Tag Archives: Politics

Is Europe Burning?

[Introductory Note:  I have again spliced together two short commentaries which I wrote earlier: on Phillips in 2009 and on Caldwell in 2010.  I owe reading of both to my college friend Tom Fagan.  Tom pointed me to Phillips’ book, which I fortuitously found in a used bookshop for $2.  A little later, Tom sent me Caldwell’s book as a holiday present.  Two thought-provoking books for a total of $2.  That’s an excellent return on a modest investment.  Thanks, Tom]


Christopher Caldwell, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: 

Immigration, Islam, and the West


Melanie Phillips, Londonistan

Europe’s fiscal and financial crisis undoubtedly constitutes its foremost contemporary challenge.  But the challenge of integrating ever-growing Muslim populations into its cultural mainstream is not far behind – and in many ways is linked to European economic woes.  These two books address Western Europe’s efforts to find a place for Islam.  Christopher Caldwell surveys approaches across Europe, while   Melanie Phillips focuses exclusively on Great Britain.

Caldwell’s title is an allusion to Edmund Burke’s 1790 “Reflections on the Revolution in France.”  Caldwell starts with a 1968 speech by British Tory parliamentarian Enoch Powell on April 20, 1968, two short weeks after Martin Luther King was killed in the United States.  In this speech, Powell decried rising immigration into Britain.  He forecast American-style urban ghettoes and said that watching immigration into his country was like “watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre” (p.5).  I was living in London at the time, and remember well Powell’s speech, which was the subject of much discussion with my British friends.  Although the term “politically correct” was not yet in use, it was very clear to me and my friends — all of us wise and worldly 20 somethings — that Powell’s ideas were most incorrect politically.  My recollection is that we almost unanimously compared Powell, an erudite classics scholar, to the retrograde Southern racists whom we assumed were responsible for King’s death.  Since that time, however, as Caldwell states, all British discussion of immigration may be reduced to whether Powell was right.

Caldwell traces how both Britain and continental European countries increased immigration in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s of the last century, without sufficient forethought of the consequences.  He outlines the differences between European countries, with varying rationale for opening borders and diverse approaches toward absorbing and welcoming immigrant populations.  Caldwell considers judiciously both sides of the arguments that Muslims can be integrated into these countries, but leaves no doubt that in his view such integration is a steep, uphill battle across Europe, not least because a certain part of the European Muslim population is “dedicated to Europe’s destruction by armed violence” (p.172).

Caldwell describes two models for immigrant assimilation, British and French.  Britain’s model is “multicultural,” holding that one may “keep one’s culture as long as one [obeys] the law of the land” (p.151).  Caldwell prefers the French model, which holds that immigrants “should become French in their cultural loyalties” (p. 151).  Despite – some would say because of — its multi-cultural model, Britain remains “by far, the European country with the most serious dangers of violence and political extremism” (p.301).  France’s republican traditions, by contrast, “give it the best chance of fully assimilating the children and grandchildren of immigrants.  It is the only country where a European equivalent of the American dream is likely,” Caldwell concludes (p.301).

Although Caldwell’s purpose is not to compare European and American approaches to immigration, he regards Hispanic immigration to the United States as an altogether different phenomenon from Muslim immigration to Europe — far more benign, far less threatening to our culture.  Latin American immigrants come with a European language, he says, which is “inevitably discarded for English by the second generation.”   Latinos’ “cultural peculiarities” are “generally antiquated versions of American ones” (p.12).  They have “less money, higher labor-force participation, more authoritarian family structures, lower divorce rates” than native white Americans.  Their culture, in its broad outlines “is like the American working class culture of forty years ago”  (p.12).

I would have liked more discussion in Caldwell’s book about non-Muslim immigration to Europe.  Are the prospects for integration of West Indians, sub-Saharan non-Muslim Africans, and Asians from India, Vietnam, Cambodia and China as bleak as those for Muslim immigrants?  It was immigrants from all these places, not simply Muslim countries, which prompted Powell’s 1968 remarks. But Caldwell’s critique of the effect of Muslim immigration on today’s Europe, while provocative, is well-reasoned and cogent.

In “Londonistan,” British journalist Melanie Phillips comes across as Enoch Powell on steroids.  She would surely agree with Caldwell that Great Britain today is “by far,” the country most vulnerable to Islamic violence and political extremism, and would not hesitate to attribute Britain’s vulnerability precisely to the multi-cultural model of assimilation which Caldwell describes.  Phillips starts with the July 2005 London bombings, which revealed a society initially in denial that these attacks had been carried out by home-grown Muslims, “suburban boys who had been educated at British schools and had degrees, jobs and comfortable families” (p.viii).  As denial faded, Phillips found Britain pitifully unable to confront the threat posed by the violent ideology she terms “Islamism”:  a “particular interpretation of authentic Islamic principles” (p.168) that is the “dominant contemporary political force within Islam. . .. an ideology that seeks to destroy Christianity and its values” (p.141).

