Category Archives: Political Theory

Reading Darwin in Abolitionist New England

 

Randall Fuller, The Book That Changed America:

How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation (Viking)

In mid-December 1859, the first copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species arrived in the United States from England at a wharf in Boston harbor.  Darwin’s book explained how plants and animals had developed and evolved over multiple millennia through a process Darwin termed “natural selection,” a process which distinguished On the Origins of Species from the work of other naturalists of Darwin’s generation.   Although Darwin said little in the book about how humans fit into the natural selection process, the work promised to ignite a battle between science and religion.

In The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation, Randall Fuller, professor of American literature at the University of Kansas, contends that what made Darwin’s insight so radical was its “reliance upon a natural mechanism to explain the development of species.  An intelligent Creator was not required for natural selection to operate.  Darwin’s’ vision was of a dynamic, self-generation process of material change.  That process was entirely arbitrary, governed by physical law and chance – and not leading ineluctably . . . toward progress and perfection” (p.24).  Darwin’s work challenged the notion that human beings were a “separate and extraordinary species, differing from every other animal on the planet. Taken to its logical conclusion, it demolished the idea that people had been created in God’s image” (p.24).

On the Origins of Species arrived in the United States at a particularly fraught moment.  In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown had conducted a raid on a federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry (then part of Virginia, today West Virginia), with the intention of precipitating a rebellion that would eradicate slavery from American soil.  The raid failed spectacularly: Brown was captured, tried for treason and hung on December 2, 1859.  The raid and its aftermath exacerbated tensions between North and South, further polarizing the already bitterly divided country over the issue of chattel slavery in its southern states.  Notwithstanding the little Darwin had written about how humans fit into the natural selection process, abolitionists seized on hints in the book that all humans were biologically related to buttress their arguments against slavery.  To the abolitionists, Darwin “seemed to refute once and for all the idea that African American slaves were a separate, inferior species” (p.x).

Asa Gray, a respected botanist at Harvard University and a friend of Darwin, received the first copy of On the Origin of Species in the United States.  He passed the copy, which he annotated heavily, to his cousin by marriage  Charles Loring Brace (who was also a distant cousin of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the anti-slavery runaway best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin).  Brace in turn introduced the book to three men: Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, a part-time school master and full-time abolitionist activist; Amos Bronson Alcott, an educator and loquacious philosopher, today best remembered as the father of author Louisa May Alcott; and Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s best known philosophers and truth-seekers.  Sanborn, Alcott and Thoreau were residents of Concord, Massachusetts, roughly twenty miles north of Boston, the site of a famous Revolutionary War battle but in the mid-19th century both a leading literary center and a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment.

As luck would have it, Brace, Alcott and Thoreau gathered at Sanborn’s Concord home on New Year’s Day 1860.  Only Gray did not attend. The four men almost certainly shared their initial reactions to Darwin’s work.   This get together constitutes the starting point for Fuller’s engrossing study, centered on how Gray and the four men in Sanborn’s parlor on that New Year’s Day  absorbed Darwin’s book.   Darwin himself is at best a background figure in the study.  Several familiar figures make occasional appearances, among them:  Frederick Douglass, renowned orator and “easily the most famous black man in America” (p.91); Bronson Alcott’s author-daughter Louisa May; and American philosophe Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor and friend.  Emerson, like Louisa May and her father, was a Concord resident, and Fuller’s study takes place mostly there, with occasional forays to nearby Boston and Cambridge.

Fuller’s study is therefore more tightly circumscribed geographically than its title suggests.  He spends little time detailing the reaction to Darwin’s work in other parts of the United States, most conspicuously in the American South, where any work that might seem to support abolitionism and undermine slavery was anathema.   The study is also circumscribed in time; it takes place mostly in 1860, with most of the rest confined to the first half of the 1860s, up to the end of the American Civil War in 1865.  Fuller barely mentions what is sometimes called “Social Darwinism,” a notion that gained traction in the decades after the Civil War that purported to apply Darwin’s theory of natural selection to the competition between individuals in politics and economics, producing an argument for unregulated capitalism.

Rather, Fuller charts out the paths each of his five main characters traversed in absorbing and assimilating into their own worldviews the scientific, religious and political ramifications of Darwin’s work, particularly during the tumultuous year 1860.   All five were fervent abolitionists.   Sunburn was a co-conspirator in John Brown’s raid.  Thoreau gave a series of eloquent, impassioned speeches in support of Brown.  All were convinced that Darwin’s notion of natural selection had provided still another argument against slavery, based on science rather than morality or economics.  But in varying degrees, all five could also be considered adherents of transcendentalism, a mid-19th century philosophical approach that posited a form of human knowledge that goes beyond, or transcends, what can be seen, heard, tasted, touched or felt.

Although transcendentalists were almost by definition highly individualistic, most believed that a special force or intelligence stood behind nature and that prudential design ruled the universe.  Many subscribed to the notion that humans were the products of some sort of “special creation.”   Most saw God everywhere, and considered the human mind “resplendent with powers and insights wholly distinct from the external world” (p.54).  Transcendentalism was both an effort to invoke the divinity within man and, as Fuller puts it, also “cultural attack on a nation that had become too materialistic, too conformist, too smug about its place in history” (p.66).

Transcendentalism thus hovered in the background in 1860 as all but Sanborn wrestled with the implications of Darwinism (Sanborn spent much of the year fleeing federal authorities seeking his arrest for his role in John Brown’s raid).  Alcott never left transcendentalism, rejecting much of Darwinism.  Gray and Brace initially seemed to embrace Darwinian theories wholeheartedly, but in different ways each pulled back once he fully grasped the full implications of those theories.   Thoreau was the only one of the five who accepted wholly Darwinism’s most radical implications, using Darwin’s theories to “redirect his life’s work” (p.ix).

Fuller’s study thus combines a deep dive into the New England abolitionist milieu at a time when the United States was fracturing over the issue of slavery with a medium level dive into the intricacies of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.   But the story Fuller tells is anything but dry and abstract.  With an elegant writing style and an acute sense of detail, Fuller places his five men and their thinking about Darwin in their habitat, the frenetic world of 1860s New England.  In vivid passages, readers can almost feel the chilly January wind whistling through Franklin Sanborn’s parlor that New Year’s Day 1860, or envision the mud accumulating on Henry David Thoreau’s boots as he trudges through the melting snow in the woods on a March afternoon contemplating Darwin.  The result is a lively, easy-to-read narrative that nimbly mixes intellectual and everyday, ground-level history.

* * *

Bronson Alcott, described by Fuller as America’s most radical transcendentalist, never accepted the premises of On the Origins of Species.  Darwin had, in Alcott’s view, “reduced human life to chemistry, to mechanical processes, to vulgar materialism” (p.10).  To Alcott, Darwin seemed “morbidly attached to an amoral struggle of existence, which robbed humans of free will and ignored the promptings of the soul” (p.150). Alcott could not imagine a universe “so perversely cruel as to produce life without meaning.  Nor could he bear to live in a world that was reduced to the most tangible and daily phenomena, to random change and process”(p.188).  Asa Gray, one of America’s most eminent scientists, came to the same realization, but  only after thoroughly digesting Darwin and explaining his theories to a wide swath of the American public.

Gray’s initial reaction to Darwin’s work was one of unbounded enthusiasm.  Gray covered nearly every page of the book with his own annotations.  He admired the book because it “reinforced his conviction that inductive reasoning was the proper approach to science” (p.109).  He also admired the work’s “artfully modulated tone, [and] its modest voice, which softened the more audacious ideas rippling through the text” (p.17). Gray was most impressed with Darwin’s “careful judging and clear-eyed balancing of data” (p.110).  To grapple with Darwin’s ideas, Gray maintained, one had to “follow the evidence wherever it led, ignoring prior convictions and certainties or the narrative one wanted that evidence to confirm” (p.110).  Without saying so explicitly, Gray suggested that readers of Darwin’s book had to be “open to the possibility that everything they had taken for granted was in fact incorrect” (p.110).

Gray reviewed On the Origins of Species for the Atlantic Monthly in three parts, appearing  in the summer and fall of 1860.  Gray’s articles served as the first encounter with Darwin for many American readers.  The articles elicited a steady stream of letters from respectful readers.  Some responded with “unalloyed enthusiasm” for a new idea which “seemed to unlock the mysteries of nature” (p.134).  Others, however, “reacted with anger toward a theory that proposed to unravel . . . their belief in a divine Being who had placed humans at the summit of creation” (p.134).  But as Gray finished the third Atlantic article, he began to realize that he himself was not entirely at ease with the diminution of humanity’s place in the universe that Darwin’s work implied.

The third Atlantic article, appearing in October 1860, revealed Gray’s increasing difficulty in “aligning Darwin’s theory with his own religions convictions” (p.213).   Gray proposed that natural selection might be the “God’s chosen method of creation” (p.214).  This idea seemed to resolve the tension between scientific and religious accounts of origins, making Gray the first to develop a theological case for Darwinian theory.  But the idea that natural selection might be the process by which God had fashioned  the world represented what Fuller describes as a “stunning shift for Gray. Before now, he had always insisted that secondary causes were the only items science was qualified to address.  First, or final causes – the beginning of life, the creation of the universe – were the purview of religion: a matter of faith and metaphysics” (p.214).  Darwin responded to Gray’s conjectures by indicating that, as Fuller summarizes the written exchange, the natural world was “simply too murderous and too cruel to have been created by a just and merciful God” (p.211).

In the Atlantic articles, Fuller argues, Gray leapt “beyond his own rules of science, speculating about something that was untestable” (p.214-15 ).  Gray must have known that his argument “failed to adhere to his own definition of science” (p.216).  But, much like Bronson Alcott, Gray found it “impossible to live in the world Darwin had imagined: a world of chance, a world that did not require a God to operate” (p.216).  Charles Brace, a noted social reformer who founded several institutions for orphans and destitute children, greeted Darwin’s book  with an initial enthusiasm that rivaled that of Gray.

Brace  claimed to have read On the Origins of Species 13 times.  He was most attracted to the book for its implications for human societies, especially for American society, where nearly half the country accepted and defended human slavery.  Darwin’s book “confirmed Brace’s belief that environment played a crucial role in the moral life of humans” (p.11), and demonstrated that every person in the world, black, white, yellow, was related to every one else.  The theory of natural selection was thus for Brace the “latest argument against chattel slavery, a scientific claim that could be used in the most important controversy of his time, a clarion call for abolition” (p.39).

Brace produced a tract entitled The Races of the Old World, modeled after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which Fuller describes as a “sprawling, ramshackle work” (p.199).  Its central thesis was simple enough: “There is nothing . . . to prove the negro radically different from the other families of man or even mentally inferior to them” (p.199-200).  But much of The Races of the Old World seemed to undercut Brace’s central thesis.  Although the book never defined the term “race,” Brace “apparently believed that though all humans sprang from the same source, some races had degraded over time . . . Human races were not permanent” (p.199-200).  Brace thus struggled to make Darwin’s theory fit his own ideas about race and slavery. “He increasingly bent facts to fit his own speculations” (p.197), as Fuller puts it.

The Races of the Old World revealed Brace’s hesitation in imagining a multi-racial America. He couched in Darwinian terms the difficulty of the races cohabiting,  reverting to what Fuller describes as nonsense about blacks not being conditioned to survive in the colder Northern climate.  Brace “firmly believed in the emancipation of slaves, and he was equally convinced that blacks and white did not differ in their mental capacities” (p.202).  But he nonetheless worried that “race mixing,” or what was then termed race “amalgamation,” might imperil Anglo-Saxon America, the “apex of development. . . God’s favored nation, a place where democracy and Christianity had fused to create the world’s best hope” (p.202).  Brace joined many other leading abolitionists in opposing race “amalgamation.”  His conclusion that “black and brown-skinned people inhabited a lower run on the ladder of civilization” was shared, Fuller indicates, by “even the most enlightened New England abolitionists” (p.57).

No such misgivings visited Thoreau, who  grappled with On the Origins of Species “as thoroughly and as insightfully as any American of the period” (p.11).  As Thoreau first read his copy of the book in late January 1860,  a “new universe took form on the rectangular page before him” (p.75).  Prior to his encounter with Darwin, Thoreau’s thought had often “bordered on the nostalgic.  He longed for the transcendentalist’s confidence in a natural world infused with spirit” (p.157).  But Darwin led Thoreau beyond nostalgia.

Thoreau was struck in particular by Darwin’s portrayal of the struggle among species as an engine of creation.  The Origin of Species revealed nature as process, in constant transformation.  Darwin’s book directed Thoreau’s attention “away from fixed concepts and hierarchies toward movement instead” (p.144-45).  The idea of struggle among species “undermined transcendentalist assumptions about the essential goodness of nature, but it also corroborated many of Thoreau’s own observations” (p.137).  Thoreau had “long suspected that people were an intrinsic part of nature – neither separate nor entirely alienated from it” (p.155).  Darwin now enabled Thoreau to see how “people and the environment worked together to fashion the world,” providing a “scientific foundation for Thoreau’s belief that humans and nature were part of the same continuum” (p.155).

Darwin’s natural selection, Thoreau wrote, “implies a greater vital force in nature, because it is more flexible and accommodating, and equivalent to a sort of constant new creation” (p.246).  The phrase “constant new creation” in Fuller’s view represents an “epoch in American thought” because it “no longer relies upon divinity to explain the natural world” (p.246).  Darwin thus propelled Thoreau to a radical vision in which there was “no force or intelligence behind Nature, directing its course in a determined and purposeful manner.  Nature just was” (p.246-47).

How far Thoreau would have taken these ideas is impossible to know. He became sick in December 1860, stricken with influenza, exacerbated by tuberculosis, and died in June 1862, with Americans fighting other Americans on the battlefield over the issue of slavery.

* * *

            Fuller compares Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to a Trojan horse.  It entered American culture “using the newly prestigious language of science, only to attack, once inside, the nation’s cherished beliefs. . . With special and desolating force, it combated the idea that God had placed humans at the peak of creation” (p.213).  That the book’s attack did not spare even New England’s best known abolitionists and transcendentalists demonstrates just how unsettling the attack was.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

May 18, 2020

 

10 Comments

Filed under American Society, History, Political Theory, Religion, Science, United States History

A Defense of Truth

 

Dorian Lynskey, The Ministry of Truth:

The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 

                           George Orwell’s name, like that of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka, has given rise to an adjective.  “Orwellian” connotes official deception, secret surveillance, misleading terminology, and the manipulation of history.   Several terms used in Orwell’s best known novel, Nineteen Eighty Four, have entered into common usage, including “doublethink,” “thought crime,” “newspeak,” “memory hole,” and “Big Brother.”  First published in June 1949, a little over a half year prior to Orwell’s death in January 1950, Nineteen Eighty Four is consistently described as a “dystopian” novel – a genre of fiction which, according to Merriam-Webster, pictures “an imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives.”

This definition fits neatly the world that Orwell depicted in Nineteen Eighty Four, a world divided between three inter-continental super states perpetually at war, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, with Britain reduced to a province of Oceania bearing the sardonic name “Airstrip One.”  Airstrip One is ruled by The Party under the ideology Insoc, a shortening of “English socialism.”  The Party’s leader, Big Brother, is the object of an intense cult of personality — even though there is no hard proof he actually exists.  Surveillance through two-way telescreens and propaganda are omnipresent.  The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a diligent lower-level Party member who works at the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites historical records to conform to the state’s ever-changing version of history.  Smith enters into a forbidden relationship with his co-worker, Julia, a relationship that terminates in mutual betrayal.

In his intriguing study, The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, British journalist and music critic Dorian Lynskey seeks to explain what Nineteen Eighty-Four “actually is, how it came to be written, and how it has shaped the world, in its author’s absence, over the past seventy years” (p.xiv). Although there are biographies of Orwell and academic studies of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s intellectual context, Lynskey contends that his is the first to “merge the two streams into one narrative, while also exploring the book’s afterlife” (p.xv; I reviewed Thomas Ricks’ book on Orwell and Winston Churchill here in November 2017).   Lynskey’s work is organized in a “Before/After” format.  Part One, about 2/3 of the book, looks at the works and thinkers who influenced Orwell and his novel, juxtaposed with basic Orwell biographical background.  Part II, roughly the last third, examines the novel’s afterlife.

