On Paul Berman's Powerful Must-Read Essay, and- Some Overdue Apologies
As the weekend approaches, I can think of no better service than to alert readers of my blog to one of the most important articles to appear anywhere in a long time: the lengthy review essay of Michael Scammel’s biography of Arthur Koestler, Koestler:The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth Century Skeptic. It is written by Paul Berman, and it appears in The New Republic
Berman’s essay, as his readers have come to expect, is much more than a simple review. He uses the Scammell biography as a take-off point to make many salient observations about the times in which Koestler lived, and the lessons of his life that may be applicable today. Talking about what he calls the Promethean myth, Berman ruminates about the “mythical whiff” that Karl Marx absorbed and which transformed the movement he created “from a sober, progressive-minded, social-science action campaign into a movement of religious inebriates. A religious frenzy had produced a hubris. Under Lenin and the Bolsheviks, hubris led to despotism. And to crime—to the deliberate setting aside of moral considerations. To the dehumanization of humanism.” He talks of “a Promethean heroism stripped of its moral bearings and rendered ugly, not to mention counterproductive.”
Berman continues in his essay to pull together different intellectual strands, from Edmund Wilson to Koestler to Sidney Hook and Max Eastman, to the Jewish anarchists in Russia and New York, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, and to the trade union movement in the New York garment industry, and its dedication to a firm principled anti-Communism. Finally, he moves into our modern times in the era of the ascendency of radical Islamist thought. His writing is a tour d ‘force, an elegant, brilliant and necessary discussion of social thought in the past century, with lessons that some have forgotten, or perhaps never learned in the first placeBerman talks about the “prison culture” that bred both Bolshevism and that today seems to breed radical Islam---a different “utopian” solution, but one that too comes from repressive regimes that imprison its dissenters, and that help mold them into adherents of fanaticism.
As he moves along, taking up different themes, Berman notes that the great Russian anarchist, Kropotkin, advised Lenin that if he really wanted a free society, he should eschew centralized tyranny and allow freedom of thought and a truly free economic and political system. Indeed, he believes that towards the end of his life, Kropotkin moved towards the realization that liberalism was perhaps the genuine alternative to the kind of revolution he once advocated. Berman writes: “Kropotkin even advised Lenin to emulate a few virtues of the United States of America, and not to go on assuming, as Lenin did, that America’s wealth and strength were merely the booty of imperialist violence—a clear indication that, by the end of his life, Kropotkin’s version of the anarchist doctrine was tilting in liberal directions.”
As for today, Berman remarks how strange it is that we do not have the equivalent of the Congress of Cultural Freedom, the Cold War intellectual alliance of the labor movement, socialist and conservative intellectuals from Europe and America, that joined together to oppose the Bolshevik mentality and Communism. He puts it this way:
A tremendous intellectual debate is taking place right now across huge portions of the world, with the Islamists on one side and a variety of anti-totalitarian liberals, Muslim and non-Muslim, on the other. But the kinds of liberal congresses and campaigns that Scammell describes have never taken place in our day, not on a grand scale anyway. We have human rights organizations, but we do not have sustained campaigns on behalf of the persecuted liberals in countries where organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood wield a lot of influence. We do not even have the kinds of congresses or conferences that would allow liberal-minded writers from different countries and speaking different languages to meet each other and discuss their respective experiences and thoughts. Nor do we have any kind of sustained and coordinated effort to translate books and essays from one language to another—not on a truly large scale. On matters such as these, Hook, the old socialists of the American labor movement, Koestler, his comrade Manès Sperber in France, and their various colleagues of the 1940s were way ahead of us.
Thanks to Paul Berman, one of the preeminent intellectuals of our own age, perhaps such a movement and organization can arise again. Read his article, and then go out and buy his new very important book, The Flight of the Intellectuals. You can read Ron Rosenbaum’s review of it here.
And now, some apologies long overdue:
We all make mistakes and judgments we have come to regret. A few months ago, Marty Peretz used his blog to apologize to Michael Ledeen, whom Peretz graciously acknowledged was right about so many things about which he, Peretz, was wrong. Peretz had been estranged from Ledeen for many years, although when he bought The New Republic decades ago, he had hired Ledeen to be its foreign affairs editor. Such apologies are unusual and hard to make. Peretz showed himself to be courageous in publicly admitting that on critical issues, he had been wrong, and had unfairly slighted Ledeen.
Taking a cue from Peretz’s action, I wish to do something of the same. First, I too owe an apology to Paul Berman, about whom I write today. Years ago, Berman and I had some serious quarrels over issues now long forgotten by many. Our old mutual friend, the late brave Lincoln Brigade dissident vet, Bill Herrick, could never understand our fight. He would say: “This must have something to do with the atmosphere of New York City (where Berman and I then both lived) and being Jewish intellectuals.”
Writing about Berman in my autobiography, Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left, I falsely attributed an incident to him, in which he was not involved. Over the years, it has been brought up on the internet more than a few times by people who have spotted it, and have used it to condemn Berman. I wrote that Berman, along with the late Manny Geltman, had been involved in trying to force me off the editorial board of Dissent magazine, the social-democratic journal founded by Irving Howe, because of my strong anti-Sandinista views. That sentence thus made Berman appear as a would-be totalitarian, a man who would not countenance dissent and argument if it differed with his own viewpoint.
I deeply regret having written those words. They are not only false, but contrary to what Berman himself believed at the time, since he was emerging as a strong critic of left-wing totalitarianism and a fierce critic of the Sandinistas. Indeed, when he wrote an article critical of them for the left-wing magazine Mother Jones, its then editor Michael Moore (yes- that Michael Moore) refused to publish it. Moreover, although Berman later joined the board of the journal, I do not believe that he was a member of it at the time I was, and he joined its ranks much later. And if there was one thing that always was constant with Berman, it is his solid belief in the importance of free speech, debate and dissent. Such an action is completely out of his character. As for myself, I suspect I put it in without thinking much, because of anger I had towards him due to the ferocity of our battles at the time. I hope this belated apology serves to prevent others from ever using this again as ammunition meant to harm Berman in the present.
Second, I also owe an apology to the distinguished journalist and writer Anne Applebaum. Months ago in one of my blogs, I criticized one of her articles in The Washington Post- actually I think a blog she wrote on the paper’s website and not even a column-and I made known by disagreement in very strong improper terms. I still do not agree with her argument in that particular blog. The problem is that my ill chosen words- which I will not repeat here or link to- made it appear that I believed this one argument she made cast doubt on her integrity, brilliance and intellect. My disagreement should never have been made in such a strident and unfair way, and I was foolish to let my words appear to mean that I had lost all respect for her, when the opposite is actually the case.
I have come to learn through more than one source that my words have been thrown in her face and used over and over by her opponents, as reason to ignore her arguments and to dismiss her work entirely. Nothing upsets me more than learning this. I consider Applebaum one of our major writers and thinkers. Her justly won Pulitzer Prize for the magisterial work Gulag:A History, is one of the essential books of our time. Her analysis of foreign affairs, which appear regularly in The Washington Post and Slate, are among the most informative and nuanced that appear. I always look forward to reading her work and learning from her, and I look forward immensely to the book she is now working on, a history of the imposition of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War.
So I thank Marty Peretz for setting the example. I, and other writers, must strive to be more careful and judicious when we write. This is especially the case in blogs, when it is easy to get carried away and forget that words have effect, and when editors are not advising us closely and getting us to pause before our thoughts are set down for others to see. I will strive to try my best to avoid such a practice in the future. And I hope my compatriots on the internet and in the media do so as well.