In Phillips’ view, Britain’s ability to counter Islamism is undermined by a flabby and permissive social culture dominated by “secular nihilists” who disdain the country’s Judeo-Christian values.  Secular nihilists are infatuated with the “doctrine of multiculturalism,” and obsessed with the rights of victims and minorities.  Phillips contends that an unquestioning tolerance for non-Western cultures, militant feminism, exaltation of gay rights, and a judiciary which has supplemented the common law with more general human rights norms have, taken together, rendered Britain ineffectual in countering the grave threat to its existence growing in its midst.  Today’s Britain is “locked into such a spiral of decadence, self-loathing and sentimentality that it is incapable of seeing that it is setting itself up for cultural immolation,” (p.189), Phillips warns direly, echoing Powell’s 1968 clarion call.  Ironically, “self-styled progressives of the British left” have aligned themselves with Islamism – “which denies female equality and preaches death to gays” — to advance their common goal, “the destruction of Western society and its foundation values” (p.xxiii).

I agree with Phillips’ core message that tolerance is no virtue in dealing with violent Islamism and that the West needs to defend its democratic values unapologetically.  But she loses me when she radiates out from this core to suggest that secular Enlightenment values – secularism, equality, respect for minority rights – are incompatible with taking a strong stand against what she terms Islamism.  Phillips’ analysis seems at times to gravitate toward the comments of the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, who inanely attributed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks in the United States to “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way–all of them who have tried to secularize America–I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.”

Further, there is irony in Phillips railing against many of the manifestations of modernity in today’s Britain, when the most common prescription for bringing Islam out of the dark ages and into the 21st century is some form of Muslim Enlightenment – development of a secular sense and a more general spirit of free inquiry, with recognition of equality for women and homosexuals.  Phillips’ strong condemnation of the anti-Semitism which pervades much of the Muslim world is to be lauded.  But she is far less critical of the subordinate role of women in Islamic societies and I had to wonder whether this was because excessive feminism figures so prominently among the reasons she contends that Britain is incapable of countering Islamism.

Phillips recommends requiring a civil marriage certificate before an Imam could perform a marriage ceremony, thereby, she hopes, halting the drift toward parallel Sharia jurisdiction where polygamy is recognized; instituting tough controls on immigration “while Britain assimilates the people it has already got” (p.188); and teaching Muslims “what being a minority means” (p.189).  These measures may be reasonable but the likelihood that they will make any serious dent in Islamism seems at least as dubious as the outreach efforts to moderate Muslims which she belittles throughout her book.  Like everyone else struggling with the issue of assimilation of the Muslim population into Western European societies, Phillips falls short in specific solutions.  Finding such solutions ranks among the most pressing challenges facing contemporary Europe.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

June 5, 2012


Filed under History, Politics, Religion

Dummy for Science

Timothy Ferris, The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature 

Steven Shapin, The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation

I revere science.  Those who know me know there is much irony in that simple sentence.  Here’s the sorry record: I struggled with high school chemistry, knowing throughout that I was in way over my head.  I dropped out of high school physics, realizing early on that I was even further over my head and headed toward a failing grade.  In an overall lackluster undergraduate academic career, by far my worst grade came in fulfilling the science requirement during my sophomore year in introductory geology, affectionately known as Rocks I — a science course deliberately tailored to the scientifically challenged.  I never again came close to a science course.  Yet, I revere science.  So I was drawn to Timothy Ferris’ “The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature,” and Steven Shapin’s “The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation.”   Although both are about science, these are very different books: Ferris treats how the scientific spirit influences democratic governance; Shapin addresses how the scientist fits into our society.

A professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, Ferris contends that the rise of modern science and the scientific spirit are linked to democratic governance.  The democratic revolution, Ferris argues, was “sparked – caused is perhaps not too strong a word – by the scientific revolution.”  Science “continues to foster political freedom today. . . [S]cientific skepticism is corrosive to authoritarianism and . . .scientific experimentation provides a better model for governance than any of the systems that preceded it”  (p.2).

Shapin, a professor at Harvard specializing in the history of science, describes the role and perception of the scientist in Western societies, particularly the United States, from the mid-19th century to the present day.  During this time, a career in science transformed from a calling to a job.  Scientists enjoyed an exalted role in the 19th century, when they were likened to philosophers whose calling was to discover the laws of nature.  This role gradually yielded to one more in keeping with modern democratic sensibilities, where scientists began to work in large corporations and government, advancing corporate and governmental interests rather than simply pursuing scientific knowledge for its own sake.  In the process, the scientist came to be perceived as being on the same moral plane as the engineer, insurance salesman and automobile mechanic.  Shapin terms this the “moral ordinariness” of the scientist.


It is important to note what Timothy Ferris’ book is not about.  It is not an argument for utilizing the scientific method to resolve the problems democracies must confront.  Nor is it an argument for government by technocrats.  It does not emphasize technical expertise as the key to democratic governance.  Rather, to be successful, democracies need the same open-minded, open-to-change spirit which characterizes scientific inquiry.  Both science and democracy “start with tentative ideas, go through agonies of experimentation, and arrive at merely probabilistic conclusions that remain vulnerable to disproof” (p.13).  Like scientific experiments, democracies tend to be “untidy, patched up affairs that seldom work out as expected.” Although repellent perhaps to the perfectionist, democracy has proven to be “tougher, more resilient, and better able to answer the needs of its citizens than any other.” And that is because democracy, like science, is “not built on hopes of human perfection but on an acknowledgement of human fallibility” (p.103).  Indeed, claims of perfection are anti-scientific and anti-democratic.  “The scientist who claims his theory is perfect is a crank; the politician who claims his administration is perfect is a tyrant” (p.14).