But Lynskey begins in a surprising place, Washington, D.C., in January 2017, where a spokesman for President Donald Trump told the White House press corps that the recently-elected president had taken his oath of office before the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe.”  A presidential adviser subsequently justified this “preposterous lie” by characterizing the statement as “alternative facts” (p.xiii).   Sales of Orwell’s book shot up immediately thereafter.  The incident constitutes a reminder, Lynskey contends, of the “painful lessons that the world appears to have unlearned since Orwell’s lifetime, especially those concerning the fragility of truth in the face of power” (p.xix).

How Orwell came to see the consequences of mutilating truth and gave them expression in Nineteen Eighty-Four is the focus of Part I.  Orwell’s brief participation in the Spanish Civil War, from December 1936 through mid-1937, was paramount among his personal experiences in shaping the novel’s worldview. Spain was the “great rupture in his life; his zero hour” (p.4), the experience that lead Orwell to the conclusion that Soviet communism was as antithetical as fascism and Nazism to the values he held dear (Lynskey’s list of Orwell’s values: “honesty, decency, fairness, memory, history, clarity, privacy, common sense, sanity, England, and love” (p.xv)).  While no single work provided an intellectual foundation for Nineteen Eighty Four in the way that the Spanish Civil War provided the personal and practical foundation, Lynskey discusses numerous writers whose works contributed to the worldview on display in Orwell’s novel.

Lynskey dives deeply into the novels and writings of Edward Bellamy, H.G. Wells and the Russian writer Yevgeny Zamytin.  Orwell’s friend Arthur Koestler set out what Lynskey terms the “mental landscape” for Nineteen Eighty-Four in his 1940 classic Darkness at Noon, while the American conservative James Burnham provided the novel’s “geo-political superstructure” (p.126).  Lynskey discusses a host of other writers whose works in one way or another contributed to Nineteen Eighty-Four’s world view, among them Jack London, Aldous Huxley, Friedrich Hayek, and the late 17th and early 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift.

In Part II, Lynskey treats some of the dystopian novels and novelists that have appeared since Nineteen Eighty-Four.  He provides surprising detail on David Bowie, who alluded to Orwell in his songs and wrote material that reflected the outlook of Nineteen Eighty-Four.  He notes that Margaret Atwood termed her celebrated The Handmaid’s Tale a “speculative fiction of the George Orwell variety” (p.241).  But the crux of Part II lies in Lynskey’s discussion of the evolving interpretations of the novel since its publication, and why it still matters today.  He argues that Nineteen Eighty Four has become both a “vessel into which anyone could pour their own version of the future” (p.228), and an “all-purpose shorthand” for an “uncertain present” (p.213).

In the immediate aftermath of its publication, when the Cold War was at its height, the novel was seen by many as a lesson on totalitarianism and the dangers that the Soviet Union and Communist China posed to the West (Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania in the novel correspond roughly to the Soviet Union, China and the West, respectively).  When the Cold War ended with the fall of Soviet Union in 1991, the novel morphed into a warning about the invasive technologies spawned by the Internet and their potential for surveillance of individual lives.  In the Age of Trump and Brexit, the novel has become “most of all a defense of truth . . . Orwell’s fear that ‘the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world’ is the dark heart of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It gripped him long before he came up with Big Brother, Oceania, Newspeak or the telescreen, and it’s more important than any of them” (p.265-66).

* * *

                            Orwell was born as Eric Blair in 1903 in India, where his father was a mid-level civil servant. His mother was half-French and a committed suffragette.  In 1933, prior to publication of his first major book,  Down and Out in Paris and London, which recounts his life in voluntary poverty in the two cities, the fledgling author took the pen name Orwell from a river in Sussex .  He changed names purportedly to save his parents from the embarrassment which  he assumed his forthcoming work  would cause.  He was at best a mid-level journalist and writer when he went to Spain in late 1936, with a handful of novels and lengthy essays to his credit – “barely George Orwell” (p.4), as Lynskey puts it.

The Spanish Civil war erupted after Spain’s Republican government, known as the Popular Front, a coalition of liberal democrats, socialists and communists, narrowly won a parliamentary majority in 1936, only to face a rebellion from the Nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco, representing Spain’s military, business elites, large landowners and the Catholic Church.  Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy furnished arms and other assistance for the Nationalists’ assault on Spain’s democratic institutions, while the Soviet Union assisted the Republicans (the leading democracies of the period, Great Britain, France and the United States, remained officially neutral; I reviewed Adam Hochschild’s work on the Spanish Civil War here in August 2017).   Spain provided Orwell with his first and only personal exposure to the “nightmare atmosphere” (p.17) that would envelop the novel he wrote a decade later.

Fighting with the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (Spanish acronym: POUM), a renegade working class party that opposed Stalin, Orwell quickly found himself in the middle of what amounted to a mini-civil war among the disparate left-wing factions on the Republican side, all within the larger civil war with the Nationalists.  Orwell saw first-hand the dogmatism and authoritarianism of the Stalinist left at work in Spain, nurtured by a level of deliberate deceit that appalled him.  He read newspaper accounts that did not even purport to bear any relationship to what had actually happened. For Orwell previously, Lynskey writes:

people were guilty of deliberate deceit or unconscious bias, but at least they believed in the existence of facts and the distinction between true and false. Totalitarian regimes, however, lied on such a grand scale that they made Orwell feel that ‘the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world’ (p.99).

Orwell saw totalitarianism in all its manifestations as dangerous not primarily because of secret police or constant surveillance but because “there is no solid ground from which to mount a rebellion –no corner of the mind that has not been infected and warped by the state.  It is power that removes the possibility of challenging power” (p.99).

Orwell narrowly escaped death when he was hit by a bullet in the spring of 1937.  He was hospitalized in Barcelona for three weeks, after which he and his wife Eileen escaped across the border to France.  Driven to Spain by his hatred of fascism, Orwell left with a “second enemy. The fascists had behaved just as appallingly as he had expected they would, but the ruthlessness and dishonesty of the communists had shocked him” (p.18).  From that point onward, Orwell criticized communism more energetically than fascism because he had seen communism “up close, and because its appeal was more treacherous. Both ideologies reached the same totalitarian destination but communism began with nobler aims and therefore required more lies to sustain it” (p.22).   After his time in Spain, Orwell knew that he stood against totalitarianism of all stripes, and for democratic socialism as its counterpoint.

The term “dystopia” was not used frequently in Orwell’s time, and Orwell distinguished between “favorable” and “pessimistic” utopias.   Orwell developed what he termed a “pitying fondness” (p.38) for nineteenth-century visions of a better world, particularly the American Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward.  This highly popular novel contained a “seductive political argument” (p.33) for the nationalization of all industry, and the use of an “industrial army” to organize production and distribution.  Bellamy had what Lynskey terms a “thoroughly pre-totalitarian mind,” with an “unwavering faith in human nature and common sense” that failed to see the “dystopian implications of unanimous obedience to a one-party state that will last forever” (p.38).

Bellamy was a direct inspiration for the works of H.G. Wells, one of the most prolific writers of his age. Wells exerted enormous influence on the young Eric Blair, looming over the boy’s childhood “like a planet – awe inspiring, oppressive, impossible to ignore – and Orwell never got over it” (p.60).  Often called the English Jules Verne, Wells foresaw space travel, tanks, electric trains, wind and water power, identity cards, poison gas, the Channel tunnel and atom bombs.  His fiction imagined time travel, Martian invasions, invisibility and genetic engineering.  The word Wellsian came to mean “belief in an orderly scientific utopia,” but his early works are “cautionary tales of progress thwarted, science abused and complacency punished” (p.63).

Wells was himself a direct influence upon Yevgeny Zamatin’s We which, in Lymskey’s interpretation, constitutes the most direct antecedent to Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Finished in 1920 at the height of the civil war that followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution (but not published in the Soviet Union until 1988), We is set in the undefined future, a time when people are referred to only by numbers. The protagonist, D-503, a spacecraft engineer, lives in the One State, where mass surveillance is omnipresent and all aspects of life are scientifically managed.  It is an open question whether We was intended to satirize the Bolshevik regime, in 1920 already a one-party state with extensive secret police.

Zamyatin died in exile in Paris in 1937, at age 53.   Orwell did not read We until sometime after its author’s death.  Whether Orwell “took ideas straight from Zamyatin or was simply thinking along similar lines” is “difficult to say” (p.108), Lynskey writes.  Nonetheless, it is “impossible to read Zamyatin’s bizarre and visionary novel without being strongly reminded of stories that were written afterwards, Orwell’s included” (p.102).

Koestler’s Darkness at Noon offered a solution to the central riddle of the Moscow show trials of the 1930s: “why did so many Communist party members sign confessions of crimes against the state, and thus their death warrants?” Koestler argued that their “years of unbending loyalty had dissolved their belief in objective truth: if the Party required them to be guilty, then guilty they must be” (p.127).  To Orwell this meant that one is punished in totalitarian states not for “ what one does but for what one is, or more exactly, for what one is suspected of being” (p.128).

The ideas contained in James Burnham’s 1944 book, The Managerial Revolution “seized Orwell’s imagination even as his intellect rejected them” (p.122).  A Trotskyite in his youth who in the 1950s helped William F. Buckley found the conservative weekly, The National Review, Burnham saw the future belonging to a huge, centralized bureaucratic state run by a class of managers and technocrats.  Orwell made a “crucial connection between Burnham’s super-state hypothesis and his own long-standing obsession with organized lying” (p.121-22).

Orwell’s chronic lung problems precluded him from serving in the military during World War II.  From August 1941 to November 1943, he worked for the Indian Section of the BBC’s Eastern Service, where he found himself “reluctantly writing for the state . . . Day to day, the job introduced him to the mechanics of propaganda, bureaucracy, censorship and mass media, informing Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth” (p.83; Orwell’s boss at the BBC was notorious Cambridge spy Guy Burgess, whose biography I reviewed here in December 2017).   Orwell left the BBC in 1943 to become literary editor of the Tribune, an anti-Stalinist weekly.

While at the Tribune, Orwell found time to produce Animal Farm, a “scrupulous allegory of Russian history from the revolution to the Tehran conference” (p.138), with each animal representing an individual, Stalin, Trotsky, Hitler, and so on.  Animal Farm shared with Nineteen Eighty-Four an “obsession with the erosion and corruption of memory” (p.139).  Memories in the two works are gradually erased, first, by the falsification of evidence; second, by the infallibility of the leader; third, by language; and fourth, by time.  Published in August 1945, Animal Farm quickly became a best seller.  The fable’s unmistakable anti-Soviet message forced Orwell to remind readers that he remained a socialist.  “I belong to the Left and must work inside it,” he wrote, “much as I hate Russian totalitarianism and its poisonous influence of this country” (p.141).

Earlier in 1945, Orwell’s wife Eileen died suddenly after being hospitalized for a hysterectomy, less than a year after the couple had adopted a son, whom they named Richard Horatio Blair.  Orwell grieved the loss of his wife by burying himself in the work that culminated in Nineteen Eighty-Four.   But Orwell became ever sicker with tuberculosis as he worked  over the next four years on the novel which was titled The Last Man in Europe until almost immediately prior to publication (Lynskey gives no credence to the theory that Orwell selected 1984 as a inversion of the last two digits of 1948).

Yet, Lynskey rejects the notion that Nineteen Eighty-Four was the “anguished last testament of a dying man” (p.160).  Orwell “never really believed he was dying, or at least no more than usual. He had suffered from lung problems since childhood and had been ill, off and on, for so long that he had no reason to think that this time would be the last ” (p.160).  His novel was published in June 1949.  227 days later, in January 1950, Orwell died when a blood vessel in his lung ruptured.

* * *

                                    Nineteen Eighty-Four had an immediate positive reception. The book was variously compared to an earthquake, a bundle of dynamite, and the label on a bottle of poison.  It was made into a movie, a play, and a BBC television series.  Yet, Lynskey writes, “people seemed determined to misunderstand it” (p.170).  During the Cold War of the early 1950s, conservatives and hard line leftists both saw the book as a condemnation of socialism in all its forms.  The more astute critics, Lynskey argues, were those who “understood Orwell’s message that the germs of totalitarianism existed in Us as well as Them” (p.182).  The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 constituted a turning point in interpretations of Nineteen Eighty-Four.  After the invasion, many of Orwell’s critics on the left “had to accept that they had been wrong about the nature of Soviet communism and that he [Orwell] had been infuriatingly right” (p.210).

The hoopla that accompanied the actual year 1984, Lynskey notes wryly, came about only because “one man decided, late in the day, to change the title of his novel” (p.234).   By that time, the book was being read less as an anti-communist tract and more as a reminder of the abuses exposed in the Watergate affair of the previous decade, the excesses of the FBI and CIA, and the potential for mischief that personal computers, then in their infancy, posed.  With the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of communism between 1989 and 1991, focus on the power of technology intensified.

But today the focus is on Orwell’s depiction of the demise of objective truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and appropriately so, Lynskey argues, noting how President Trump masterfully “creates his own reality and measures his power by the number of people who subscribe to it: the cruder the lie, the more power its success demonstrates” (p.264).  It is truly Orwellian, Lynskey contends, that the phrase “fake news” has been “turned on its head by Trump and his fellow authoritarians to describe real news that is not to their liking, while flagrant lies become ‘alternative facts’” (p.264).

* * *

                                 While resisting the temptation to term Nineteen Eighty-Four more relevant now than ever, Lynskey asserts that the novel today is nonetheless  “a damn sight more relevant than it should be” (p.xix).   An era “plagued by far-right populism, authoritarian nationalism, rampant disinformation and waning faith in liberal democracy,” he concludes, is “not one in which the message of Nineteen Eighty-Four can be easily dismissed” (p.265).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

February 25, 2020

2 Comments

Filed under Biography, British History, European History, Language, Literature, Political Theory, Politics, Soviet Union

The Contrarian’s Disconcerting Dualism

 

Fintan O’Toole, Judging Shaw:

The Radicalism of GBS (Royal Irish Academy, $40.00) 

            By 1920, theatergoers throughout the world recognized the three letters “GBS” as a shorthand reference to George Bernard Shaw, not only the era’s most prolific and successful English language playwright but also a prominent social and political commentator with radical left-wing views.  GBS in 1920 was Shaw’s self-created brand, which he cultivated carefully and marketed shamelessly.  In Judging Shaw: The Radicalism of GBS, prominent Irish journalist and cultural critic Fintan O’Toole explores how the brand GBS interacted with Shaw the man and evolved over the years.  O’Toole does so through eight thematic essays, each a section on a separate aspect of Shaw’s long life (1856-1950), but without adhering to a strict chronology.  His work is more appraisal than biography.

Author of over sixty plays, among them Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923), Shaw was also a prodigious writer of letters, pamphlets, and speeches.  By one estimate, O’Toole notes, Shaw wrote at least a quarter of a million letters and postcards.  Although he analyses Shaw’s plays, O’Toole also draws liberally upon them and other writings to cast light upon Shaw’s social and political thought – upon the “Radicalism of GBS” to use the book’s sub-title.  At the book’s heart lies Shaw’s disconcerting dualism: in the post-World War I era, the outspoken political progressive became an apologist for the totalitarian regimes in Italy, Germany and Soviet Russia, as well as an ostensible proponent of eugenics.  It is primarily in Shaw’s capacity as a social and political thinker that O’Toole engages his readers in an exercise in “Judging Shaw,” the book’s title.

Although not a conventional biography, the book contains a detailed and helpful chronology at the outset, with year-by-year highlights of Shaw’s life.  It also contains an impressive series of visual memorabilia between each section. The series includes relevant photos but also vivid photocopies of letters, drafts of published writings, and other reminders of Shaw’s contrarian career.

