On September 23, 2001, midpoint between the horrific events of September
11 and the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, the New York
Times ran an intriguing headline. "Forget the Past: It's a War
Unlike Any Other," it advised, above an article by John Kifner noting
that "Air Force bombers are heading toward distant airfields to fight a
shadowy foe flitting through the mountains in a deeply hostile land
already so poor and so ruined by two decades of war that [it] is
virtually bereft of targets." It was a poor headline for an article that
began by noting the long history of conflicts among great powers over
control of Central Asia, but it was a message with a significant degree
History was often being ignored in the heated discussions of the coming
war and the attacks that provoked it, of course, but usually without
anyone having to instruct us to forget it. Pundits and politicians alike
could draw on a long tradition of keeping the public ill informed about
the role of the United States in the world. And once the "war on
terrorism" actually started, those who tried to speak about a context
for the attacks of September, or of how the history of US intervention
in the world had produced rage and frustration that could help fuel such
actions, were accused of justifying terrorism.
In The Clash of Fundamentalisms, a riposte to Samuel Huntington's
much-discussed "clash of civilizations" thesis, Pakistani writer and
filmmaker Tariq Ali sets the ambitious goal of challenging such
organized historical amnesia--"the routine disinformation or
no-information that prevails today"--and of speaking forthrightly about
many topics that have become unpopular or even heretical in the West, as
well as within what he calls the House of Islam. "The virtual outlawing
of history by the dominant culture has reduced the process of democracy
to farce," Ali puts it in one chapter, "A short course history of US
imperialism." In such a situation, "everything is either oversimplified
or reduced to a wearisome incomprehensibility."
Whereas Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis posits a cultural
conflict between Islamic and Western civilization, and sees religion as
"perhaps the central force that motivates and mobilizes people,"
Ali argues that economics and politics, especially oil politics, remain
central to the friction between Western powers and states in the so-called Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East. He
rejects Huntington's identification of the West with "human rights,
equality, liberty, the rule of law, [and] democracy," and he reminds us
of the vast disparities that exist among cultures and nations within the
Islamic world itself.
Few people are better disposed than Ali to serve as a guide to the
neglected and distorted histories relevant to the conflict in
Afghanistan, the broader "war on terrorism" now being fought on numerous
fronts by the Bush Administration, and the intimately related conflicts
in Pakistan, India and Kashmir, which have recently put the world on a
heightened nuclear alert. Ali, a longtime editor of New Left
Review and Verso books, is the author of three books on Pakistan and
has deep personal and political connections to the region. In The
Clash of Fundamentalisms he surveys a range of regional and
historical conflicts that remain open chapters, including the creation
of Israel and its ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands, the
unfinished legacy of Britain's brutal partition of India in 1947 and the
fallout from division of the world by the colonial powers. The book is
an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the nightmare of
history from which so many people are struggling to awake, and deserves
serious engagement and consideration. Ali broadens our horizons,
geographically, historically, intellectually and politically.
Despite his obvious hostility to religious modes of thinking--defending
against religious orthodoxy in favor of "the freedom to think freely and
rationally and [exercise] the freedom of imagination"--Ali has a
sophisticated appreciation of the many contradictory movements and ideas
that have organized themselves under the banner of Islam. He can debate
Islamic doctrine with the most ardent purists while at the same time
dispensing with the simplistic (and all too often racist) caricatures of
Islam that pass for analysis in the West. In The Clash of
Fundamentalisms he takes the reader on a necessarily schematic and
selective history of Islam, though one wishes he had provided more
signposts for those interested in further study than the scattered and
inconsistent references included in this volume.
Ali writes here of his "instinctive" atheism during his upbringing in
Lahore, Pakistan, and of being politicized at an early age. His
experiences then helped him understand Islam as a political phenomenon,
born of the specific historic experiences of Muhammad, who worked on a
merchant caravan and traveled widely, "coming into contact with
Christians and Jews and Magians and pagans of every stripe." Ali writes
that "Muhammad's spiritual drive was partially fueled by socio-economic
passions, by the desire to strengthen the communal standing of the Arabs
and the need to impose a set of common rules," thus creating an impulse
toward the creation of a universal state that remains an important
element of Islam's appeal.
Ali offers a fascinating discussion of the Mu'tazilites, an Islamic sect
that attempted to reconcile monotheism with a materialist understanding
of the world, including a theory of the atomic composition of matter;
some of its members also argued that the Koran was a historical rather
than a revealed document. "The poverty of contemporary Islamic thought
contrasts with the riches of the ninth and tenth centuries," Ali argues.
But he is by no means backward looking in his own vision. He is
particularly scornful of the mythical idealized past valorized by the
Wahhabites in Saudi Arabia, the Taliban and other Islamic sects. "What
do the Islamists offer?" Ali asks rhetorically: "A route to a past
which, mercifully for the people of the seventh century, never existed."
Ali sees the spread of reactionary impulses within Islam in part as a
response to "the defeat of secular, modernist and socialist impulses on
a global scale." Various forms of religious fundamentalism, not only
Islamic ones, have partially filled a void created by the failures of
parties operating under the banner of secular nationalism and Communism
in the Third World. These failures--his examples include Egypt and
Syria--were connected to the limits of the nationalist leaderships
themselves, especially their lack of democracy and suppression of
religious movements by politicians seeking to preserve and extend their
own power. But Ali also goes on to argue that "all the other exit routes
have been sealed off by the mother of all fundamentalisms: American
Consider, for example, the consequences of the US work to train and arm
the Islamic forces in Afghanistan, the mujahedeen, to wage a holy war
against the Soviet Union. A decade after the Soviets were expelled, the
country "was still awash with factional violence," while "veterans of
the war helped to destabilize Egypt, Algeria, the Philippines, Sudan,
Pakistan, Chechnya, Dagestan and Saudi Arabia." The factional
instability in Afghanistan, coupled with Pakistan's intervention,
created the conditions that led to the Taliban's rise to power.
To discuss the US government's role in overthrowing the secular
nationalist Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and supporting the brutal Shah for
decades; in operating through the intermediary of Pakistan's
Inter-Services Intelligence units to back the mujahedeen in Afghanistan;
in repeatedly downplaying serious human rights abuses by US "friends"
such as Pakistan under Zia ul-Haq and Benazir Bhutto, whose governments
actively sponsored the growth of the Taliban; and in lending support to
groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Sarekat Islam in Indonesia
and Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan is not merely a case of obsessing about
past wrongs. As Ali argues persuasively, the past is indeed prologue.
