“I think I know man, but as for men, I know them not.” Rousseau
“This absence of curiosity is a permanent characteristic of the revolutionary consciousness.” Roger Scruton
I was struck by a news report this summer about Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. It has long been known that he and his wife chose to spend their honeymoon in the Soviet Union. But it was news that he never availed himself of the opportunity to visit Alexander Solzhenitsyn when the great writer and moral witness was living as a refugee in Cavendish, Vt., between 1976 and 1994.
Some comments about that story attribute Mr. Sanders’s negligence to ideology, as if he, being a fan of the Soviet Union, made a silent protest by ignoring the famous anti-Soviet figure in his midst. But I think the deeper reason for his neglect was a quality of the socialist or communist or revolutionary sensibility that is too little remarked. I mean its ingrained, indeed its programmatic, lack of curiosity about other people.
The philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, in a thoughtful anatomy of the French Revolution, is one of the few people to underscore this feature of the totalitarian habit of mind. “This absence of curiosity,” Mr. Scruton notes, “is a permanent characteristic of the revolutionary consciousness.”
An important reason for this lack of curiosity is the prominent role that abstractions play in the mental and moral metabolism of the totalitarian sensibility. This feature was articulated with some poignancy by Rousseau, who, at the end of his life, sadly observed: “I think I know man, but as for men, I know them not.”
Thus it should come as no surprise that Rousseau, in an influential prelude to totalitarian dramas to come, insisted that true liberty consisted in sacrificing all merely individual wills to the imperatives of a “general will,” whose dictates are as peremptory as they were abstract. As he put it in “The Social Contract,” anyone who would undertake the creation of a people must feel himself capable of “changing human nature.”
In this view, human reality is drained of dignity and becomes material to be shaped and formed according to the schemes of utopian power. Hence the terrifying logic of Stalin’s observation that a single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic. Revolutionaries do not trade in individuals, only masses.
I was struck by the story of Mr. Sanders’s curiosity deficit because it seems to be such a widespread liability of our political class. Absorbed by their ideological battles, the political actors of the establishment—and we include here the army of consultants, lobbyists, staffers, and pundits as well as elected officials—seem to have constructed an all but impenetrable carapace that protects them from the unwanted intrusion of empirical reality. Their lives are given up entirely to politics.
They thereby neglect the nonpolitical, or prepolitical, reality that is the end for which politics labors, or should labor. The cruel and suffocating intrusiveness of those dystopian “experiments against reality” are not so seamlessly or so thoroughly implemented in American society as they have been elsewhere. But anyone who looks around at the vast, unaccountable, self-engorging bureaucracy of the so-called administrative state, anyone who watches the ignorant and vituperative grandstanding of so many of our elected officials, cannot help but mark the parallels with the remorseless incuriosity that stood behind the totalitarian juggernaut as it systematically discounted truth for the sake of the accumulation of power.
Mr. Kimball is editor and publisher of the New Criterion, from whose September issue this is adapted.