* * *

                O’Toole’s initial section, “The Invention of GBS,” describes  Shaw as “among the first private citizens in world history to create for themselves a personal brand with global resonance.  GBS was an almost universal signifier” (p.20).  None of Shaw’s predecessors created a brand that was “as deliberate, as resonant, as widespread and as sustained as GBS. He shattered cultural boundaries in ways that still seem breathtakingly bold, confounding the apparently obvious differences between seriousness and showmanship, personality and politics, art and propaganda, the mainstream and the outré, the voice in the wilderness and the voice on the radio, moral purpose and charlatanism” (p.23).  GBS, the “invention of a single, obscure impoverished Irishman,” was “one of the great achievements of the history of advertising” which produced a “unique form of celebrity: a vast popularity that depended on a reputation for insisting on unpopular ideas and causes, for pleasing the public by provoking it to the point of distraction” (p.21-22).  Quite simply, GBS was “Shaw’s greatest character” (p.22).

O’Toole’s initial section also looks at Shaw’s early years growing up in a Protestant family in Dublin.  Shaw’s ancestors on the side of his father had been quite prosperous, but his grandfather lost the family money and his alcoholic father, George Carr Shaw, struggled to earn a living sufficient for Shaw and his two older sisters.  The realization that George Carr was a “drunk,” O’Toole writes, “introduced him to reality in a way that permanently shaped his consciousness” (p.26).   Shaw’s career might be seen as a “backhanded compliment to his family.  His teetotalism and vegetarianism were reactions against the toxicity of alcoholic addiction. His ferocious, almost manic work ethic was surely driven by the fecklessness and failure of his Papa” (p.30-31).

Shaw acquired his artistic sensibility mostly from his mother, Bessie Gurly.  O’Toole recounts how Bessie invited another man, George John Vandeleur Lee, Bessie’s piano teacher, to live with the family. Lee became a substitute father for Shaw, from whom the young man derived his lifelong affinity for classical music, along with a “studied individuality of ideas about food and health” (p.37).  Lee had a certain flamboyance about him that presaged the GBS mark.  Shaw’s relationship to Lee involved a process of “mentally killing off his real father and replacing him, for a time at least, with Lee” (p.36-37), O’Toole writes.  There was some speculation that Lee might have been Shaw’s actual father.  This is surely wrong, O’Toole argues, but if the young Shaw may have looked like Lee, the reason was “not genetic but mimetic. Consciously or not, he imitated the man who had displaced his father.  Shaw never explicitly acknowledged Lee’s influence on him, but it is stamped on one of his most successful plays, Pygmalion. . . [where] Henry Higgins is a mélange of GBS and Lee” (p.38).

Shaw left Dublin for London in April 1876, three months before his 20th birthday, the “culmination of an imaginative process of slow disengagement from Dublin and thus from the physical realities of his youth” (p.47).  With Shaw’s arrival in London, where he lived for most of the rest of his years, O’Toole abandons any pretense at chronological biography in favor of his thematic essays.  One, “GBS versus England,” addresses Shaw’s general relationship to England, where he always retained a sense of himself as an exile, followed by “GBS versus Ireland.” Here, O’Toole explains Shaw’s relationship to Ireland and the Irish independence movement during his adult years.  Shaw “always saw an independent Ireland remaining voluntarily as an active member of a democratized Commonwealth.  But he never deviated from a passionate insistence that Ireland was and must be its own country and that British rule was an illegitimate imposition. He insisted that aggressive Irish nationalism was a fever that could be cured only by freedom” (p.113).

In the next section, “The Thinking Cap and the Jester’s Bells,” O’Toole turns specifically to Shaw’s plays and how he used the stage to shatter multiple norms.  Shaw wrote in a society and a culture “deeply committed to notions of human difference – that the upper class was vastly different from the lower, the imperial power from its subjects, the superior races from the inferior.”  Shaw’s dramaturgy was a “conscious revolt against these notions” (p.153).  Shaw used the stage to suggest that “how we behave is a function not of our characters, but of social roles and circumstance” (p.162-63).  O’Toole compares Shaw’s characters to a set of Russian dolls: “we never know whether, if enough layers were exposed, we would actually find a ‘real’ self. . . [T]he haunting thought is that the real self may not exist” (p.170).

Unlike most playwrights of his day, Shaw took great care in preparing a preface to his plays.  The preface helped Shaw’s readers and viewers see him “not as a famous playwright but as a famous man who wrote plays and used his celebrity to generate an audience for them” (p.95).  Shaw’s plays were democratic in their themes but also in their targeted audiences and readership, persons of modest income and education, the first generation of mass readers.  Shaw’s plays appealed to:

the millions who devoured newspapers and haunted public libraries, who joined trade unions and feminist organizations, social clubs and socialist societies, who hungered for ideas about the world. . . The history of the cheap paperback book is intertwined with the history of GBS. And not for nothing – they both belonged in the hands of working men and women (p.308-09).

In two sections, “GBS’s War on Poverty” and “The Lethal Chamber: The Dark Side of GBS,” O’Toole draws heavily on Shaw’s plays as well as his other writings to set out the contours of Shaw’s political and social thought.  At least until the 1960s, Shaw was “by far the most widely read socialist thinker in the English language.  And at the heart of his thought was that visceral hatred of poverty he breathed in with the fetid air of the Dublin slums” (p.197).  More than any other factor, Shaw’s deep hatred for economic oppression and inequality shaped his social thought.

Shaw challenged the perception of poverty as a “product of personal failure or mere bad luck, or as a necessary and inevitable corollary of economic progress” (p.198).  For Shaw, poverty was “not the cause of crime – it is the crime” (p.204).  Moralizing constructs like the “deserving poor” were only “self-serving cant” (p.310).  Shaw began to write in an era like ours, O’Toole observes, when wealth was expanding rapidly but distributed ever more unequally, giving his thought “renewed relevance in the twenty-first century” (p.198).

Shaw was one of the first intellectuals to suggest that children have rights independent of their parents.  He became a fierce fighter for woman’s suffrage and advocated for repeal of laws against consensual adult homosexual activity.  Almost alone among public figures, Shaw stood by and defended Oscar Wilde when Wilde was released from prison after serving nearly two years for “gross indecency,” i.e., homosexual acts (the subject of a review here earlier this year).

But Shaw’s progressive heroism was more than tempered for me by O’Toole’s section “The Lethal Chamber: The Dark Side of GBS,” in which the task of “judging Shaw” considers his embrace of some of the 20th century’s darkest moments: Fascism, Nazism and Communism.  Shaw also appeared to embrace the now discredited notion of eugenics, the use of selective breeding to “ensure that ‘bad’ human traits, ranging from physical and mental disabilities to moral delinquency, were ‘bred out’ of the human race” (p.267).  O’Toole provides startling quotations in which Shaw seems to support not just determining who should be allowed to give birth but also a massive increase in capital punishment for those inclined to criminality or what was considered deviant behavior.  “A part of eugenic politics,” Shaw told an audience in 1910, “would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber.  A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people’s time to look after them” (p.268).  Shaw’s critics jumped on this and similar statements as evidence of the extremes to which his socialism invariably led.

Here, O’Toole turns lawyer for Shaw’s defense.  Shaw’s critics were willfully missing the irony behind his provocative suggestions, O’Toole argues.  Shaw was using the device of “pushing an idea to a grotesque conclusion in order to highlight an absurdity or an injustice” (p.269).  O’Toole compares Shaw to the Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), who argued in a deadpan tone that the rich should be allowed to eat the children of the poor.  But when O’Toole comes to Shaw’s attraction to Nazism and Fascism in the 1930s, he admits that he cannot serve effectively as Shaw’s lawyer.

Shaw imagined fascism as an “incomplete and underdeveloped version of his own communism” (p.277), O’Toole writes.  He saw Mussolini’s persecution of left-wing parties “not as part of the essence of fascism, but merely as a mistake” (p.277).  After a 1927 lunch with famed socialists Sydney and Beatrice Webb, Beatrice recorded that Shaw had “gabbled” on the subject of Mussolini, demonstrating that he had “lost touch with political reality” and “could no longer be taken seriously as a political thinker” (p.276).  Webb blamed Shaw’s enthusiasm for Mussolini on his intellectual isolation and weakness for flattery, the result of his “living a luxurious life in the midst of a worthless multitude of idle admirers” (p.277;  Webb’s notes on this lunch appear as one of the between-section visuals, at p.294-95)

The Webbs must have been even more aghast with Shaw a few years later as Hitler rose to power in Germany.   Shaw had presciently seen the folly of the Versailles Treaty and, like John Maynard Keynes, had argued that it was little more than an invitation to another war.   Shaw’s early lack of objections to Hitler may have been in part because Shaw viewed Hitler’s rise as a natural reaction to Versailles.  “His sympathy for Hitler was driven in part by a sense that the rise of the Nazi leader was proving GBS’s warnings correct,” O’Toole writes (p.281).  Shaw supported Hitler’s withdrawal from the League of Nations, repudiation of the Treaty of Versailles, and rapid rebuilding of Germany’s armed forces.

Throughout the 1930s, Shaw maintained a “hopeless inability to understand what Nazism was about” (p.279).  Although Shaw despised Nazi racial theories, as he despised all racial theories, his “great delusion” was to think that the problem with anti-Semitism was an “excrescence of the ‘great Nazi movement’ that must be capable of something nobler. . . What Shaw seemed incapable of grasping was that anti-Semitism was not a stain on the otherwise pure cloth of Nazism. It was Hitler’s primary color” (p.279-80).  Shaw “blinded himself to the murderousness implicit in Nazism and choreographed his own ridiculous dance around one of the central realities of the 1930s” (p.282).  It was only after Germany invaded the Soviet Union that Shaw admitted he had been wrong about Hitler’s intentions.  But here, too, his apology was couched in terms that were neither “gracious” nor a “searching self-reflection – Shaw essentially apologized for Hitler not being as intelligent as GBS” (p.288).

Shaw’s infatuation with Communism is easier to square with his left-wing political outlook.   Shaw was hardly the only Westerner of a leftist bent who saw a potential “socialist paradise” in the Soviet Union of the 1930s and applauded its apparent rapid modernization while the Western democracies remained mired in a worldwide economic depression.  O’Toole recounts an interview with Stalin that Shaw and Nancy Astor conducted when the pair traveled to Moscow in 1931.  Astor, Britain’s first female parliamentarian although an American by birth, asked Stalin why he slaughtered so many people.  Shaw seemed to have been satisfied with Stalin’s “bland assurance that ‘the need for dealing with political prisoners drastically would soon cease’” (p.279).  Thereafter, O’Toole indicates, Shaw’s view of Stalin “approached hero-worship: a photograph of Stalin was beside his deathbed, though with characteristic perversity it was balanced by one of Mahatma Gandhi” (p.278-79).

As he considers Shaw’s embrace of these totalitarian regimes as part of the task of “judging Shaw,” O’Toole sounds more like a prosecutor delivering an impassioned closing argument:

The great seer failed to see the true nature of fascism, Nazism and Stalinism. The great skeptic allowed himself to believe just what he wanted to believe, that the totalitarian regimes of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin were rough harbingers of real progress and true democracy.  GBS was by no means the only artist or intellectual to be deluded by the promises of regimes that ‘got things done’ while democracies struggled to end the Great Depression.  But no other artist or intellectual had his standing as a global sage.  His sagacity proved to be useless when it mattered most (p.275).

After wearing both a defense lawyer’s hat and that of a prosecutor, O’Toole seems to find a judicial robe when he reminds his readers that Shaw’s dark phase coincided with an almost entirely barren period for him as a playwright and writer.   From the late 1920s onward through World War II, Shaw’s output came to an almost absolute halt.  In O’Toole’s view, the Great War marked the death of GBS, depriving Shaw of his most potent message.  Shaw had used mockery, paradox and comic absurdity to remind his readers and viewers that what was termed “civilization” was merely a “veneer on cruelty and hypocrisy. But the Great War swatted aside the gadfly. It revealed, through the scale of its horror, all the hidden truths that GBS had delighted in exposing” (p.240).

The great failure of GBS the sage in the post-World War I era, O’Toole contends, “cannot be divorced from the waning of the powers of GBS the dramatist.  It was in his art that Shaw tested and contradicted and argued with himself.  But that ability dried up” (p.289). Unlike artistic creators as varied as Beethoven, Titian, Goya and W.B. Yeats, all of whom found newborn creativity late in life, Shaw was “unable to develop a successful late style” (p.289).  His last great play was in 1923, Saint Joan, when he was 68. He “long outlived the GBS who could spin ideas and contradictions on the end of his fingertips” (p.290).

* * *

                The GBS brand may have died in the wake of World War I, and Shaw the social and political commentator remains tainted by his dalliances with the totalitarian ideologies of the 1930s.  Yet, in closing out this erudite and elegantly written exercise in judging Shaw, O’Toole concludes that nearly three quarters of a century after his death, Shaw’s status as playwright and artist — and contrarian — seems  “more secure now than might have been predicted even a few decades ago” (p.305-06).  Shaw’s revolutionary impact continues to lie in his insistence that the “right to question everything, to hold nothing sacred” belongs to the “common man and woman. And that it was not just a right – it was a duty” (p.306).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 29, 2019

 

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under British History, English History, History, Literature, Political Theory, Politics

Just How Machiavellian Was He?

 

Erica Benner, Be Like the Fox:

Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom 

            Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), the Florentine writer, civil servant, diplomat and political philosopher, continues to confound historians, philosophers and those interested in the genealogy of political thinking.  His name has become a well-known adjective, “Machiavellian,” referring to principles and methods of expediency, craftiness, and duplicity in politics.  Common synonyms for “Machiavellian” include “scheming,” “cynical,” “shrewd” and “cunning.”  For some, Machiavellian politics constitute nothing less than a prescription for maintaining power at any cost, in which dishonesty is exalted and the killing of innocents authorized if necessary.  Machiavelli earned this dubious reputation primarily through his best known work, The Prince, published in 1532, five years after his death, in which he purported to advise political leaders in Florence and elsewhere – “princes” – on how to maintain power, particularly in a republic, where political leadership is not based on monarchy or titles of nobility and citizens are supposed to be on equal footing.

            But to this day there is no consensus as to whether the adjective “Machiavellian” fairly captures the Florentine’s objectives and outlook.  Many see in Machiavelli an early proponent of republican government and consider his thinking a precursor to modern democratic ideas.  Erica Brenner, author of two other books on Machiavelli, falls squarely into this camp.  In Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom, Benner portrays Machiavelli as a “thorough-going republican,” and a “eulogist of democracy” who “sought to uphold high moral standards” and “defend the rule of law against corrupt popes and tyrants” (p.xvi).   Brenner discounts the shocking advice of The Prince as bait for tyrants.

            Machiavelli wore the mask of helpful advisor, Benner writes, “all the while knowing the folly of his advice, hoping to ensnare rulers and drag them to their ruin” (p.xv).  As a “master ironist” and a “dissimulator who offers advice that he knows to be imprudent” (p.xvi), Machiavelli’s hidden intent was to “show how far princes will go to hold on to power” and to “warn people who live in free republics about the risks they face if they entrust their welfare to one man” (p. xvi-xvii).   A deeper look at Machiavelli’s major writings, particularly The Prince and his Discourses on Livy, nominally a discussion of politics in ancient Rome, reveals Machiavelli’s insights on several key questions about republican governance, among them: how can leaders in a republic sustain power over the long term; how can a republic best protect itself from threats to its existence, internal and external; and how can a republic avoid lapsing into tyranny.

