W and Dostoevsky

Midway through his inaugural address, when the president proclaimed "the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," I wondered if Bush or his speechwriters knew or cared how alien this ultra-revolutionary rhetoric would seem to conservatives of the old school – and soon had my answer:

"Because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom. And as hope kindles hope, millions more will find it. By our efforts we have lit a fire as well, a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power; it burns those who fight its progress. And one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world."

A fire in the mind – surely, I thought, Bush’s speechwriters can’t have inserted this phrase without knowing its literary origin. It is taken from Dostoevsky’s novel, The Possessed, a story set in pre-revolutionary Russia in which the author chronicles the intrigues of the emerging revolutionary movement: one of the main characters is based on the infamous nihilist Sergei Nechaev, whose aim is to make a revolution of such destructive power that bourgeois society will be completely destroyed. Their strategy is to provoke a violent crackdown on all dissent – which will then spark an explosion of revolutionary violence. To this purpose the nihilist Peter Verkhovensky worms his way into the confidence of Lembke, a provincial governor, convincing him of the need to crush rebellious workers who are distributing revolutionary leaflets and generally agitating against the government. The result is an uprising of murderous anger, a volcanic eruption of nihilistic violence that consumes the provincial capital in a great fire. In the end, Governor Lembke stands amid the crowd watching his mansion go up in flames:

"Lembke stood facing the lodge, shouting and gesticulating. He was giving orders which no one attempted to carry out. It seemed to me that every one had given him up as hopeless and left him. Anyway, though every one in the vast crowd of all classes, among whom there were gentlemen, and even the cathedral priest, was listening to him with curiosity and wonder, no one spoke to him or tried to get him away. Lembke, with a pale face and glittering eyes, was uttering the most amazing things. To complete the picture, he had lost his hat and was bareheaded.

"’It’s all incendiarism! It’s nihilism! If anything is burning, it’s nihilism!’ I heard almost with horror; and though there was nothing to be surprised at, yet actual madness, when one sees it, always gives one a shock.

"’Your Excellency,’ said a policeman, coming up to him, ‘what if you were to try the repose of home? . . . It’s dangerous for your Excellency even to stand here.’

"This policeman, as I heard afterwards, had been told off by the chief of police to watch over [Lembke], to do his utmost to get him home, and in case of danger even to use force – a task evidently beyond the man’s power.

"’They will wipe away the tears of the people whose houses have been burnt, but they will burn down the town. It’s all the work of four scoundrels, four and a half! Arrest the scoundrel! He worms himself into the honor of families. They made use of the governesses to burn down the houses. It’s vile, vile! Aie, what’s he about?’ he shouted, suddenly noticing a fireman at the top of the burning lodge, under whom the roof had almost burnt away and round whom the flames were beginning to flare up. ‘Pull him down! Pull him down! He will fall, he will catch fire, put him out! . . . What is he doing there?’

"’He is putting the fire out, your Excellency.’

"’Not likely. The fire is in the minds of men and not in the roofs of houses. Pull him down and give it up! Better give it up, much better! Let it put itself out.’"

In Dostoevsky’s novel, that fire in the minds of men is not a yearning for liberty, but a nihilistic will to power that can only end in destruction. Put in George W. Bush’s mouth, those words are not a paean to freedom, but a manifesto of pure destructionism. Like Governor Lembke, President Bush has no dearth of hardline advisers who counsel him in ways calculated to provoke a violent reaction: unlike Lembke, however, there is little chance George W. Bush will learn his lesson, even if it comes too late.

The fiery imagery that pervades the text of Bush’s second inaugural address is disturbing because it is so constant. He describes the course of history in the last fifty years, and "the shipwreck of communism," followed by "years of sabbatical" that ended in "a day of fire." The fiery prose heats up quickly, raising the rhetorical temperature to a fever pitch:

"Hope kindles hope" – "By our efforts we have lit a fire, a fire in the minds of men."

The flames leap up, as the mad Governor Lembke cries out.

"It warms those who feel its power," avers the President, "it burns those who fight its progress."

The revolutionary nihilists in Dostoevsky’s novel, and those real-life nihilists in pre-revolutionary Russia on whom the characters were based, believed themselves to be agents of progress, destined by History to sweep away the old in the purifying flames of a great uprising that would be the prelude to a new world. A similar messianic sense of being on the right side of history pervades Bush’s polemic:

"History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction set by liberty and the author of liberty."

