Why is “McCarthyism” such a dirty word, when no-one seems to know exactly why, and there really were commies under every bed? Communist influence was real and dangerous, and a “witch hunt” may not be so bad when there are real witches. So one moral of the story is that it’s always good to be suspicious of historical symbols like “McCarthyism” that people use as a club.
Still, witches are never the real problem. Vast conspiracies get nowhere unless the conspirators somehow stand for and make concrete the inner thoughts and purposes of a great many active, thoughtful, and influential people. So get rid of the International Communist Conspiracy and something else takes its place. As Anthony Daniels says in the current issue of The New Criterion, in his beautifully-written memoir “Up from communism,”
The demise both of the Marxist enemy and the attraction of the Marxist-Leninist panacea did not reduce the attraction and convenience to modern intellectuals of ideological thought as a genre … but it did weaken the resistance to it. Anti-communism was not an ideology—it was merely an anti-ideology—but it drew a great deal of strength from the self-evidently formidable nature of the foe, and thus came to appear almost an ideology in itself. But the anti-ideologist now has to fight on a hundred fronts at once; it is more like a guerrilla than a conventional war. And since, almost by definition, the anti-ideologist is not as obsessed with any given subject as his many opponents are, who each derive the meaning of their lives from their ideologised grievances, he is at a permanent disadvantage. In the absence of a strong communist enemy, ideology makes inroads in our society as easily as a hot knife through butter … Now the future interests me less than the past. Its evils are more diffuse, less tangible, harder to oppose.
The final moral, then, is that ideology can’t be defeated by rooting out enemies, important though that may be in a few settings, but only by truth that satisfies the needs of the soul.