Nihilism and Attacks on Monuments

The signal of a turn toward totalitarianism.

Violent mobs across America and Western Europe now destroy and vandalize statues, monuments, war memorials, churches, and public buildings on an almost daily basis. Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of rogue Minneapolis police officers a wave of protests and riots broke out across the country. Looting of stores and restaurants soon gave way to more purposeful attacks on statues and other public structures organized by Black Lives Matters (BLM) and Antifa. Ostensibly treated as a response to “institutionalized racism” it has been explained in much of our official media as merely a way to remove images related to racism that are now deemed offensive to African Americans and other minorities. How can one object, the argument goes, to removing statues of Confederates who fought against the United States?

Yet from the beginning, it was never about the Confederacy or racism. Attacks commenced on all statues and all types of public buildings and monuments. This included statues of abolitionists, Abraham Lincoln, Union soldiers, and even the memorial to the famous all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment, perhaps the best known example of African American heroism during the Civil War. A monument to Gandhi, the icon of non-violent opposition to colonialism, was attacked, as was a statue of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Polish American Revolutionary War hero, who dedicated his entire American estate to freeing and educating slaves. World War II memorials were not spared. A monument to the Armenian genocide was vandalized. In Los Angeles, synagogues and Jewish community institutions were vandalized and spray painted with anti-Semitic slogans. Statues and monuments to founding fathers such as Washington and Jefferson have been a particular target.

Supporters of BLM and Antifa dismiss opposition to these attacks as a distraction from the topic of “institutional racism” or as an example of racism itself. Yet, it is precisely these groups that have made it a point to target public monuments. Others, including many on the center and the right have deplored such acts as examples of ignorance by protesters, or perhaps some failure of the educational system, or as merely irrational or illogical actions of angry mobs. Such discussions miss the point entirely. Yet the attackers aren’t interested in the history behind the statues at all and appeals to logic make no difference. The attacks are not irrational or the result of bad history or civics education but something far more dangerous.

Nihilism emerged as an essential handmaiden to radical left-wing politics in Russia in the 19th century. Its effects were not confined to the Left but were also adopted by extremists on the right. Nihilism seeks to “clear the ground” of all that came before, to sweep away the all old “structures” the radicals saw as impediments to progress and the realization of a utopia free of injustice, oppression, and inequality. Those “structures” included political systems, religion, economic arrangements, institutions of civil society, the family, individual conscience, and even language itself. The forms the structures took—be they good or bad, progressive or reactionary—made no difference. All had to be extirpated, root and branch. Reform efforts were too slow and the Ancien Régime and the bourgeoise resisted and obstructed attempts to realize the beautiful utopia. For those truly dedicated to a utopia of social justice, violence was the only the alternative and the more extreme the better. Anything that stood in the way or slowed down the march to utopia was complicit in murder and oppression. Destruction, anarchist Mikhail Bakunin noted, is the prelude to new creation. Hatred was a “holy” thing and fully justified in pursuit of a better world.

Nihilism became a creed for large segments of the educated classes in Europe before the First World War and after, including groups like the Futurists and other proto-fascists. F. T. Marinetti wrote in the 1909 Futurist Manifesto, “Let the good incendiaries come with their carbonized fingers!... Here they are! Here they are!... Set the library stacks on fire! Turn the canals in their course to flood the museum vaults!... There go the glorious canvases, floating adrift! Take up the picks and the hammers! Undermine the foundations of the venerable cities!”

Nihilism, however, turned out not to be a prelude to a better and freer world but to new forms of diabolical cruelty, terror, and genocide. All forms of 20th century totalitarianism grew from nihilism. Breaking eggs proved far more enjoyable and seductive than the complexity of making omelets. The power to destroy without limits proved irresistible. Each new “structure of oppression” that was destroyed revealed new structures to be targeted; and along with the structures the people associated with them. Eliminating the Church was not enough if the clergy remained. The Russian aristocracy and bourgeoisie were destroyed only to reveal the kulaks as the new enemy of the Bolsheviks. As better off peasants disappeared into the gulags, “kulak” was redefined to mean almost any peasant whatsoever. Eliminating the kulaks revealed other structures and other enemies hindering the realization of the communist utopia: wreckers, spies, foreign agents. Under communist dictatorships in China, North Korea, and Cambodia, centuries of culture disappeared in flames along with tens of millions of people.

