Some of the impulses we inherit from our evolutionary past may incline us to conflict, but others— “the better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln called them—incline us to peaceful cooperation. In order to show that conflicts between the two will in future increasingly be settled in favour of peace, Pinker needs to be able to identify some very powerful trends. He does his best, but the changes to which he points—the spread of democracy and the increase of wealth, for example—are more problematic than he realises. The formation of democratic nation-states was one of the principal drivers of violence of the last century, involving ethnic cleansing in inter-war Europe, post-colonial states and the post-communist Balkans. Steadily-growing prosperity may act as a kind of tranquilliser, but there is no reason to think the increase of wealth can go on indefinitely—and when it falters violence will surely return. In quite different ways, attacks on minorities and immigrants by neo-fascists in Europe, the popular demonstrations against austerity in Greece and the English riots of the past summer show the disruptive and dangerous impact of sudden economic slowdown on social peace. All the trends that supposedly lie behind the Long Peace are contingent and reversible.
…Pinker’s attempt to ground the hope of peace in science is profoundly instructive, for it testifies to our enduring need for faith. We don’t need science to tell us that humans are violent animals. History and contemporary experience provide more than sufficient evidence. For liberal humanists, the role of science is, in effect, to explain away this evidence. They look to science to show that, over the long run, violence will decline—hence the panoply of statistics and graphs and the resolute avoidance of inconvenient facts. The result is no more credible than the efforts of Marxists to show the scientific necessity of socialism, or free-market economists to demonstrate the permanence of what was until quite recently hailed as the Long Boom. The Long Peace is another such delusion, and just as ephemeral.
Six months before he was murdered in his study in Mexico City, Leon Trotsky wrote: “I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of mankind is no less ardent, indeed it is firmer today, than it was in the days of my youth.”
There is something tragicomic in this confession of faith. Dialectical materialism, though it claimed to be based in science, was never more than superstitious gibberish. When he invoked the supposed science to bolster his failing political hopes, Trotsky was engaging in a type of magical thinking, using words as charms to ward off the terrors of history. At the same time – and this is the irresistibly comical element of Trotsky’s career – he never ceased to regard himself as anything other than an uncompromising rationalist.
…Hitchens’s account of the origins of neoconservatism has obvious parallels with his own political trajectory. He has always made it clear that, for him, the decision to invade Iraq was justified as the beginning of a revolutionary war. It is this continuing ideological mindset that accounts for many of the misjudgements he has made over the past decade. For Hitchens, that the Iraq war proved to be a disaster does not show the enterprise to have been a mistake – any more than the disastrous history of the former Soviet Union shows that the Bolshevik revolution (for which Hitchens continues to nurse a decidedly soft spot) was a mistake. In both cases, the human costs count for very little in the final analysis. What matters is the world-transforming revolutionary impulse that animated both experiments.
…There are some who represent Hitchens as a contrarian or provocateur, without convictions. They are wrong. What sort of provocateur would write that “Bin Ladenism” is more dangerous than German Wilhelmine imperialism, the Nazi-Fascist axis and international communism? Such a patently absurd claim could only be made by one who deeply believes it to be true.
Leave aside the grotesque disproportion in lumping the Kaiser’s Germany in with mid-20th-century totalitarianism. What is wholly fantastical is putting Osama Bin Laden’s gang in the same category as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – two extremely powerful states with vast industrial and military resources, the first coming close to conquering all of Europe, the second annexing Europe’s eastern half and the Baltic states while imposing itself throughout central Asia. In passing over these undeniable facts, Hitchens is not playing the role of intellectual gadfly. He is showing himself to be a believer who – like Trotsky – blanks out reality when it fails to accord with his faith.
That Hitchens has the mind of a believer has not been sufficiently appreciated.