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Wednesday, April 16, 2003


Reviews, reviews. We went gleefully after Remnick on the Lenin issue a couple of days ago. Now it is Paul Berman's turn. Except... surely Scialabba's review in the Nation is misinterpreting the guy. Does Berman really believe that he can decode, in Lincoln's decision to persevere in waging war against the South, the choice to "repair the Founders' mistake and render "the whole concept [of liberal society] a little sturdier." In so doing, it took on a "universal mission": "the defense of democratic self-rule...for the entire planet"? Tell me I am not reading that.

Scialabba, with the crashing understatement of Stanley meeting Livingston in the jungles of Central Africa, writes, "This is a dubious interpretation of the Civil War..." Hmm, that's for sure. When Hegel decided that the miserable king of Prussia was the end of history, or when Goethe decided Napoleon was the spirit of history on horseback, surely the one had the excuse of syncophancy, and the other the excuse of Sturm und Drang. But Berman should have lived long enough not to let such heady nonsense escape onto a published page.

Scialabba coolly disses Berman's anti-Chomsky-ism (sure to make the book a rave for the New Republic crowd):

Perhaps because Berman dislikes being reminded forcefully of the enormous factual record that demonstrates the absurdity of this claim [the record of American subversion of liberties and defense of oligarchies during the last one hundred years], Terror and Liberalism includes a lengthy attack on Noam Chomsky. Ten pages of this slender book are devoted to painting Chomsky as a prime specimen of the left-wing "simple-minded rationalist," whose inability to comprehend the "mystery, self-contradiction, murk, or madness" of totalitarian movements leads him to attribute all the evil in the world to the "greed" of "giant corporations and their intellectual and governmental servants."

"After the Indochina war, Berman writes, Chomsky had no way to explain the atrocities in Cambodia. He therefore set out, basing himself on his "customary blizzard of... obscure sources" (an ungracious remark, this, coming from the author of so lightly documented and empirically thin a book as Terror and Liberalism), to demonstrate that "in Indochina, despite everything published in the newspapers...that genocide never occurred," or if it did, was all America's fault."

However, to return to our little hobbyhorse about Lenin, Scialabba seems more than willing to play Berman's game of pulling Lenin out of historical context. While S. disputes Berman's typology of totalitarianism as a popular pathology depending on the charisma of an obviously mad leader, he gives us this explanation of Bolshevism:

"The fit with Bolshevism is far from perfect. For one thing, the proletariat was not exactly the people of God. It never dwelt in peace and simplicity; it was born with the modern world, from the chaos and upheaval of industrialization. For another thing, Lenin was not exactly the Leader Berman says he was: "a superman," "a god," "a nihilist," "a genius beyond all geniuses...the man on horseback who, in his statements and demeanor, was visibly mad, and who, in his madness, incarnated the deepest of all the anti-liberal impulses, which was the revolt against rationality." Lenin was certainly an arrogant, cold-hearted son of a bitch, and it would have been much better for the world if he had fallen off (or under) that train before it reached the Finland Station. But he was not "mad" or a "nihilist," he did not regard himself as a god, and he was annoyed when other people did (or pretended to). Most important, Bolshevism was not exactly a "pathological mass movement," which, according to Berman, is the fundamental characteristic of all totalitarianisms and precisely what liberal intellectuals consistently fail to understand about them. Bolshevism was pathological all right, but it was not a mass movement. It was an elite, skillfully and ruthlessly controlling demoralized and apathetic masses. It was, as Nicolas Werth wrote in The Black Book of Communism, "a state against its people."

'Demoralized and apathetic masses"? Somehow, in the history of the Russian Revolution, the small, hardly worth mentioning fact of the war against Germany and Austria goes out of focus fast. The masses were demoralized, but not by the Bolsheviks - they were demoralized by the war. The 'party elite' would never have been able to take over a streetcorner if they hadn't relied on a strong military contingent. The demoralized and apathetic masses belonged to the Mensheviks. The aspirations of the Russian bourgoisie were crystalized in literature rathen than politics -- which is why we are rather fond of the Russian bourgoisie. Nabokov jr is much more representative of their abilities than Nabokov sr., try as the latter did to implant a form of parliamentarianism on Russian soil.

Sweeping historical views, such as Berman's seems to be, whiCh attempt to synchronize morality and history -- modifications of the Whig version of history, in other words -- always seem to leave out wars, famines, and the rest of it. If Berman really thinks France was disarmed pre-WWII because French leftists were pacifists, he has reached the acme of silliness. Alain's pacifism was much less debilitating to the French than the unwillingness of the British to combine with France to enforce the provisions of the Versailles treaty that France, after all, had insisted on. The reason for that is that Britain didn't want to spend the money necessary to have the military might to confront Hitler. If Berman thinks Blum didn't want to support the Popular side in Spain, he definitely has lost his connection to the long, lone song of leftist libertarianism. We follow that songline faithfully. Pity that he's lost it.

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