Attacks on people are invariably preceded by attacks on their symbols. The Nazis sought to create a racial utopia, beginning with the elimination of the Jews, remaking the German race and even remaking nature itself into a primordial state fit for the Master Race. Long before mass extermination, the Germany’s National Socialists attacked symbols of Judaism—synagogues and other religious and community buildings and Jewish-owned businesses. Books and artwork “tainted” by Jewish or other “decadent” influences were burned. Jews were publicly humiliated, forced to bow in public before Germans, and acquiesce to their own humiliation. Personal signs of Jewish religious commitment were erased as Orthodox Jews had their beards forcibly shaved in public. But the Nihilism of the Nazis could never be content with only the Jews, for other enemies of the Herrenvolk awaited their turns including Roma or Poles and other Slavs. The scope of the Nihilist’s destructive vision is without limit.

The Nihilist seeks not only the destruction of physical enemies but more importantly their spiritual destruction as well. Jozef Rozanski was a leading official of the secret police in Soviet-controlled Poland in the late 1940s and early 1950s, infamous for his cruel tortures of non-Communist anti-Nazi resistance fighters. Rozanski’s preferred methodology was seat a victim on the leg of an upturned stool and have his men beat the victim over the head and shoulders until the leg of stool perforated the victim’s anus. Rozanski tortured his victims not for information but merely to break them mentally. One survivor recalled Rozanski saying “Our task is not merely to destroy you physically but to smash you morally in the eyes of society.”

Nihilists annihilated language too. Words change meanings constantly. The Soviets devoted endless resources to editing and rewriting dictionaries and encyclopedias. Who was an ally one day could be an enemy the next. Words like Jew, kulak, class enemy, bourgeois, leftist or rightist mutated as needed, eliminating the differences between true and false. Anti-communist poet Zbigniew Herbert commented “A good Marxist, like a good sophist, successfully argued for Helen's virginity, and then equally successfully demonstrated that she was a whore…. This amounts to a betrayal of language, a denial of the unequivocal meaning of certain ideas. Those of whom I speak are extremely subtle, they understand the concept of relativism.”

The turn toward Nihilism today shares all these features. Old structures of “institutional racism” must be eliminated and the ground cleared for a new utopia, “undo racism” and “decolonize” everything. The ground must be cleared and the world returned to some primordial state of grace before the trans-Atlantic slave trade or Columbus’ voyage in 1492. All things are tainted and thus need to be destroyed: institutions, religions, organizations, politics, education, everything from children’s TV shows to hair styles to the food we eat. Words mutate in their spelling, meaning, and acceptability. Destruction of physical symbols and monuments proceeds apace accompanied by rituals of public humiliation on street corners or social media. Those subject to such rituals must participate in their own abasement.

Failure to accept one is a racist is proof of racism, turning logic on its head. With each potential target destroyed, new targets emerge in a never-ending orgy of vandalism. Resistance to the Nihilist mob is proof of guilt and justifies any and all abuse in response, verbal or physical, to those who do not knuckle under and accept obliteration. Anger—or “outrage” as it is fashionably termed—is once again holy and puts one above all criticism. The more outraged you are and the more extreme the manifestations of that outrage, the greater your righteous is taken to be. Those who are not outraged are deemed morally deficient. Calls for physical violence grow more strident on social media. Popular tweets urge fellow Nihilists to do more than throw statues into rivers but to drown “racists” there as well.

The result of a turn toward Nihilism is certain, particularly absent is any force with the will to resist the impulse to destroy. Such forces are rare in societies that have convinced themselves they are guilty of an endless rap sheet of historical crimes. The very concept of law enforcement is under assault. Some may stand aside in the belief that the mob will destroy itself. Although utopian revolutions do eat their own, they do so only after they have devoured all else within reach. Destruction will not and cannot stop with a few statues of Columbus. There are museums full of paintings and libraries full of books that are equally if not more “racist” than any statue. A few may attempt to reason with the mob to save this painting or that book, but it will come to naught. The guardians of the institutions will kneel in the hope they themselves will be spared, indeed they have already done so. What form totalitarianism may take in this case cannot be foreseen, for each manifestation is unique in its cruelty, degradation, and horror. Without forceful and just resistance to Nihilism and the Nihilists, generations hence will look back on our time as the beginning of a new dark age.

John Radzilowski is professor of history at the University of Alaska.


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