            Benner advances her view of Machiavelli as a forerunner of modern liberal democracy by placing the Florentine “squarely in his world, among his family, friends, colleagues and compatriots” (p.xix).  Her work has some of the indicia of biography, yet is unusual in that it is written almost entirely in the present tense.  Rather than setting out Machiavelli’s ideas on governance as abstractions, she has taken his writings and integrated them into dialogues, using italics to indicate verbatim quotations – a method which, she admits, “transgresses the usual biographical conventions” but nonetheless constitutes a “natural way to show [her] protagonist in his element” (p.xx).  Benner’s title alludes to Machiavelli’s observation that a fox has a particular kind of cunning that can recognize traps and avoid snares.  Humans need to emulate a fox by being “armed with mental agility rather than physical weapons” and developing a kind of cunning that “sees through ruses, decent words or sacred oaths” (p.151).

            Machiavelli’s world in this “real time” account is almost Shakespearean, turning on intrigue and foible in the pursuit and exercise of power, and on the shortsightedness not only of princes and those who worked for them and curried their favor, but also of those who worked against them and plotted their overthrow.  But Benner’s story is not always easy story to follow.  Readers unfamiliar with late 15th and early 16th Florentine politics may experience difficulty in constructing the big picture amidst the continual conspiring, scheming and back-stabbing.  At the outset, in a section termed “Dramatis Personae,” she lists the story’s numerous major characters by category (e.g., family, friends, popes), and readers will want to consult this helpful list liberally as they work their way through her rendering of Machiavelli. The book would have also benefitted from a chronology setting out in bullet form the major events in Machiavelli’s lifetime.

* * *

               Florence in Machiavelli’s time was already at its height as the center of the artistic and cultural flourishing known as the Renaissance.  But Benner’s story lies elsewhere, focused on the city’s cutthroat political life, dominated as it was by the Medici family.  Bankers to the popes, patrons of Renaissance art, and masters of political cronyism, the Medici exercised close to outright control of Florence from the early 15th century until thrown out of power in 1494, with the assistance of French king Charles VIII, at the outset of Machiavelli’s career. They recaptured control in 1512, but were expelled again in 1527, months before Machiavelli’s death, this time with the assistance of Hapsburg Emperor Charles V.  Lurking behind the Medici family were the popes in Rome, linked to the family through intertwining and sometimes familial relationships.   In a time of rapidly shifting alliances, the popes competed with rulers from France, Spain and the mostly German-speaking Holy Roman Empire for worldly control over Florence and Italy’s other city-states, duchies and mini-kingdoms, all at a time when ominous challenges to papal authority had begun to gather momentum in other parts of Europe.

           The 1494 plot that threw Piero de’ Medici out of power was an exhilarating moment for the young Machiavelli.  Although Florence under the Medici had nominally been a republic — Medici leaders insisted they were simply “First Citizens” — Machiavelli and other Florentines of his generation welcomed the new regime as an opportunity to “build a republic in deed, not just in name, stronger and freer than all previous Florence governments” (p.63).  With the Medici outside the portals of power, worthy men of all stripes, and not just Medici cronies, would be “free to hold office, speak their minds, and play their part in the great, messy, shared business of civil self-government” (p.63).

             Machiavelli entered onto the Florentine political stage at this optimistic time.  He went on to serve as a diplomat for the city of Florence and held several high-level civil service positions, including secretary – administrator – for Florence’s war committee.   In this position, Machiavelli promoted the idea that Florence should abandon its reliance upon mercenaries with no fixed loyalties to fight its wars and cultivate its own home grown fighting force, a “citizens’ militia.”

         Machiavelli’s civil service career came to an abrupt halt in 1513, shortly after Guiliano de’ Medici, with the assistance of Pope Julius II and Spanish troops, wrestled back control over Florence’s government. The new regime accused Machiavelli of participating in an anti-Medici coup.  He was imprisoned, tortured, and banished from government, spending most of the ensuing seven years on the family farm outside Florence. Ironically, he had reconciled with the Medici and re-established a role for himself in Florence’s government by the time of the successful 1527 anti-Medici coup, two months prior to his death.   Machiavelli thus spent his final weeks as an outcast in a new government that he in all likelihood supported.

         The Prince and the Discourses on Livy took shape between 1513 and 1520, Machiavelli’s period of forced exile from political and public life, during which he drew upon his long experience in government to formulate his guidance to princes on how to secure and maintain political power. Although both works were published after his death in 1527, Benner uses passages from them — always in italics — to illuminate particular events of Machiavelli’s life.  Extracting from these passages and Benner’s exegesis upon them, we can parse out a framework for Machiavelli’s ideal republic.  That framework begins with Machiavelli’s consistent excoriation of the shortsightedness of the ruling princes and political leaders of his day, in terms that seem equally apt to ours.

                To maintain power over the long term, leaders need to eschew short-term gains and benefits and demonstrate, as Benner puts it, a “willingness to play the long game, to pit patience against self-centered impetuosity” (p.8). As Machiavelli wrote in the Discourses, for a prince it is necessary to have the people friendly; otherwise he has no remedy in adversity” (p.167).  A prince who thinks he can rule without taking popular interests seriously “will soon lose his state . . . [E]ven the greatest princes need to deal transparently with their allies and share power with their people if they want to maintain their state” (p.250).  Governments that seek to satisfy the popular desire are “firmer and last longer than those that let a few command the rest” (p.260).   Machiavelli’s long game thus hints at the modern notion that the most effective government is one that has the consent of the governed.

           Machiavelli’s ideal republic was not a democracy based upon direct rule by the people but rather upon what we today would term the “rule of law.”  In his Discourses, Machiavelli argued that long-lasting republics “have had need of being regulated by the laws” (p.261).  It is the “rule of laws that stand above the entire demos and regulate the relations between ‘its parts,’ as he calls them,” Benner explains, “so that no class or part can dominate the others” (p.275).  Upright leaders should put public laws above their own or other people’s private feelings.  They should resist emotional appeals to ties of family or friendship, and punish severely when the laws and the republic’s survival so demands.  Arms and justice together are the foundation of Machiavelli’s ideal republic.

            Several high-profile executions of accused traitors and subversives convinced Machiavelli to reject the idea that when a republic is faced with internal threats, “one cannot worry too much about ordinary legal procedures or the rights of defendants” (p.121.)  No matter how serious the offense, exceptional punishments outside the confines of the law “set a corrupting precedent” (p.121).  Machiavelli’s lifelong dream that Florence should cultivate its own fighting force rather than rely upon mercenaries to fight its wars with external enemies arose out of similar convictions.

             In The Prince and the Discourses, Machiavelli admonished princes that the only sure way to maintain power over time is to “arm your own people and keep them satisfied” (p.49).  Cities whose people are “free, secure in their livelihood, respected and self-respecting, are harder to attack than those that lack such robust arms” (p.186). Florence hired mercenaries because its leaders didn’t believe their own people could be trusted with arms. But mercenaries, whose only motivation for fighting is a salary, can  just as easily turn upon their employers’ state, hardly a propitious outcome for long-term sustainability.

               During Machiavelli’s time in exile, the disputatious monk Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses onto a church door in German-speaking Wittenberg, challenging a wide range of papal practices.  Luther’s provocation set in motion the Protestant Reformation and, with it, more than a century of bloody conflict in Europe between Protestants and Catholics.  The Prince became an instrument in the propaganda wars stirred up by the Reformation, Benner contends, with Machiavelli demonized “mostly by men of religion, both Catholic and Protestant” (p.xv), who saw in the Florentine’s thinking a challenge to traditional relations between church and state.

              These men of religion rightly perceived that the  church would have little role to play in Machiavelli’s ideal republic.  In the Discourses, Benner explains, Machiavelli argued that the Christian “sect,” as he called it, had “always declared war on ideas and writings that it could not control – and especially on those that presented ordinary human reasoning, not priestly authority, as the best source of guidance in private and political life” (p.317).  Men flirt with disaster when they purport to know the unknowable under the guise of religious “knowledge.”  For Machiavelli, unchanging, universal moral truths can be worked out only through a close study of human interactions and reflections on human nature.  Instead of praying for some new holy man to save you, Machiavelli advised, “learn the way to Hell in order to steer clear of it yourself” (p. p.282).   These views earned all of Machiavelli’s works a place on the Catholic Church’s 1557 Index of Prohibited Books, one of the Church’s solutions to the heresies encouraged by the Reformation, where they remained until 1890.

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              The ruthlessly  duplicitous Machiavelli – his “evil double” (p.xiv), as Brenner puts it — is barely present in Benner’s account.  Her Machiavelli, an “altogether human, and humane” (p.xvi) commentator and operative on the political stage of his time, exudes few of the qualities associated with the adjective that bears his name.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 25, 2018

 

 

 

 

8 Comments

Filed under Biography, European History, History, Italian History, Political Theory, Rule of Law

Complementary Lives

Thomas Ricks, Churchill & Orwell:

The Fight For Freedom 

       Winston Churchill and George Orwell seem like an unlikely pairing for a dual biography. They were of different generations — Churchill was born in 1874, Orwell was born as Eric Blair in 1903; they pursued different career paths, Churchill as a career politician par excellence, Orwell as a journalist and writer; and there is no record that they ever met.  In Churchill & Orwell: The Fight For Freedom, Thomas Ricks seeks to give a new twist to both men in a work that, in highly condensed form, emphasizes their complementary lives in the 1930s and 1940s.  Ricks, among the foremost contemporary writers on war, with a talent for explaining complex military operations without over-simplifying, contends that Churchill and Orwell “led the way, politically and intellectually, in responding to the twin totalitarian threats of fascism and communism” (p.3).

       Unlike most of their peers, Ricks argues, Churchill and Orwell recognized that the 20th century’s key question was “not who controlled the means of production, as Marx thought, or how the human psyche functioned, as Freud taught, but rather how to preserve the liberty of the individual during an age when the state was becoming powerfully intrusive into private life” (p.3). The legacies of the two men were also complementary: Churchill’s wartime leadership “gave us the liberty we enjoy now. Orwell’s writing about liberty affects how we think about it now” (p.5).

        Churchill and Orwell further shared an uncommon facility with language: each was able to articulate the challenges which 20th century democracy faced in robust, unflinching English prose.  Churchill was “intoxicated by language, reveling in the nuances and sounds of words” (p.11).  Orwell added several words and expressions to the English language, such as “doublethink” and “Big Brother,” and had a distinct style in examining politics and culture that has become the “accepted manner of modern discussion of such issues” (p.262).

            Ricks identifies additional commonalities in the two men’s backgrounds.  Each had a privileged upbringing.  Churchill was a descendant of the Dukes of Marlborough. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was a prominent Conservative Party Member of Parliament.  Orwell’s father was a high level civil servant in India, where Orwell was born.  Neither felt close to his father.    Both attended “public schools,” upper class boarding schools, with Churchill’s father telling young Winston that he was just another of the “public school failures” (p.9).  Although Orwell once described his background as “lower upper middle class,” he attended Eton, England’s uppermost public school.  Each had experience in Britain’s far-flung empire: Orwell, who was born in India, spent a formative period in the 1920s in Burma as a policeman; Churchill had youthful adventures in India and the Sudan and served as a war correspondent in South Africa during the Boer War, 1899-1902.  Orwell too had a brief stint as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39.

            There is even a mirror image similarity to the two men’s situations in the 1930s. Churchill was a man of the political right who was never fully trusted by his fellow conservatives, and had a nearly complete fallout with the Conservative Party over appeasement of Hitler in the late 1930s.  Orwell was a conventional left-wing socialist until his experiences in the Spanish Civil War opened his eyes to the brutality and dogmatism that could be found on the political left. But their career trajectories moved in opposite directions during World War II and its aftermath. Churchill came off the political sidelines in the 1930s to peak as an inspirational politician and war leader in 1940 and 1941.  Thereafter, Ricks argues, he went into downward slide that never reversed itself.  Orwell remained an obscure, mid-level writer throughout World War II.  His career took off only after publication of his anti-Soviet parable  Animal Farm in 1945, followed four years later by his dystopian classic, 1984.  Orwell’s reputation as a seminal writer, Riggs emphasizes, was established mostly posthumously, after his death from tuberculosis at age 47 in 1950.

          But while Churchill and Orwell recognized the threat that totalitarian systems posed, their political visions were at best only partially overlapping.  The need to preserve the British Empire animated Churchill both during and after World War II, whereas Orwell found the notion of colonization abhorrent.   Orwell’s apprehensions about powerfully intrusive states also arising in the West most likely intrigued but did not consume Churchill. As long as Britain stayed out of Stalin’s clutches, it is unlikely that Churchill fretted much about it evolving into the bleak, all-controlling state Orwell described in 1984.  Ricks’ formulation of the common denominator of their political vision – the need to preserve individual liberty in the face of powerful state intrusions into private life – applies aptly to Orwell.  But the formulation seems less apt as applied to Churchill.

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          Riggs’ dual biographical narrative begins to gather momentum with the 1930s, years that were  “horrible in many ways.”  With communism and fascism on the rise in Europe, and an economic depression spreading across the globe, there was a “growing sense that a new Dark Age was at hand” (p.45). But for Churchill, the 1930s constituted what he termed his “wilderness years,” which he spent mostly on the political sidelines.  By this time, he was considered somewhat of a crank within Conservative Party circles, “flighty, with more energy than judgment, immovable in his views but loose in party loyalties” (p.54).  He had spent much of the 1920s railing against the threat that Indian independence and the Soviet Union posed to Britain. In the 1930s he targeted an even more ominous menace: Adolph Hitler, whose Nazi party came to power in Germany in 1933. One reason that Churchill’s foreboding speeches on Germany were greeted with skepticism, Ricks notes, was that he had been “equally intense about the dangers of Indian independence” (p.47).

      Churchill’s fulminations against the Nazi regime were not what fellow Conservative Party members wanted to hear. Many British conservatives regarded Nazi Germany as a needed bulwark against the Bolshevik menace emanating from Moscow. Churchill’s rupture with Conservative party hierarchy seemed complete after the 1938 Munich accords, engineered by Conservative Party Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, which dismembered the democratic state of Czechoslovakia.  For Churchill, Munich was a “disaster of the first making . . . the beginning of the reckoning” (p.60).  He issued what Ricks terms an “almost Biblical” warning about the consequences of Munich: “This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and marital vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time” (p.60).

            Orwell in the 1930s, still using his birth name Eric Blair for many purposes, was a “writer [and] minor author of mediocre novels that had not been selling well” (p.2-3).  Yet he had already discovered what Ricks terms his “core theme,” the abuse of power, a thread that “runs throughout all his writings, from his early works to the very end” (p.23).  When civil war broke out in Spain in 1936, Orwell volunteered to fight for the Republican side against Franco’s Nationalist uprising. What Orwell saw during his seven months in Spain “would inform all his subsequent work,” Ricks writes. “There is a direct line from the streets of Barcelona in 1937 to the torture chambers of 1984” (p.65).

         Orwell joined a unit known by the Spanish acronym POUM, Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, the Workers Party of Unified Marxism, which Ricks describes as a “far-left splinter group. . . vaguely Trotskyite,” politically most distinctive for being anti-Stalinist and thus “anathema to the Soviet-controlled Communist Party in Spain” (p.67).  The NKVD, the Russian spy agency deeply involved in Spain during the Civil War, targeted the Spanish POUM for liquidation. “When the crackdown on POUM came in the spring of 1937,” Ricks writes, “Orwell and his fellows would become marked men” (p.68).

          Orwell almost died in May 1937 when he was shot in the neck while fighting against Franco’s insurgents in Barcelona. He was evacuated to Britain to recuperate. While in Britain, the Spanish Communist Party officially charged Orwell and his wife with spying and treason.  During his recuperation, Orwell wrote Homage to Catalonia, his most noteworthy book to date, in which he hammered two main points: “The first is that Soviet-dominated communism should not be trusted by other leftists. The second is that the left can be every bit as accepting of lies as the right” (p.76).  Orwell “went to Spain to fight fascism,” Ricks writes, “but instead wound up being hunted by communists. This is the central fact of his experience of the Spanish Civil War, and indeed it is the key fact of his entire life” (p.44). In Spain, Orwell “developed his political vision and with it the determination to criticize right and left with equal vigor” (p.77).