Although written well before the outbreak of democratic sentiment in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere during the “Arab spring,” Ferris’ view of science leads him emphatically to the conclusion that democracy is not inherently Western.   Just as science is “practiced by persons of all races and religious beliefs, speaks a universal language, and evaluates results on the basis of merits rather than place of origin,” democracy is the province of “no particular culture but belongs to everyone willing to plant and cultivate it” (p.13).

Democracy first appeared in states where science and technology were most advanced, Ferris argues, in England, America and the Netherlands (and “more fitfully” in France, Italy and Germany) because “science demanded liberty and demonstrated its social benefits, creating a symbiotic relationship in which freer nations were better able to carry on the scientific enterprise, which in turn rewarded them with knowledge, wealth and power” (p.7). The notion of democracy gained strength in the eighteenth century Enlightenment, when philosophers turned away from traditional beliefs and toward the  values of inquiry, invention and improvement.  Although other forces were at work, the Enlightenment without science would have been a ”steamship without steam” (p.57).

Ferris addresses what might appear to be an obstacle standing in the way of showing how science is integrally linked to the 18th century Enlightenment and its democratic revolution: the huge influence that France had on the Enlightenment, and the undemocratic character of much of what passed under the banner of the French Revolution.  Ferris sees the French Revolution as profoundly anti-scientific, the progenitor of modern totalitarianism at least as much as of modern democracy.  French revolutionaries “neglected the fundamental lesson of science and liberalism – that the key to success is to experiment and abide by the results – assuming instead that the point of a revolution was to implement a particular philosophy” (p.113).   The French philosophes  were inclined to regard science as subordinate to philosophy, “bounded by the rules laid down by philosophers past,” thereby downplaying science’s “creativity and its political implications” (p.114).

At the forefront of this anti-scientific philosophy was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who all but dominated French thought from 1760 on and, more than anyone else, invented Romanticism – a “Manichean world view that champions sentiment over logic, caprice over common sense, instinct over civilization, and mysticism over clarity” (p. 115-116).  Ferris’ indictment of Rousseau is scathing.  Rousseau’s “fact-free thought” created a “new and pernicious style of philosophizing – one that consists of basing real world arguments on bald fictions, then retreating into a wounded obscurantism should anyone question the legitimacy of the enterprise” (p.125). The fascist ideal of an “all-powerful ruler who embodies the spirit of the people came straight from Rousseau,” Ferris argues (p.126).  This is a controversial view which many experts reject, but one with which I agree.

So how does the scientific sprit animate democratic governance in, to choose one example randomly, the 21st century United States?  What can that spirit tell us about whether we should surtax billionaires, discontinue tax breaks for oil companies, turn Medicare into a voucher program, or cut the Defense Department budget?  Ferris’ scientific spirit provides a means to answer these and broader questions about the proper role of government regulation in a democratic economy.  Ferris quotes approvingly John Stuart Mill, whose mixed feelings about government intervention in economic matters plainly parallel his own.  “There are some things with which government ought not to meddle, and other things with which they ought,” all the while conceding that the question of which is which “does not . . . admit of any universal solution.” (p.181).  Ferris suggests that democratic societies must find the right balance between Hayek and Keynes, through a utilitarian trial-and-error process.

Portions of Ferris’ argument seem libertarian in nature, compatible with the current Republican vision of a smaller state, with less government regulation and a relatively weak social safety system.  He extols Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations was one of the very rare works which “actually, substantially, and almost immediately started improving the quality of human life and thought,” (174) to the point that its precepts now strike us as “largely self-evident.” (p.175).  Smith advocated regulations and other legal restrictions on economic activity “only insofar as they are required to keep the market fair and free” (p.177).  The beauty of the Smith’s free market, Ferris argues, is that it “benefits society as a whole without requiring its participants to act out of any loftier motive than self interest.” (p.177).  Free markets, “provided that they are kept aboveboard, are more efficient, and grow economies faster, than do markets that are excessively regulated, controlled, or shielded from competition” (p.187).   He emphasizes that in many developing nations, “needless government regulation has driven the majority of economic activity off the radar screens and tax rolls” (p.165).

Although tempted by libertarianism, the scientific spirit leads Ferris away from a dogmatic adherence to unfettered markets as the key to democratic success.  He cites polls that indicate that “those living in nations that distribute their income the most equitably report themselves happiest: The inhabitants of relatively socialistic nations like Iceland, Holland, Finland and Sweden show up happier than Americans, although Americans make more money” (p.155).  Further, “over the past half century the American economy has performed better under Democratic than Republican administrations” (p.185).  Ferris concludes, as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill anticipated, that there is “no one right solution for all peoples when it comes to the proper economic role of government.”  Liberal democracies may and should vacillate between Hayek and Keynes as they seek to reach the most effective degree of government involvement in the economy and extent of their social safety nets.

There are good discussions here of why real science cannot thrive in totalitarian environments, Nazi or Soviet.  (p.199-203).  There is “no socialist science, no Western or Eastern science, no capitalist or communist or feminist or ethnic science.  There’s just science and while one scientist may do it better or worse than the next, nobody can simply invent a different science and expect it to complete successfully with the real thing” (p.209).

