UK Politics

Democratiya interviews Paul Berman

Last Sunday, a number of us met up under the auspices of the Euston Manifesto group to hear Paul Berman speak.

He was, of course, inspirational. The speech was filmed, and we hope to make it available.

You will also have noticed that a new issue of Democratiya is online, featuring articles by André Glucksmann and Marko Attila Hoare.

Make a special point of reading Alan Johnson’s interview with Paul Berman:

Paul Berman…It is the combination of these two things—the nihilist cult of murder and suicide on the one hand, the paranoid and utopian mythology on the other hand—that has created the great totalitarian movements. Stalinism, fascism, and Nazism offer variations of this phenomenon. But we ought to be able to see that the Ba’athism of Iraq and the more radical currents of Islamism are likewise variations. They arose in the same period – 1920s and 1930s. They were a little slower than their European cousins in coming to power – in 1979 Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini both came to power, in Iraq and Iran respectively. But, once they did establish their power, these people and their fellow thinkers began to bring about in the Muslim world the same phenomenon that we had already seen in Europe, and this was a wave of mass killings. One of the shocking aspects of the modern world is how vast has been the killing within certain sections of the Muslim world within the last quarter century. There appears to be literally millions of people killed. My interpretation in Terror and Liberalism was that the terrorist attacks of September 11—like those in London and Madrid and other places more recently—ought not to be seen as isolated events. They ought to be seen as the foam from a larger wave. The great mass of the wave has swept across the Muslim world. A few flecks of foam have reached New York and London and other places. The really devastated places have been Iraq, Iran, Algeria, Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, and so on. By looking at these Muslim events with an eye to the totalitarian past of Europe we can get them into focus a little more clearly. At the same time we can begin to recognise some of our own difficulties in understanding what is going on.

Alan Johnson: Some critics argue that you ignore the material causes of Muslim (and every other) totalitarianism. According to Kurt Jacobsen in Logos, ‘[Berman] writes as if religion or ideology alone dictates action, with no attention needed for underlying political or economic drives … [he] … narrows our buzzing, blooming confusion down tidily to one factor, those darned pathological mass movements.’ George Scialabba, in The Nation (April 28 2003), argued that you explained totalitarian mass movements as a ‘mysterious upwelling of hatred for liberal values’, and he asked, ‘Were there no predisposing material influences?’ Ellen Willis argues you fail to explain the roots of totalitarianism because your ‘framework for discussing the totalitarian impulse is moral and literary’. She suggests you end up ‘suggesting that totalitarian terror is an unfathomable mystery’. How do you respond?

Paul Berman: We have got caught up in a materialist error. In other words, we think material causes are everything. When Marx says we make out own history but not in circumstances of our own choosing there is a temptation to focus all of our attention on the circumstances. That is, on the material conditions that shape what people think and do. There is a tremendous error in modern social and political thinking which is to fail to see that ideas have a force entirely of their own. Yes, ideas, and the movements that draw on ideas are constrained and shaped in different ways by material conditions but, nonetheless, ideas have an independent role. Sidney Hook made this argument very persuasively in The Hero in History where he explains that the greatest disproof of the theory of historical materialism is the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which was conducted precisely in the name of historical materialism.

Everyone who has examined that revolution closely, beginning with the Bolsheviks themselves, recognised that the Revolution would not have taken place without Lenin. If you’ve got something as huge as the Bolshevik revolution—which is one of the biggest events in world history—and it would not have happened if one man had been removed, then you are obviously showing that historical materialism is not enough to explain great events. It can explain some things but it is not sufficient. Among the things that it can’t explain is the independent role of ideas in history. The twentieth century is an illustration of that. The rise of Communism, then the collapse of Communism is something that took place, above all, in the history of ideas. Communist ideas arose because they were very powerful and appeared to be very convincing. And they were defeated intellectually, not militarily. The Eastern bloc did not collapse out of material poverty. It collapsed out of intellectual poverty.