The Marxist and anarchist revolutionaries of Dostoevsky’s day thought they saw history’s "visible direction," although they did not ascribe to it an author. The Bushian innovation is to give his brand of revolutionism a theological theme, substituting God for History – but these are mere details. The central idea is the same: a worldwide revolutionary upheaval is needed to put the world right, and some men are anointed by history as redeemers.

Hegel and his followers saw the Spirit of History in Napoleon as the French corporal liberated great swaths of 19th century Europe, and today the philosophers of regime change claim to see it in George W. Bush as he embarks on a campaign to "liberate" the Middle East.

This is quite possibly the most worrisome and even frightening speech ever delivered by an American president. Its imagery of a fire burning up the world, coupled with the incendiary promise to aid "democratic reformers" against "outlaw regimes" worldwide, evokes the spirit of another murderous "idealism" – one that made the 20th century the age of mass murder. As he ranted on and on – "the expansion of freedom in all the world"; "Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation"; "When you stand for your liberty we will stand with you." – Bushed sounded more like Trotsky addressing the Red Army than an American president addressing his people. The militant, overtly ideological tone had about it a distinctly Bolshevik air:

"Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security and the calling of our time. So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world. …

"America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies."

You have nothing to lose but your chains.

All together now:

"Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!
Arise, ye wretched of the earth!
For justice thunders condemnation,
A better world’s in birth!
No more tradition’s chains shall bind us;
Arise ye slaves no more in thrall.
The earth shall rise on new foundations,
We have been naught, we shall be all!"

To be sure, Bush’s militant internationalism is leavened with appeals to "common sense" and national self-interest: "We are led by events and common sense to one conclusion" because "America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one." It was that "day of fire," you see, that launched us on our messianic quest, and now imbues us with a sacred "mission" to "spread liberty" to the "dark corners of the earth."

What this means, in plain language and in practice, is a foreign policy of perpetual war:

"We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation, the moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right."

Translation: We will continue to launch wars of aggression against anyone who gets in our way. If you think Iraq is a big deal, you haven’t seen anything yet….

For all the talk of "freedom" and "liberty" – Bush used the former 27 times, and the latter on 15 occasions – this president and his fanatic followers have been the very worst enemies of civil liberties on the home front. Bush has launched the most serious assault on the rights guaranteed by the Constitution since President John Adams imposed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. And if Bush is bad, his followers are far worse.

Tony Blankley, editor of the conservative – and party-line pro-Bush – Washington Times, wrote an editorial the other day demanding that Seymour Hersh be jailed for "espionage." By publishing an article that exposed the American plan to invade and conquer Iran, now being bruited about in the higher reaches of the Pentagon, Hersh is "aiding the enemy" by informing them of American troop movements. Hersh reported that American agents had already crossed into Iran to identify targets.

Blankley claims that since this is "wartime," Hersh should be prosecuted and jailed, casually noting that the law provides for the death penalty in some cases. Quite aside from being quite wrong about the history and application of the laws against espionage, I wonder: since when are we at war with Iran? Although Blankley and his neoconservative comrades would no doubt dearly love to witness that eventuality, it hasn’t happened yet. So the Iranians are not the "enemy," in spite of their membership in the "axis of evil." As a supplement to the Bush doctrine of preemptive war, Blankley has come up with a legal theory of preemptive prosecutions for espionage and even treason – jail them before war actually breaks out.

What Lew Rockwell perceptively characterizes as "red-state fascism" is on the march, singing songs to "freedom" –and planting the seeds of authoritarianism in America. The ideas that drive Bush and today’s Republicans exhibit all the classic features of fascist ideology, with a few homegrown innovations thrown into the mix: The cult of the Leader, the militarization and marriage of political and economic power, extensive surveillance of the citizenry, a strong tendency to criminalize public debate – as in brother Blankley’s case – and, most important of all, a warlike foreign policy married to a messianic sense of mission, often rooted in religious ideas.

This president believes that he, personally, has been assigned by God to perform a great task: that much has been clear from the beginning. What we didn’t know for sure was whether he was going to turn back from the mad course he’s embarked on in Iraq, and modify his divine ordination along more modest lines.

Alas, the disease of second-term presidents – hubris – had infected this president and his advisers throughout the first four years. The fever shows no signs of subsiding: if anything, it is getting worse. George W. Bush is a man possessed – and God help us all if we fail to restrain him.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].