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I am currently reading Paul Johnson’s “Modern Times,” a history of the world from the 1920s to the 1990s. In one chapter, Johnson traces the brutality of the twin totalitarian regimes, Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Communist Soviet Union.

It is fascinating that these two “devils” were mutually inspired by each other’s methods of consolidating power and indirectly borrowed ideas and techniques from each another. Just as interesting are the different reactions these tyrants evoked among the world’s opinion leaders.

While most of the world was at a minimum critical of Hitler, Western intellectuals (read: leftists) were typically sympathetic to Stalin. They bent over backwards to apologize for him, turning a blind eye to his oppression and terror.

Do you think I’m making this up, just to place liberals in a bad light? I admit, it would have been tempting, but here are some examples from the book:

“Hewlett Johnson, Dean of Canterbury, described (Stalin) as leading ‘his people down new and unfamiliar avenues of democracy.’ The American Ambassador, Joseph E. Davies, reported him as having ‘insisted on the liberalization of the constitution’ and ‘projecting actual secret and universal suffrage’. … ‘A child would like to sit on his lap, and a dog would sidle up to him.’” In the meantime, Stalin himself was busy exterminating some 10 million of his fellow countrymen.

But those were the good old days; the days when the left openly romanticized communism. That was back when the left was full of idealism, as perilously misguided as that idealism obviously was.

As I was reading about this and remembering similar liberal apologies for the Communist position during the Vietnam War, it occurred to me that today’s liberals have lost their idealism.

Of course the left would deny having sympathized with the Soviet Union or the Communist cause in Vietnam (just after having defended each to your face). But that’s another subject.

With history having condemned socialism and communism as morally, politically and economically bankrupt systems, Western “intellectuals” were ungraciously robbed of a large body of their secular theology. Forgive me. I know, I’m bordering on McCarthyism for even flirting with such blasphemy. So let’s move on.

Forget the past. But do tell me what the left aspires to now. What are the limits on its prescriptions for a utopian society? Does it even seek utopia anymore?

What are the left’s ideals today with respect to the major issues? Education? The best education for all children or protecting teachers’ unions at the expense of the children?

Abortion? Protecting the innocent or some fabricated and dubiously glorified constitutional “right” of women?

Social Security and Medicare? Trying to find a solution to make them pay for themselves or postponing reform?

Strategic Defense Initiative? Placing the nation’s security first or wringing their hands about an imaginary new arms race (one that will proceed irrespective of whether we arrange to defend ourselves and our allies)?

Race relations? Seeking to bring together the races in peaceful, mutually respectful harmony or fanning the flames of racial prejudice and fomenting distrust and disharmony?

Or what about the all-important economy? What is the liberal ideal for the economy today? It seems to me that leftists want to have it both ways. They resisted the dismantling of the manifestly failed welfare state, yet they take credit for its completed reform. Plus, they are forever devising new schemes to redistribute societal wealth. On the one hand they appear vaguely aware that capitalism is the engine that drives the prosperity that makes their redistributionist schemes possible. Yet they are forever trying to use the tax code to suck all of the oxygen out of that engine.

Isn’t it hard to deny that the left, whose utopian ideas have been vanquished in a real-life social laboratory from the ’60s to the ’90s, has been sapped of its idealism? Is it not equally apparent that it has replaced that idealism with a destructive politics of polarization and divisiveness? It is now reduced to pitting groups against each other (class, race, age, sex) not in furtherance of some lofty goal, but the raw acquisition of power.

From the irresponsibly false charges that Republicans tried to disenfranchise black voters in Florida, to the Ashcroft hearings and the unconscionable class warfare tactics of Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt against George Bush’s tax plan, it’s time for the left to rise above its negative politics and bring back its hapless idealism.

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