          The Soviet Union’s non-aggression pact with Germany, executed in August 1939, in which the two powers agreed to divide much of Eastern Europe between them, was a “final moment of clarity” for Orwell. “From this point on, his target was the abuse of power in all its forms, but especially by the totalitarian state, whether left or right” (p.82).  The pact “had the effect on Orwell that the Munich Agreement had on Churchill eleven months earlier, confirming his fears and making him all the more determined to follow the dissident political course he was on, in defiance of his mainstream leftist comrades” (p.81).

          Churchill in Ricks’ interpretation peaked in the period beginning in May 1940, when he became Britain’s Prime Minister at a time when Britain stood alone in Europe as the only force fighting Nazi tyranny. “These were the months in which Churchill became England’s symbolic rallying point” (p.110).  In June 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and, suddenly, Churchill’s nemesis from the 1920s was Britain’s ally.   “Any man or state who fights on against Nazism will have our aid,” Churchill told the British public in a radio broadcast.  “It follows, therefore, that we shall give whatever help we can to Russia and the Russian people” (p.142-43). When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the United States in December 1941, just as suddenly Churchill had a second powerful ally.

           In a chapter on the fraught months between May 1940 and December 1941, entitled “Fighting the Germans, Reaching Out to the Americans,” Ricks analyzes Churchill’s speeches as Prime Minister, still “good reading seventy-five years after their delivery” (p.110). He gives particular attention to Churchill’s speech to the United States Congress in late December 1941, in which the Prime Minister presented to representatives of his new wartime ally his vision of the Anglo-American partnership in wartime.  The address was what Ricks describes as a rhetorical “work of political genius . . . more than a speech, it was the diplomatic equivalent of a marriage proposal”(p.149-51).   But with that speech, Ricks argues, Churchill’s best days were already behind him.

            The 1943 meeting in Tehran between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin was a turning point for Churchill, the “first time Roosevelt began to act as if he held the senior role in the partnership. It was in Iran that Churchill realized that his dream of dominating a long-term Anglo-American alliance would not come to fruition” (p.169).  Churchill flew out of Tehran “in a black mood, anguished by the passing of British supremacy in the world. After that conference, his personality seemed to change. The dynamo of 1940 became the sluggard of 1944 – increasingly forgetful, less eloquent, and often terribly tired, napping more often and sleeping in late many mornings” (p 171).  Churchill was “off his game at the end of the war and after. The plain facts of British decline were becoming harder to ignore. Churchill’s oratory of this period ‘seemed in danger of degenerating into mere windy bombast’” (p.220), Ricks writes, quoting historian Simon Schama.

          As World War II loomed, Orwell was “seen as a minor and somewhat cranky writer” (p.82), now out of favor with many of his former allies on the political left.  He was not able to enlist in the army because of ill health.  Yet, World War II “energized” him as a writer. Although the war “seemed to knock fiction writing out of Orwell for several years. . . [i]n 1940 alone he produced more than one hundred pieces of journalism – articles, essays, and reviews” (p.127).  His writings showed consistently strong support for Churchill’s war leadership — Churchill was the “only Conservative Orwell seems to have admired” (p.129).

           Orwell joined the BBC’s Overseas Service in August 1941. “There, for more than two years, working on broadcasts to India, he engaged in the kind of propaganda that he spent much of his writing life denouncing,” putting himself “in an occupation that ran deeply against his grain” (p.143).  Orwell’s tenure at the BBC “intensified his distrust of state control of information” (p.145). During the war years, Orwell began work on Animal Farm, published in 1945 as the war ended.

           Animal Farm is a tale of “political violence and betrayal of ideals” (p.176), in which the pigs lead other farm animals in a revolt against their human masters, only to become themselves enslavers. In Animal Farm, the pigs “steadily revise the rules of the farm to their own advantage, and along with it their accounts of the history of farm.”  A single sentence from the book — “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” — may be Orwell’s most lasting contribution to modern thought about totalitarianism.  Animal Farm foreshadows the concern that dominated 1984, that controlling the past as well as the present and future, was an “essential aspect of total state control” (p.178-79).

        Orwell was dying of tuberculosis with just seven months to live when 1984 was published in June 1949 (Orwell apparently chose his title by reversing the digits “4” and “8” of 1948, the year he finished the work). The 1943 Tehran conference influenced the world that Orwell described in 1984, consisting of three totalitarian super states, Oceania, Eastasia, and Euroasia, with England reduced to “Airstrip One.” The novel’s hero is a “miserable middle-aged Englishman” (p.225) named Winston Smith. It is unclear whether Orwell’s selection of the name had any relationship to Churchill. Riggs points out that Winston Smith’s life in England bore far more similarities to Orwell’s life than to that of Churchill.

           Smith’s world is one of universal surveillance, where the state’s watchword is “Big Brother is Watching You,” and the ruling party’s slogan’s are “”War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength.”  Objective reality “does not exist or at least is deemed to be illegal by the all-seeing state” (p.226).  Smith’s most significant act is “simply to observe accurately the world around him. Collecting facts is a revolutionary act. Insisting on the right to do so is perhaps the most subversive action possible” (p.226-27).  At a time when Churchill was warning the post-war world that the Soviet Union had erected an Iron Curtain across Europe, 1984 was driven by Orwell’s concern that powerful states on both sides of the curtain would not only forbid people to express certain thought but would also tell them what to think.

          The immediate reaction to both Animal Farm and 1984 was middling at best. It was not until after Orwell’s death in 1950 that the two works attracted worldwide attention and made the former Eric Blair a familiar household name. How Orwell’s reputation took off after his death constitutes a major portion of Ricks’ treatment of Orwell.  Based upon references, allusions, and tributes appearing daily in the media around the world, Ricks concludes, Orwell is a “contemporary figure in our culture. In recent years, he may even have passed Churchill, not in terms of historical significance but of current influence. It has been one of the most extraordinary posthumous performances in British literary history” (p.245).

         While Orwell in 1984 “looked forward with horror,” Churchill spent the post war years working on his war memoirs, “looking back in triumph” (p.221).  Ricks provides an extensive analysis of those memoirs.   Orwell’s last published article was a review of Their Finest Hour, the second of the Churchill war memoirs. Orwell concluded his review by describing Churchill’s writings as “more like those of a human being than of a public figure” (p.233), high praise from the dying man.  There is no indication that Churchill ever read Animal Farm, but he may have read 1984 twice.

* * *

          The Fight for Freedom is not a dual biography based on parallelism between two men’s lives, unlike  Allan Bullock’s masterful Parallel Lives, Hitler and Stalin. Nor is there quite the parallelism in Churchill and Orwell’s political visions that Ricks assumes.  Other factors add a strained quality to The Fight for Freedom.  Numerous digressions fit awkwardly into the narrative: e.g., Margaret Thatcher as “Churchill’s rightful political heir” (p.142); Tony Blair trying to be Churchillian as he took the country into the Iraq war; Martin Luther King forcing Americans to confront the realities of racial discrimination; and Keith Richards defending his dissipated life style by pointing to Churchill’s fondness for alcohol.  There is also a heavy reliance upon other writers’ assessments of the two men. The text thus reads at points like a Ph.D. dissertation or college term paper, with a “cut and paste” feel.  Then there are many Orwell quotations that, Ricks tells us, could have been written by Churchill; and Churchill quotations that could have come from Orwell’s pen. All this suggests that the threads linking the two men may be too thin to be stretched into a coherent narrative, even by a writer as skilled as Thomas Ricks.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

November 11, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under British History, English History, European History, History, Language, Political Theory, Politics

Stopping History

 

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Mark Lilla, The Shipwrecked Mind:

On Political Reaction 

            Mark Lilla is one of today’s most brilliant scholars writing on European and American intellectual history and the history of ideas. A professor of humanities at Columbia University and previously a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago (as well as a native of Detroit!), Lilla first came to public attention in 2001 with his The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics. This compact work portrayed eight 20th century thinkers who rejected Western liberal democracy and aligned themselves with totalitarian regimes. Some were well known, such as German philosopher and Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger, but more were quite obscure to general readers.  He followed with another thought provoking work, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, a study of “political theology,” the implications of secularism and the degree to which religion and politics have been decoupled in modern Europe.

          In his most recent work, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, Lilla probes the elusive and, in his view, understudied mindset of the political reactionary.  The first thing we need to understand about reactionaries, he tells us at the outset, is that they are not conservatives. They are “just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings” (p.xii).  The mission of the political reactionary is to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop,” Lilla writes, quoting a famous line from the first edition of William F. Buckley’s National Review, a publication which he describes as “reactionary” (p.xiii). But the National Review is widely considered as embodying the voice of traditional American conservatism, an indication that the distinction between political reactionary and traditional conservative is not always clear-cut.  Lilla’s notion of political reaction overlaps with other terms such as “anti-modern” and the frequently used “populism.” He mentions both but does not draw out distinctions between them and political reaction.

            For Lilla, political reactionaries have a heightened sense of doom and maintain a more apocalyptic worldview than traditional conservatives. The political reactionary is driven by a nostalgic vision of an idealized, golden past and is likely to blame “elites” for the deplorable current state of affairs. The betrayal of elites is the “linchpin of every reactionary story” (p.xiii), he notes. In a short introduction, Lilla sets forth these definitional parameters and also traces the origins of our concept of political reaction to a certain type of opposition to the French Revolution and the 18th century Enlightenment.

          The nostalgia for a lost world “settled like a cloud on European thought after the French Revolution and never fully lifted” (p.xvi), Lilla notes. Whereas conservative Edmund Burke recoiled at the French Revolution’s wholesale uprooting of established institutions and its violence but were willing to admit that France’s ancien régime had grown ossified and required modification, quintessential reactionary Joseph de Maistre mounted a full-throated defense of the ancien régime.   For de Maistre, 1789 “marked the end of a glorious journey, not the beginning of one” (p.xii).

         If the reactionary mind has its roots in counter-revolutionary thinking, it endures today in the absence of political revolution of the type that animated de Maistre. “To live a modern life anywhere in the world today, subject to perpetual social and technological change, is to experience the psychological equivalent of permanent revolution,” Lilla writes (p.xiv). For the apocalyptic imagination of the reactionary, “the present, not the past, is a foreign country” (p.137). The reactionary mind is thus a “shipwrecked mind. Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes. He is time’s exile” (p.xiii).

      The Shipwrecked Mind is not a systematic or historical treatise on the evolution of political reaction. Rather, in a disparate collection of essays, Lilla provides examples of reactionary thinking.  He divides his work into three main sections, “Thinkers,” “Currents,” and “Events.” “Thinkers” portrays three 20th century intellectuals whose works have inspired modern political reaction. “Currents” consists of two essays with catchy titles, “From Luther to Wal-Mart,” and “From Mao to St. Paul;” the former is a study of “theoconservatism,” reactionary religious strains found within traditional Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism, and neo-Orthodox Judaism; the latter looks at a more leftist nostalgia for a revolutionary past. “Events” contains Lilla’s reflections on the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo publication and a kosher supermarket.  But like the initial “Thinkers” sections, “Currents” and “Events” are above all introductions to the works of reactionary thinkers, most of whom are likely to be unfamiliar to English language readers.

            The Shipwrecked Mind appeared at about the same time as the startling Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, a time when Donald Trump was in the equally startling process of securing the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency of the United States. Neither Brexit nor the Trump campaign figures directly in Lilla’s analysis and  readers will therefore have to connect the dots themselves between his diagnosis of political reaction and these events. Contemporary France looms larger in his effort to explain the reactionary mind, in part because Lilla was in Paris at the time of the January 2015 terrorist attacks.

* * *

            “Thinkers,” Lilla’s initial section, is similar in format to The Reckless Mind, consisting of portraits of Leo Strauss, Eric Voeglin, and Franz Rosenzweig, three German-born theorists whose work is “infused with modern nostalgia” (p.xvii). Of the three, readers are most likely to be familiar with Strauss (1899-1973), a Jewish refugee from Germany whose parents died in the Holocaust. Strauss taught philosophy at the University of Chicago from 1949 up to his death in 1973. Assiduous tomsbooks readers will recall my review in January 2014 of The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy, by Michael and Catherine Zuckert, which dismissed the purported connection between Strauss and the 2003 Iraq war as based on a failure to dig deeply enough into Strauss’ complex, tension ridden views about America and liberal democracy. Like the Zuckerts, Lilla considers the connection between Strauss and the 2003 Iraq war “misplaced” and “unseemly,” but, more than the Zuckerts, finds “quite real” the connection between Strauss’ thinking and that of today’s American political right (p.62).

        Strauss’ salience to political reaction starts with his view that Machiavelli, whom Strauss considered the first modern philosopher, is responsible for a decisive historical break in the Western philosophical tradition. Machiavelli turned philosophy from “pure contemplation and political prudence toward willful mastery of nature” (p.xviii), thereby introducing passion into political and social life. Strauss’ most influential work, Natural Right and History, argued that “natural justice” is the “standard by which political arrangements must be judged” (p.56). After the tumult of the 1960s, some of Strauss’ American disciples began to see this work as an argument that the West is in crisis, unable to defend itself against internal and external enemies. Lilla suggests that Natural Right and History has been misconstrued in the United States as an argument that political liberalism’s rejection of natural rights leads invariably to a relativism indistinguishable from nihilism. This misinterpretation led “Straussians” to the notion that the United States has a “redemptive historical mission — an idea nowhere articulated by Strauss himself” (p.61).

          Voeglin (1901-1985), a contemporary of Strauss, was born in Germany and raised in Austria, from which he fled in 1938 at the time of its Anchluss with Germany.   Like Strauss, he spent most of his academic career in the United States, where he sought to explain the collapse of democracy and the rise of totalitarianism in terms of a “calamitous break in the history of ideas, after which intellectual and political decline set in” (p.xviii). Voeglin argued that in inspiring the liberation of politics from religion, the 18th century Enlightenment gave rise in the 20th century to mass ideological movements such as Marxism, fascism and nationalism.  Voeglin considered these movements “’political religions,’ complete with prophets, priests, and temple sacrifices” (p.31). As Lilla puts it, for Voeglin, when you abandon the Lord, it is “only a matter of time before you start worshipping a Führer” (p.31).

        Rosenzweig (1886-1929) was a German Jew who gained fame in his time for backing off at the last moment from a conversion to Christianity – the equivalent of leaving his bride at the altar – and went on to dedicate his life to a revitalization of Jewish thought and practice. Rosenzweig shared an intellectual nostalgia prevalent in pre-World War I Germany that saw the political unification of Germany decades earlier, while giving rise to a wealthy bourgeois culture and the triumph of the modern scientific spirit, as having extinguished something essential that could “only be recaptured through some sort of religious leap.” (p.4). Rosenzweig rejected Judaism’s efforts to reform itself “according to modern notions of historical progress, which were rooted in Christianity” in favor of a new form of thinking that would “turn its back on history in order to recapture the vital transcendent essence of Judaism” (p.xvii-xviii).

          Lilla’s sensitivity to the interaction between religion and politics, the subject of The Stillborn God and the portraits of Voeglin and Rosenzweig here, is again on display in the two essays in the middle “Currents” section. In “From Luther to Wal-Mart,” Lilla explores how, despite doctrinal differences, traditional Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism, and neo-Orthodox Judaism in the United States came to share a “sweeping condemnation of America’s cultural decline and decadence.”  This “theoconservatism” (p.xix) blames today’s perceived decline and decadence on reform movements within these dominations and what they perceive as secular attacks on religion generally, frequently tracing the attacks to the turbulent 1960s as the significant breaking point in American political and religious history.