Ferris launches an effective assault on anti-science attitudes which one finds in some academic circles, “deconstructionism, multiculturalism, cultural studies,” which Ferris lumps together as “postmodernism.”  These approaches “became so popular that generations of educators came to believe, and continue to teach their students today, that science is culturally conditioned and politically suspect – the oppressive tool of white Western males, in one formulation.”  (p.237).  This is strong stuff, but I found myself in agreement.  However, I left this discussion thinking that Ferris was also going to hammer the anti-science attitudes that pervade wide swaths of today’s Republican party, those who believe that evolution is just another theory of the origins of life, to be considered on equal grounds with Biblical and semi-religious accounts; or that global warming and climate change are matters stirred up by Al Gore and a band of conspiring, self-aggrandizing environmental extremists.  Although he discusses the climate change controversy, he barely touches on the widespread denial of evolution within much of today’s Republican base.  I would have preferred a little more punching here.


Stephen Shapin’s book starts in the mid-19th century, when the scientist was a lonely outsider, working individually on “pure” science, with little expectation of pecuniary reward for his labor (almost all scientists were male in the mid-19th century, a situation which has changed some but not all that much since that time).  Charles Darwin, the century’s most famous scientist, embodied the notion of the “gentleman-amateur.”  Darwin was “never employed to produce scientific knowledge, nor was the knowledge he produced designed to be of use to the contemporary structures of power and profit” (p.42).  The scientist’s role was likened to that of a philosopher whose calling was to discover the Laws of Nature — a higher calling than simply applying those laws.

This exalted role and perception of the scientist changed in the late 19th and early  20th centuries, as industrialization transformed western societies and scientists began to work first for major corporations like Bell Telephone, General Electric, and Eastman Kodak, and then government.  In the corporate world, scientists usually worked in teams rather than individually, applying their expertise to advance the corporation’s interest in greater profits.  Gradually, scientists lost their affinity to philosophers and became more like engineers and technicians, “morally no different from anyone else”  (p.23).  Knowing about nature was, Shapin writes, “no longer like knowing a divinely written book, but like knowing how a car engine worked” (p.25).  This “moral ordinariness” of the scientist is a projection of modern “democratic sensibilities,” suited to “both the quantitative expansions of the scientific role and to changing institutional circumstances in which scientists increasingly found themselves – handmaids to the creation of wealth and enhancement of power” (p.127).

The mobilization of science during World War II –especially the Manhattan project — proved to be a definitive turning point in altering the role and perception of the scientist, bringing about “massive changes in the social and cultural realities of American science, in understandings of what science was and who the scientist was” (p.64).  The war:

propelled a generation of academic scientists into a world that was generally unfamiliar to them: the experience of large-scale organization; of teamwork; of interdisciplinary research; of unlimited resources and severely limited time; of close contact with the sorts of people – especially the military and the commercial worlds – they had not known much about; and, after the end of the war and the beginning of the Cold War, the experience – for some of them – of political power (p.64-65).

Yet, as scientists began to fit ever more easily into corporate and government molds, an “emotionally charged” debate took place throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s over the role of the scientist, with many looking nostalgically at the lost role of the pure, 19th century gentleman-amateur scientist.  According to one “classical trope,” the capacity to produce “genuine scientific knowledge” was only compatible with the “virtues of the free-acting individual” (p.173).  Organized research was said to be a “prostitution of the very idea of science and a visible index of how modernity was going disastrously wrong” (p.96).

The best expression of this mid-century angst was William White’s The Organization Man, published in 1956Whyte saw the “individualism of the Protestant Ethic” being “systematically subverted” by the “deadening hand of corporate collectivism” (p.175).  Whyte’s book came out in the midst of the Cold War, and was one of several works that contended that attempts to transform the making of scientific knowledge into a formally organized endeavor “could succeed only by sacrificing Truth, Progress and ultimately Power” (p.173).  Were Galileo and Einstein alive in the mid-1950s, biochemist Erwin Chargaff wrote wistfully, they “might never get themselves funded by a Federal grant: too individualistic” (p.173).

In the Cold War and McCarthyite context, the scientist was seen as being at the heart of a struggle between “authentic American individualism and the dark forces of conformity and collectivism” (p.120).  The “defense of scientific individualism became a powerful way of reminding American society how much its security and welfare depended upon some of its least sociable and least conforming members” (p.177).  In 1953, Fortune Magazine wrote that the scientist, “particularly the most gifted is, by almost any definition, a maverick. His endowments, drives, interests, political opinions, and even religious beliefs are not, in most cases, those of the majority of society” (p.182).

While Big Science, as it was called, was “celebrated, condemned, and recurrently treated either as a major achievement or a major problem” (p.95), it continued to flourish unabated in major corporations, government, and academic research laboratories.  In 1965, one commentator wrote that the scientist of the day was “typically an ‘organization man’” (p.197).  A corporate science research section touted its virtues:  “No geniuses here; just a bunch of average Americans working together” (p.177). A GE research manager wrote that, as a general rule, “no laboratory can afford to hire men who lack the generous spirit of cooperation” (p.184).   By the mid-1970s, the debate was over: Big Science had won and America had come to terms with the scientific profession as a “route to a comfortably bourgeois style of living” (p.209).

In the last section, Shapin treats the more recent alignment between venture capitalists and scientists, particularly those involved in information and biotechnology.  In what might be termed a new paradigm, the scientist is no longer part of a gigantic corporation.  He or she seeks to help launch a small to medium size business and, often, to run or have a major role in running the enterprise.  This section reads in part like a manual on how to convince the venture capitalist to underwrite and market scientists’ innovative ideas.   The key is to sell oneself as much as one’s ideas.  “Bet on the jockey, not the horse,” is a famous proverb of the venture capitalist world.  “Jockeys live longer than horses, and they’re the ones that have got to steer the horse, to correct the errors of its ways, and to make adaptations to course conditions and the behavior of rival horses” (p.291).  And, especially, avoid the term “new paradigm.”  As one venture capitalist put it, “[I]f I had a dime for every company that has told me it was the new paradigm, I would be rich enough to pay Bill Gates’s legal bill” (p. 290).


