Paul Berman’s book Terror and Liberalism is a New York Times bestseller. It is an argument from within — broadly speaking — the left in favour of the war on terror, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, etc. Clive Bradley critically examines that argument.
Berman makes many qualifications in his book. He is sympathetic to the concerns of others on the left regarding civil liberties, American imperialism, and so on; he is sharply critical of how the Bush administration has handled the war on terror (“… the great, frightening truth of all modern history [is] the chance occurrence that, at a moment of supreme crisis, the world’s most powerful person happened to be George Bush.”).
Berman is no neo-con. However, he is in no doubt that western liberal society is under threat from a new, Islamist, totalitarianism — though not via a “clash of civilisations” — and that we should do everything we can to protect ourselves. One thing which will protect us is spreading liberalism to Muslim societies.
By liberalism Berman means western democracy, whether in its American or European form — a tradition of tolerance, the rule of law, democratic freedom, and so on. He argues that from after the First World War, when the limitations of liberalism were brutally demonstrated, it has faced totalitarian forms of protest and revolt — these being, of course, Stalinism and fascism in the 20th century, and Islamist terrorism today. Islamism is essentially, in other words, the same thing as Stalinism/fascism — it draws on the same impulses, and rejects liberalism for the same reasons. As with the totalitarianisms of the past, many well-meaning people want to believe it is not all that bad, to try to “understand” and conciliate with it. But this will prove disastrous, as it did before.
Liberals — by which he means all of us inculcated with the values and practices of western democratic systems — find it hard to believe that mass movements can be mobilised by irrational forces. Thus there is the need to “explain”, in the sense of “explain away”, these totalitarian movements — to argue that they are not as bad as they seem (or, indeed, that they are positively good). He points to how in the 1930s some socialists who did not want to see a Second World War argued that Hitler was not really a threat, or no worse than the democratic capitalists; and how some of them ended up apologists for fascism. He mentions in particular the anti-war wing of the French Socialist Party.
The fact was, Berman argues, Nazism was only going to be stopped by war, and those who couldn’t see this were being wilfully blind — blinded by their own liberal rationalism. The same thing is happening today regarding Islamism, and terrorism in particular. Well-meaning people want to believe that suicide bombing, for example, has rationality to it — and so they explain it by the terrible things done to Palestinians, Chechens, etc. But there is an irrational, totalitarian dynamic to these movements which fall outside this framework, which makes them inexplicable in these terms, and therefore our deadly enemy.
there is much in Berman’s book to recommend it. His discussion of Islamism is one of the most interesting available, and although much of it is taken from existing sources, he has read a great deal, including everything available in English of the work of Sayyid Qutb, the seminal theorist executed by Nasser in 1966.
Rightly, Berman takes Qutb seriously, rather than treating him as a backward ideological nutcase. Islamism, he argues, is intellectually sophisticated, which is one of the reasons it has grown. It is not simply poverty, desperate conditions, and so on, which have fed the growth of Islamism, but an ideological struggle which the Islamists have been winning.
He is right that Islamism is a genuine threat. But Berman is wrong in two areas, both quite fundamental to his case.
First, the concept of totalitarianism, as he uses it, is too vague, and too purely psychological. Of course Stalinism, fascism and Islamism have things in common — perhaps a great deal in common. And no doubt they draw on certain dismal aspects in human nature — a need for certainty (and consequent hatred of liberalism, whose founding principle, in a sense, is faithlessness and not being certain about anything.) Following Camus, Berman sees an obsession with death and suicide as fundamental to all these anti-liberal forces, something in western society with its roots in 19th-century Romanticism. (He argues, rightly I think, that much of what Islamism has in common with earlier European reaction is because of European influences on Islamism, rather than drawn from the Islamic tradition itself; this is certainly true of the very modern anti-semitism which Islamism routinely displays). All of this is interesting and valid up to a point.
But these are social phenomena, with historical roots. Berman is dismissive of Marxism for believing it uncovered “the” thing which explained history and society (and compares it to Nazis’ faith in race and Islamists’ in God, etc). But there are many things about “communism”, fascism and Islamism — their origins, dynamics, social base, and so on — which are at least as different as they are similar, and to ignore all this on the grounds that some things are irrational is frankly weird.
For sure it is an odd thing that millions of people who believed they were fighting for a more just and democratic world should have subscribed to Stalinism — joined or supported Communist Parties, defended the system in the USSR, and so on. But to conflate the motives, beliefs, aspirations, and so on, of those millions of people with Nazism is perverse. This is not to mention the many thousands who participated in Marxist movements which did not support Stalinism. For example, the POUM in Spain, or the Trotskyists. One might ask, for instance, how the social democrats fit — given that many of them (including some whose basic “take” on the Communists was similar to Berman’s) regarded themselves as Marxists. Berman’s analysis is one-dimensional.
He considers Lenin to have been one of the original anti-liberal totalitarians, and thinks a quotation — “shoot more professors” — sums up Lenin’s legacy. I’ll take Berman’s word for it that Lenin said this at some point; and no rational Marxist, including those who see themselves as in Lenin’s tradition in some sense, can deny that there is much to discuss about that legacy, about the course of the Russian revolution and other questions. But this summary view of Lenin and the revolutionary Marxist tradition of which he was a major figure is, nonetheless, a travesty.