         Two works figure prominently in this section, Alastir MacInytre’s 1981 After Virtue, and Brad Gregory’s 2012 The Unintended Reformation. MacIntyre, echoing de Maistre, argued that the Enlightenment had undone a system of morality worked out over centuries, unwittingly preparing the way for “acquisitive capitalism, Nietzscheanism, and the relativistic liberal emotivism we live with today, in a society that that ‘cannot hope to achieve moral consensus’” (p.74-75). Gregory, inspired by MacIntyre, attributed contemporary decline and decadence in significant part to forces unleashed in the Reformation, undercutting the orderliness and certainty of “medieval Christianity,” his term for pre-Reformation Catholicism. Building on Luther and Calvin, Reformation radicals “denied the need for sacraments or relics,” and left believers unequipped to interpret the Bible on their own, leading to widespread religious conflict. Modern liberalism ended these conflicts but left us with the “hyper-pluralistic, consumer-driven, dogmatically relativististic world of today. And that’s how we got from Luther to Walmart” (p.78-79).

        “From St. Paul to Mao” considers a “small but intriguing movement on the academic far left” which maintains a paradoxical nostalgia for “revolution” or “the future,” and sees “deep affinities” between Saint Paul and modern revolutionaries such as Lenin and Chairman Mao (p.xx).  Jacob Taubes, a peripatetic Swiss-born Jew who taught in New York, Berlin, Jerusalem and Paris, sought to demonstrate in The Political Teachings of Paul that Paul was a “distinctively Jewish fanatic sent to universalize the Bible’s hope of redemption, bringing this revolutionary new idea to the wider world. After Moses, there was never a better Jew than Paul” (p.90). French theorist Alain Badiou, among academia’s last surviving Maoists, argued that Paul was to Jesus as Lenin was to Marx. The far left academic movement’s most prominent theorist is Nazi legal scholar Carl Schmitt, Hitler’s “crown jurist” (p.99), a thinker portrayed in The Reckless Mind who emphasized the importance of human capacity and will rather than principles of natural right in organizing society.

         The third section, “Currents,” considers  France’s simmering cultural war over the place of Islam in French society, particularly in the aftermath of the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, which Lilla sees as a head-on collision between two forms of political reaction:

On the one side was the nostalgia of the poorly educated killers for an imagined, glorious Muslim past that now inspires dreams of a modern caliphate with global ambitions. On the other was the nostalgia of French intellectuals who saw in the crime a confirmation of their own fatalistic views about the decline of France and the incapacity of Europe to assert itself in the face of a civilizational challenge (p.xx).

        France’s struggle to integrate its Muslim population, Lilla argues, has revived a tradition of cultural despair and nostalgia for a Catholic monarchist past that had flourished in France between the 1789 Revolution and the fall of France in 1940, but fell out of favor after World War II because of its association with the Vichy government and France’s role in the Holocaust. In the early post-war decades in France, it was “permissible for a French writer to be a conservative but not a reactionary, and certainly not a reactionary with a theory of history that condemned what everyone else considered to be modern progress” (p.108). Today, it is once again permissible in France to be a reactionary.

          “Currents” concentrates on two best-selling works that manifest the revival of the French reactionary tradition, Éric Zemmour’s Le Suicide francais, published in 2014, and Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian novel, Submission, first published on the very day of the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, an “astonishing, almost unimaginable” coincidence (p.116). Le Suicide francais presents a “grandiose, apocalyptic vision of the decline of France” (p.108), with a broad range of culprits contributing to the decline, including feminism, multiculturalism, French business elites, and European Union bureaucrats. But Zemmour reserves particular contempt for France’s Muslim citizens.  Le Suicide francais provides the French right with a “common set of enemies,” stirring an “outraged hopelessness – which in contemporary politics is much more powerful than hope” (p.117).

         Submission is the story of an election in France of a Muslim President in 2022, with the support of France’s mainstream political parties which seek to prevent the far right National Front party from winning the presidency.  In Lilla’s interpretation, the novel serves to express a “recurring European worry that the single-minded pursuit of freedom – freedom from tradition and authority, freedom to pursue one’s own ends – must inevitably lead to disaster” (p.127).  France for Houellebecq “regrettably and irretrievably, lost its sense of self” as a result of wager on history made at the time of the Enlightenment that the more Europeans “extended human freedom, the happier they would be” (p.128-29). For Houellebecq, “by any measure France’s most significant contemporary writer” (p.109), that wager has been lost. “And so the continent is adrift and susceptible to a much older temptation, to submit to those claiming to speak for God”(p.129).

          Lilla’s section on France ends on this ominous note. But in an “Afterword,” Lilla returns to contemporary Islam, the other party to the head-on collision of competing reactionaries at work in the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and their aftermath.  Islam’s belief in a lost Godden Age is the “most potent and consequential” political nostalgia in operation today (p.140), Lilla contends. According to radical Islamic myth, out of a state of jahiliyya, ignorance and chaos, the Prophet Muhammad was “chosen as the vessel of God’s final revelation, which uplifted all individuals and peoples who accepted it.” But, “astonishingly soon, the élan of this founding generation was lost. And it has never been recovered” (p.140). Today the forces of secularism, individualism, and materialism have “combined to bring about a new jahiliyya that every faithful Muslim must struggle against, just as the Prophet did at the dawn of the seventh century” (p.141).

* * *

          The essays in this collection add up to what Lilla describes as a “modest start” (p.xv) in probing  the reactionary mindset and are intriguing as far as they go. But I finished The Shipwrecked Mind hoping that Lilla will extend this modest start. Utilizing his extensive learning and formidable analytical skills, Lilla is ideally equipped to provide a systematic, historical overview of the reactionary tradition, an overview that would highlight its relationship to the French Revolution and the 18th century Enlightenment in particular but to other historical landmarks as well, especially the 1960s. In such a work, Lilla might also provide more definitional rigor to the term “political reactionary” than he does here, elaborating upon its relationship to traditional conservatism, populism, and anti-modernism.  Through what might be a separate work, Lilla is also well placed to help us connect the dots between political reaction and the turmoil generated by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.  In less than six months, moreover, we will also know whether we will need to ask Lilla to connect dots between his sound discussion here of political reaction in contemporary France and a National Front presidency.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

January 5, 2017

 

 

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6 Comments

Filed under Intellectual History, Political Theory, Religion

Extraordinarily Intense and Abstract

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Sudhir Hazareesingh, How the French Think:

An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People 

 

     You may wince at the title of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s book, How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People.  Attempting to explain in book form “how the French think” seems like an audacious if not preposterous undertaking. Yet, however improbably, Hazareesingh, a professor at Oxford University who also teaches in Paris, somehow accomplishes the daunting tasks he sets for himself: identifying the “cultural distinctiveness of French thinking” (p.3) and showing how and why the activities of the mind have “occupied such a special place in French public life” (p.7).

     In his sweeping, erudite yet highly-readable work, Hazareesingh affably guides his readers through three centuries of French intellectual history. Hazareesingh approaches with light-hearted humor his impossibly broad and – certainly to the French – highly serious subject. He assumes that it is possible to make “meaningful generalizations” about the “shared intellectual habits of a people as diverse and fragmented as the French” (p.17). He is most concerned in presenting selected “meaningful generalizations” about how the French – and particularly France’s intellectual elite — have looked upon the country, its past, its major political institutions, and its place in the larger world.  He places particular emphasis upon the theories and ideas which have sustained France’s political divisions since the 1789 French Revolution.

     Hazareesingh finds French thinking to be both extraordinarily intense and, by Anglo-American standards, extraordinarily abstract. Ideas in France are “believed not only to matter but, in existential circumstances, to be worth dying for” (p.17). He identifies a quintessentially French “fetish” – a term used frequently throughout his book – for “unifying theoretical syntheses and for formulations which are far-reaching and outlandish – and sometimes both” (p.111). The notion of knowledge as “continuous and cumulative, which is such a central premise of Anglo-Saxon epistemology,” is, Hazareesingh argues, “alien to the French way of thinking” (p.21).  French ideas tend to be the product of a form of thinking which is “not necessarily grounded in empirical reality,” giving them a “speculative” character (p.21).

     More than elsewhere, French thinking tends to look at issues as binary choices, between either A or B: nationalism or universalism; individualism or collective spirit; spiritualism or science. French thinking also reserves a special place for paradox, producing passionate rationalists, revolutionary traditions, secular missionaries and, on the battlefield, glorious defeats.  France’s vaunted sense of exceptionalism, which lies in its distinct “association of its own special quality with its moral and intellectual prowess” (p.11), endures today side by side with a pervasive sense of pessimism and decline – malaise.  In the 18th century, French political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu observed that French thinkers had mastered “doing frivolous things seriously, and serious things frivolously” (p.7), and Hazareesingh finds that the same “insouciance of manner” also endures in today’s France.

      Hazareesingh arranges his work into ten chapters, working toward the present. He starts with the influence of 17th century philosopher, mathematician and scientist René Descartes on all subsequent French thinking. Within a Cartesian framework, he then discusses in the next five chapters distinctive 19th century modes of thought in France: exotic sects devoted to mysticism and occultism; the powerful influence of science on 19th century French thinking; the evolution of notions of a political Left and Right; and the emergence of a French view of “the Nation” and French identity toward the end of the century.  Although focused on the 19th century – and in some cases, the 20th century up to the fall of Third French Republic in 1940 – these chapters also address the contemporary presence and influence of the chapter’s subject matter. Each could serve as an informative and entertaining stand-alone essay.

      The chapter on the emergence of the political Left and Right in the aftermath of the French Revolution is both the thread that ties together the book’s chapters on 19th century French thinking and its  link to the final four chapters, on post World War II French political and social thought. These final chapters revolve around the providential leadership style of Charles de Gaulle and the persistent attraction of communism as the heart of the French intelligentsia’s opposition to de Gaulle. Along the way, Hazareesingh discusses a host of post-World War II French thinkers, particularly the ubiquitous Jean Paul Sartre.  He also provides an illuminating overview of the Structuralist movement, which gained great sway in academic circles, especially in American universities, for its grandiose analysis of human culture. Its key thinkers – Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Fourcault, Jacques Derrida – seem to personify France’s proclivity for abstract if not obtuse thinking.  In his final chapters, Hazareesingh describes the widespread contemporary French malaise, with French historians and its political intelligentsia looking at the country, its past and future, with a deepening sense of pessimism and despair.

* * *

     In Hazareesingh’s estimation, modern French thinking began in the 17th century with René Descartes and his belief in the primacy of human reason, the “defining feature of the human condition” (p.50). Descartes’ signal contribution was to “accustom men increasingly to found their knowledge on examination rather than belief” (p.33), thereby rejecting arguments based upon religious faith.  The esprit cartésian, “based on logical clarity and the search for certainty” (p.33), rests on the conviction that reason is the “only source of our ability to make moral judgments and impose a durable conceptual order on the world” (p.50).

     The distinction between a political Left and Right, Hazareesingh writes, has often been viewed as a manifestation of the Cartesian character of French thought and its “propensity to cast political ideas in binary terms and to follow lines of reasoning to their extremes” (p.133). The distinction originated in the early phases of the French Revolution, when supporters of the king’s prerogative to veto legislation gathered on the right side of the 1789 Constituent Assembly, while opponents of the royal veto grouped on the Assembly’s left side.  Throughout the 19th century and up to the fall of the Third Republic in 1940, the subsequent debate between Left and Right was “largely between advocates and opponents of the French Revolution itself” (p.136).

     Central to the mindset of the many tribes on the Left during the 19th century was a “belief in the possibility of redesigning political institutions to create a better, more humane society whose members were freed from material and moral oppression” (p.137). This entailed above all establishment of a republican form of government, with power “exercised by elected representatives in the name of the people” (p.137). Political change “could be meaningful only if it was comprehensive and cleansing” (p.143).  The conceptual origins of European socialism and social democracy may be found on the left side of the 1789 Constituent Assembly.

      The 18th century Swiss political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau provided a major share of the conceptual underpinning for France’s Leftist sensibilities.  Rousseau concluded that it was “plainly contrary to the law of nature” that the “privileged few should gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitudes are in want of the bare necessities of life” (p.79-80). Rousseau’s protean political philosophy appealed simultaneously to the “libertarian yearning for absolute freedom, the progressive quest for a better world and the collectivist desire for equality” (p.80). In the mid-19th century, the ideas of Auguste Comte further animated the Leftist vision. One of the 19th century’s “most original standard-bearers of Cartesianism” (p.33), Comte’s comprehensive attempt to unite all forms of scientific inquiry into a single overarching philosophical system inspired a republican faith in education and science as keys to building a progressive, secular and just society.

     The counterpoint to the vision of the French Left was shaped by Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (discussed here in May 2015 in a review of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, And the Birth of Right and Left).  Burke’s Reflections constituted “such an iconic representation of anti-1789 sentiment that copies were burned in bonfires by revolutionary peasants” (p.138). Like Burke, the political Right in France defended the entrenched institutions that the French Revolution sought to uproot — notably, monarchy, aristocratic privilege, and the Catholic Church – and stridently resisted the democratic and republican impulses of the Left. The language of the Right was “typically about the avoidance of conflict, the defense of hierarchy, the appeal to tradition and religious faith. . . the Right was predominantly concerned with the preservation (or restoration) of social stability” (p.141).

     In the first half of the 19th century, the most fervent proponents of the Right’s conservative vision were Catholic traditionalists and the royalists who never relinquished their dream of a restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Hazareesingh credits the ultra-royalist polemicist Joseph de Maistre with encapsulating the Right’s aversion to everything associated with the 1789 Revolution. De Maistre saw the events of the 1790s as a “manifestation of divine retribution for decades of French irreligiosity and philosophical skepticism” (p.138). The notion  of universal rights of man was to de Maistre a “senseless abstraction.”  De Maistre is best known to history for his observation that he had “seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians. . . but as to man, I have never met one” (p.138).

      A central theme in the mythological imagination of the Right in the latter half of the 19th century was the “presence of sinister forces working to unravel the fabric of French society.” These destructive agents were “all the more noxious in that they were often perceived to represent alien interests and values” (p.150).  Jews in particular came to be identified as posing the ultimate existential menace to traditional conservative ideals, as manifested in the notorious affair involving Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish Army officer wrongly convicted of spying for Germany in 1896 (three books on the Dreyfus Affair were reviewed here in 2012).  In the 20th century, the French political Right contributed to the “genesis of fascist doctrine” in Europe (p.147). The demise in 1944 of the collaborationist Vichy regime that ruled much of France during the years of German occupation marked the effective end for this traditional, counter-revolutionary French Right.

 

* * *

      After World War II, two developments reshaped the schism between Left and Right: the emergence of a “new synthetic vision of Frenchness, centered around Charles de Gaulle, and the entrenchment of Marxist ideas among the intelligentsia” (p.191). In their “schematic visions of the world after the Second World War, and in their bitter opposition to each other,” Gaullists and Marxists, “symbolized the French capacity for intellectual polarization and their apparent relish for endlessly reproducing the older divisions created by the Revolution” (p.196).

     De Gaulle modernized French conservative thought by “incorporating more fraternal ideals into its scheme of values, notably, by granting voting rights to women and, later, ending French rule in Algeria” (p.192). Although his leadership revolved around his own charismatic persona as the incarnation of the grandeur of France — echoing Napoleon Bonaparte – De Gaulle was also relentlessly pragmatic.  He “did not hesitate to discard key elements of the heritage of the French Right, especially its hostility to republicanism and its xenophobic, racialist and anti-egalitarian tendencies” (p.192).

     The French intelligentsia’s “extraordinary fascination” with communist theory was “born out of the First World War and its apogee in France between the 1930s and the ‘60s coincided with one of the most troubled periods in the nation’s modern history” (p.102). Although ostensibly identifying with the Soviet Union as a model of governance, French communism “remained deeply rooted in [France’s] historic political culture” (p.107). Through the 1960s, communism offered its intellectual adherents a “way of experiencing the values of friendship, human solidarity and fraternity” (p.107).

     Throughout the post-War period, Jean Paul Sartre dominated the French intellectual landscape. The “flamboyant personification of the French ‘intellectual,’” Sartre combined high visibility interventions in the political arena with an “original synthesis of Marxism and existentialism” and a “commitment to revolution, ‘the seizure of power by violent class struggle’” (p.230). After Sartre’s death in 1980 and the election of reformist Socialist President François Mitterrand in 1981, Hazareesingh observes a change in the tone of the discourse between the political Left and Right.