If there is a link between these otherwise very different books, it probably lies in Shapin’s notion of the moral ordinariness of the scientist and the compatibility of this notion with modern democratic sensibilities.  There is a rough parallel between the demise of the 19th century gentleman-amateur scientist and the expansion of the right to vote beyond its 18th and early 19th century restriction to white male property holders.  As scientists became less like philosopher kings and more like insurance salesmen, so too the expanding franchise brought the property-less, blacks and women to the ballot box.  Today, no one would question the factory worker having the same access to the ballot as the factory owner.  There is a moral ordinariness to all of us in the voting booth.

Nonetheless, Shapin would likely agree with Gary Rosen, who argued in his perceptive review of Ferris’ book that science remains a sort of an aristocracy. “Experiment, equality and freedom of expression are essential to this work, but it is the work of an elite community from which most people are necessarily excluded,” Rosen wrote (New York Times Book Review, February 10, 2010).  Thankfully, he concluded, “participation in the everyday life of democracy does not require a PhD, nor are theories and ideas its basic medium.”

Ideally, rationality and an empirical weighing of choices, roughly analogous to the scientific method, should drive the functioning of our democracy.  But it is difficult to see this degree of rationality at work in today’s cantankerous democratic processes, whether at the ballot boxes or in the halls of Congress.  It is easy to agree with Ferris that science and democratic evolution have historically been mutually re-enforcing.  But science’s influence on contemporary democratic practice seems more suspect.  Further, there is universality to science — as Ferris says, no Eastern or Western science, “just science.”  Democracy, however, is shaped by profoundly idiosyncratic factors, such as history, culture, and tradition.  India, Sweden and the United States are all democracies, yet are far from carbon copies of one another.

Ferris’ interpretation nonetheless provides us with plenty to think about, and I hope his book will prove to be a major contribution to our understanding of how democracy evolved.  Shapin candidly states that his book is primarily for academic historians and social scientists, unlikely to be of interest to the general reader.  But this general reader was pleased to have taken the plunge, finding his work surprisingly engrossing.  Both works enhance a reverence not only for science but also for creative thinking.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

May 20, 2012


Filed under Politics, Science

Stephen Cohen, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War

In this series of essays, Stephen Cohen, a well-known scholar of Russia and the Soviet Union, looks at “alternative possibilities” in Russian and Soviet history – possibilities “grounded in realities of the time, represented by leaders, and with enough political support to have had a chance of being realized” (p.xi). Throughout the book’s seven essays, along with an epilogue written early in the Obama administration, Cohen challenges what he terms a “school of inevitability” prevalent in the United States that treats seventy five years of Soviet history as having been “closed to alternatives” (p.xii).

The first essay, “Bukaharin’s Fate,” takes a new look at the enigmatic Nikolai Bukaharin, one of several original Bolsheviks whom Stalin liquidated in the 1930s. Cohen speculates that the Soviet Union would have been a very different country, without the terror of the 1930s and 1940s, had Bukarhin prevailed over Stalin in the struggle for power after Lenin’s death in 1924. The second essay, “The Victims Return,” focuses on the Soviet Gulag and highlights the ambivalence of the Soviet Union and Russia about the crimes that Stalin inflicted on his country.

Although Gulag returnees were “survivors in almost the full sense of victims who had survived the Nazi extermination camps,” (p.34), the Soviet Union never undertook exercises like those that sought to hold Nazis accountable for their war crimes after World War II. The primary reason, of course, was the complicity of post-Stalin Soviet leadership in Stalin’s crimes, including Nikita Khrushchev himself. Even today, a fault line runs through Russia between those who contend that Stalin was a despicable, inhuman tyrant, and those who see him as a wise leader of his country. This is not simply an historical debate, Cohen contends, even though most of the survivors of the Soviet Gulag have now died. 27% of Russians today have ancestral links to the Gulag, according to a 2006 poll. A reckoning remains on Russia’s political agenda, Cohen argues, because “there is no statute of limitations for historical crimes as large as Stalin’s . . .the victims’ return is not over” (p.60).

These two essays are polished and thoughtful, with Cohen indulging in the reasoned speculation that is a prerogative of a senior scholar. The last five essays and the epilogue blend together, and are more polemical and provocative. In these pages, Cohen addresses critical questions involving Russia and the Soviet Union. The titles of three of the five essays are themselves questions: Was the Soviet System Reformable? Why Did It End? Who Lost the Post-Soviet Peace? Here, Cohen takes on the conventional wisdom – conventional at least in the United States and much of Western Europe — that the Soviet Union collapsed of its own weight and internal contradictions; that it was beyond reform; and that Gorbachev’s petrosoika and his goal of “socialism with a human face” were hopelessly naïve in light of the nature of the Soviet state. In response, Cohen argues that the Soviet Union could have been transformed into a functioning democracy; that its current anti-democratic tendencies could have been avoided; and that the United States bears considerable responsibility for setting post-Soviet Russia on its current anti-democratic path.

