It is commonly said that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Until recently, this might have been taken as an obvious truth. Yet we understand less of the past now than previous generations knew. Just think of the paucity of most modern opinion formers’ knowledge of the ancient world, even though so much of what we think and do – not least democratic politics – has its philosophical origins in ancient Greece or Rome.
The tyrants of the 20th century – Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot – wanted to obliterate history, reinvent or ignore it. The outcome of their ahistorical views – rejecting the wisdom of ages with the civilising values it brings – brought horror: In living memory, some 100 million people have perished under the deplorable banners of various Socialist or National Socialist ideologies.
Few despots of that kind remain. Alarmingly, where they do – in North Korea, for example – there are still those here who either criticise them grudgingly or even excuse their excesses. So let us be clear – the North Korean dictator denies his people all knowledge of the outside world, and keeps them subdued with political prison camps, mass starvation, torture and public summary execution.
Only a few years ago, Venezuela was lauded by some who should know better as “a better way of doing things”. Now the full horror of its regime has been laid bare. Some Leftists attribute the failure there to the reduced price of oil (which has not “collapsed” but merely reverted to a level more in line with the long-term average), but in truth the blame lies fully with yet another ahistorical “experiment”, conducted by a regime which robs its citizens of their liberty, leading inexorably to mass shortages of food, healthcare and clean water.
There is, alas, nothing new in the despicable defence of totalitarianism. When in 1994 the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm was asked, had Communism had achieved its goals at a cost of 15 or 20 million lives (rather than the 100 million it actually claimed), whether he would have supported it, he replied simply: “Yes.” Hobsbawm – who I once met – lived to a ripe old age – proof, perhaps, that only the good die young.
Men and women are capable of every vice and the past shows that those with absolute power are prone to use all the vices to maintain their grip on it.
The wicked, left unchecked, will eliminate all dissent and compel every course of human action to their sinister will. So those of us who cherish liberty must be ever vigilant against any new prospect of such menace. We know from history what can happen when we are not.