Ali has a sharp mind and wit. His mode of history telling is lyrical and
engaging, humane and passionate. He repeatedly points to the lessons
learned by people in the course of struggle, challenging the pervasive
view that people can be liberated by those other than themselves,
setting out his differences with the advocates of "humanitarian
intervention." Ali writes that Western intellectuals have been far too
quick to support US-led military interventions such as the Gulf War and
to provide a liberal veneer of respect to wars prosecuted only
rhetorically in the name of human rights and democracy but actually
motivated by traditional "reasons of state." Where other people see
closed doors in history, he sees roads not taken and paths that remain
to be pursued.
Yet Ali spends too little time enumerating what some of those alternate
paths might be, especially for readers who are new to the history
recounted in The Clash of Fundamentalisms (certainly a
significant section of his readership, given the intense interest in
Islam, Central Asia, the Middle East and US foreign policy that has been
so much in evidence in recent months). In his final chapter, "Letter to
a young Muslim," Ali provides a thoughtful challenge to his
correspondent, but I fear he has not done enough to convince his reader
to change allegiances. He has more to say about the weakness of Islamism
than about any alternative vision of how a more just world might be
achieved. What would a compelling agenda look like in an era when, as he
notes, "no mainstream political party anywhere in the world even
pretends that it wishes to change anything significant"? What might a
radical secular program consist of today? How does one effectively mount
a challenge to the claim that there is no alternative to American-style
capitalism, or that attempts at fundamental change will reproduce the
horrors of the Soviet Union?
Indeed, The Clash of Fundamentalisms would have been stronger if
Ali had engaged this question more thoroughly. Though he expresses
contempt for the bureaucratic and dictatorial regimes that confronted
the United States during the cold war, at times he gives the Soviet bloc
more credit than it deserves. To suggest that China and the Soviet Union
were "striving for a superior social and economic system" is to give
those regimes far too much credit, and in essence to maintain some
illusion that Stalinist authoritarianism was a real alternative.
Ali at times repeats himself verbatim and gets a few details wrong (such
as misdating Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, rather than 1990). None
of this takes away from the importance of his argument that we are not
living in a radically new epoch in history, but in a period with all too
much continuity to the one before September 11.
No one has contributed more to the United States than James Madison. He
was the principal architect of the Constitution, the brilliant theorist
who, more than any other single individual, was responsible for
designing the American system of government. Moreover, along with
Washington and Franklin, Madison was one of the men who made the Constitutional
Convention in Philadelphia work. Whenever passionate disagreements
threatened the enterprise, it was Madison's calm logic to which the
others listened. As one delegate put it, it was Madison who had "the
most correct knowledge" about government affairs.
And no one did more than Madison to get the Constitution ratified in the
face of strong anti-Federalist opposition. The most hyperbolic
superlatives cannot do justice to the twenty-nine newspaper essays
Madison wrote that, together with essays by Alexander Hamilton and John
Jay (all written under the pseudonym Publius), comprise the
Federalist Papers. Suffice it to say that 200 years later a
distinguished political scientist wrote, "The Federalist is the
most important work in political science that has ever been written, or
is likely to be written, in the United States," and that Madison's
contributions shine the brightest.
And that is not all. At the convention in Richmond when anti-Federalists
George Mason and Patrick Henry used every argument and stratagem to
persuade Virginia to refuse to ratify the new Constitution--which, had
they been successful, would have caused the Union to be stillborn--it
was Madison's cool, clear reasoning that once again saved the day.
Madison's place in the pantheon of great Americans, therefore, is secure
regardless of how we evaluate his performance as the nation's fourth
President (1809-17). His reputation can withstand the central inquiry of
Garry Wills's short and provocative new book, namely: Why was James
Madison so great a constitutionalist but so dreadful a President?
Perhaps I overstate by calling Madison's presidency "dreadful." Wills
does not go that far. He presents an evaluation of Madison's successes
and failures, finding both. Nor do historians generally consider Madison
a dreadful President. When C-SPAN asked historians to rank the forty-two
American Presidents, Madison came in at number 18, putting him slightly
above average and, by way of modern comparisons, ahead of George H.W.
Bush (20) and Bill Clinton (21).
Wills's strongest pejorative is his description of Madison as a "hapless
commander in chief." Nevertheless, Wills's examination makes me wonder
whether, out of deference to Madison's other accomplishments, historians
are being unduly charitable to his presidency.
The defining issue of Madison's tenure was the War of 1812. Some
historians argue that he cannot be blamed for a war thrust upon him by a
"War Hawk Congress." Others, however, including most prominently Ralph
Ketcham of Syracuse University, argue that Madison wanted the war and
maneuvered Congress into declaring it. Wills sides with Ketcham and
builds a persuasive case that Madison deliberately propelled America
into a war for which it was ill prepared.
War was raging between England and France when Madison came to office.
Napoleon's armies were conducting their bloody marches across the
Continent while England was using her sea power to try to keep him
confined there. During his term, Jefferson had been confronted with the
problem of what to do about the combatants seizing ships that were
carrying American exports to their adversaries or, in England's case
especially, boarding American ships to seize sailors, many of whom were
deserters from the British Navy. At Madison's urging (Madison was
Jefferson's Secretary of State), Jefferson imposed an embargo on
American ships crossing the Atlantic. While some supported an embargo to
keep American ships out of harm's way, Madison believed an embargo would
exert enough commercial pressure on England to force it to agree to
leave American shipping alone.
