Paul Berman and the conflict between liberal society and totalitarianism

A planned series of posts on conflicts within liberal democracy are paused for the moment. It’s been a busy week with work, the Democratic Convention, and some family things to handle.

Over the weekend, however, I finished Paul Berman’s excellent book Terror and Liberalism. Berman’s essay argues the “liberal hawk” position on military action against Afghanistan and Iraq, and argues it well. Far better than Christopher Hitchens has managed to convey in his Fighting Words column on Slate. Berman asks us to understand Islamism and Baathism as two varieties of classical twentieth-century totalitarianism; Baathism a product of Naziism going back to 1943, for example. 1989 represents a watershed year in Euro/American relations, as totalitarian regimes around the world began to fall. In our ignorance of the Muslim world, however, we lacked the ability to detect totalitarianism when we saw it. And thus, we failed to oppose it as we had opposed it in forms ranging from the extreme left to the extreme right. From Fascism to Naziism to Stalinism to the religious authoritarianism of Franco.

Berman is not kind to the Bush Administration for its numerous failures, but unlike most commentators from the left, he asks us to consider whether our automatic rejection of the war is misplaced. Whether we should think more deeply about the underlying issues, and not be distracted by the immediate politics.

I’m finding myself susceptible to Berman’s argument, which helps explain some of the ambivalence I’ve felt in analyzing Hitchens’ work on the war. I am coming to agree with Berman and Hitchens that the left has under-analyzed the war, either because of an automatic pacifism or because our opposition to Bush has blinded us to any deeper arguments for his actions. Of course, it’s easy to understand why the latter occurs. If Bush had been able to articulate the deeper nature of the struggle, instead of rotating through a series of proximate excuses, we might have seen the conflict in its historical context: the century-old struggle between liberal society and the forces, both right and left, that seek to impose a authoritarian vision on society. THAT fight is well worth showing up for, well worth sacrificing for, and still ongoing both abroad and at home.

More on this later, but I would highly recommend Berman’s book as Democrats and progressives move beyond opposition and consider what, precisely, we expect from the Kerry Administration once we put them into office this November.


22 Comments so far. Comments are closed.
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  19. Mark,

    I just sent you an email to the linked address. Let’s chat a bit — your material is too interesting, I think, to purely embed within comments. I’m thinking of ways to have it posted more centrally.

  20. Bill Barnes,


    I don’t see a way to contact you other than by posting a comment. I was hesitant to post as much as I did in my comment (and the full review article is much longer; I’ve never gotten around to actually finishing it). I know Berman slightly from old debates about Nicaragua. I have a long letter to Dissent and him in response to his piece on the war in the issue before last. Should I post it?


  21. Great review of the book. Thanks for posting such a thoughtful piece.

    I agree that a great failing in Berman’s analysis is the lack of realist connection. bin Laden has been quite clear in published statements that America is being attacked for what it does, not what it is. Over time, however, this does seem to be changing into the view that “Since America won’t change, its policies are the result of a deeper corruption which we must oppose.” In other words, our actions have taken a containable, realist threat, and are turning it into a larger war of opposing ideologies.

    Berman is undoubtedly correct that liberals (in the expansive sense of the term) have been slow to recognize the “gathering threat” of various totalitarian regimes. But again, reality forces us to admit that we’ve been slow to perceive the nature of various threats because we’ve often had vital economic interests intertwined with nascent totalitarian regimes — this was certainly true of Germany between WWI and WWII, and obviously accounts for the size of our “blind spot” with regard to Saudi Arabia. As you say, realism and idealism are important ingredients in understanding what’s happening in the world today.

    Berman’s argument is an important one to understand, even if it’s not the whole story (or even close to it). Whether we regard the conflict with Islamists to be a war about ideas, or a defensive actions fought because of armed resistance to our policies, Americans do need to give up the idea that we’ve been attacked without provocation by those who simply “hate freedom.” The vacuousness of such constructions prevent us from reaching a mature understanding of the conflict which could motivate responses that work.

