Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman

This article was first published at Normblog in the continuing series ‘Writer’s Choice’. It is republished here by the kind permission of Norm Geras and Nick Cohen.

[Norm Geras]:Nick Cohen is a columnist for The Observer and The New Statesman. He has also written for The Guardian. He is the author of Cruel Brittania and Pretty Straight Guys, available in a fine bookstore near you. Here Nick writes about Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism.

Although I like to present myself as an open and rational chap, I can remember very few times when I’ve admitted being in the wrong. Not wrong in detail, but wrong in principle. In my experience the politically committed rarely do that. We change imperceptibly and grudgingly, while all the time pretending we haven’t changed at all but merely adapted to altered circumstances.

Actually, ‘very few’ is a self-serving exaggeration. The only time I realised I was charging up a blind alley was when I read Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism. I didn’t see a blinding light or hear a thunder clap or cry ‘Eureka!’ If I was going to cry anything it would have been ‘Oh bloody hell!’ He convinced me I’d wasted a great deal of time looking through the wrong end of the telescope. I was going to have to turn it round and see the world afresh. The labour would involve reconsidering everything I’d written since 11 September, arguing with people I took to be friends and finding myself on the same side as people I took to be enemies. All because of Berman.

The bastard.

Terror and Liberalism is an essay rather than a history and its arguments come from the almost forgotten tradition of the anti-totalitarian left. Its central point is that Islamism and Baathism are continuations of Nazism and communism, not only in their fine points – founders of the Muslim Brotherhood and Baath Party were admirers of Hitler and Franco – but in their fundamentals. Once again we had the promise of earthly paradise, but now the paradise wouldn’t be the paradise of unexploited labour or the paradise of an Aryan Europe, but the paradise of the early days of the prophet or a reunified Arab nation, pure and free. Once again there were great leaders who were semi-divine as they led the faithful into cosmic struggles. And once again their programmes were insane.

Berman begins by evoking Albert Camus and other leftish writers of the mid-twentieth century who had broken out of the prison of Marxism to examine the deranged movements which had turned Europe into a charnel house. Cleverly, he treats his targets very sympathetically. Readers who want to disagree with him, as I did, are seduced because he understands why they believe what they believe and more often than not expresses their ideas better than they can. He follows Camus by showing how the original Russian terrorists who began the violence which finished with the slaughters of the communists were morally scrupulous, decent and brave. They wouldn’t throw a bomb into the coach of the Grand Duke Sergei, because there were children on board, or risk the deaths of passers-by. True, they had no ideas beyond death, their own and others, no plan for society which could possibly succeed, but that didn’t hide the desperation which had driven sensitive and high-minded young men and women to rebel. Similarly, Berman is so angry about the collapse of European civilization into the barbarism of the First World War that you could imagine him joining the communist party or becoming a Nazi, and he is so sympathetic to the intellectual currents buffeting Sayyid Qutb that Qutb’s transformation into the intellectual founder of a cult of death appears the most natural of developments, one you might make yourself in the circumstances.

His avoidance of the usual polemical style has a purpose which is obvious on a second reading. Berman is trying to overcome the resistance of Western readers who have watched the Iranian revolution and the murder of millions and the enslavement of whole African tribes in the Sudan and the destruction of every last remnant of freedom in Afghanistan and not understood that what they’ve seen is a totalitarian movement going about its business.

A chapter – ‘Wishful Thinking’ – explains why so many are reluctant to see clearly and in their blindness end up on the far right. It deals with the Chomskys and the creeps who were to dominate the anti-war movement; but to my mind the best part of the chapter and the book is when he uses the history of the French Socialist Party in the 1930s as a parable for our time.

Leon Blum, the leader of that party, knew that the Nazis had to be fought. But a large faction, supported by the teachers’ unions and many left-wing intellectuals, was horrified by the prospect of a conflict which could exceed even the carnage of the First World War.

If they had looked the Nazis in the face, they would have realized that war was inevitable. Rather than see clearly they allowed the best of motives to convince them that the German people hadn’t fallen for an insane cult. Why would they? Wasn’t it almost racist to believe that they were anything other than as rational and decent as the French?