But in fact the embargo meant little to England or France. It meant much
more to America, particularly New England, whose economy depended
heavily on trade with England. In the first year of the embargo
America's exports fell by almost 80 percent. New England preferred
having some of its ships and cargo seized by combatants to suspending
all trade. Under great pressure, Congress ended the embargo and replaced
it with the Nonintercourse Act, which permitted American ships to cross
the Atlantic as long as they did not trade with England or France. The
virtue of this approach was that it was unenforceable; once American
ships disappeared over the horizon, there was no telling where they
The embargo ended on the last day of Jefferson's presidency, and the
indignity of combatants seizing American ships and sailors resumed in
full force as Madison took office. Then Madison heard good news: A
British diplomat reported that his government was ready to grant America
neutral trading rights. Thrilled, Madison immediately issued a
proclamation repealing America's prohibition against trade with
whichever nation, England or France, first granted neutral trading
rights to the United States. Believing troubles with England at sea to
be at an end, 600 ships sailed from American ports confident that all
would be well when they arrived at their trading destinations across the
But England quickly announced there had been a mistake. Its
representative had failed to communicate that England would grant
neutral status only upon several conditions, one of which was that
England would continue to stop and board American ships and seize former
British sailors. Madison was fit to tied. By reneging on its word, said
Madison, England had committed an "outrage on all decency" more horrible
than the capture of black slaves from the shores of Africa.
Madison should have realized something was wrong with the original
repre-sentation, Wills argues. The US government's own survey revealed
that roughly 9,000 American crewmen were British deserters, and England
could not possibly afford so many of her sailors safe haven on American
Madison tried to wipe the egg off his face by announcing a new
policy--America would unilaterally resume trade with England and France
and continue to trade with both until either nation recognized America's
neutral trading rights, at which time America would automatically
reimpose an embargo upon the other. In view of the failure of the first
embargo, there was no reason to believe a potential new embargo would
force England or France to change its policy. But, says Wills, Madison
remained stubbornly committed to the failed policy of embargo.
Unfortunately, Wills believes, Napoleon shrewdly exploited it as a means
to maneuver America into war against England.
Napoleon announced he would repeal his ban on neutral trade on November
1, 1812, provided that the United States reimposed its embargo against
England by then. Acting once again without bothering to get
clarification, Madison reimposed the embargo upon England. But just as
he had previously acted without learning England's details and
conditions, this time Madison acted on Napoleon's offer only to discover
that Napoleon refused to rescind an order confiscating American ships at
port in recently captured Holland and other harbors of the empire.
Getting bamboozled by Napoleon appears, paradoxically, to have made
Madison even more furious at England. For its part, England found
Madison's willingness to side with France deplorable. "England felt that
it was defending the free world against the international tyranny of
Bonapartism," Wills writes. "Anyone who was not with them in that
struggle was against them." And so, increasingly, America and England
perceived each other as enemies.
Madison's anger with England was one factor that moved him toward war,
but there was another as well: He wanted to seize Canada. Jefferson
urged Madison to pluck this ripe plum while England was militarily
engaged with Napoleon. "The acquisition of Canada this year will be a
mere matter of marching," advised Jefferson.
It may be worth pausing to observe that many of Madison's worst
disasters involve following Jefferson. With the exception of the War of
1812, the most lamentable mistake of Madison's career was his plotting
with Jefferson to have states nullify federal laws, specifically the
Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The acts violated fundamental
principles of free speech and press, and Jefferson and Madison cannot be
blamed for opposing them. But the medicine they prescribed--the claim
that the states could enact legislation nullifying federal law--was
potentially far worse than the disease.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison had argued that
Congress should be given the authority to nullify state law, and was
discouraged when he lost this battle. He later betrayed his own
convictions by arguing that the state legislatures could nullify laws
enacted by Congress, though for tactical reasons he called this
"interposition" rather than "nullification." Moreover, Madison allowed
himself to be Jefferson's cat's-paw in this matter. Jefferson, then Vice
President, wanted to keep his own involvement secret, and Madison
fronted for both of them. Madison was haunted by this throughout his
career: Southern states invoked Madison's support of nullification
during disputes over slavery, and Madison's political opponents
delighted in forcing him to try to explain the difference between
"interposition" and "nullification."
Why did Madison so readily follow Jefferson over cliffs? Madison was
nervous, bookish, provisional and physically unimposing (5'4" and 100
pounds). He was so insecure with the opposite sex that he did not
attempt courtship until he was 31. The object of his desire was 15, and
Madison was so crushed by her rejection that he did not venture into
romance again until he was 43, when he successfully won Dolley's hand.
It would be only natural for Madison to fall under the thrall of the
tall, dashing, passionate, cosmopolitan and supremely self-confident
Any sensible strategy to seize Canada from one of the world's
superpowers would necessarily hinge upon a quick and powerful attack to
overwhelm British forces before they could be reinforced or before the
British Navy could be brought to bear in the conflict. Madison and his
military commanders planned a rapid, two-pronged strike: One American
force, commanded by William Hull, was to invade Canada from the west,
crossing over the border from Detroit. Meanwhile, Henry Dearborn was to
lead American forces from the east, crossing the Saint Lawrence River
from various points in New York.
Rather than take the time to raise and train a professional army,
Madison decided to invade Canada with militia forces. But this strategy
was the military equivalent of throwing pebbles at a hornet's nest--and
Madison should have known it.
Before the Revolutionary War, there had been much soapbox rhetoric about
the glories of the militia: Citizen soldiers were supposed to be more
virtuous and therefore more capable than professional soldiers. The
Revolutionary War proved this to be bunk. After the skirmishes at
Lexington and Concord, the militia performed terribly. So often did the
militia bolt in the face of even much smaller opposing forces that it
became Continental Army doctrine to position militia units in front of
and between regular army units, who were ordered to shoot the first
militiamen to run. Washington won the war only after raising and
training a professional army.
Notwithstanding the militia's dismal performance, some
politicians--particularly Southern slaveholders like Madison who relied
on the militia for slave control--continued to cling to the notion that
the virtuous citizen militia was superior to a professional army. One
Southerner who would have found these views laughable if they were not
so dangerous was George Washington. "America has almost been amused out
of her Liberties" by pro-militia rhetoric, he said: "I solemnly declare
I never was witness to a single instance, that can countenance an
opinion of Militia or raw Troops being fit for the real business of
Madison, however, had not been listening. In the Federalist
Papers, he and Hamilton expressed differing views about the militia.
Hamilton argued that an effective fighting force required professional
training and discipline, and he urged Congress to support only a select
militia. Madison, however, continued to envision a universal militia
consisting of all able-bodied white men.
