Saturday, April 15, 2006

Terror and Liberalism, 4/7

So Berman can’t be relied upon when it comes to the subject of religion, and he can’t be relied upon as a guide to other people’s ideas, and this might be thought problematic in a book that contains lengthy discussions of (a) religion and (b) other people’s ideas. But let’s leave (a) for the moment, continuing with (b) for just a bit longer, and glance at Berman’s reading of Camus’s The Rebel, as in many ways this is the heart of his book. Indeed, in its very last paragraph, Berman asserts that “the thesis of my book” is that “[t]oday the totalitarian danger has not yet lost its sting, and there is no wisdom in claiming otherwise. The literature and language of the mid-twentieth century speak to us about danger of that sort.” And, for Berman, no literature speaks more clearly with greater profundity than The Rebel. Here’s why:
“Among the many commentators from half a century ago, the philosopher from Algeria was the single one who intuitively recognized a crucial reality. He recognized that, at a deep level, totalitarianism and terrorism are one and the same. He recognized that, if only we could discover the roots of totalitarianism, we would have discovered the roots of terror as well, and vice versa.” [p.26]
We might note here that there’s quite a bit about the origins of the French Revolutionary state terror in J. L. Talmon’s Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, and a chapter on “Ideology and Terror” in Hannah Arendt’s imperishable Origins of Totalitarianism, both of which are from the same period as The Rebel. We might further observe that Hegel’s discussion of “Absolute Freedom and Terror” in the Phenomenology of Spirit tends to lurk behind all such analyses. (So Berman on Camus: "The impulse, in its new version, was a dance step which began by gazing upward into human freedom and progress - and then, with the quickest and most graceful of dips, leaned downward into death... This sort of thing got underway, he thought, during the French Revolution - and not just because of people like Saint-Just..." [p.28] And here’s Hegel on the French Revolution: “The sole and only work and deed accomplished by universal freedom is therefore death… the most cold-blooded and meaningless death of all, with no more significance than cleaving a head of cabbage or swallowing a draught of water”.) But then perhaps everything turns on just what we think “totalitarianism and terrorism are one and the same” really means, or perhaps on just how deep that “deep level” turns out to be.

Berman tries to supplement Camus’s argument with a few remarks about Victor Hugo’s play, Hernani. (This may be more familiar to the bruschetta-eating classes in Giuseppe Verdi’s operatic version, Ernani, which is performed from time to time, in a way that Hernani is not). Hernani is, for Berman, a play about rebellion, though it seems to me that it’s more straightforwardly a play about conformity, in particular to the insanely strict demands of a Castilian honour code. (The full title of the play is Hernani ou l'Honneur Castillan.) Whichever of us is right on the general interpretation of the play, however, Berman provides a misleading account of its, and of the bandit Hernani’s, end. Hernani participates, Berman tells us, “in a triple suicide, if only to consummate his rebellion by dominating the circumstances of his own death” [p.29]. Plenty of people have killed themselves for this kind of reason, but Hernani isn’t one of them. (Indeed, it would be quite heartless to choose to kill yourself at your own wedding, as Hernani does, simply in order to dominate the circs of your own d.) Rather, Hernani kills himself with poison at the end of the play as a matter of honour, having earlier promised his arch-rival Don Ruy Gomez de Silva that he would do so if he were ever to hear the sound of his own horn. (An odd promise; it’s an odd play.)

But in general, Berman’s pop presentation of Camus’s argument doesn’t seem to me to be too bad. (Perhaps he’s better at writing accurately about ideas he likes.) He pretty much skips over most of Camus’s discussion of the French Revolution and the impact of Hegelianism in nineteenth-century Europe, true enough, preferring to focus by contrast on Hernani and on Charles Baudelaire’s partisanship for Satan, from there moving quickly on to Dostoyevsky, and in particular, to his creation Ivan Karamazov, for whom “if God is dead then everything is permitted”. And these artists, flirting with nihilism and ethical outrage, pave the way for what comes next: Russian anarchist terrorism. And from there, according to Camus and to Berman, it’s not an especially big step to twentieth-century totalitarianism.

As far as I can see, the chief disagreement between Berman and Camus concerns the character of Bolshevism in general and Lenin in particular. Camus draws a distinction between the “rational terror” of the Bolsheviks (which is not to say that he approves of it) and the “irrational terror” of fascism, the former owing its origins to left Hegelianism and its transformation into Marxism, and the latter not. Having ignored Camus’s discussion of Hegelianism, it’s easier for Berman to lump Bolshevism and Nazism together as two varieties of political irrationalism based on “movements of a new type”, a phrase of Lenin’s which Berman borrows. And when it comes to discussing Lenin, here I’ll borrow the words of Olivier Todd, in his introduction to the Penguin edition of The Rebel: “Camus is tough on Stalin, but Lenin escapes scot free“ [p.xi], he writes, perhaps exaggerating the matter a bit, but drawing attention to an important element of Camus’s analysis of the progress of the Russian Revolution. Berman by contrast takes a very different view. For him, Lenin was the “original model” of a Leader-with-a-capital-L who was “visibly mad, and who, in his madness, incarnated the deepest of all the anti-liberal impulses, which was the revolt against rationality” [p.50], no less. We might think that that’s not especially persuasive as a description of Lenin; and we might also be surprised by Berman’s earlier insistence that the Bolsheviks were devoted to "a single all-consuming obsession, which was a hatred of liberal civilization" [p.42], as if, for the Bolsheviks, the trouble with pre-Revolutionary Russia was its liberalism. But, in general, as I say, Berman’s précis of Camus’s argument doesn’t seem to be at all bad.


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