To Cohen, Gorbachev was a genuine reformer, a “Lincolnesque figure determined to ‘preserve the Union’ – in his case, however, not by force but by negotiating a transformation of the discredited ‘super-centralized unitary state’ into an authentic, voluntary federation” (p.105). At some point in the 1980s, Cohen argues, Gorbachev “crossed the Rubicon from Communist Party liberalizer to authentic democratizer,” evolving from a “proponent of ‘socialist pluralism’ to a proponent simply of ‘pluralism,’ from advocate of ‘socialist democracy’ to advocate of ‘democracy,’ from defender of the Communist Party’s ‘leading role’ to defender of the need for a multi-party system” (p.78-79). During Gorbachev’s last years, “all the basic forms of economic activity in modern Russia were born” — born, that is, “within the Soviet economy and thus were evidence of its reformability” (p.105). Under Gorbachev’s leadership, Russia (then Soviet Russia) came “closer to real democracy than it had ever been in its centuries-long history” (p.141).

Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s successor, was the anti-Gorbachev (p.140), driven by a “pathological, destructive, all-consuming hatred of Gorbachev” (p.132). Yeltsin oversaw the breakup of the Soviet Union, dissolving it in a manner which, according to Cohen, was “neither legitimate nor democratic,” but rather, a “profound departure from Gorbachev’s commitment to gradualism, social consensus, and constitutionalism,” and a “return to the country’s ‘neo-Bolshevik’ and earlier traditions of imposed change. . . ” (p.151). In the privatization of former state-held property, Yeltsin unleashed a “true bacchanalia of redistribution,” sometimes euphemistically called “spontaneous privatization,” which Cohen and others derisively term “grab-it-ization” (p.137). Gorbachev, by contrast, was prepared to “go boldly” toward “destatization” but only on the condition that “property created by whole generations does not fall into the hands of thieves” (p.139). Even today, Cohen finds the political and economic consequences of the manner in which privatization unfolded in the 1990s “both the primary cause of Russia’s de-democratization and the primary obstacle to reversing it” (p.154).

In particular, privatization in Russia has led to endemic corruption throughout the public and private sectors, buttressed by frightening violence:

The shadowy, illicit procedures and contract murders that fostered the birth of the oligarchy spread with the new system. As a result, corruption also now deprives Russia of billions of dollars and the efficiency needed for modernization. Meanwhile most of the frequent assassinations of journalists and related crimes, usually attributed to the Kremlin, are actually commissioned by corrupt “businessmen” and officials against reporters and other investigators who have gotten too close to their commercial secrets (p.205).

Cohen provides a disturbing analysis of the role that the United States has played in Russia’s authoritarian turn over the last two decades. Presidents Reagan and G.H.W. Bush supported Gorbachev and the path toward reform he tried to follow. But the Soviet Union was gone by the time Bill Clinton became President, and US policy toward Russia embarked on a disastrous course during his presidency that has continued to the present. The United States elected to treat post-Communist Russia as a “defeated nation, analogous to Germany and Japan after World War II, which was expected to replicate America’s domestic practices and bow to U.S. international interests” (p.171). The United States thereby squandered the “historic opportunity for an essential partnership in world affairs – the legacy of Gorbachev, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush” (p.181). Cohen labels this approach “triumphalism,” a “bi-partisan” and “unbridled” exaltation that America had “won” the Cold War and therefore Moscow’s direction “at home and abroad should be determined by the US government” (p.181).

What the United States euphemistically termed a “strategic partnership” with Yeltsin’s Russia was unbalanced from the beginning, Cohen argues, a “relentless, winner-take-all exploitation of Russia’s post-1991 weakness” (p.168). Washington’s insistence on expanding NATO eastward was for Russia the “original sin” (p.189), with Washington unwilling to acknowledge legitimate Russian security concerns with such expansion. “As the Western military alliance continued its ‘march to the east,’ taking in former Soviet-bloc countries and republics along the way, it finally convinced Moscow that U.S. policy was not ‘strategic partnership’ but a quest for domination” (p.189). Ukraine’s potential entry into NATO was (and still is) seen in Moscow as “hammering the final nail into the coffin of Russia as a great power” — exactly the motive behind the United States’ support for Ukraine membership, Cohen contends (p.190).

In his epilogue, Cohen seeks to refute the notion that a reset in US-Russia relations occurred when Barack Obama became President. “Reinforced by a cult of conventional ‘tough-minded’ policy-making, which marginalized and invariably ‘proved wrong’ even ‘eloquent skeptics’ like George Kennan, the triumphalist orthodoxy still monopolized the political spectrum, from ‘progressives’ to America’s own ultra-nationalists, in effect unchallenged in the parties, media, policy institutes, and universities” (p.218), Cohen argues.  For a real reset, triumphalism must be replaced “in words and in deeds, as the underlying principle of U.S. policy by the original premise that ended the Cold War in the years from 1988 to 1991 – that there were no losers but instead a historic chance for the two great powers, both with legitimate security interests abroad and full sovereignty at home, to escape the perils and heavy costs of their forty-year confrontation” (p.195).

