Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Jeane Kirkpatrick in Retrospect: The Test of Time

The ultimate measure of Jeane Kirkpatrick's insight when she wrote Dictatorships and Double Standards, is how well the work has withstood the test of time. In at least one respect it has. Building democracy remains as difficult as ever, and many of Kirkpatrick's critics are conceding the wisdom of her warnings.

What has survived the test of time very poorly is Kirkpatrick's assumption that totalitarian (read Communist) governments are immutable and incapable of democratization. In one sense, she can be hardly be blamed for her lack of foresight. In 1979 it was universal conventional wisdom the the Soviet Union was forever. But even then, many of Kirkpatrick's critics questioned whether other Communist governments were as solid as she thought. Some, such as Hungary, Yugoslavia and Poland had undergone partial liberalization, sometimes to the point that one could question whether they were truly totalitarian as that term is normally defined. A number of Kirkpatrick's critics pointed out that it was not any internal totalitarian dynamic that prevented the governments throughout Eastern Europe from democratizing, but the threat of Soviet intervention. If the threat of Soviet intervention could somehow be removed, Eastern Europe would democratize in swift order. But no one, neither Kirkpatrick's critics nor her admirers, suspected this would happen in a mere ten years!

More theoretically, Kirkpatrick's whole tendancy to equate "authoritarian" with "traditional" and "totalitarian" with "revolutionary" undermined her entire assumption about democratic potential. The trouble with "totalitarian" governments, she warned, was that they overturned entire social orders and upset tradition. But ultimately this dichotomy is relative. What is now "traditional" was once "revolutionary." What is now "revolutionary," if it remains long enough, will ultimately become "traditional." It totalitarian and revolutionary are synonymous, then even if revolutionary (i.e. totalitarian) governments are incapable of democratization, they will ultimately become "traditional" (i.e., "authoritarian") and therefore capable of democratization Revolution merely delays the possiblity of democracy; it does not preclude it.

Furthermore, Kirkpatrick wrote Dictatorships and Double Standards in November, 1979. Although it was not apparent at the time, in retrospect 1979 was a watershed year. In January, the Shah of Iran was overthrown and Ayatollah Khomeini began his experiment in theocracy. In the summer, Somoza was overthrown in Nicaragua and what proved to be the last Marxist revolutionaries came to power. In the early fall, a wave of strikes broke out in Poland, leading to the independent Solidarity union, yet the Soviet Union failed to intervene militarily. And in November, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to suppress an Islamic revolt against a Communist government they had helped to install. In short, 1979 might be considered the year militant Islam began displacing Communism as the most dangerous revolutionary ideology around.

Once again, not even the most prescient observer of the time was aware of this trend, much less predicted that Communism would largely disintigrate in a mere ten years, so Kirkpatrick cannot be blamed for sharing the universal fear of a Communist menace. But many people were already noticing that Communism was losing a certain momentum. The old revolutionary zeal was long gone in the Soviet Union and waning fast in China. Egypt, Sudan, and Somalia, which had all been socialist and pro-Soviet (though none were actually Communist) had all expelled their Soviet advisors and initiated friendly relations with the United States. The Sandinistas, newly in power in Nicaragua, were proving more flexibible and less dogmatic than Castro had been.

And then there was Iran. Although Kirkpatrick did briefly refer to Ayatollah Khomeini's regime as a "reactionary theocracy," on the whole she seemed to lump the Iranian revolution together with Communist revolutions in China, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, etc. She showed no interest in how a theocratic revolution might be difference from a Communist one, nor did it seem to occur to her that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan might alarm the government of neighboring Iran and preclude friendly relations with the invaders. In short, while Kirkpatrick can hardly have been expected to foresee just how extensive and dangerous militant Islam would ultimately become, she showed an extraordinary blindness in failing to notice it altogether.

Overall, many of Kirkpatrick faulty assumptions were simply the unquestioned wisdom of the day, which she can hardly be blamed for sharing. But in her alarmist anti-Communism, she lumped together all revolutionaries, failing to see distinctions that were obvious to calmer observers of the time. The prism of pure anti-Communism was far too simplified view to accurately describe the world of 1979. Many people at the time realized this. Jeane Kirkpatrick did not.

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