Revenge of the Neo-Jacobins

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Some mock America’s statue-smashers as ignoramuses who do not know what they are doing or why. But there are very good reasons why we see monuments cast down all over the West, including the United States. Let’s not wave this off as mindless stupidity.

The radical rule is that the more you destroy, the more you can rebuild in your image. Wrecking the past allows you to shape the present and the future. To smash indiscriminately is an attempt to create a year zero, as in any revolution. Everything before the year zero is evil by definition.

Overthrowing symbols, in particular, allows their defenders, bystanders, and participants in the act to be shocked by the very audacity of casting down the familiar, the admirable, the seemingly permanent, and, often, the sacred. Toppling the statue of King Saint Louis IX and replacing it with the Cookie Monster, while renaming the town of St. Louis, say, Kumbaya City would serve such a purpose. So would removing the images of “white” Jesus, as the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury would like. (Parenthetically, I did not know Jesus was white. I thought He was my Lord and a Jewish carpenter).

Taking monuments down indiscriminately demonstrates that there was nothing good in our past, at least nothing good enough to preserve. Hence, Andrew Jackson equals Abraham Lincoln. Why deface General Tadeusz Kościuszko in front of the White House? He was a champion of liberty; he fought for freedom all his life; he was an abolitionist already in the 18th century; and he willed his entire American fortune to the manumission and education of former slaves. So much the worse for him. That is why, precisely, he must be smashed. You do not believe me? Read anarchist Nechayev’s “Revolutionary Catechism.”

 

Further, to accept men like Kościuszko, Edmund Burke, or William Wilberforce, who opposed slavery, is to acknowledge a possibility of reforming the system. We reject the past, so we stress there was nothing good about it—least of all from Dead White Males. To accept that freedom springs from such a dastardly source defies the revolution. So, there can be no exceptions. We do not want to reform; we want to destroy. Out with the whole lot!

Please let us not forget that for the same reason we must deface the Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial in Boston. All black abolitionists, they were really a bunch of Uncle Toms fighting in the war for the Union! Down with them! They simply enabled and condoned the American system instead overthrowing it. They bowed to their “white saviors.” They were not “woke” enough to start a revolution and a race war against both South and North. They do not belong on a pedestal.

To eradicate symbols is like burning the American flag. Symbols express our greatest desires and admiration in nonverbal terms. (Think of the majesty of the Iwo Jima memorial in Washington, D.C.) They unite us spiritually with a powerful bond that requires no explanation. Their role is to bring us together. So, they must be brought down to disunite America forever. Then we can forge it anew with different symbols that shall emerge from the revolution.

Thus, the shocking act of vandalism becomes the act of rearranging collective consciousness. We dare to destroy. There is nothing sacred of yours that is safe, and you can’t do anything about it. The act of wrecking becomes a challenge and, more often than not, lays bare the impotence of those who defend the old symbols.

Further, the act of destruction radicalizes the destroyers, including, especially, those not fully initiated, who are either seduced or cajoled into smashing. Pulverizing things together serves also as a bonding ceremony. Think about gang initiation rites.

Iconoclasm has a long pedigree. In Christendom, it goes back at least to the Byzantine Empire, when radical heretics (influenced by Islam) conducted an image-shattering campaign to prevent Orthodox Christians from celebrating Our Lord in painting and sculpture.

This form of theophobia surfaces cyclically, usually during revolutionary times. For example, in the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestant revolutionaries desecrated Roman Catholic churches by smashing, defacing, and whitewashing images, pictures, sculptures, frescoes, and stained glass windows all over northern and western Europe. The revolutionaries in France followed suit at the end of the 18th century, wrecking Catholic houses of worship and replacing Jesus with the “goddess” of Reason. Similar bacchanalia occurred in the 19th century during the Commune de Paris in 1871.

By the 20th century, this kind of an assault had become de rigueur. In Russia, the Bolsheviks erased much that smacked of the old regime, not only tearing down monuments but turning houses of worship (churches, mosques, and synagogues) into musea at best and fertilizer warehouses at worst. Frequently, the Communists just pulled them down altogether in order to build, for example, a swimming pool in Moscow or Odessa. In Spain, the desecration of Catholic churches was a rite of passage for many a leftist. The Reds even dug up dead bodies from their catafalques and catacombs to line them up in front of shrines as props for stand-up comedy and other acts of progressive hilarity.

This is simply the rule anywhere the revolution rears its ugly head. But the good news is that when the counterrevolution finally dawns, however belatedly, the revolutionary edifices and institutions come crumbling down and the past is righteously restored, or at least some of it. Witness the powerful wave of decommunization of Central and Eastern Europe’s monuments following 1989. Remember the casting down of Lenin statues virtually all over Ukraine just a few years ago.

Some Communist monuments were saved in morbid amusement parks from Lithuania through Poland and Czechia. In Russia and Belarus, they remain intact (alas). There have even been a couple of new Stalin monuments erected lately by Putin worshippers. And at least one Lenin was saved from the ax and shipped to Seattle, Washington, where it still stands proudly in front of a Mexican restaurant. Germany unveiled a new statue of the Bolshevik leader last month. This was to complement statues and shrines to Marx that still afflict the Federal Republic.

How aware are the American participants in the iconoclastic orgy of all this? From a strategic perspective most have no idea what they are participating in. A case in point: America was astonished to find out that most Gen Xers and millennials wanted “socialism.” Except the kids had no idea what “socialism” was, as a poll commissioned by the Victims of Communism Foundation established unequivocally. This sort of ignorance has metastasized universally and afflicts practically all phenomena, in particular the knowledge of history.

Yet, the leaders of the revolutionaries are not stupid. They tend to know exactly what they want. They want the Apocalypse, an all-smashing revolution and a new beginning. As for the followers, they are like any average person—largely misinformed, passionate, and acting out in congruence with the spirit of the times.

Enough already. The followers must be informed and the leaders stopped. The time to counter the smashing is now.

Image: Robespierre by André Émile Larcher

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

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Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History and holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC.

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