The pulling down and defacing of statues by the cultural Left has now spread from the states of the onetime Confederacy to the West Coast. There, Democratic politicians in alliance with various leftist activists are removing what we are told are offensive images from public view.
This iconoclastic fury has spread from removing statues of Columbus from municipal buildings and parks to dismantling memorials and plaques put up to honor Spanish missionaries. The attack on missionary settlers is justified by citing their use of native Indian labor as well as the more questionable claim that they forcibly converted the native inhabitants to Catholicism.
The missionaries who are now being dishonored created much of the Hispanic culture embraced by Latino minorities, including their language and majority religion. Latinos may have Aztec or Mayan blood, but they are also descended from Spaniards and took on much of a recognizably Spanish way of life.
The cultural Marxist revolution our country and much of the West are now undergoing requires that certain groups assume new collective identities. Through this transformation, essential elements of what these groups were in the past are suppressed and replaced by new characteristics. For example, Latinos are separated from their Spanish roots and turned into Spanish-speaking Amerindians, who were enslaved by Europeans. The last thing the cultural Left intends is to allow designated victim groups to hold on to their old identities. It seeks to turn new missionized groups into embattled enemies of traditional Western society—that is, Western society as it existed before the Left began its newest war against the past.
This modus operandi does not apply to all forms of the Left equally. For example, communists when in power have operated very differently because their interest was mostly a socioeconomic transformation. It’s not as if the communists were nice people. They just pursued a very different agenda from that of our cultural Left. Certainly they were not as thorough in seeking to purge the past of unprogressive heroes. Peter the Great remained a political hero in the Soviet Union, and Alexander Nevsky and Catherine the Great were periodically brought back when the circumstances required. Although the Christian religion was often persecuted in the Soviet empire, communist regimes periodically favored state churches when they thought they could control them.
The East German communist regime lavishly celebrated the 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther in 1984. It depicted this profoundly conservative religious reformer as a forerunner of Germany’s revolutionary socialist government. In Der Turm, a sprawling novel of life in Dresden during the last years of communism, author Uwe Tellkamp presents a profoundly conservative intelligentsia pursuing very bourgeois literary studies under the guise of building a socialist society. Universities in Germany’s communist state were highly selective about whom they took in, and the East German military was as disciplined as it had been when the Prussian aristocracy was still in charge. Bernie Sanders, who spent his honeymoon in the Soviet Union, and the American communist Angela Davis may have adored Soviet communism but I suspect Soviet leaders never returned their affection.
Although one could attribute such features of communist life to a failure to practice revolutionary ideals, arguably this situation was due to other circumstances as well. Marxist-Leninist governments were self-limiting in their radicalism. In communist countries, marriage was exclusively between members of opposite sexes and there were only two recognized genders. Under the communist Left, which always had a puritanical side, gay activities were driven underground as an expression of bourgeois decadence. Communism in practice, except perhaps during the Cultural Revolution in China, produced regimes that were mostly interested in preserving themselves. When they were not engaging in disastrous economic experiments, these governments devoted enormous energy to forestalling opposition. They were also relatively primitive in their use of propaganda and educational resources to preserve and expand their power.
Unlike the communists, our Left is culturally radical and profoundly destructive. It has the means to reshape public opinion, which it does partly by pulling down statues and renaming streets and parks.
As a final thought, I would note that this recent iconoclasm, which is typical of the cultural Left, is hardly normal everywhere. On a visit to Hong Kong, I noticed that the current Chinese government had not renamed the parks and other public sites that celebrated English monarchs, nor had it pulled down statues erected during British imperial rule. Although at least nominally communist, Chinese state officials look after these remnants of English rule with obvious care. In Israel, the government tends to the temples and monuments that Roman conquerors left behind, even though those same Romans slaughtered ancient Jews and destroyed their Second Temple. This seems infinitely more civilized than what the cultural Left has now unleashed on our shores.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.