There is certain crankiness to Cohen’s relentless assault on two decades of Washington policy toward Russia, reminding me of Ron Paul taking on the Federal Reserve. I do not have anywhere near the expertise to reach a conclusion as to whether Cohen has made his case in these essays that US policy toward Russia has been as consistently wrongheaded as he contends. But I can easily conclude that his provocative views will prompt me to look at Russia and US-Russian relations through a different lens going forward.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
April 24, 2012


Filed under History, Politics, Soviet Union

The Matter of Dreyfus

Ruth Harris, “Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century”

Frederic Brown, “For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus”

Louis Begley, “Why The Dreyfus Affair Matters”

I was surprised when two books on the Dreyfus affair, by Ruth Harris and Frederic Brown, came out within a short time of one another in 2010. This is a subject that I have wanted to understand better, so I decided to jump in and read both in 2011. When I ordered the Harris and Brown books on Amazon.com, through a “pop up” mechanism, Amazon kindly suggested that people who had purchased the two books might also be interested in reading Louis Begley’s “Why The Dreyfus Affair Matters.” I try to resist these pop ups but, after being severely tempted on many previous occasions, this time I succumbed. I really did want to learn why Dreyfus matters in the 21st century.

Although I read Harris’ book first, it would have made more sense to reverse the order. Brown emphasizes the background of the Affair. In the first 174 pages of his 265 page book, he treats the social, political and intellectual climate in which the Dreyfus Affair arose. At about the two-thirds mark, he begins to recount the story of a French cleaning lady emptying her wastebasket at the German Embassy in Paris in September 1894 and finding pieces of a torn-up, unsigned document containing low-level military secrets. This discovery set in motion the matter that would ensnare Alfred Dreyfus, a promising young Jewish Army officer from Alsace. In contrast, Harris starts with the cleaning lady in the German Embassy. The two books work well together, presenting a comprehensive and balanced view of the Affair.

Begley’s book, published a year earlier in 2009, covers succinctly the background and details of the Affair. Although eager to learn why someone versed in the Affair thinks that it might matter for us today, over a century later, I was disappointed by Begley’s book. I am skeptical of this genre (and learned that Begley’s book on Dreyfus is part of a Yale University Press series on why various people, places or things matter). Explaining why an historical figure or event matters appears to involve a search for the most pertinent contemporary analogy. Begley analogizes Dreyfus’ case to those of terrorist suspects held by the United States at Guantanamo Naval Base. He failed to convince me that this is the best analogy, and I found his argument jarring and out of place in his narrative.

The hard and cold facts of the Dreyfus Affair hide the polemical debate which it generated and the fissures in French society which it revealed. Shortly after finding that shredded document in the wastebasket in the German Embassy in September 1894, the cleaning lady, herself a spy for French intelligence, turned the shreds over to her superiors. They pieced it together, concluded that it was evidence of a spy for Germany within the French army, and quickly determined that Dreyfus was the culprit. Dreyfus was arrested for treason shortly thereafter, summarily convicted in a secret court martial, and stripped of his rank in front of a crowd screaming, “Death to Judas, death to the Jew.” Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana in early 1895.

In 1896, a new chief of French intelligence, Lieutenant Colonel Picquart, found evidence that the real traitor was Major Ferdinand Esterhzy and that Dreyfus was innocent. Picquart was silenced by a military cover up. In 1899, after a passionate campaign by the “Dreyfusards,” led by Emile Zola and his famous J’Accuse, Dreyfus was pardoned and released from prison, then given a second trial in which he was again found guilty despite evidence strongly supporting his innocence. It was not until 1906 that a military commission officially exonerated Dreyfus.

Brown’s book is excellent in laying out the background to the affair. As his sub-title indicates, that background involves French cultural wars dating back to the French Revolution of the previous century, in which conservative institutions, particularly the Catholic Church and the military, considered themselves and the traditional France they represented to be under siege by a republican France, cosmopolitan, secular and fused with the values of the 18th century Enlightenment. In this climate, a virulent anti-Semitism flourished as the pervasive common denominator which drove the frenzy against Dreyfus.

In wide swaths of late 19th century French society, Jews were considered to be outsiders even when born on French soil, “created by God to serve as a spy wherever treason is afoot,” as one Catholic publication stated (Brown, p.216 n.*). Brown discusses a “fortress-France nationalism,” defending the country against the forces of modernity, especially the democratic and liberal Third French Republic — often termed a “Jewish, Masonic Republic” (Brown, p.208). But, Brown observes, “beneath the political agenda one observed a spiritual reaction against decadence by people who understood that defense of French interests to be that of a completed civilization at war with the new mobility of things and beings” (Brown, p.208, quoting historian Michel Winock).

Brown’s story begins in 1870 with Napoleon III’s abdication and the Franco-Prussian War, which ended with the humiliating loss of Alsace and parts of Lorraine, a loss many on the political right attributed to the Enlightenment and the forces of modernity. Among the immediate predicates to the Dreyfus Affair, the most critical in Brown’s view was that involving Georges Boulanger, a general in the French Army who, in 1889, led an unsuccessful movement of French conservatives threatening to take over the state and restore the monarchy. According to Prime Minister Léon Blum, who would become France’s first Jewish Prime Minister in 1936, one “cannot understand the Dreyfus Affair unless one remembers that it broke out less than eight years after a failed [Boulanger-led] revolution. The Boulangists sought revenge . . . and the discrediting of institutions and parties” (Brown, p.123).

Construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 was another factor fueling the French cultural wars. Conservatives regarded the tower as a sacrilege to traditional France, a sign that “mercantile fantasies” were in the ascendance and France was becoming “more American than America” (Brown, p.147). Lording over the French past and future, the tower was a “cosmopolite aspiring to universality, a potential instrument of treason. As such, it could only be the invention of ‘Israel’” (Brown, p.151). The Sacré Coeur basilica, which faces the Eiffel Tower from Paris’ highest perch in Montmarte, was constructed a few years later to serve as the counterpoint to the Tower: a “sanctuary for refugees from Babylon, a Parisian home for a devotion of specifically French origin, a monument embodying allegiance to the pope . . .” (Brown, p.35).

Harris dwells only in passing on the background to the Affair, concentrating on the moment Dreyfus was fingered as a traitor. She agrees with Brown and most other historians of the period that at one level, the Dreyfus debate was a “struggle over the legacy of the Enlightenment” (Harris, p.8). The Anti-Dreyfusards:

Rejected the universalism of the Rights of Man in favour of a conception of French identity that was based on language and race. They believed that a “true” French morality had to exclude Jews, Protestants and Freemasons in order to preserve a unique national community (Harris, p.8).

On the other side, the Dreyfusards “retained a belief in a universal moral code and trusted in rationality as a guide to ethical conduct. Correct judgments, they held, could be made only on the basis of evidence, and they maintained that Catholicism and anti-Semitism were roads back to a pre-Enlightenment obscurantism” (Harris, p. 8-9).

Harris excels in exposing the complexities underlying both sides, showing that the Affair was far more than a Manichean struggle between monolithic blocks. There was “neither a single, unified Catholic vision, nor a single, unified ‘secular’ response” (Harris, p. 373). Dreyfusards were Protestant, Catholic and Jewish, all trying to overcome backward elements within their own religions, but plagued by their own fears, animosities and inflexibilities. The more radical Dreyfusards, she contends, “abandoned much of their liberal humanitarianism and cemented their victory through an all-out assault on the Church, closing down congregations, expelling orders of priests and establishing an iron grip over the educational system” (Harris, p.9). They were “as emotionally vested in their ideology as the anti-Dreyfusards. . . They insisted that their opponents alone were guilty of muddled thinking and obscurantist tendencies. This belief was central to creating, and intensifying, the gulf between the two sides” (Harris, p. 168).

Harris closes with her own observations on why the Dreyfus affair might matter today. She cites the “widespread anxiety about how to integrate a large immigrant – and predominantly Islamic – minority” (Harris, p.385). Despite the very altered circumstances in twenty-first century France:

The debate resonates with the ferocity (and many of the same ideological oppositions) of the earlier [Dreyfus] period. Today right-wing nationalists keep company with some members of the left outraged by the incursion of religious symbolism into secular education. Where else in the Western world would the wearing of headscarves produce such ire and even national legislation . . .As much as in the early stages of the Dryefus Affair, the debate surrounding headscarves does not fit neatly into a tidy left/right divide. Even if, in time, the headscarf issue fades from view, Muslim resistance to the values of laïcité [secularism] means that many French citizens will continue to face the problem of living comfortably with multiple identities. This tension is one of the many aspects of French political culture that were strengthened, and, in some measure created, by the Dreyfus Affair (Harris, p.385).

Harris’ view of why Dreyfus might manner in the 21st century is more convincing than that of Louis Begley. About halfway through his first chapter, Begley jumps from a factual summation of the Affair to a 17 page digression on United States treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Naval Base, including discussions of some of the key Supreme Court decisions addressing the legality of maintenance of the base as a prison for detainees captured in the war on terror. Citing a poll taken around the time of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008 that showed that 44% of the respondents did not favor closing the prison, Begley concludes: “Just as the outset of the Dreyfus Affair the French found it easy to believe that Dreyfus must be a traitor because he was a Jew, many Americans had had no trouble believing that the detainees at Guatánomo – and those in CIA jails – were terrorists simply because they were Muslims” (p.43). Begley does not return to the Guatánomo theme in any meaningful sense until the final paragraph of his book.

Begley’s elevation of Guatánomo as the most pertinent contemporary analogy to Dreyfus strikes me as a stretch. In a recent Washington Post article, Karen Greenberg writes that Guatánomo is a “ready symbol of the country’s willingness to allow national security to trump the rule of law,” (Karen Greenberg, A World Without Gitmo,” Washington Post, January 15, 2012, B2), a view I accept. Dreyfus’ flagrant mistreatment within the French legal system was justified by some as necessary to defend the security of a civilization thought to be under siege, and in this sense there may be superficial similarities to the detainees at Guatánomo. But few of the detainees are United States citizens, whereas one of the core themes of the Dreyfus Affairis is the insider as outsider. Born French and a loyal and patriotic citizen serving in his country’s army, Dreyfus threatened traditional institutions because he was a Jew and in the eyes of many of his countrymen could never be French in the true sense of the term.

But the question why Dreyfus matters does not have to be a search for the most pertinent contemporary analogy. One could argue that the Affair matters because it is crucial to any understanding of late 19th and early 20th century French history. These three books contribute significantly to this understanding. My guess is that scholars would contend that Harris breaks the most new ground, providing an iconoclastic view of the Dreyfusards, with their own warts. Brown sets forth a richly detailed picture of the environment in which the Affair arose. Although his discussion of Guatánomo seems misplaced, Begley offers a solid summation of the Affair. That three English language books on the subject were published within a two-year period demonstrates that the matter of Dreyfus continues to matter.


Filed under France, French History, History, Politics