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Clash of Visualizations

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Every one of the "new movements"--Bolshevism, Nazism, Italian and Spanish Fascism--fits this pattern closely, Berman claims. And so does Muslim totalitarianism, in both its religious (radical Islamist) and secular (Baath socialist) versions. In an extended analysis of In the Shade of the Qur'an, the multivolume masterpiece of the most influential modern Islamist, Sayyid Qutb, Berman finds the familiar mythical narrative. Allah's faithful, the people of the first Islamic societies, are corrupted by cosmopolitanism: first in the form of Christian theology, with its admixture of Greek and Roman philosophy, and then in the form of Western liberalism, particularly the doctrine of the separation of church and state. The original simplicity and unity of God's people are destroyed by the enemy within ("false Muslims" and Jews), aided from without by waves of Christian Crusaders, missionaries, imperialists and businessmen. But a vanguard of God's martyrs, resolutely employing murder and suicide, will wage a holy war against this satanic barbarism and restore pristine Islam, this time over the whole world.

About the Author

George Scialabba
George Scialabba is the author of Divided Mind and, most recently, What Are Intellectuals Good For? and The Modern...

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Although Terror and Liberalism is not a scholarly work and makes no reference to the large academic literature on totalitarianism, Berman's comparative anatomy of totalitarian regimes, schematic but imaginative and set forth in a highly wrought, relentlessly epigrammatic style--which will exasperate some readers (as it did me) and delight others--is an achievement. Still, even a nonhistorian will find a lot to quibble with. Berman works his schema very hard. He has to, if it is to support all the lessons he draws from it in the second half of the book. But I'm not sure it can bear so much weight.

The fit with Bolshevism is far from perfect. For one thing, the proletariat was not exactly the people of God. It never dwelt in peace and simplicity; it was born with the modern world, from the chaos and upheaval of industrialization. For another thing, Lenin was not exactly the Leader Berman says he was: "a superman," "a god," "a nihilist," "a genius beyond all geniuses...the man on horseback who, in his statements and demeanor, was visibly mad, and who, in his madness, incarnated the deepest of all the anti-liberal impulses, which was the revolt against rationality." Lenin was certainly an arrogant, cold-hearted son of a bitch, and it would have been much better for the world if he had fallen off (or under) that train before it reached the Finland Station. But he was not "mad" or a "nihilist," he did not regard himself as a god, and he was annoyed when other people did (or pretended to). Most important, Bolshevism was not exactly a "pathological mass movement," which, according to Berman, is the fundamental characteristic of all totalitarianisms and precisely what liberal intellectuals consistently fail to understand about them. Bolshevism was pathological all right, but it was not a mass movement. It was an elite, skillfully and ruthlessly controlling demoralized and apathetic masses. It was, as Nicolas Werth wrote in The Black Book of Communism, "a state against its people."

Nazism fits Berman's schema better. But even here there are problems. Berman repeatedly castigates the antiwar French Socialists of the late 1930s, exemplars (for him) of all naïve liberal antiwar optimists confronted by an implacable, incomprehensible totalitarian threat. The fuzzy-minded (and perhaps also anti-Semitic) French left stubbornly refused to believe "that millions of upstanding Germans had enlisted in a political movement whose animating principles were paranoid conspiracy theories, blood-curdling hatreds, medieval superstitions, and the lure of murder." Actually, it's not clear they had. They had voted for the Nazi Party, which was not exactly the same thing. A historian calls the NSDAP "a sect of believers and a party of the people." Meaning, evidently, that not all voters were believers. So what did they vote for?

For revenge and for sticking it to the Jews in many cases, though hardly all. What allowed these shameful motives into play and swept away civilized inhibitions against them? A sheerly mysterious upwelling of hatred for liberal values, as Berman insists? Were there no predisposing material influences? There could have been, after all. In 1918-19 the British government extended its naval blockade for eight months after the German surrender, at a cost of perhaps half a million lives--a vivid and bitterly resented memory fifteen years later. The Versailles settlement was harsh and vindictive. Throughout the 1920s the German economy was weak; the Weimar inflation wiped out the life savings of the middle class (where most of Hitler's support came from). And then the bottom fell out altogether. Between 1929 and 1932 German industrial production dropped by half, stock prices by two-thirds, unemployment tripled and government welfare expenditures increased thirteenfold. It was, in one historian's words, "an unprecedented catastrophe." Another historian reminds us that "the potential maximum of Nazi [voter] support mark...hover[ed] around the forty percent mark," a figure "it is useful to bear in mind in view of what some authors have said about 'the Germans'' enthusiasm for Hitler." Still another historian quotes a Nazi official to the effect that "the party program weighed less heavily with voters than the feeling that only National Socialism still had the strength to drag the cart out of the mire."

These historical commonplaces ought to have slowed Berman's rhetorical momentum a little. "Despair was their desire," he writes of totalitarians, not any hope of security or relief. But it wasn't the desire of most Nazi voters in 1933. And after that, their desires no longer mattered; Nazi Germany too became "a state against its people." Does this absolve that 40 percent of complicity with barbarism? No, it only suggests, as common sense would also suggest, that something other than, or in addition to, "hatred of liberal civilization" may have weakened their resistance to it.

But the arbitrariness, the unintelligibility, the absolute mysteriousness of totalitarianism are essential to Berman's larger argument. For Terror and Liberalism has a practical as well as an analytical purpose: to stiffen America's backbone for the War on Terror. It aims to banish liberal self-doubt, to reassure us that hatred or mistrust of America is not America's fault, that America's and Israel's enemies cannot be understood, cannot be reasoned with, cannot be conciliated. They are prisoners of the same species of "mass pathology," of apocalyptic fantasy, that produced earlier totalitarianisms; and if they are not dealt with more firmly and forcefully than those others were, there will not be peace in our time. To look for grievances, for substantive wrongs, in the background of suicide terrorism is a misunderstanding, a mere reflex of naïve rationalism. Instead, "we have to steel ourselves" while "the suicide warriors make their ecstatic march toward death."

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