it. It was too obvious to be 
repeated, so we stopped saying it, and finally we stopped 
knowing it.

     At some point the benign possibilities of the 
centralized state seemed to outweigh the perils. But the 
benign possibilities never materialized, and all the 
perils took their revenge -- in terrible wars, and in 
"peace" that was more terrible than most wars of the 

     Utopianism is out of fashion now, but the 
progressive-minded intellectuals we have always with us. 
After a century of mass murder, they still feel menaced 
by the posting of the Ten Commandments in schools and 
courthouses. It bears reflection that the Ten 
Commandments, those superbly obvious injunctions, are 
among the few things they don't want children exposed to.

[This column was originally published by Universal Press 
Syndicate March 13, 1997.]


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