This debate resonates even today in the gun-control debate. Because the
Second Amendment connects the right to bear arms to the militia,
gun-rights advocates suggest that the Founders considered the universal
militia to be sacrosanct. The militia was then composed of the whole
body of the people, and thus the Constitution permanently grants the
whole body of the people the right to keep and bear arms--or so the
argument runs. This makes little sense as a matter of constitutional
law, however, because, as both Hamilton and Madison recognized, the
Constitution expressly empowered Congress to organize the militia as it
Despite the Revolutionary War experience, Madison launched his attack on
Canada almost entirely with militia forces. The results were
predictable. In the east, most militiamen refused to cross the Saint
Lawrence, claiming that it was unlawful to take the militia outside the
United States. Dearborn did manage to coax a small contingent across the
river. But when shooting accidentally broke out among his own forces,
they all fled in confusion back across the Saint Lawrence.
Meanwhile, in the west, Hull's forces were paralyzed by militia refusing
to take orders from regular Army officers. There was an invasion, but
American forces were not the invaders. By the end of 1812, when America
was to be in possession of most of Canada, a few American units that had
failed to retreat successfully back into New York were being held
prisoner in eastern Canada, and English forces had taken Detroit and the
Things continued downhill. Two years later, a British force of 1,200
marched nearly unchallenged into the District of Columbia while 8,000
American troops, mostly militia, "ran away too fast for our hard-fagged
people to make prisoners," as one British commander put it. The British,
of course, burned the White House and Capitol to the ground.
Wills gives Madison high marks for grace and courage during the British
invasion of Washington, and, all in all, the war did not turn out too
badly. The British had not wanted it and settled for the status quo ante
bellum. And rather than feeling disgraced, America took patriotic pride
in a series of Navy successes, remembered through battle slogans and
anthems ("Don't give up the ship," James Lawrence; "We have met the
enemy and they are ours," Oliver Hazard Perry; "the rockets' red glare,"
Francis Scott Key). America came out of war feeling good about itself.
For this, historians give Madison much credit.
Some credit is undoubtedly deserved. More than once, Madison acted with
courage and grace in the midst of panic. America was properly proud of
its naval feats, though it is not clear that a President who took a
nation with seven warships into battle against an adversary with 436
Is it unfair to call Madison a dreadful President? If Wills is correct
about Madison stumbling his way toward war through a series of
diplomatic blunders and then deciding to take on a world power with
militia forces, perhaps not.
And what is it that allowed Madison to be so great a constitutionalist
and so poor a President? Wills argues that it was provincialism and
naïveté: What Madison had learned from the great minds by
reading books allowed him to understand political theory better,
perhaps, than anyone else. But without greater worldly experience, even
Madison could not operate the levers of power that he himself designed.
Yet as Wills aptly concludes, "Madison did more than most, and did some
things better than any. That is quite enough."
Reading Robert Caro to learn about Lyndon Johnson is like going to an
elaborate buffet in order to get the four basic food groups; they both
give you what you need along with much, much more. In fact, we're only
at the appetizers, since Caro's third and latest volume, Master of
the Senate, comes in at over1,000 pages and still doesn't take the
story up through the 1960 election! Nonetheless, both are experiences to
be savored. Caro is a gifted and passionate writer, and his
all-encompassing approach to understanding LBJ provides readers with a
panoramic history of twentieth-century American politics as well as a
compelling discourse on the nature and uses of political power.
Moreover, in the midst of the plagiarism contretemps over Stephen
Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, it is refreshing to read a popular
history that is original and well written. There is clearly no "Caro
Inc." with an army of researchers cutting and pasting books together as
fast as the printing presses can take them. Aided only by his wife, Ina,
Caro's project is now in its third decade. This slow pace results from a
methodical and exhaustive research process. One might well disagree with
Caro's analysis and interpretations, but no one can accuse him of
overlooking an important piece of evidence.
In reality, Master of the Senate is not one book but several.
Caro sets the stage with a history of the United States Senate. The
Senate is virtually unique among legislative bodies in any modern
democracy. With its six-year terms, equal representation for each state
regardless of population and its tradition of unlimited debate, the
Senate is an institution designed for inaction. Individual senators have
little or no incentive to yoke themselves together to advance the
national interest. By the time Johnson entered the Senate in 1949, the
body was increasingly seen as too inefficient to meet the demands of
modern government. Since the turn of the century, the President had
increasingly usurped its power in foreign policy, and many observers
predicted that the Senate would eventually have to go the way of most
legislative upper chambers and become, in effect, an American House of
That the Senate did not wither away and the reasons for this fact form
the basis for another of Caro's books within a book, Lyndon Johnson's
ascent to "Master of the Senate." Possessed of ambition that can only be
described as obsessive, Johnson campaigned to increase his own power and
influence with a relentlessness and ruthlessness that would have made
Before Johnson could amass power in the Senate, however, he first had to
shore up his political base in Texas. Having only narrowly "won" (stolen
is the more appropriate word, as Caro vividly and convincingly
demonstrated in his previous volume) election to the Senate in 1948,
Johnson now had to prove his fealty to the Lone Star State's reactionary
and powerful oil and gas titans. To do so, Johnson organized a
behind-the-scenes campaign to block President Truman's reappointment of
Leland Olds as chairman of the Federal Power Commission. A staunch New
Dealer and a committed public servant, Olds had used his position at the
FPC to make sure that electric and natural gas companies did not gouge
their customers. As a result, he was anathema to the Texas natural gas
companies, who saw even the smallest and most reasonable limitation of
their already vast profits as socialist tyranny.
In earlier days, Johnson had fought the same fight as Olds, working as a
freshman Congressman to provide cheap electricity to rural farmers.
Doing so had secured Johnson a place in the hearts of his poor Texas
Hill Country constituents, but that counted for little against the
political power of the state's oil and gas industry. Ambition now
required Johnson to destroy Leland Olds. Unable to attack him on the
substance of his work at the FPC, Johnson instead distorted Olds's
writings as a journalist in the 1920s to portray him as a Communist.
Using a phrase that Joe McCarthy would have appreciated, Johnson
denounced Olds on the floor of the Senate, asking, "Shall we have a
commissioner or a commissar?" The choice of the Senate was clear; the
Olds reappointment failed by a vote of 53 to 15.
