A Lesson in Modern Nihilism, and Its Antidote

Quick, without Googling, guess who wrote this:

Leftism is a totalitarian force. Wherever leftism is in a position of power it tends to invade every private corner and force every thought into a leftist mold. In part this is because of the quasi-religious character of leftism: everything contrary to leftist beliefs represents Sin. More importantly, leftism is a totalitarian force because of the leftists’ drive for power. The leftist seeks to satisfy his need for power through identification with a social movement and he tries to go through the power process by helping to pursue and attain the goals of the movement. But no matter how far the movement has gone in attaining its goals the leftist is never satisfied, because his activism is a surrogate activity. That is, the leftist’s real motive is not to attain the ostensible goals of leftism; in reality he is motivated by the sense of power he gets from struggling for and then reaching a social goal. Consequently the leftist is never satisfied with the goals he has already attained; his need for the power process leads him always to pursue some new goal. The leftist wants equal opportunities for minorities. When that is attained he insists on statistical equality of achievement by minorities. And as long as anyone harbors in some corner of his mind a negative attitude toward some minority, the leftist has to re-educated him.

Assuming, dear reader, that you haven’t cheated with Google, I imagine the leading guesses might include Victor Davis Hanson, Tom Sowell, James Lindsay, David Horowitz, or several other acute critics of leftism that you can think of.

In fact this passage is paragraph 219 of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczinski’s infamous manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future.”

Surprised? I was. And there are 33 more paragraphs in the manifesto attacking the left in this fashion, and only one short paragraph discussing conservatives, who he thinks are “fools” (but not nearly as dangerous as leftists).

I came to recognize that I never actually read the whole manifesto with any care when it was published back in 1996. I think I only took in excerpts that focused on the crazy sweeping denunciations of industrialism and the embarrassing parallels to Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance. It turns out, though, that paragraph 230, near the very end, expresses contempt for a certain type of leftist that sounds exactly like Al Gore or the even more egregious John Kerry. Had he remained undiscovered, sooner or later Kaczynski would likely have got round to mailing bombs to them, too.

Despite these splendid and correct attacks on the left, the manifesto has not improved with age, even with the ominous lessons of COVID and the growing worry about AI. My second excursion into the depths of the Kaczynski puzzle is now up at The Pipeline, but there’s still a lot to be said in the matter. It’s actually worse than you think.

The conclusion is that some of the conservatives who have expressed sympathy for Kaczynski’s views on technology and authoritarian government are missing something crucial: the things he may be right about—especially technocracy as a primary tool of what we like to call the administrative state—overlook his essential nihilism, learned at Harvard and reinforced at every turn.

Maybe the best way to get at this point is through a literary angle. Kaczynski for a time used Eugene O’Neill $1 postage stamps to mail some of his bombs. Alston Chase, in his great biography of Kaczynski A Mind for Murder, thinks this is no coincidence. (O’Neill’s plays were found among Kaczynski’s books in his tiny cabin.) Chase thinks O’Neill’s plays The Hairy Ape, The Great God Brown, and above all Dynamo express both a loathing of technology and despair over the meaninglessness of life. O’Neill ultimately committed suicide.

[CORRECTION, noted by several readers, I’ve got O’Neill father and son confused. I’ve updated here, as I think it does not change the point of this passage.]

Harry Jaffa knew Eugene O’Neill Jr (O’Neill’s son) from his undergraduate days at Yale. Jaffa kept up with O’Neill after he (Jaffa) had started graduate studies with Strauss at the New School for Social Research right after World War II.  I’ll let Jaffa pick up the story here from his memoir on “Straussian Geography”:

Several years later, after I had been studying with Strauss more than a year, O’Neill published a review (I believe in the New York Times) of a book on Plato’s Republic. I remember it as a more or less academically correct (in the style of Karl Popper) denunciation of the tyrannical character of Plato’s alleged authoritarianism. I wrote a long letter to O’Neill giving some of the features of Leo Strauss’s interpretation of the Republic. . .

O’Neill did not answer my letter, but I ran into him outside the dean’s office at the New School, some time in early 1949, before I had taken the position at Chicago. . . He greeted me with the warmth of an old friend. I asked him why he had not answered my letter. He said it was because he had no answer. The occasion did not permit me to pursue the matter further. There would not be another occasion, since it was not long after that I read of his suicide. At some point (I cannot remember when) I looked up his doctoral dissertation. It was a statistical analysis of the metrical characteristics of five hundred lines of the Iliad and five hundred lines of the Odyssey. It was an embodiment of the contemporary classical scholarship that Strauss inveighed against: great technical competence unconnected to any purpose or understanding. O’Neill’s suicide had a Roman (or anti-Christian) model. It has often occurred to me that had O’Neill attended a single lecture or seminar of Leo Strauss, he would have found in the classics a reason to live, no less than a reason to die.

Something similar could be said about Ted Kaczynski.

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