The Rise of Violent, Revolutionary Ideology in the 20th Century and its Christian Realist Tonic.
During the 1920-1930s, Western governments faced two forms of idealism. The first was the utopian, Wishful Thinking Idealism that believed that we could imagine a world of peace and security, write it up in pronouncements and treaties, and then set a moral example for others by living in our imagined world. France, Britain, and the U.S. discovered that this was a glass house when confronted by rock-throwing Japanese, Germans, and Italians. Sadly, we continue to have those who counsel wishful thinking idealism as an approach to national security affairs.
The other form of idealism, which is much deadlier in the short term, is Revolutionary Idealism. During the 1920s and 1930s, Communism, Fascism, and National Socialism were joined to an almost unlimited state power, crushing all opposition and seeing any competing values system as the enemy.
Revolution is the overthrow or destruction of an old system and the forcible establishment of an entirely new system of government. Revolution, by definition, is idealistic because every revolution is a crusade to construct and impose an entirely new moral order. Two examples that epitomize the concept of revolutionary idealism are the French and Russian Revolutions. The French Revolution (1789-1799) devastated the country with its destruction of society’s structures: the monarchy, nobility, Church, and lower estates. It was characterized by lawless, chaotic mob violence and most of the Revolution’s leaders themselves died as a result. At its heart was a crusading idealism that claimed “equality, liberty, and fraternity” but instead destroyed sources of authority and imposed an authoritarian regime.
In the Russian Revolution of 1917, Lenin and his Bolshevik Communists seized power through societal upheaval and violence, again upending not only the monarchy but all of society’s institutions, including religious ones. In Russia, the Revolution of 1917, a succession of Five Year Plans, and subsequent ‘Great Terror’ were responsible for the deaths of anywhere from nine million to thirty million people as the revolutionary idealism of Marx and Lenin was put into practice by a totalitarian elite.
Revolutions are idealistic in that they originate with an ideological prescription for global problems and then seek to impose a ready-made solution through violence. First, a small cadre of zealous elites seize power, even if they are carried to victory on the shoulders of an uprising of the masses. Then, that elite imposes its utopian ideology on the country by smashing existing social conventions, laws, and structures and crushing dissent. Typically, much of the populace must be re-educated to accept revolutionary dogma, and, over time, a new dictator emerges to keep the revolution moving forward: Ayatollah Khomeini, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot are all examples of these type of revolutionary leaders. In literature, their tactics resemble the diabolical playbook of ‘Big Brother’ in Orwell’s 1984 and of N.I.C.E. in the third volume of C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, That Hideous Strength. Orwell and Lewis were simply modeling their villains on the Russian Revolution and, later, on the rise of Hitler and Germany’s National Socialists.
China’s Communist Revolution, Iran’s Islamist takeover in 1979, Cambodia’s grisly “killing fields,” and the depredations of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) all exemplify this revolutionary idealism. It lives on through the violent economic madness of Latin American socialists in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua; in the cult of personality around China’s President Xi; and in the street violence of hard Left populist movements such as “Occupy Wall Street” and CRT-driven leftist groups.
How do societies best counter revolutionary idealism? During the interwar period (1919-1939) and especially during the Cold War, the sage counsel of Christian Realism provided a firm foundation for national security stewardship. Those who argued for this approach were particularly influential from the late 1930s through the 1950s, as evidenced by Reinhold Niebuhr advising government officials in Washington, DC and John Foster Dulles serving as Eisenhower’s Secretary of State.
Christian Realism stands in stark contrast to the violent idealism of revolutionary ideologies that seek to conform the world to their fantastical blueprints. In short, Christian Realism is a particular posture towards foreign policy analysis and international relations theory. For social scientists, it is a species of Realism that is prudential and pragmatic, but as Christian Realism, it is rooted in a biblical and Augustinian worldview. More specifically, Christian Realism is Augustinian in its anthropology and sociology. Christian Realism recognizes human potential (imago dei), human responsibility (creation mandate), and the effects of human sin at the Fall. Human sin, particularly our egotism as individuals and groups, affects all parts of law, society and politics. Revolutionary Idealism locates “sin” in bad social structures, not the human heart. If we burn down the old and impose the new, sheep-like humanity will fall in line. They just need to be re-educated.
Christian Realism emphasizes political order and justice. The Bible has a lot to say on these matters, from the examples of righteous and unrighteous kings to the wisdom literature to Romans 13. The Bible emphasizes promoting justice, promoting security, and working towards the common good. In addition, Christian realism emphasizes power. People, particularly those in public office, have to take responsibility to utilize power on behalf of the common good. In addition, Christian realism opposes any form of collective chauvinism, such as a political ideology or racist program that elevates itself as morally, intrinsically superior to others. The Aryan supremacy of the Nazis and the violent ideology of Stalinist communism exemplify collective chauvinism. Today we face the ethno-religious nationalism of Indian hindutva and Buddhist nationalism in Burma and Sri Lanka. Christian Realists reject the idea that one group is inherently superior to others.
Like other IR theorists, Christian Realists look at all three levels of analysis when thinking about international security: the individual, domestic politics, and the anarchy of international affairs.
During the 1940-1960s a group of thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr, John C. Bennett, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Paul Ramsey, and others decried the violence of revolutionary idealism. They supported policies of containment, armed deterrence, and support for robust democratic institutions to counter the threat. The language of Christian Realism, rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition, found its way into the rhetoric of the civilization of the day, from human rights conventions to explaining the moral assumptions of nuclear deterrence. Over time, others in this tradition continued to stand against Soviet revolutionary idealism (e.g. George Weigel, Ernest Lefever, Kenneth W. Thompson) and the destructiveness of terrorism and violent Islamism (e.g Jean Bethke Elshtain, Marc LiVecche, J. Daryl Charles, Joseph Loconte, Keith Pavlischek). Christian Realism remains a vital and crucial source for the next generation of diplomats, scholars, warriors, public servants, and political officials.