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Universalism’s Great Flaw

One passage in George Kennan’s Russia Leaves the War stands out for what it tells us about the common mistake that universalists of all stripes make:

In both cases, the principals overrated the effects of their words. Wilson appealed to what he believed to be the democratic idealism of the Russian people–their yeaerning for civil liberties and self-determination within the framework of a parliamentary system. Lenin appealed to what he believed to be the Marxist-revolutionary enthusiasm of the German proletariat. Both miscalculated. In the case of the Russian people, war weariness, land hunger, ignorance, and bewilderment, plus the harsh reality of Bolshevik power, proved far more powerful than any attachment to democratic ideals. In the case of Germany, patriotism, the habit of obedience, and an attachment to he orderly processes of government were stronger than any revolutionary enthusiasm. Both Wilson and Lenin had made the mistake of attempting to project their respective ideological images onto the world at large and to bespeak an international validity for principles that were actually the product of their own specific environmental and educational backgrounds. (p.244)

Viewed one way, this is simply the mistake of privileging ideological assumptions over observable reality. Every ideologue is frequently at risk of doing this. However, universalist ideologues are much more likely to make this mistake because it is one of their basic assumptions not just that everyone desires the same goods but that they also desire them in much the same form and order of priority as the ideologue. When other nations do not embrace what the universalist is offering (or, just as often, imposing on) them, it is taken for granted that this is a failure on their part, but it is their reaction that is normal and the universalist’s expectations that are misguided.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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