The Olds fight secured Johnson's political base and brought him into the
warm embrace of the Texas establishment. After his victory over Olds,
Johnson flew back to Texas on the private plane of Brown & Root, the
giant Texas construction company. "When the Brown & Root plane
delivered him to Texas, it delivered him first to Houston, where a Brown
& Root limousine met him and took him to the Brown & Root suite
in the Lamar Hotel. Waiting for him there, in Suite 8-F, were men who
really mattered in Texas: Herman and George Brown, of course, and oilman
Jim Abercrombie and insurance magnate Gus Wortham. And during the two
months he spent in Texas thereafter, the Senator spent time at Brown
& Root's hunting camp at Falfurrias, and in oilman Sid Richardson's
suite in the Fort Worth Club."
Caro shows how, having won over the men who really mattered in Texas,
Johnson set out to win over the men who really mattered in the Senate,
the "Old Bulls." As a result of the Solid South and the seniority rule,
nearly all of these men were the Southern barons who controlled the
powerful Senate committees. In many ways, currying favor with the Texas
establishment had been relatively easy; all it had required was
destroying the naïve and principled Leland Olds. But the Old Bulls,
men like Harry Byrd Sr. of Virginia, Walter George of Georgia and
Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee, were a much tougher crowd, not easily
deceived and viciously protective of their power and prerogatives.
Traditionally, one did not attain power by winning over such men;
rather, power came by becoming one of them. But this required the time
and patience necessary to accumulate enough seniority to land a choice
committee assignment and then more time and patience to ascend to the
But, as Caro points out, Johnson had a very short supply of time and
patience. Indeed, he had risked everything to run for the Senate in 1948
in order to avoid the seniority trap of the House. Now he found himself
in the same bind. Even before he was sworn in, Johnson tried to persuade
the venerable Carl Hayden, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which
was in charge of office space, to give him an extra room. When Johnson
pressed his case too zealously, the usually courteous Hayden shut him
down, saying, "The trouble with you, Senator, is that you don't have the
seniority of a jackrabbit."
If Johnson didn't have the seniority to become one of the Old Bulls, he
would surely do everything he could to gain their favor. The usual
method was obsequiousness, telling these men how powerful and important
they were, and how much he had learned from them. According to Caro,
Johnson's behavior "proved the adage that no excess was possible."
One device, also favored by a more recent Texas politician, was to
bestow nicknames. Edwin "Big Ed" Johnson of Colorado was dubbed "Mr.
Wisdom," while Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts became "Old Oil on
Troubled Waters." Johnson resented having to use such tactics, telling
aide John Connally after fawning over a senior senator, "Christ, I've
been kissing asses all my life"; but ass-kissing worked. As Caro writes,
"In December, Hayden had refused to give Johnson that extra room in the
basement that he had asked for; in February Hayden found that an extra
room was, indeed, available."
While Hayden had the power to provide extra office space, real power in
the Senate rested with the acknowledged leader of the Old Bulls, Richard
Russell of Georgia. Just as Johnson in his earlier career had gained
power by making himself a protégé of House Speaker Sam
Rayburn and President Franklin Roosevelt, he now set out to cultivate
Russell. Though different in temperament and politics, all three men
shared a common element that Johnson used to ingratiate himself: As Caro
points out, all three men were lonely. Both Rayburn and Russell were
childless bachelors, while Roosevelt was largely estranged from his
children and wife. This provided the perfect opportunity for Johnson to
be the dutiful son and companion.
Mere companionship and filial piety, however, were not enough to win
over Russell. According to Caro, "It wasn't a son that Richard Russell
wanted, it was a soldier--a soldier for the Cause." And that cause was
white supremacy. In describing Russell's views on this issue, Caro shows
that while they were almost always cast as a reasoned, nonracist defense
of states' rights, racism was at their core, and such moderation was
merely tactical. "His charm," writes Caro, "was more effective than
chains in keeping blacks shackled to their terrible past." Caro's
description of Russell is not just of historical interest. With calls
for states' rights gaining renewed popularity and legitimacy, it is
important to remember that while not every states' rights advocate is a
closet racist, nearly every advocate of racial inequality has used
states' rights to cloak his real aims and beliefs.
Johnson was willing to take up arms for Russell's cause. In his maiden
speech in the Senate, Johnson denounced President Truman's call for
civil rights legislation in the same reasoned tones used by Russell.
When Johnson finished, Russell was the first to shake his hand, telling
him that his speech was "one of the ablest I have ever heard on the
Having gained Russell's and the Old Bulls' trust, Johnson now began to
build his own power. In 1950, after the outbreak of the Korean War, he
convinced Russell to allow him to chair a special committee on
preparedness. Caro's description of Johnson's committee is a textbook
example of the Washington version of stone soup, in which, with the
right skills and connections, one can turn nothing into something. For
the most part, the committee did very little original research or
investigation, instead recycling work done by other committees and
agencies. The difference, however, was that Johnson had a gift for
working the media. In this pretelevision era, the term "soundbite" had
yet to be coined, but Johnson was a master of it nonetheless. The
committee's first report was really an earlier, prewar report on the
nation's rubber supply. In the hands of Johnson and his staffer Horace
Busby, the report became a major story. "Phrases like 'darkest days,'
'business as usual,' 'too little and too late' leapt out of the final
report," writes Caro. Newspapers were particularly enamored of Johnson's
description of Defense Department desuetude as "siesta psychology."
Despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of substance, the preparedness
committee gave Johnson his first national attention. But the favor of
the Old Bulls and a handful of headlines were not nearly enough to
secure Johnson's ultimate prize, the presidency. Recognizing that the
traditional path to power in the Senate, and ultimately to the White
House, was still largely closed to a junior senator, Johnson decided to
create his own path. Here was where Johnson's cunning as a political
entrepreneur came into play. As Caro writes:
Lyndon Johnson's political genius was creative not merely in the lower,
technical aspects of politics but on much higher levels. And if there
was a single aspect of his creativity that had been, throughout his
career, most impressive, it was his capacity to look at an institution
that possessed only limited political power--an institution that no one
else thought of having the potential for any more than limited political
power--and to see in that institution the potential for such substantial
political power; to transform that institution so that it possessed such
power, and in the process of transforming it, to reap from that
transformation substantial personal power for himself.
Johnson aide Bobby Baker put it more succinctly: "He knows what makes
the mules plow."
