All Commentary
Monday, July 1, 1991

TyrannyFrom the East to the West

Professor Machan teaches philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama.

In the late 1950s I was a boy in Hungary, living in Budapest and experiencing the impact of tyranny on my elementary education. It consisted, mainly, of compulsory uniformity. All schools had to teach the same topics, from the same books, without any leeway for individual students’ needs, aptitudes, or interests. The entire experience was a nightmare. Teachers were dismissed for the slightest departure from official strictures.

One experience stands out for me. We were being indoctrinated—for you cannot call it being educated—with the famous line from Karl Marx, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” As the teacher explained how important it was to etch this idea in our minds, I raised my hand and asked, “If two people started with the same resources but one drank himself silly while the other produced a useful product, did they have to share the benefits of the latter’s work?” I was summarily dismissed from my class and reassigned to a construction trade school.

During the last few years, the Eastern bloc has experienced a serious measure of liberation. The uniformity of Communist state indoctrination has gradually given way to a more liberal, pluralistic education for most students. Some Soviet schools are experimenting with Western-style education for even the youngest pupils. They have begun to adopt unique educational methods they have discovered at Montclair State College in New Jersey, which has an experimental program to teach philosophy to children starting at the age of 6. The techniques of critical, independent thinking are being imparted to youngsters so they can begin to evaluate what others say, to carve their own intellectual paths.

I am not certain how effective such education can be—Aristotle believed that people under 40 can’t engage in philosophical thinking. But at least some introduction to critical reasoning and evaluation may generate independent thought for those exposed to such educational methods. And now some educators from the Soviet Union are experimenting with this.

Ironically, at the same time Eastern Europe is transforming itself toward a more liberal social order, the opposite seems to be happening on some of America’s college campuses. Reports from Tulane, Smith, Harvard, Rutgers, and the University of Northern Colorado, to name just a few, indicate that faculty and students alike are moving closer to demanding a uniform approach to teaching. Even private conversations are monitored on these campuses, and it is demanded that these conform to “politically correct” language. Teachers and students are being told that they may not speak in ways that indicate wrong thinking—in one case at the University of Pennsylvania, a college administrator deemed the word “individual” in an undergraduate’s memo to be inappropriate because he considered it a sign of racism!

What’s happening here? While in Eastern Europe, South Africa, China, and Latin America the winds of pluralism are blowing, in recognition of the fact that individuals have different needs, aspirations, and talents, in the United States, many intellectuals in powerful administrative and political positions are mandating uniformity along lines reminiscent of the crudest forms of Marxism-Leninism. And if you protest that this is tyranny, your remarks are deemed serf-incriminating. Even to question the new demands for mandated uniformity of speech is to invite the accusation that you have subconscious tendencies toward racism, sexism, and all manner of other intolerable social indecencies.

Karl Marx argued that for socialism to arrive, first a society must experience democratic capitalism. The workers will then vote in socialism when the time comes. In Eastern Europe it has been discovered that socialism needs to be imposed by commissars and dictators. Such a political economy just isn’t suited to human beings, and the Marxian idea that they—or at least “the workers”—will embrace it voluntarily has turned out to be a myth.

In America also we are discovering that it isn’t “the workers” or “the people,” but rather many of the privileged intellectuals who demand that we become fully collectivized, made uniform in conduct and speech. Since such a social life is inherently anti-human, it is no surprise that its champions have to implement it by the threat of force.

Nor is it much of a surprise that some of those now embarking on such measures used to be advocates of free speech. At one time, when they lacked power, they defended their anti-individualist propaganda as fully protected by the First Amendment. Yet, as many critics remarked at the time, they never defended individual freedom—including freedom of speech—for anything other than strategic purposes. Once they gained some measure of power, they showed their hands by denouncing liberty as a bourgeois bias and proceeded to try to impose their “politically correct” vision of human behavior.

For me it is very sad, not to mention frightening, to see that the country to which I escaped from collectivist tyranny is now experiencing the ominous winds of collectivist uniformitarianism. I only hope that it goes no further than the peculiar and unreal regions of American university life. But I am afraid that such hope may be futile.

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.