      The ideals at the heart of Sartre’s “redemptive conception of politics – communism, revolution, the proletariat – lost much of their symbolic resonance in the 1980s,” Hazareesingh indicates. Marxism “ceased to be the ‘unsurpassable horizon’ of French intellectual life as the nation elected a reformist socialist as its president, the Communist Party declined, the working class withered away and the Cold War came to an end” (p.236).   By the time Mitterrand was elected in 1981, the “division between Left and Right was already beginning to decline. . . the Right had moved away from its republican rejectionism . . . [and] the Left completed the movement in the 1980s by abandoning the universalist abstractions that underpinned progressive thought: the belief in human perfectibility and the sense that history had a purpose and that capitalist society could be radically overhauled” (p.158).

* * *

        Today, France grapples with a “growing sense of unease about its present condition and its future prospects” (p.21), the French malaise. The factors giving rise to contemporary malaise include the decline of the French language internationally, coupled with France’s diminished claim to be a world power. But since the late 1980s, France’s pervasive pessimism seems most closely linked to issues of multi-culturalism and integration of France’s Muslim population.  Like every European nation with even a modest Muslim population, how to treat this minority remains an overriding challenge in France.  Few thinkers. Left or Right, are optimistic that France’s Muslim population can be successfully integrated into French society while France remains true to its revolutionary republican principles.

     Hazareesingh sees the rise of France’s nationalistic, xenophobic National Front party, originally headed by Jean-Marie Le Pen and now by his estranged daughter, Marine Le Pen, as not only a response to the pervasive sense of French national decline but also a telling indication of the diminished clout of today’s political intelligentsia.  He chastises the “collective inability of the intellectual class” over the past decade to “confront the rise of the Front National and the growing dissemination of its ideas among the French people — a silence all the more remarkable as, throughout their history, and notably during the Dreyfus Affair, French intellectuals were at the forefront of the battle against racism and xenophobia. It is a measure of the disorientation of the nation’s intellectual and cultural elites on this issue that some progressive figures now openly admit their fascination with Jean-Marie Le Pen” (p.256-57).

* * *

     Despite the doom and gloom that he perceives throughout contemporary France, Hazareesingh concludes optimistically that in facing the challenges of the 21st century, it is “certain” that the French will “remain the most intellectual of peoples, continuing to produce elegant and sophisticated abstractions about the human condition” (p.326). Let’s hope so – and let’s hope that Hazareesingh might again provide clear-headed guidance for English-language readers on how to understand these sophisticated abstractions, as he does throughout this lucid and engaging work.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 9, 2016

 

 

 

9 Comments

Filed under France, French History, History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Politics, Uncategorized

Late-Life Macro Reflections

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Eric Hobsbawn, Fractured Times:
Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century 

      Eric Hobsbawm was one of Britain’s most renowned historians of 19th and 20th century Europe, writing prolifically up to his death in 2012 at the age of 95.  Born into a secular Jewish family in 1917 and raised until age 16 primarily in Vienna, Austria, Hobsbawm migrated to Britain in 1933 and went on to teach for many years at Birkbeck College, University of London. His best known works include a trilogy on what he termed Europe’s “long 19th century,” from the French Revolution in 1789 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914: The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848; The Age of Capital, 1848-1875; and The Age of Empire, 1875-1914. Late in his career, he produced a magisterial work on Europe’s “short 20th century,” The Age of Extremes, a study of Europe from 1914 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. He also wrote a regular column on jazz for several years for The New Statesman.

       Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century is a posthumously published collection of 22 Hobsbawm lectures, essays, book reviews, and articles, each a separate chapter. Several lectures were delivered originally in German at the annual Salzburg Festival, and are translated into English for the first time. Some of the essays have not previously been published. With the exception of one article dating from 1964, the republications originally appeared between 1993 and Hobsbawn’s death in 2012. This collection therefore constitutes late-in-life macro reflections on broad currents in European  history that lurk behind Hobsbawm’s many scholarly volumes.

      Hobsbawm ranges widely in the book’s 22 chapters, discussing culture, art, science, religion, and intellectuals, among other topics. His final chapter is on the American cowboy in the European imagination. But throughout, he is particularly interested in exploring European bourgeois culture in the decades prior to World War I; the emergence after World War II of what he terms “neo-liberalism,” often called “globalism,” the tendencies of modern capitalism associated with freer and increasingly inter-dependent markets; and the acceleration of these tendencies after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.

      Hobsbawm’s relationship to the Soviet Union represented to some a taint on his otherwise impeccable and abundant scholarship. Like many of his academic colleagues, Hobsbawm approached history from a Marxist perspective (another example is Issac Deutscher, the subject of David Caute’s Issac and Isaiah, reviewed here in December 2014). But Hobsbawm remained a member of Britain’s Communist Party, closely linked to Moscow during the Cold War, long after most of his colleagues and others initially attracted to the Soviet Union tried to put some distance between themselves and the Soviet regime. Hobsbawm criticized the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968, yet did not quit the party.

     In one work here, Hobsbawm indicates that the Soviet Union “claimed to be democratic in theory and nomenclature, but was in practice an unlimited dictatorship” (p.231). But in a collection on late 19th and 20th century Europe, there is surprisingly little discussion of the Soviet Union and its domination of nearly half of the continent for some four and a half decades. Indeed, try as I might, I was unable to find much of anything in the arguments and interpretations in this volume that struck me as distinctly Marxist. Although Hobsbawm focuses on some features of class division in Europe and the phases of capitalism, these are hardly the exclusive province of the Marxist historian.

      One editorial weakness in this collection is that the origin of each work is provided only in a list at the end, between the footnotes and the index, which I missed while reading the entries in the collection. It would be helpful to know, for instance, that a chapter was originally a Salzburg lecture, a book review or a previously unpublished essay, and to have a date associated with each chapter. If there is a second edition of this collection, the editors should provide the origin of each entry with the entry itself.

* * *

      Many of the works here explore what Hobsbawm terms Europe’s “bourgeois society” during the final years of the “long nineteenth century,” roughly coinciding with Hobsbawm’s “Age of Empire,” 1875 to 1914 — for Hobsbawm the “silver age or ‘belle époque’ of the European bourgeoisie” (p.129). In these years, decades, there was “little doubt in educated secular Western minds” that European civilization was “inevitability moving forward to a better future, faster or slower, whether continuously or discontinuously. Its reality could not be denied even by those who worried about its problematic consequences” (p.176). But World War I extinguished the secular faith in a better future. As he writes in his preface, Hobsbawm intends this collection to inform readers about “what happened to the art and culture of bourgeois society after that society had vanished with the generation after 1914, never to return” (p.ix).

    Drawing heavily upon examples of bourgeois art and culture from his personal background in Vienna, Hobsbawm focuses particularly incisive chapters on the centrality of the German language prior to World War I throughout “Mitteleuropa,” German for central Europe, and on the emancipation of central European Jewry and women. Of all the “emancipatory languages,” he writes, German was “by far the most crucial” because of its geographic sweep across “almost half of Europe, from Berlin as far as the depths of Greater Russia, from Scandinavia to the Adriatic, and into the remotest Balkans” (p.68). The German language paved the road “from backwardness to progress, from provincialism to the wider world . . . We tend to forget that this was once so. German was the gateway to modernity” (p.68).

       German was in particular the key to emancipation for Mittleuropa Jewry in the late 19th century in Poland, Hungary, and throughout most of the Hapsburg Empire. “To speak, read and write the same language as educated non-Jews was the precondition of joining modern civilization, and the most immediate means of desegregation,” Hobsbawm contends. However, the “passion of emancipated Jews for the national languages and cultures of their gentile countries was all the more intense, because in some any cases they were not joining, as it were, established clubs but clubs of which the could see themselves almost as founder members” (p.67). The difference between the Jews of Germany and emancipated Jews from the rest of the German culture zone was that the latter were “pluralicultural, if not plurilingual.” They “carried, perhaps even built, the German language in the remoter outposts of the Hapsburg Empire, since, as the largest constituents of the educated middle-class in those parts, they were the people who actually used standard literary German instead of the dialects spoken by the emigrant German diasporas of the East” (p.80).

      Bourgeois culture also made women’s emancipation possible. By the end of the 19th century, “high culture” — by which Hobsbawm means primarily art, architecture, classical music and dance — had become “more central to the bourgeoisie as a whole . . . largely through the emergence in the period after 1870, of a stratum of youth as a distinct and recognized entity in bourgeois public life.” Young women were “undoubtedly” included in this stratum on “far more equal terms than before” (p.111). Women of all ages emerged during this period, as “independent patrons of culture” (p.107). Hobsbawm cites the 1908 Anglo-French Exposition in London as significant for including a special “Palace of Women’s Work.” This portion of the exposition “celebrated women not as being but as doers, not as functional cogs in the machinery of family and society but as individual achievers” (p.97).

      “Thank goodness,” Hobsbawm exclaims in one of his Salzburg lectures, the “classical Western cultural tradition is still valued” outside Europe as a “sign of modernization” (p.41). The Marxist Hobsbawm’s reverence throughout this collection for bourgeois culture and his nostalgia for that culture during the “‘belle époque’ of the European bourgeoisie” is striking. If the bourgeoisie was the exploiter and enemy of the working classes and the lumpenproletariat, as standard Marxism would have it, none of that surfaces in this volume.

* * *

      After the calamity of World War I, “only three pillars, reinforcing one another, still held up the temple of progress: the forward march of science; a confident, rationalized American capitalism; and, for ravaged Europe and what later came to be called the ‘Third World,’ the hope of what the Russian Revolution might bring: Einstein, Lenin, and Henry Ford” (p.176-77). Lenin might have seemed like a viable alternative to Henry Ford as a model for social and technological progress in some circles into the 1930s. But by the end of World War II, the Leninist model was a crumbling pillar, removed entirely with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. By that time, “rationalized American capitalism” had given rise to Hobsbawm’s other primary preoccupation in these pages, “neo-liberalism” — the assimilation of the world into a “single predominant pattern, in practice a Western or, more precisely, an American one” (p.26). Neo-liberalism, the natural outgrowth and next step in the development of industrial capitalism, has destroyed the remaining vestiges of classic bourgeois culture, Hobsbawm argues.

      The “logic of both capitalist development and bourgeois civilization itself were bound to destroy its foundation,” Hobsbawm argues in his preface (p.xiii).  The object of “neoliberal globalization” is “precisely to reduce the size, scope and public interventions of the state” and in this has been at least “partly successful” (p.198-99). Today’s capitalist societies in North America and Western Europe must therefore coexist in “uncomfortable instability” with the “independent force of an increasingly globalized and rapidly growing capitalist economy,” which may be a “more powerful engine of politico-ideological socialization and . . . homogenization” than the traditional nation-state (p.151).

     As it undermines the nation-state, neo-liberal capitalism has produced what Hobsbawm describes as a “world of consumer civilization, in which the (preferably immediate) fulfillment of all human wishes is supposed to determine the structure of life” (p.18). It has “knocked down” the “wall between culture and life, between reverence and consumption, between work and leisure, between body and spirit” (p. 19). The neo-liberal era of the early 21st century has thus “lost its bearing,” he writes despondently in his preface, with no guides or maps to lead it to an “unrecognizable future” (p.ix).

      Condemnation of the deleterious consequences of neo-liberalism — or globalism — may be found on both the political left and the political right. Those on the left in North America and Europe tend to emphasize the growing income disparity, wage stagnation, job losses and diminution of social welfare benefits which globalism seems to entail for working families. Those on the right, especially the traditional European right, are more inclined to focus on the blurring of national boundaries, the breakdown of traditional values — often religious values — and the spiritual poverty and homogenization which consumption-oriented neo-liberalsm purportedly encourages. Again, it is striking that the Marxist Hobsbawm’s critique of neo-liberalism sounds more like that of the traditional European right, focused on the cultural rather than economic consequences of neo-liberalism.

* * *

     Unlike fellow Marxist historian Issac Deutscher, who died at age 60, Hobsbawm enjoyed a long life, in which he was productive to the end.  This remarkable collection is one result of Hobsbawm’s longevity.  The absence of a distinctly Marxist perspective to the collection may be a disappointment to some readers and a relief to others.  But all should find endearing Hobsbawm’s sometimes provocative, always erudite reflections on the vicissitudes  of European history and culture.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
October 18, 2015

7 Comments

Filed under European History, History, Political Theory

Introducing Doubt into Weak, Unstable Minds

spinoza

Steven Nadler, A Book Forged in Hell:
Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age 

              17th century Amsterdam was known as a liberal and tolerant city, as it is today. But tolerance during what was sometimes called the Dutch Golden age had its limits and, in 1670, an anonymously-published Tractus Theologico-Politicus, or Theological-Political Treatise, crossed well over the line of what the city’s dominant Dutch Reformed Protestant authorities deemed appropriate. Over the next four years, those authorities sought to convince various local governing bodies within the United Provinces of the Netherlands, as it was then known, to ban the Treatise. During this time, the text’s author was somehow identified as one Baruch de Spinoza who, two decades previously, had been ignominiously ex-communicated from Amsterdam’s thriving Portuguese-Jewish community.

       In December 1673, the Treatise was published together with another work, Lodwjik Meijer’s Philosophy, Interpreter of Holy Scripture, in a single volume that bore the false title of a medical treatise. This ruse provided a sufficient basis for Holland’s highest court, the Hof, to enjoin dissemination of both. Describing the two as “harmful poison” which “overflow with blasphemies against God” and appeared designed to “introduce doubt into weak, unstable minds” (p.230), the court officially banned the two works throughout the United Provinces. Shortly thereafter, an implacable foe described the Treatise as having been “[f]orged in hell by the apostate Jew working together with the devil” (p.231).

             This description provides Steven Nadler with the title to his cogent and captivating analysis of the apostate Jew Spinoza’s heretical thinking, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age. In a work which should appeal to general readers and specialists alike, Nadler also ably captures the 17th century Dutch Golden Age environment in which the Treatise and Meijer’s now largely forgotten work appeared and then officially disappeared. Nadler characterizes the Treatise as “one of the most important and influential books in the history of philosophy, in religious and political thought, and even in Bible studies” (p.240). Further, while often overlooked in books on the history of political thought, the Treatise also has a “proud and well-deserved place in the rise of democratic theory, civil liberties, and political liberalism. The ideas of the Treatise inspired republican revolutionaries in England, America and France” (p.240).

* * *

        It is not difficult to see why the Treatise’s pronouncements on religion and theology rankled Amsterdam’s ecclesiastical authorities. Spinoza’s work, as Nadler summarizes it, “denied the divinity of the Bible, ruled out the possibility of miracles, identified God’s providence with the laws of nature, deflated the revelations of the prophets, and reduced religion to a simple moral code” (p.222). For Spinoza, religion as practiced in the 17th century was “nothing more than organized superstition” (p.31). In the Treatise, Spinoza presented his case for what he considered “true religion,” which had “nothing to do with theology or elaborate church liturgy; it consists only in obeying the Golden Rule” (p.xii). Spinoza saw God not as the “providential, awe-inspiring deity of Abraham” but quite simply the “fundamental, eternal, infinite substance of reality and the first cause of all things” (p.13). It is “not what you believe but what you do that matters,” Spinoza argued in the Treatise. Religion requires us to “know and love God by pursuing the knowledge of nature and to love human beings as ourselves, by acting toward them with charity and justice . . . In short, the divine law commands only virtue” (p.156-57).

          More than any other work, the Treatise laid the foundation for modern critical and historical approaches to the Bible. Perhaps Spinoza’s “most influential, and (to his contemporaries) most shocking conclusion in the Treatise is that Holy Scripture is, in fact, a work of human literature” (p.32), Nadler contends. With “astonishing boldness” (p.131), Spinoza’s Treatise proposed a scientific approach to scripture, working methodically with textual and historical material. Spinoza thus “ushered in modern biblical source scholarship” (p.107). Spinoza’s attack on the belief in miracles also shocked 17th century sensibilities. For Spinoza, miracles were an “‘absurdity’ and the belief in them sheer ‘folly’” (p.83).