The institution that Johnson chose was the party leadership of the
Senate. Almost utterly lacking in formal power, party leadership was
more often the graveyard of political careers than the launching pad. No
Senate Democratic leader had possessed any influence to speak of since
Joseph Robinson in the 1930s. The Democratic leaders immediately
preceding Johnson, Scott Lucas of Illinois and Ernest McFarland of
Arizona, had been disasters, utterly incapable of bridging the
differences between the party's liberal Northern and conservative
Southern wings. In fact, the demands of the job had contributed to the
election defeats of both men, Lucas in 1950 and McFarland in 1952. Now,
following the Republican sweep of 1952, the position of minority leader
stood open. Since no else wanted the position, Johnson, with Russell's
blessing, ascended to the post. Only four years into his first term,
Lyndon Johnson was now at least the nominal leader of the Senate
And Johnson soon converted nominal leadership in their power, explaining
that they needed to put their best people forward to defend against the
Republicans. But that would require handing out committee positions on
the basis of ability, not seniority. Using a combination of persuasion
and horse-trading, Johnson managed to make enough room to place every
Democrat on at least one major committee. In doing so, he transformed
the Senate, imbuing its committees, at least on the Democratic side,
with fresh blood. More important for Johnson, his own power had been
enhanced greatly. Dozens of members, liberals and conservatives,
Northerners and Southerners, now owed their committee assignments to
him, and that meant power.
Revamping the seniority system was but the first way Johnson became
master of the Senate. While much has been written about the famous
Johnson "treatment," LBJ's in-your-face style of persuasion, Caro
demonstrates that these skills, effective though they were, were not the
only ones at his disposal. Deploying a skilled staff, he soon knew more
about what was happening in the Senate than any other member, making him
the "go-to guy" for information. He managed to negotiate unanimous
consent agreements to limit debate, so that minor bills of importance to
individual senators could be passed with dispatch. Johnson was also a
skilled parliamentarian, using his knowledge of Senate rules and
procedures to outwit the majority Republicans. Finally, Johnson had an
astute grasp of national politics, demonstrated most effectively in the
battle over the Bricker Amendment. Advanced by Republican isolationists,
the constitutional amendment would have severely restricted presidential
power in foreign policy by requiring treaties to be approved by the
state legislatures as well as the Senate. Johnson not only managed to
defeat the amendment but to do so in a way that aligned the Democrats
with the popular Eisenhower against Congressional Republicans.
No method was beneath Johnson. He was just as willing to destroy the
careers of his Senate colleagues as he had been with Leland Olds.
Perhaps more than any other senator, Kentucky's Earle Clements had been
loyal to Johnson, "dog loyal," in Caro's words. But after a bill
supported by Johnson failed to pass on a tie vote, Johnson forced
Clements to switch his vote, although he knew it would destroy
Clements's re-election hopes. In the case of Virgil Chapman, also of
Kentucky, Johnson helped to destroy not only his career but his life.
Even though Johnson knew Chapman was falling further and further into
the depths of alcoholism, his response was not compassion but
manipulation. He would bring Chapman to his office after the Senate
recessed and ply him with drinks until the inebriated Kentuckian would
agree to anything Johnson wanted. Chapman eventually died in a drunk
Johnson's success as minority leader helped the Democrats regain control
of the Senate after the 1954 elections. Now the majority leader, Johnson
further extended his power. As a consequence, the Senate began to act
with new efficiency and effectiveness. And even though Johnson never
strayed too far from Russell and the other conservative senators upon
whom he relied, he still managed to help Democratic liberals to achieve
at least some of their legislative goals. By the mid-1950s, the changes
wrought by Johnson had dispelled much of the criticism leveled against
Caro, however, suggests that Johnson might have destroyed the Senate in
order to save it, since these changes came at the cost of diminishing
deliberations, where individual senators could educate and inform the
public on the great issues of the day. He quotes Paul Douglas, liberal
Democratic senator from Illinois during the 1950s and oftentimes a foe
of Johnson, who charged, "Under Johnson, the Senate functions like a
Greek tragedy. All the action takes place offstage, before the play
begins. Nothing is left to open and spontaneous debate, nothing is left
to the participants but the enactment of their prescribed roles." Caro
goes further, suggesting that by limiting debate, Johnson was making the
Senate an expression of his own mania for control and aversion to debate
Regardless of Johnson's real motivations for limiting debate, this is an
overly romantic view of Senate proceedings, in which debate consists
more of partisan bickering and mundane bloviating than reasoned and
informed discourse. Furthermore, unlimited debate is tailor-made for
defenders of the status quo, allowing them great power to block any
measure to which they object. Caro even seems to acknowledge this in a
footnote, where he quotes Johnson aide Harry McPherson, "Complaints
about limiting debates...often turned out to be based on a plaintiff's
annoyance that he must either miss a vote or forgo a speaking engagement
back home. And besides, who knew better than liberals the enervating
consequences of unlimited debate."
Caro may be right that Johnson saved the Senate, but he doesn't consider
whether it was worth saving in the first place. Yes, Johnson did reform
the chamber so that it could legislate more effectively, but the
institution remained and remains a throwback to a predemocratic era. Not
only does the Senate's equal representation of states grossly distort
the one-person, one-vote principle, but the ability to filibuster means
that forty-one senators, even if they represent the twenty-one smallest
states (with only 11 percent of the total population), can veto any
piece of legislation. And since Republicans predominate in small states,
the institution serves only to magnify their power. For example, even
though Democrats have a 50-49 edge in the current Senate (the
remaining member is Independent Jim Jeffords of Vermont), sixty senators
represent states won by George W. Bush in the 2000 election. By saving
the Senate, one might argue, Johnson only succeeded in maintaining an
institution that has traditionally served to reinforce conservatives and
the status quo.
In 1956, Johnson thought the time was right to make his move for the
Democratic nomination. But this effort was doomed before it even began.
First, he refused to be an active candidate, thus much of the support
from the South and West that might have been his if he wanted it went to
other candidates. Even if Johnson had run a more active and skillful
campaign, it was clear that he never had enough liberal support to win
the nomination. For all that he had accomplished in the Senate, Johnson
was still viewed as suspect by Democratic liberals. In some ways, as
Caro suggests, the liberals' criticism was unfair. Johnson was no Hubert
Humphrey, to be sure, but he was also no Richard Russell or James
Eastland. During his twelve years in the Senate, Johnson's Americans for
Democratic Action liberal-voting score was fifty-six, just about average
for the party and essentially splitting the difference between the
Southern Democratic average of thirty-seven and the Northern Democratic
average of seventy-five. Moreover, during his tenure as majority leader
from 1955 to 1960, Johnson's average score was sixty-five.
