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Coronavirus: Another apocalypse? History returns; ways of life disappear

(Excerpts tp be added)

John Gray, Professor Emeritus of European Thought at the London School of Economics, draws our attention to some of the sweeping changes that major historical events have brought about, including in particular the Russian Revolution of 1917. Excerpts from his thought-provoking article, first encountered in Spanish in El País of May 23, 2020, is reproduced below, followed by excerpts from the original English version published in UnHerd on May 13, 2020.


John Gray, “Otro apocalipsis? Durante la Revolución Rusa pocos pensaban que el mundo que habían conocido había desaparecido para siempre. Hoy ocurre lo mismo: gran parte de nuestra forma de vida anterior al virus ya es irrecuperable,” El País, 23 MAY 2020 (18:30 EDT).

John Gray es catedrático emérito de Pensamiento Europeo en la London School of Economics.

Revision of draft in progress

John Gray, “How apocalyptic is now?; The sudden death of ways of life has been a regular occurrence throughout history,” UnHerd, May 13, 2920.

Gray argues that the recurrence of apocalyses is a recurrent feature of history. His most cogent example is drawn from the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its aftermath.

“In waves of terror beginning in August 1918, when Lenin was injured in an attempted assassination, the new Soviet regime killed its own citizens on a previously unknown scale. During the two months that followed, around 15,000 people were executed for political crimes — more than twice the total number of prisoners of all kinds executed in the previous century of tsarist rule (6,321). Taken together, the casualties of the Revolution, the 1918 terror, the civil war and the ensuing famine cost the lives of around 25 million people in the territories of the former Tsarist empire — 18 times the number of casualties it incurred in the First World War (1.3 to 1.4 million.)

“For the rulers of the new state, the breakdown of the old order was an opportunity to refashion society on a new model. “Former persons” — aristocrats, landlords and priests, together with anyone who employed others — were stripped of civil rights and denied ration cards and housing. Many dying of starvation or from hard labour in the concentration camps Lenin had established, these human remnants of the past watched as their entire way of life was erased. The same was true of the peasantry, whose recurrent rebellions were crushed with savage force. In the large-scale uprising in the Tambov region in 1920-21, Soviet forces used poisonous gas to clear forests into which the peasants had fled.
“On October 27, 1989, a couple of weeks before the Berlin Wall fell, I wrote:

“‘What we are witnessing in the Soviet Union is not the end of history, but instead its resumption — and on decidedly traditional lines. All the evidence suggests that we are now moving back into an epoch that is classically historical…Ours is an era in which political ideology, liberal as much as Marxist, has a rapidly dwindling leverage on events, and more ancient, more primordial forces, nationalist and religious, fundamentalist and soon, perhaps, Malthusian, are contesting with each other…If the Soviet Union does indeed fall apart, that beneficent catastrophe will not inaugurate a new era of post-historical harmony, but a return to the classical terrain of history, a terrain of great-power rivalries, secret diplomacies and irredentist claims.’

“Visiting the US at the time, I was amused to find this view dismissed as apocalyptic pessimism….

“That a reversion to history as usual should be unthinkable testifies to the mind-numbing power of secular faith. While progressive ideologies are often divided into reformist and revolutionary varieties, the difference is not fundamental. Both rest on the faith that history is an accretive process in which meaning and value are conserved and increased.

“Actually history is repeatedly punctuated by discontinuities in which what was gained is irrecoverably lost. Whether because of war or revolution, famine or epidemic — or a deadly combination, as in the Russian Civil War — the sudden death of ways of life is a regular occurrence. Certainly there are periods of incremental improvement, but they rarely last longer than two or three generations. Progress occurs in interludes when history is idling.

“In the theistic religions from which the idea is derived, apocalypse means a final revelation that comes with the end of time. Elected during the Roman plague of 590 from which his predecessor Pelagius II had died, Pope Gregory the Great wrote: ‘The end of the world is no longer just predicted, but is revealing itself.’

“But the world did not end; the four horsemen came and went, while history stumbled on. In the eschatological sense in which Gregory understood it, there is no such thing as apocalypse. But if it means the end of particular worlds that human beings have fashioned for themselves, apocalypse is a recurrent historical experience.

“When you read diaries of people who lived through the revolution in Russia, you find them looking on in disbelief as the vast, centuries-old empire of the Romanovs melted into nothing in a matter of months. Few then accepted that the world they knew had gone forever. Even so, they were haunted by the suspicion that it would not return. Many had a similar experience in continental Europe when the Great War destroyed what Stefan Zweig, in his elegiac memoir The World of Yesterday (1941), called “the world of security”.

“We find ourselves in an analogous time today. We will not wake up, after lockdown, in the same old world and find it just a bit worse…

“Much in the way we lived before the virus is already irretrievable. Probably a vaccine will be developed along with treatments that reduce the virus’ lethality. But this will likely take years, and in the meantime our lives will have altered beyond recognition. Even when it arrives, a deus ex machina will not dispel popular dread of another wave of infections or a new virus. More than government-enforced policies, public attitudes will prevent any reversion to pre-Covid ways.

“The impact on the “knowledge classes” will be far-reaching. Higher education operates on a model of student living that social distancing has rendered defunct. Museums, journalism, publishing and the arts all face similar shocks. Automation and artificial intelligence will wipe out swathes of middle class employment. Accelerating a trend that has been underway for decades, the remains of bourgeois life will be swept away.

“As pre-Covid life fades into history, large sections of the professional classes face a version of the experience of those who became former persons in the abrupt historical shifts of the last century. The redundant bourgeoisie need not fear starvation or concentration camps, but the world they have inhabited is evanescing before their eyes. There is nothing novel in what they are experiencing. History is a succession of such apocalypses, and so far this one is milder than most.”

The Observer

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