        Separating philosophy from religion was the “ultimate goal” (p.207) of the Treatise, Nadler argues, so that “philosophers might be free to pursue secular wisdom unimpeded by ecclesiastic authority” (p.65). The subtitle which Spinoza gave to his Treatise revealed his intention to demonstrate that “freedom to philosophize may not only be allowed without danger to piety and the stability of the republic, but that it cannot be refused without destroying the peace of the republic and piety itself” (p.207). The end of philosophy is truth and knowledge, whereas the end of religion is pious behavior and obedience. Philosophical truth and religious faith thus have “nothing in common with one another, and one must not serve as the rule of the other. Philosophy should not have to answer to religion, no more than religion should have to be consistent with any philosophical system” (p.65). Spinoza’s plea for the freedom of philosophizing became a political argument for a civil state almost unimaginable in the 17th century, in which sectarian religious authorities were tightly confined, with “no influence over public affairs, including intellectual and cultural matters” (p.187).

            In the Treatise’s chapters on governance, Spinoza’s appeal for the separation of philosophy from religion led him to an extended argument for freedom of thought and expression. Spinoza advanced the audacious argument for his day that state efforts to control belief and opinions should be regarded as “tyrannical” (p.208). Matters of opinion and belief belong to “individual right, which no man can surrender even if he should wish to” (p.208), Spinoza argued. He advocated freedom of opinion and belief on utilitarian grounds as “necessary for progress in the discovery of truth and the growth of creativity” (p.209). The state can pursue no safer course, Spinoza wrote in the penultimate paragraph of the Treatise, than to “regard piety and religion as consisting solely in the exercise of charity and just dealing, and that the right of the sovereign, both in religious and secular spheres, should be restricted to men’s actions, with everyone being allowed to think what he will and to say what he thinks” (p.213-14).

           Spinoza thus argued in the Treatise that the purposes of the state are best served by something closely resembling modern liberal democracy. Democracy, Spinoza wrote, represents the “most natural form of state, approaching most closely to that freedom which nature grants to every man. For in a democratic state nobody transfers his natural right to another so completely that thereafter he is not to be consulted; he transfers it to the majority of the entire community of which he is a part” (p.195). In Spinoza’s ideal commonwealth, the “right to determine what is in the common interest, issue laws, and enforce them is given to the people-at-large” (p.193). Under the auspices of the state, the people have the “opportunity to increase their freedom and virtue” (p.197).

           It is unclear how Spinoza was identified as the author of the Treatise. Once recognized, Spinoza was particularly disappointed that many of his closest associates and most liberal allies, those who had the most to gain in the campaign for religious tolerance in 17th century Holland and across Europe, sought to put distance between themselves and the Treatise. Rather than opening the door to greater liberty to philosophize, as he had hoped, Spinoza “seems mainly to have succeeded in mobilizing the entire world, including Dutch liberals, against himself” (p.240) and in bringing the Dutch Golden Age to a close, Nadler wryly observes.

* * *

         Surprisingly, Nadler indicates that until recently Spinoza has been largely ignored in the study of 17th century political philosophers. While it is very difficult to see how this could have been the case, today Spinoza is anything but underappreciated. Few of Nadler’s readers are likely to take issue with his portrayal of Spinoza as “certainly the most original, radical, and controversial figure of his time . . . [whose] philosophical, political, and religious ideas laid the foundation for much of what we now regard as ‘modern’” (p. xv). Nadler’s incisive dissection of the Treatise and his illuminating depiction of the 17th century environment in which it appeared should provide an added boost to the attention and respect accorded to Amsterdam’s apostate Jew.

Thomas H. Peebles
Silver Spring, Maryland
May 23, 2015

5 Comments

Filed under European History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Religion, Rule of Law, Uncategorized

Two Giants of the Age of Revolutions

burkenpaine

Yuval Levin, The Great Debate, Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine,
And the Birth of Right and Left 

               Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, And the Birth of Right and Left took me back to an old friend from college, Edmund Burke, probably Britain’s leading 18th century conservative political thinker, although a Whig not a Tory. I remember writing two term papers on Burke: one compared him to the French reactionary Joseph de Maistre, the other to Montesquieu. I was fascinated by Burke’s approach and his conservative disposition, his support for gradual reform, his aversion to abstract natural rights principles, and his view of society as an intricate web of interactions which, if you tinkered with it too much, would likely make matters worse, not better. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that there might have been some conflict between these views of Burke and the dramatic changes students my age were calling for across North America and Europe. Levin’s book compares the thought of Burke to that of Thomas Paine, among the English-speaking world’s most radical 18th century thinkers, a strong proponent of both the American and French Revolutions, and an unwavering advocate of the natural rights theories which Burke abhorred.

               In his introduction, Levin describes his book as a “case study in how ideas move history and in where some of the key ideas that have moved, and still move, our history came from” (p.xi). He indicates that he hopes to demonstrate how the Burke-Paine split presages contemporary America’s conservative-liberal divide. This goes beyond the promise of his sub-title, which suggests rather that the thinking of the two reveals the 18th century “birth” of modern conceptions of Right and Left. Throughout the book’s seven substantive chapters, Levin hints at how he will deliver on the more ambitious promise of his introduction, but by and large that is reserved for the book’s conclusion.

            The seven substantive chapters compare the thinking of the two men on those matters that divided them and much of Europe in the 18th century: revolution versus reform and gradual change; the role in politics of reason, tradition, natural and inherited rights; the debt, if any, which each generation owes to previous and future generations (Paine made each generation debt free, while Burke loaded each generation with massive debts to previous and future ones). Levin once worked for former Congressman and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and writes for The National Review and The Weekly Standard, giving him solid conservative credentials. But as I read his book, it became clear that Levin is no polemicist but rather a scrupulously careful and objective scholar who strives to do justice to both Burke and Paine. At the outset, I surmised that Levin’s personal sympathies had to lie with Burke. By the time I finished, I was less sure.

* * *

              Born in Ireland in 1729 to a Catholic mother and Protestant father, Burke served in Parliament for more than 30 years, where he was no reactionary. He was a leader in almost every reform effort undertaken in Parliament during his time in elected office, a reformer of “financial policy and trade policy, of laws restricting freedom of Catholics and Protestant dissenters, and of the criminal law. He also opposed the slave trade as inhuman and unjust and resisted the undue intervention of the Crown in politics” (p.192-93). Burke supported the American Revolution, finding that Britain had imposed an “unprecedented regime of taxation and limits on commerce in America,” based on what Burke considered to be the dangerous premise that “Parliament had unlimited authority to govern colonial affairs directly” (p.171).

          In Burke’s view, as Levin summarizes it, the “old and tried model will not always work, of course.” But when it fails, “societies would be wise to fix it by gradually building on what does work about it rather than by starting fresh with an untried idea. Burke thus offers a model of gradual change – of evolution rather than revolution” (p.66-67). Levin describes Burke as a forward-looking rather than backward looking traditionalist who believed that the present is better than the past and was “committed to sustaining the means by which it has become better, to facilitate further improvement” (p.78).

          Paine, born in England in 1737, was self-educated, and part polemicist and part political theorist. He disclaimed being well-read and, later in life, appeared to boast when he said, “I neither read books, nor studied other people’s opinions. I thought for myself” (p.xviii). Levin characterizes Paine’s thinking as “not highly original” but “fairly representative of the Enlightenment-liberal (or radical) views of his day” (p.15). Paine spoke for many, but “far more effectively than most” (p.15). His “great rhetorical power came from his ability to bring even modestly educated readers into contact with profound philosophical questions and to give those questions an immediacy and intensity that few political thinkers could match” (p. xviii).

           Paine’s full acceptance of the natural equality of man — the “crucial premise of Enlightenment thought” – led him to the “politics of individualism and individual reason. If men are equal, then none can simply command the assent of another and none will accept on faith the superior wisdom of others” (p.151). Human reason, once empowered, allows for a “continuing series of good judgments and choices” which can lead to a “great forward motion in history – a future that will get better and better as improvements build on one another” (p.167). Rather than look backward to history and tradition for guidance, as Burke counseled, Paine contended that we must “look to reason and, with its help, move forward” (p.167).

        The French Revolution prompted both men to write the texts for which they are best known today, Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Paine’s Rights of Man, an explicit rejoinder to Burke’s Reflections. The appearance of Rights of Man in 1791 marked the moment when the “two giants of the age of revolutions were set clearly against one another and when the great debate they had launched truly came into its own” (p.32-33). Burke’s Reflections was a “masterpiece of rhetoric. . . [and] the first sustained assessment and dissection of the claims of liberal radicalism in the age of revolutions” (p.30). What worried Burke about events across the channel was the “combination of philosophical pretensions and applied savagery of the revolution – mob rule making its case in metaphysical abstractions” (p.27). In Burke’s view, the revolutionaries had “far too much faith in the ability of reason alone to govern [the] other elements [of human character] – and especially the passions and sentiments” (p.57). But Burke’s deepest objections to the revolutionaries and their approach to political change involved their “attitudes about the past and their relation to it – their assertion that political change must overcome the past, rather than build on it” (p.191).

          Paine’s Rights of Man responded to Burke’s Reflections with a “logical, sustained, focused and powerful argument, delivered with astonishing force” (p.32). The Rights of Man was Paine’s “most expressly theoretical work” (p.32), revealing his “resolute confidence in the efficacy of reason in political life” (p.33). For Paine, revolution was, at its core, a “return to the distant pasts to begin again, and better” (p.48). Inherited social status was a “recipe for an unjust society that could never be well governed. . . The idea that social standing or the right to rule, like property, should somehow be transmitted through the generations therefore strikes Paine as a profound misunderstanding of the nature of man and of political life” (p.88), Levin writes. Hereditary monarchy and aristocracy were not only “unjust impositions on the liberty of the individual” but also “unjust impositions by the past on the present”(p.209).

        Levin summarizes Paine’s outlook as “assertive, confident, rationalistic, technocratic, and progressive” (p.222). His commitment to reason led him to an optimistic if not utopian vision of man as capable of reshaping his world to “end the long-standing scourge of injustice, war and suffering” (p.222). Burke, by contrast, was “grateful, protective, cautious, pious, gradualist and reformist” (p.222). Politics is not an application of abstract theory, but rather the search for “good practical outcomes” (p.147). For Burke, man could “only hope to improve his circumstances if he understood his own limits, built on the achievements of those who came before him to repair their errors, and realized that some profound human miseries and vices are permanent functions of our nature – and that pretending otherwise would only make them worse” (p.222).

         After reading and digesting Levin’s seven comparative chapters, I found that I came down much more frequently on Paine’s side than that of my old friend Burke. With the passage of several decades since I last read Burke and wrote those undergraduate term papers, Burke’s thinking about human limits and the risks of idealistic overreaching, while still deeply-nuanced and subtle, reappeared to me as an anachronistic apologia for monarchy and inherited privilege. Paine was much more homespun and even simplistic in some of his thinking. His faith in reason to resolve all questions facing a democracy seems, at best, quixotic. But Paine’s radical views about the importance of individual autonomy, choice, and equality of opportunity have had far more staying power in the democratic world than Burke’s broad defense of the 18th century status quo, subject to small amounts of gradual tinkering on the edges.

* * *

         In his conclusion, Levin jumps to 21st America and argues backwards, seeking to show how the wide political divide in the United States today has its roots in the thought of Burke and Paine, with Republicans and political conservatives tracing their thinking to Burke, while Democrats and liberals lay claim to the tradition of Paine. Each of the two American political parties “plainly fits the profile that emerges from our study of the great debate” in the 18th century between Burke and Paine (p.231), Levin argues. Each captures a form of modern liberalism: “progressive liberalism,” a “politics of vigorous progress toward an ideal goal” and “conservative liberalism,” a “politics of preservation and perfection of a precious inheritance” (p.227). The contrasting approaches of Burke and Paine, Levin asserts, still represent “two broad and fundamental dispositions toward political life and political change in our liberal age” (p.225).

        Levin acknowledges that because American conservatives seek to conserve a political tradition that began in revolution, the American Right has been “more inclined . . . to appeal to individualism than Burke was” (p.228). The tradition of conservative liberalism, with its emphasis upon the “gradual accumulation of practices and institutions of freedom and order” has “only rarely been articulated in American terms. For this reason, it is not often heard on the lips of today’s conservatives” (p.229). Levin goes on to chastise contemporary American conservatives as “too rhetorically strident and far too open to the siren song of hyper individualism . . . They could benefit from adopting Burke’s focus on the social character of man, from Burke’s thoroughgoing gradualism, and from his innovative liberal alternative to Enlightenment radicalism” (p.229).

           While American conservatives may seem at times to wrap themselves in Paine’s individualism, American liberals no longer fully embrace Paine. They may share his general utopian commitment to ameliorate society and the lives of individuals. But to do so, Levin argues, progressive American liberalism has adopted what he considers a social democratic vision of the state as a “direct provider of basic necessities and largely unencumbered by the restraints of Paine’s Enlightenment liberalism” (p.227), combining “material collectivism and moral individualism” (p.228). Consequently, contemporary American liberals are “left philosophically adrift and far too open to the cold logic of utilitarianism – they could learn from Paine’s insistence on limits to the use of power and the role of government” (p.229).

      An amalgam of “material collectivism” and “moral individualism” seems to be a fair way to describe the contemporary “progressive liberalism” that is embodied, however imperfectly, in today’s Democratic Party. Further, Levin is not far off in arguing that, at a superficial level, there is not much that sounds Burkean in the rhetoric of today’s American conservatives. Neither the Tea Party faithful who appear from my vantage point to have commandeered today’s Republican Party nor the disquisitions of such oracles of contemporary conservatism as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News commentators sounds to my ears to be speaking Burke’s language of temperate and gradual reform.

           Yet, at another level, Levin finds today’s American conservatives almost unanimously Burkean, even if they don’t always use the language of Burke or recognize his influence. Burke’s vision lurks in the background when conservatives:

defend traditional social institutions and the family, seek to make our culture more hospitable to children . . . rail against attempts at technocratic expert government . . . insist on allegiance to our forefathers’ constitutional forms, warn of the dangers of burdening our children with debt to fund our own consumption, or insist that the sheer scope and ambition of our government makes it untenable (p.229).

      Levin could have gone further in finding a Burkean “politics of preservation and perfection of a precious inheritance” in much of contemporary conservative argument, but to do so would have pushed him into the darker ramifications of Burke. The weakness in Burke, which I missed entirely as a college undergraduate, is that Burkean arguments can too easily be marshaled to defend a status quo becoming less and less defensible—for example, the institutions of monarchy and inherited privilege for Paine in the 18th century. Today, one frequently hears Burkean arguments in opposition to same-sex marriage, on the ground that such arrangements undermine the traditional social institution of marriage and threaten the family. Levin might argue that this is a misappropriation of Burke’s conservative liberalism and would likely go on to point out that many Republicans and conservatives now recognize same-sex marriage as an “idea whose time has come.” Moreover, it is not difficult to imagine Burke evolving on the issue of such marriage – President Obama did! – and crafting an eloquent and elaborate defense of this form of equality based upon an extension of time-tested liberties.

       But the search for “what-would-Burke-say” about our 21st century issues can lead just about anywhere and highlights why Levin’s attempt to fit contemporary political tendencies into one of the two 18th century molds struck me as forced. Today’s liberals and conservatives draw upon many antecedents, and connections between our 21st century divisions and this very 18th century debate are, at best, attenuated. Levin could have stopped after his seven judicious substantive chapters, where he ably assists his readers in understanding the momentous Burke-Paine debate in 18th century terms, as it should be understood.

Thomas H. Peebles

Lexington, Virginia

May 9, 2015

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Filed under British History, European History, History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Uncategorized