But Johnson recognized that his overall ADA score was not the real
issue. By the mid-1950s, Democratic liberals increasingly used civil
rights as a litmus test for support. According to Caro, Johnson would
tell friends privately, "I want to run the Senate. I want to pass the
bills that need to be passed. I want my party to do right. But all I
ever hear from the liberals is Nigra, Nigra, Nigra." (During the 1964
campaign, Johnson would use the same refrain in a very different
context, telling a New Orleans audience of a dying Southern senator who
wanted to give one more speech, a good Democratic speech, because the
only speeches the people of his state ever heard were "Nigra, Nigra,
Nigra.") Caro goes on to add that the conclusion for Johnson was clear:
He knew now that the only way to realize his great ambition was to
fight--really fight, fight aggressively and effectively--for civil
rights; in fact, it was probably necessary for him not only to fight but
to fight and win: given their conviction that he controlled the Senate,
the only way the liberals would be satisfied of his good intentions
would be if that body passed a civil rights bill. But therein lay a
seemingly insoluble dilemma: that way--the only way--did not seem a
possible way. Because while he couldn't win his party's presidential
nomination with only southern support, he couldn't win it with only
northern support either. Scrubbing off the southern taint thoroughly
enough within the next four years to become so overwhelmingly a liberal
favorite that he could win the nomination with northern votes alone was
obviously out of the question, so dispensing with southern support was
not feasible: he had to keep the states of the Old Confederacy on his
side. And yet a public official who fought for civil rights invariably
lost those states.
This dilemma sets up another book within a book and the dramatic climax
of Master of the Senate, the battle over the 1957 Civil Rights
Act. This is where Caro's gifts as a storyteller really come alive, and
his account provides what is surely one of the best analyses of the
legislative process ever written. Moreover, Caro is right to label
Johnson's role in the passage of this legislation as an exercise of
"genius." But Caro goes too far in suggesting that the 1957 Civil Rights
Act marked a turning point at which Johnson's "compassion, and the
ability to make compassion meaningful, would shine forth at last."
Caro does recognize that the practical impact of the 1957 legislation
was inconsequential and far less significant than the later Civil Rights
Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And while the bill's
proponents described it as half a loaf, Caro agrees with Humphrey, who
described it as a "crumb." Nonetheless, Caro claims that as the first
civil rights measure to pass the Senate and to be enacted into law since
1875, the legislation was of immense symbolic importance and the
harbinger of things to come. "The Civil Rights Act of 1957," according
to Caro, "was hope." Caro has a point, but a debatable one. The law did
raise hopes, but by accomplishing so little, many of those hopes ended
up dashed. Furthermore, while the 1957 act was a first step toward more
effective legislation, it would take another eight years to complete the
journey, eight more years of Jim Crow and disfranchisement, of
oppression and violence. Hope was better than nothing, but help is what
was really needed.
And help would have been provided then, if not for Lyndon Johnson. Help
was contained in the civil rights bill proposed by the Eisenhower
Administration and passed by the House, with strong provisions against
discrimination in public accommodations and voting, along with effective
enforcement mechanisms. But Johnson knew that such a bill was utterly
unacceptable to his Southern colleagues. Thus, while Johnson recognized
that he had to fight for a civil rights bill, it couldn't be
this civil rights bill.
Consequently, Johnson's first maneuver was to help defeat an effort by
Republicans and liberal Democrats to rewrite Senate Rule 22 in order to
short-circuit the expected Southern filibuster. At the opening of the
1957 session, pro-civil rights senators sought a ruling from Vice
President Richard Nixon, acting in his capacity as the Senate's
presiding officer, that the Senate was not a continuing body and
therefore was not bound by previous rules. That would mean that a
majority of senators could establish a new rule allowing debate to be
shut off with only a simple majority, not the usual and nearly
unobtainable sixty-four votes. Indeed, Nixon, hoping to swing black
votes to the GOP, would have issued such a decision. But before he could
do so, Johnson used his prerogative as majority leader to move to table
the proposed rules change. Using all the skill and power he had amassed
as majority leader, Johnson managed to get a majority for his motion.
But it was a 55-38 tally. If only seven votes had gone the other
way (the three absentees having announced against Johnson's motion), the
motion would have lost, Nixon would have issued his decision, the
filibuster would have been broken and an effective civil rights bill
would have been passed in 1957, not 1964. As a result of the defeat on
Rule 22, the bill that ultimately did pass was only a very weak voting
If ever one needs evidence of the contingency of history, imagine, if
you will, those seven votes going the other way. Jim Crow would have
died in the late 1950s, avoiding much of the tumult of the 1960s. The
Republicans, led by Richard Nixon, would have been the party of civil
rights, not the Democrats and Lyndon Johnson. From there, one can spin
off any number of plausible scenarios that result in a very different
history of the past forty years.
But none of these scenarios were acceptable to the Lyndon Johnson of
1957, since they would have conflicted with his ambition; and at that
point, despite Caro's claim, his ambition was still more important than
his compassion. Switching sides on Rule 22 would have destroyed his
Southern support and with it any chance he had of becoming President.
Johnson's compassion would eventually shine through, and as a result,
civil rights would eventually come to black America. But they would not
come until Lyndon Johnson's ambition would allow them to come.
"History," wrote James Baldwin, "does not refer merely, or even
principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history
comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously
controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present
in all that we do." Citing this as a starting point, historian and
Nation editorial board member Eric Foner goes on to note, "There
is nothing unusual or sinister in the fact that each generation rewrites
history to suit its own needs, or about disagreements within the
profession and among the public at large about how history should best
be taught and studied." He assembles a set of essays primarily taken
from events in his life over the past decade--it's a personal book in
this regard--including accounts of his experience in two societies
grappling with deep historical change, Russia and South Africa. All
investigate the relationship between the historian and his or her world.
Since much of Foner's own work has centered around Reconstruction, many
of the essays broach that subject and the effects on race relations to
this day (he takes on Civil War documentarian Ken Burns and the cult of
nostalgia in this context).
