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Moral clarity

The evil empire strikes back

On Saturday the Guardian printed my review of Daniel Johnson’s White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War Was Fought on the Chessboard, which adds another datapoint to our thinking about the uses of the phrase “moral clarity”, Johnson’s thinking on international relations having been morally clarified by such window-cleaners as Mark Steyn. It’s also interesting to compare the moral clarity of Johnson’s view of the Cold War with a line I recently cited from Terry Eagleton’s Ideology (now updated with extra Amis-bashing).


The power struggle between East and West had also been a battle between ideology and truth.


To seek some humble, pragmatic political goal, such as bringing down the democratically elected government of Chile, is a question of adapting oneself realistically to the facts; to send one’s tanks into Czechoslovakia is an instance of ideological fanaticism.

Happy New Year!

  1. 1  abb1  January 8, 2008, 7:22 pm 

    I read the review in the guardian, very nice piece.

    I have to say, though, that I think it kinda was a battle between ideology and something. Not “truth”, of course, but something other than ideology. I mean, the Soviet Union was indeed a highly ideological enterprise, and the opposing force was (and is) much more opportunistic. Or flexible, if you prefer.

  2. 2  Cian  January 8, 2008, 11:19 pm 

    Not sure I agree with the above comment. One thing that always strikes me when I’m in the US, is how ideological everyone and everything is (my wife’s American, so I spend a reasonable amount there). The media, the commentators, magazines, casual people you run into. Even business, supposedly opportunistic, is in practice as hidebound by ideology as everything else. I wouldn’t say that Britain is particularly intellectual, or free thinking, but compared to the US… oh boy.

    And the Soviet Union was never as ideological as propoganda of the west made it out to be (perhaps Stalin, but even that’s debatable). Sure it was dysfunctional, unpleasant, etc. But it was largely driven by the self-interest of a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. Ideology was mostly used as an excuse, an intellectual weapon, but not many people really believed in it. Whereas an awful lot of Americans do believe their ideologies about free markets, “democracy”, liberalism, whatever.

  3. 3  abb1  January 9, 2008, 10:30 am 

    I didn’t mean media/propaganda, I agree that the Soviet Union and America are similar in this respect. I meant policies.

    For example, in the Soviet Union it was simply impossible (legally impossible, as far as I know) for an individual or private entity to employ any wage-workers. Outta the question.

    Or take the communist party, the party of mainly industrial workers, but open to politically conscious and active peasants, technocrats and members of the intelligentsia. Well, you see, in reality the technocrats and intelligentsia were pretty much the only ones there who needed and wanted party membership (to advance their careers), but to the very end it was required (and strictly enforced) that 51% of the members had to be industrial workers. Poor bureaucrats had to get on a waiting list and wait for years to be taken in.

    All this is very inflexible to compare to post-Mao China, for example. Or to the US with its New Deal, 92% top tax bracket in the 1940s-50s, etc.

    If in a capitalist country you are willing to impose (even if temporary) 92% top tax bracket, then clearly nothing is sacred to you, you’ll do anything to survive. Unlike the Soviets.

  4. 4  redpesto  January 9, 2008, 6:37 pm 

    You could have thrown in Barthes’ demolition of ‘neither-nor’ criticism in Mythologies as well, variations of which a favourites with writers who claim to be ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ politics or, indeed, ideology (ah, the role of prepositions in political philosophy…).

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