Take Hitler’s demands to expand the German Reich. In a certain light these could be seen as a menacing expansion of the Nazi state, but (the anti-war socialists asked themselves) was it not the case that the Treaty of Versailles had imposed punitive conditions on Germany at the end of the First World War? Was it not reasonable for Hitler to ask that Germans should be freed from control by the Poles and the Czechs and returned to their mother country? Hitler may have been from the extreme right and they may have been from the democratic left, but an argument wasn’t necessarily wrong just because Hitler made it.

Many socialists were therefore enthusiastic supporters of the Munich agreement which dismembered Czechoslovakia and brought the German-speaking Sudetenland back under Nazi control.

They believed, says Berman, in the ‘simple-minded optimism’ of nineteenth century liberalism – a liberalism of denial. Human beings were essentially rational. Politicians and polemicists who pretended otherwise were the tools of the arms corporations that were leading France into an unnecessary pre-emptive war.

The anti-war socialists gazed across the Rhine and simply refused to believe that millions of upstanding Germans had enlisted in a political movement whose animating principles were paranoid conspiracy theories, blood-curdling hatreds, medieval superstitions and the lure of murder. At Auschwitz the SS said “Here there is no why.” The anti-war socialists in France believed no such thing. In their eyes, there was always a why.

There was a price to pay for rationalism. Obviously, the socialists couldn’t begin to show solidarity with the German socialists who were being persecuted by Hitler. How could they protest at their treatment or organize parliamentary debates calling attention to their plight when they were making excuses for the Hitler who was doing the persecuting? Then there were the Nazis’ Jewish victims. As good men and women of the Enlightenment, the anti-war socialists couldn’t tolerate anti-Semitism. Yet they were determined not to let their sympathies get out of hand. Weren’t the Jews always showing their wounds and trying to make others feel guilty for their past suffering? Hitler might be going a bit far, but wasn’t it true that a disproportionate number of industrialists and financiers were Jewish? And wasn’t it also the case that their leader, Leon Blum, who was urging France to enter a bloody and worthless confrontation with Germany was, well, Jewish, too?

It was a short step from this line of reasoning to asserting that war was being forced on them by Hitler’s victims rather than Hitler.

In 1940, Hitler gave irrefutable proof of his intentions when he invaded and occupied France. The French extreme right under the leadership of Marshall Pétain proposed a collaborationist government. Blum and some socialists opposed the humiliation of France, but many of their colleagues accepted the occupation and, as Berman concludes, went the whole hog.

Among the anti-war socialists a number of people, having voted with Péýtain, took the logical next step and on patriotic and idealistic grounds accepted positions in his new government, at Vichy. Some of these socialists went a little further too, and began to see a virtue in Pétain’s programme for a new France and a new Europe – a programme of strength and vitality, a Europe ruled by a single-party state instead of by the corrupt cliques of bourgeois democracy, a Europe cleansed of the impurities of Judaism and of the Jews themselves, a Europe of the anti-liberal imagination. And in that very remarkable fashion, a number of the anti-war socialists of France came full circle. They had begun as defenders of liberal values and human rights, and they evolved into the defenders of bigotry, tyranny, superstition and mass murder. They were democratic leftists who, through the miraculous workings of the slippery slope and a naïve rationalism of all things, ended as fascists.

Long ago, you say? Not so long ago.

Indeed not. To see the old process at work, one only has to look at how a large chunk of the world’s liberal opinion has got itself into the position where it can’t support Iraqi and Afghan liberals, socialists and feminists. You think the worst thing in the world is the developed countries because they brought the First World War, which to be fair is a charge worth making, or globalisation and McDonalds, which to be fair is a charge that is infantile. You are confronted with totalitarian movements, which are worse, and your first thought is to blame them on the West. Your second is to make excuses for them. Your third is to betray your comrades. Your fourth is to go up to the totalitarian movements and shake them by the hand.

Because I’d grown up in a time when there was no left worth speaking of, I’d rather blithely assumed that its remnants were filled with decent people and that the worst thing in the world was New Labour.

In part because of the evidence of my senses and in part because of Paul Berman, I know better now.

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