One wonders how Berman might situate or understand a figure like Luxemburg, who criticised Lenin, but from a standpoint of solidarity with the Russian revolution — and was a leader of the young Communist Party of Germany. (And it was, let it not be forgotten, nice, liberal social democrats who saw to Luxemburg’s murder.) Berman, like so many others, reads back from Stalinism in the 1930s in particular into the left wing of the Second International, concluding that they were similarly totalitarian in impulse, and only a few worthy, more moderate socialists (he is fond of Leon Blum, leader of the French Popular Front in the mid 30s) spoke the truth.
But anyone who knows anything about the circles of the radical labour movement before, during and immediately after the First World War will see that this picture is just false. Events — actual social and political history — account for what happened to that movement, not just some Romantic death wish.
Berman in fact traduces a tradition which lies, fundamentally, on the “liberal” side of the divide he describes. Marxism is not totalitarian; it is totalitarianism’s enemy. (Of course, self-proclaimed Marxist groups are often another matter.) Paradoxically, it is this which makes me sympathetic to part of his argument. It is true, of course, that large parts of the would-be Marxist left have lost the plot, so to speak, and lost a sense of the centrality of democratic and secular values to our project. That is, in previous generations much of the left lost the plot regarding dictatorship in Moscow and elsewhere; now there is an echo of the same failure regarding Islamism in particular. “Anti-imperialism” has become an overriding principle, as if there were not other enemies.
For a genuine, rejuvenated Marxist left, democratic and secular values should be essential. But it’s more than that.
Marxism is a child of the Enlightenment, and of the revolutionary-democratic ideas that grew out of the French revolution — and therefore, in its proper form, the enemy of Islamism and any other religious, backward-looking ideology or undemocratic movement.
In a certain sense, if not in all, Marxism builds on “liberalism” — on its values, its civilisation.
But, to speak personally, I do not see Islamism as an enemy only on some doctrinal basis — because I am a Marxist socialist. My whole life, and the lives of those I care about, is lived in what Berman calls the “liberal” world — and it matters to me very much that it stay that way. In reality, for all that is sickeningly wrong with this society now (and even more sickening if I look outside Britain at the poverty and squalor of the mass of the global population), I live in perhaps the freest society the world has ever seen for any stable period.
I live with my same-sex partner, openly, without fear of arrest or harassment. Women are freer, more independent, able to dress how they like, and so on, to an unprecedented degree. We are able to say what we like. The Islamist movements — in fact, even the most moderate of them — would, if they had their way, change all of that, if they did not simply kill me (they would have a choice of reasons to kill me, after all).
I am with Berman in recognising the importance of all this. And it seems to me quite true that those on the left for whom “anti-imperialism” takes precedence over everything else are, fundamentally, hypocritical. We are sharp, militant critics and opponents of power in this society; but we are also the products of it, and there is much about it, limited and warped as it is, which is necessary for socialism. Everything that we are and enjoy in terms of rights and cultural values makes us implacable opponents of Islamism.
But it is also here that I part company with Berman. Understanding what Islamism would mean for me makes me understand the urgency of fighting it in the Muslim world, and of making solidarity with democratic forces in those countries. But is Islamism really a threat to me?
Of course if Islamists blow me up, it is. Berman’s book is inspired by 9/11, and since then we have seen many other atrocities. I am not one of those who thinks there is no terrorist threat. There is. I am afraid that sooner or later there will be some appalling atrocity in London, where I live. It disturbs me greatly that many young people from Muslim backgrounds are attracted to the Islamist movements, even in Britain.
But there is, surely, simply no possibility whatsoever that Islamists will come to power in London. There is a real threat, but that is not the nature of it.
And if that is not the nature of it, the meaning of any “war on terror” alters, too. There is a real need, somehow, to prevent people from planting bombs in railway stations or piloting planes into skyscrapers. And there is an absolutely enormous need to promote democratic — and, even better, socialist and working class — forces within the societies where Islamists have a purchase. But for the sake of those societies, not because it is for our own protection.
What is an appropriate agency for one job is not an appropriate agency for the other. For dealing with terrorist cells planning atrocities in London, give me the forces of the existing state — police, intelligence, and what have you (while preserving civil liberties, of course). But external military force is not a mechanism for democratising whole societies. It is not, as Berman would argue, that the political strategies accompanying military force are inadequate, or that the force itself has been applied ineptly. It is that such force was never going to work as a means of bringing liberalism to societies under threat of burgeoning Islamism.
Berman argues that there has been a limited success on that score in Afghanistan — and much more than you might have expected from Bush. I suppose you might argue that the jury is out in Iraq (though even if the current schedule for an elected government is met, war and occupation could hardly be said to have decreased the strength of Islamism in Iraq!). But Iraq demonstrates the point: the forces of genuine grass-roots democracy and secularism urgently need support; but for the most part the support of the Western “liberal” armies is the kiss of death. They need support from a different place, and with a different overall objective — from us, from the international labour movement, and for their own sake, not because it serves the longer term interests of the ruling classes of liberal democracies.
Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (W W Norton & Co, 2004)