A Pessimist of Promise

If the trenches of the First World War were not enough to cast doubt upon the idea of progress' prospects, certainly Auschwitz and Hiroshima more than sufficed. The holdouts thereafter--those liberals and Marxists still upholding the Enlightenment

Issue: Spring 1997

The twentieth century has not been kind to the idea of progress, to that core of optimistic Enlightenment thinking whose project Condorcet described as the "limitless perfectibility of the human species." If the trenches of the First World War were not enough to cast doubt upon its prospects, certainly Auschwitz and Hiroshima more than sufficed. The holdouts thereafter--those liberals and Marxists still upholding the Enlightenment's positivist, materialist orthodoxies--have come largely undone through the manifest maladies of the welfare state on the one hand, and the far more dramatic collapse of communism on the other. Richard Rorty advises socialists and their sympathizers that they will one day have to admit, if they haven't already, that the once-celebrated "image of Lenin at the Finland Station . . . will form a triptych along with that of Hitler at a Nuremberg rally and of Mussolini on the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia."

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