Yes, the rise of a mass Islamist movement has been shaped by all sorts of conditions – immigration, sociological events, economic displacements, and so on. And I am in favour of other people analysing those things. I am aware of the work of Gilles Kepel and others. But I don’t think those analyses can suffice. There remains this other factor: the force of an idea which carries people along and in part because the idea has an intellectual strength. Let’s go back to Qutb. He is a marvelous writer and a wonderful thinker. He is a brilliant person and his books are engrossing. If he wasn’t and they weren’t then I think the movement he has helped to inspire would be a lot weaker. That’s why we need to fight, finally, on the plane of ideas – to argue against this writer and his books and their independent history. This factor is systematically omitted because we are ourselves in the grip of this rationalist naiveté. If material factors (economic and sociological facts) are the only thing to consider, then everything that happens is rationally explicable…

Alan Johnson: …and we don’t need to pay any attention to the specific ideological complexion of particular movements because it’s all just a surface reflection of something deeper…

Paul Berman: …yes, but it’s more than that. The presumption also means we end up distorting those ideas by converting them into ideas that we find more easily recognisable. So we end up saying, for instance, ‘It’s not true that Hamas has encouraged a cult of suicide and murder. People in the West Bank and Gaza are engaging in suicide bombing because they lack water rights, or because the Peace Plan offered by Clinton created a border which was inadequate’. In other words we end up attributing to people ideas that are not theirs, but which fit our assumption that everyone acts in accord with a rational calculation of their material interests.

The same thing has been happening in regards to Iraq. A lot of people assume the insurgency in the Sunni districts represents a natural Iraqi nationalist reaction to foreign occupiers. But there is nothing natural about it! The vast majority of the Iraqi people do not support the insurgency. In fact the insurgency has been engaged in a programme of mass indiscriminate extermination of Shiites – that is Iraqis. There is nothing rational about that. It’s not a simple nationalist response to occupation. It has to do with a very different and much more alarming set of ideas. We fail to perceive the ideas that are at work. Then we attribute to those people ideas they do not have, but which we find easy to comprehend. This distortion on our part happens systematically. And it arises, in part from the materialist assumptions of modern social science, liberal rationalist assumptions.

Alan Johnson: You have written ‘There are many paths to hell, and one of those paths is called the ‘National Security Strategy’ of 2002′. What’s the problem with the NSS 2002?

Paul Berman: The NSS of 2002 made two disastrous points. First, it argued in effect for an American hegemony. This was foolish in the extreme because it’s not desirable and it’s not achievable. The only way we can successfully confront the dangers we faced is to arouse the support of an enormous number of people and states all over the world. Second, the NSS 2002—and this was commented on scarcely at all at the time—argued that the anti-totalitarian ideological struggles of the twentieth century were ‘over’. The new danger, it said, was rogue states. This was one of the intellectual errors that led to the disaster in Iraq. It underpinned a belief that the enemy in Iraq was not motivated by powerful ideas. It led people to think all bad guys were now like Manuel Noriega of Panama, whom Bush the father had captured in 1989. Noriega was a gangster-dictator with populist rhetoric. His support was thin and Panama was a rogue state. The US invasion encountered very little resistance – a great many Panamanians were thrilled to have the US invade. Noriega had his irregular forces, the Dignity battalions, but they folded immediately. Noreiga-ism commanded the support of nobody. I think the people who wrote the NSS 2002 imagined that the world consisted of Noriegas and all peoples would be more or less like the Panamanians.

I’m guessing the Bush administration anticipated something similar in Iraq. (By the way, some of the administration personnel were the same in both invasions.)

The Bush administration made the error of assuming the world is no longer populated by people animated by totalitarian ideas. But Saddam’s followers did and do honestly believe in key elements of the Ba’ath doctrine. The Islamists believe fervently. And people who believe in this way—in a sinister cosmic American-Zionist conspiracy to annihilate Islam, or to crush the Arab people—are going to fight to the death. They are not going to fold the way Noriega’s Dignity Battalions did. The ideas contained in 2002 NSS led to any number of catastrophic errors in the years that followed. For one thing, it meant Bush refused to admit there was an insurgency for a very long time. For another, it meant Bush was desperately slow in realising that he had to talk about ideas in order to counter other ideas. It was a calamitous statement.

The existence of the NSS should have signalled to us on the left that we needed to come up with our own analysis. That was my goal in writing Terror and Liberalism – to add my own two cents.

But one would have to say that a lot of people have responded by just folding their arms and saying no.