  22. Bill Barnes,

    Q. Has Liberalism Learned Its Lesson?
    A. Which Liberalism? Which Lesson?

    A review essay on Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003)

    Bill Barnes, June 2003
    “September 11th was one of those great earthquakes that clarify and sharpen. … I really think this period is analogous to 1945 to 1947”
    Condoleezza Rice, March 2002

    In the run-up to and the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Paul Berman was the most media-active of the so-called “liberal hawks,” churning out Op-Ed pieces, magazine articles, and interviews in all media before and after the March 2003 publication of his book Terror and Liberalism and the more or less simultaneous commencement of the war. The book was immediately widely reviewed and picked-up by the chattering classes (for example, repeatedly brought up and declared brilliant by Richard Holbrooke on the Charlie Rose show in mid April, with Berman appearing on the show a week or so later). The centerpiece of the book, also presented in the cover article of the New York Times Magazine of March 23, 2003, is an in- depth exegesis of the thought of one of the seminal philosophers of Islamist fundamentalism, Sayyid Qutb (an Egyptian who was hanged by Nasser in 1966). Berman uses this exegesis to ground his argument that both Islamism and the authoritarian Arab nationalism of Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime are in fact forms of fascist totalitarianism with roots in the Europe of the 1920s and 30s and whose driving force is pathological hatred of Western liberalism. Terror and Liberalism calls upon Western liberals and leftists to stop evading this reality, look it in the face, take this aspect of Islamic fundamentalism seriously, as a fascist attack on liberalism per se, rather than an amorphous “clash of civilizations” or a perverted form of anti-imperialism, and gird themselves for anti-fascist war, as they did in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Berman’s media activism is his contribution to getting off the ground the “war of ideas” he calls for, invoking the model of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s 1949 classic The Vital Center, one of the founding texts of the post-fascist war of ideas known as Cold War liberalism.
    While Berman has been a “liberal hawk” since the first Gulf war and the war in Bosnia, on September 11, 2001, he “woke up” to the threat of Islamic totalitarianism. He came to realize that he and his fellow liberal and left intellectuals had been failing to pay attention to years of Islamist mass murder, and failing to recognize the urgency of this threat. And as he thought about it, he began to draw parallels with how liberal-minded Europeans and Americans had been slow to recognize the magnitude and urgency of the threat represented by Hitler and Stalin in the 1930s. (Salon interview of 3/23/03.) Thus September 11 awakened Berman to the importance of taking Islamism seriously, learning more about it, and taking up the responsibilities of public intellectual and instructor to liberals who have remained slow. And as he studied Islamism and Sadaam Hussein’s regime, he came upon the linkage to European fascism and totalitarianism (he already had some idea of this: 2Us), and he became desperate for Liberalism to relearn the lessons of 1935-50, re-adopt the fighting liberalism of the Vital Center, and redeploy a Cold War-style war of ideas against Islamic fundamentalism.

    As a work of pedagogy, Terror and Liberalism has some strengths and many weaknesses. It is the weaknesses as much as the strengths that make the book worth sustained engagement. Berman is very provocative, he raises many sharp arguments, he initiates, or provides grounds for, a variety of important debates, and the book carries an emotional impact by its repeated invocation of the stark reality of mass murder, refusing to allow the reader to look away. But for the most part, Berman fails to develop the arguments and lines of debate that he initiates, and he makes little or no effort to marshal supporting evidence, or to engage relevant scholarly literature, or to distinguish his views from the Neoconservative advocacy of an imperial liberalism. So while those who are already perfectly in tune with Berman declare the book brilliant and inspiring, most other readers, whichever way they’re leaning, will end up disappointed, because the book whets the intellectual appetite on many fronts, but satisfies on only one or two (his exegesis of Qutb; his insistence that the left has failed to look reality in the face). Nonetheless there is a lot to be gained by persisting with the questions, what exactly is Berman saying, where is he right, where, and why, is he wrong?

