Consider this hypothetical situation. Country A has suffered much at the hands of its larger, more powerful neighbor, Country B: an illegal trade embargo, which has gravely harmed the health and welfare of A’s population; large-scale poisoning of livestock and other acts of economic sabotage; bombing of industrial and resort facilities, with considerable loss of life; several assassination attempts against the head of state; and sponsorship of an (unsuccessful) invasion. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Country A acquires decisive military superiority and declares its intention to invade and disarm Country B in order to prevent further terrorism. Country B objects, on the grounds that it is, internally, a freer and more open society than Country A. Which is true enough–B is a liberal society, A a dictatorship. Is Country A (Cuba) nevertheless justified in invading Country B (the United States)?
Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism is concerned with what he seems to believe is an entirely different problem: How should liberal societies defend themselves against totalitarian ones? In fact, however, it is the same problem, with the same solution: adherence to prevailing international law and whatever collective security regime exists to enforce it. Such adherence is of course anathema to the present American government and its apologists, whose viewpoint was summed up by spokesmen for the first liberal superpower, Athens, as it prepared to invade a smaller neighbor for reasons of “national security”: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”
For Berman, the international behavior of states corresponds not to their strength but to their internal character. Liberal societies are sane, tolerant, stable, pluralistic and therefore well behaved. Totalitarian societies are paranoid, intolerant, coerced into artificial unity and therefore aggressive. “At a deep level, totalitarianism and terrorism are one and the same,” Berman writes. “If only we could discover the roots of totalitarianism, we would have discovered the roots of terror as well, and vice versa.” The first half of Terror and Liberalism excavates those roots.
The nature of totalitarianism is patent in the word: It is a claim to total authority, authority in every sphere. This is the opposite of liberalism, which is “the recognition that all of life is not governed by a single, all-knowing and all-powerful authority…the tolerant idea that every sphere of human activity–science, technology, politics, religion, and private life–should operate independently of the others, without trying to yoke everything together under a single guiding hand.”
This attractive and self-confident “relative freedom” does not satisfy everyone. Two persistent strains of nineteenth-century European culture expressed a “violent loathing of progress and liberalism.” There was an aesthetic strain: “the old Romantic literary fashion for murder and suicide, the dandy’s fondness for the irrational and the irresponsible, the little nihilist groups of left-wing desperadoes with their dreams of poetic death.” And there was a philosophical strain: German idealism and antirationalism in its extremer versions, anti-Semitism, racial theory. At the end of the nineteenth century these two strains fused to create movements “of a new type,” in Lenin’s words, devoted (according to Berman) “to a single, all-consuming obsession, which was a hatred of liberal civilization.”
Terror and Liberalism lays bare the dynamics of these movements. Though left-wing (Bolshevik) and right-wing (fascist), they shared “a single ur-myth,” which goes back at least as far as the Book of Revelation (also known as Apocalypse) in the New Testament. In this myth, the people of God, dwelling in peace and simplicity, are attacked from within by the wealthy and corrupt denizens of Babylon, aided by evil foreign allies. In a great battle at Armageddon, the people, under a quasi-divine Leader, destroy the satanic forces and inaugurate a thousand-year reign of purity and virtue.