    What you realize after mulling it over for a while, is that Terror and Liberalism is a book about the power of ideas, for good and for ill. Front and center is the power of evil ideas, in our faces since September 11, 2001. Berman’s exegesis of Qutb (and explanation of how widely read and influential Qutb has been throughout the world of Islamic fundamentalism) makes a case that Islamist extremism rides on an elaborate, in some ways impressive, philosophical and theological infrastructure (even though at the same time Berman depicts Islamism as essentially irrational and pathological — Berman depicts Qutb’s work as half-brilliant, half-demented ), one that dramatizes the cultural and spiritual problems of modernity and the “liberal way of life,” and declares that there is no solution but to put a bullet between the eyes of Liberalism. Qutb’s work and that of other leading Islamist theorists allow the terrorist cadre to understand and experience themselves as idealists and as martyrs for a great cause. Berman also finds that Qutb’s magnum opus, In the Shade of the Koran, has profoundly reassuring, almost mesmerizing, literary qualities. Berman believes that all of this has been essential to Islamism’s success in recruiting, inspiring, and sustaining a devoted following. Liberal intellectuals and policy-makers have underestimated Islamism in these regards.
    So T&L is a book about the power of ideas. But the theme of the power of the texts and the ideas of extremist Islamism, despite its central placement, is not the real heart of Berman’s argument about the power of ideas. The real heart of T&L is an argument about the power of Liberal ideas — disruptive power and constructive power — and about the political role and responsibilities of the authors of ideas — intellectuals — in particular the failure or slowness of liberal intellectuals to live up to their political responsibilities in the face of fascism and terrorism. Certain liberal failings have allowed totalitarianism to get off the ground repeatedly over the last hundred years, and the contemporary Islamist terrorist offensive is an example of that, and in order to fight back, liberalism has to transcend those failings. The Islamists have been fighting a war of ideas for 40 years or more and they have been winning by default because those who should have been their active opponents have not been paying attention. Western “realists” have largely ignored the Islamists because the Islamists did not have states of their own and so were not relevant to the game of international power politics or the issue of maintaining U.S. great power “credibility.” (When, in 1979, the Islamists got a state, Iran, the reaction of Western realists was to support Iran’s local enemies, the Saudi monarchy and Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in Iraq — both, in different ways, breeding grounds of totalitarianism.).
    Probing and reconstructing T&L more deeply, at its core it is about the political roles of idealism and realism, and the political responsibility of intellectuals to balance and combine idealism and realism in the right way– and how liberalism and the left, particularly in the United States, have oscillated between success and failure in this regard. This is an excellent topic, an excellent approach to the political challenges of our time. It’s a shame that Berman does not actually develop this theme, or even set it out explicitly. This is the book’s single largest failing. It’s second largest failing is that Berman himself flunks the standard he (implicitly) sets for getting the combination of idealism and realism right. His critique of the way Chomsky does it is effective, and Berman’s own idealism is in the right place, but he’s terribly unrealistic, particularly about the history of Western liberalism over the last 150 years and the connection with episodes of totalitarian success.
    It is telling that Berman gives us virtually no other information or analysis regarding the sources of Islamism’s achievement of its current stature and proportions (he is aware of Keppel’s Jihad: the Trail Political Islam, but makes no use of it). And he ridicules the view that Islamism’s existence as a major political phenomena, or its assumption of extremist forms, could be in any large part a product of material conditions, of reaction to U.S. policies/imperialism, or of the history of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and Arab states. In other words, Berman’s analysis is entirely idealist— he explains grand political movements and conflicts entirely in terms of minimally-contextualized cultural, intellectual, and psychological phenomena, abjuring any recourse to historical sociology (the impact of 25 years of Saudi funding of fundamentalist schools and charities world-wide gets one sentence; the subterranean influence of Baudelaire gets three pages). The only material forces that make any appearance in Berman’s analysis are intellectuals — the authors and carriers of ideas — and their bodies of work in the form of texts and educational practices. The only concrete historical experiences that are given major causal roles are, first and most proximately, the split existence of educated Muslims living in the liberal societies of North America and Europe, and second, underlying everything, the mass slaughter of the First World War. And both of these historical experiences have had profound political consequences because of their intellectual, cultural, psychological, spiritual qualities and consequences — they drove people crazy, they drove people to hate Liberalism, and they drove intellectuals to write and disseminate texts and conspiracies expressing, elaborating and rationalizing that craziness and that hatred.
    Ultimately this war of ideas in favor of Liberalism must be fought and won by Muslims in the Islamic world, but Berman sees the first struggle as within Western Liberalism itself, to convince liberals and the left of the nature and the seriousness of the threat and the need for war mobilization and for supporting, in some circumstances, U.S. military action. It is as if Berman imagines himself arguing with the liberal anti-war and isolationist forces of the United States of the 1930s, who refused to see Nazism for what it was (and the leftists who refused to see Stalinism for what it was). For Berman, September 11, 2001 really was a wake-up call equivalent to Pearl Harbor. His particular target audience is those on the liberal-left who have been anti-war, but ambivalently, equivocally so. He says such people today cannot imagine how their compatriots of 70 years ago could have failed to recognize the need to slap Hitler down and to condemn all Stalinists. Yet they are repeating that history today. The central theme of the book is criticism of liberals for their historical failures and blindness — criticism of the good- hearted, simple-minded rationalism, humanitarianism, and utopianism that, repeatedly in the last 75 years, has made liberals reluctant to acknowledge the reality of totalitarianism and the need to act against it. Liberal Americans and Europeans marching against the war in Iraq in 2003 represent for Berman all those liberals of the 20th century who could not recognize the evils of fascism and Stalinism until relatively late, who could not believe in the existence of such “mass pathology” and pure evil. ….