Overall, much of Who Owns History? stands as an argument for
public engagement, and touches on issues such as globalization, social
reconciliation and national identity. "'American' is what philosophers
call an 'essentially contested concept,'" Foner observes, and he
cautions in his chapter on "American Freedom in a Global Age" that, in
the shadow of the Reagan revolution, "the dominant constellation of
definitions seems to consist of a series of negations--of government, of
social responsibility, of a common public culture," amid the tightening
web of economic and cultural ties termed "globalization." Foner says
that "the relationship between globalization and freedom may be the most
pressing political and social problem of the twenty-first century."
To immerse oneself in Robert Caro's heroic biographies is to come face to face with a shocking but unavoidable realization: Much of what we think we know about money, power and politics is a fairy tale. Our newspapers, magazines, broadcast and cable newscasts are filled with comforting fictions. We embrace them because the truth is too messy, too frightening, simply too much.
In a 1997 speech on the topic, Ben Bradlee attributes our problem to official lying. "Even the very best newspapers have never learned how to handle public figures who lie with a straight face. No editor would dare print.... 'The Watergate break-in involved matters of national security, President Nixon told a national TV audience last night.... That is a lie.'"
But the problem is much larger than Bradlee allows. Caro demonstrates how this colossal structure of deceit clouds the historical record. The unelected Robert Moses exercised a dictatorial power over the lives of millions of New Yorkers for nearly half a century. He uprooted communities and destroyed neighborhoods using privately run but publicly funded entities called "public authorities," whose charters he personally wrote. Before the publication of The Power Broker in 1974 (1,246 pages, after having been cut by 40 percent to fit into a single volume), no book or major magazine article existed on the topic. Caro's obsessive exhumation of Moses's career transformed our understanding of the mechanics of urban politics. And yet even today the media proceed as if it's simply a matter of campaigns, elections and legislation.
The true face of our money-driven political system is buried so far beneath the surface of our public discourse that almost nobody has any incentive to uncover it. With a meager $2,500 advance to sustain him, Caro sold his house and nearly bankrupted his family; his wife, Ina--a medieval historian--went to work as his full-time researcher. When I asked why he did it, he got a little choked up about the sacrifice of Ina's career and how much she had loved their old house. Finally he said he had no idea. The Caros' combination of intellectual independence and professional dedication inspires comparisons with another great marital partnership: that of the late, great Izzy and Esther Stone. (Can anyone imagine what Izzy would have come up with if he had committed virtually his entire career to smoking out the truth about just two powerful men?)
Caro's new book, Master of the Senate, volume three of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, forces us not only to rewrite our national political history but to rethink it as well. What Caro is doing here is something we rarely see attempted in any medium: His aim, as he once explained to Kurt Vonnegut, "is to show not only how power works but the effect of power on those without power. How political power affects all our lives, every single day in ways we never think about."
Caro's been burrowing beneath the shadows of the substance of our politics for more than twenty-eight years, and what he finds is both fascinating and surprising. In many ways Johnson's personality--so outsized and contradictory as to be cognitively uncontainable--gets in the way of this compulsively readable story, which is about how power is exercised in this country.
Lyndon Johnson did not invent the form of legislative power he exercised through the Senate in the 1950s, but Caro has almost had to invent a new history to describe it. People have told pieces of it here and there, but who's got the time, the motivation or the patience to really nail down not only what happened but what it meant to the nation? Here's a tiny example, of which this new book has almost one a page. Listen to longtime Senate staffer Howard Shuman: "William S. White, [whom Caro terms the Senate's "most prominent chronicler"] wrote that the way to get into the Club was to be courteous and courtly. Well, that's nonsense." Johnson mocked and humiliated liberal New York Senator Herbert Lehman at every opportunity: "It didn't have anything to do with courtly. It had to do with how you voted--with whether or not you voted as Lyndon Johnson wanted you to vote." Neil MacNeil, veteran Time correspondent adds, "The Senate was run by courtesy, all right--like a longshoreman's union."
Now don't go looking in old Time magazines for any hint of this. Caro spends more than 300 of his 1,167 pages on the incredible story of Johnson's navigation of the 1957 Civil Rights Act through Congress, something that hardly anyone thought possible until he pulled it off. With the singular exception of Tom Wicker, then a green (and largely ignored) young reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, no one covering the story had an inkling of how it happened.
One indisputable conclusion that Caro offers is pretty tough to swallow. The advances in civil rights legislation that helped end centuries of legal apartheid in this country could never have occurred had they not been planned and executed by a man who turns out to have been a thoroughgoing racist. Caro was much criticized for downplaying Johnson's 1948 support for Truman, considering the fact that his lionized opponent, Coke Stevenson, stood with the racist Strom Thurmond Dixiecrat campaign. But Johnson, it turns out, attacked Truman's civil rights policies no less virulently. He gave a campaign speech in May 1948 in which he compared civil rights legislation to the creation of "a police state in the guise of liberty." Caro found the speech in a White House file with the following admonition stapled on top. "DO NOT RELEASE THIS SPEECH-speech--not even to staff...this is not EVER TO BE RELEASED." Thanks to Caro, this story, and with it a big chunk of our history, has been released as well.
Addendum: George W. Bush's Executive Order 13233, which effectively eviscerates the Presidential Records Act of 1978 by fiat, is designed to insure that no historian can ever provide this kind of public service again. Twenty Democrats and three Republicans are co-sponsors of a bill to restore it. Write your representatives and tell them to get on board.
Nearly four years have elapsed since that merry month of May when France and the whole world were taken aback by a sudden and momentous upheaval.
It's been three decades since President Richard M.
A historian questions whether he led a slave revolt, but his heroism still stands.
As the World Economic Forum met in New York City recently, the American media were much more concerned with what protesters were doing in the streets than with what they were saying there. You'd think that dissenting views were old hat and "isms" were for the classroom, not the newsroom.
But it's far too early for that. Similarly, at first glance, Peter Glassgold's collection of prose and poetry from an American anarchist magazine of 1906-17 appears to be of only historical interest; something that might be recommended as supplemental reading in an American studies curriculum, because it treats the fights for birth control and civil liberties, and against joblessness and conscription in this period. It's full of names now obscure, words that have become archaic. Imagine a time when "a special throwaway" was printed up and "circularized" in New York City by the movement of the unemployed. Or when Zola was referred to repeatedly because his works had resonance. Another, distant era. But just when it seemed that anarchism was for scholars, along came demonstrations in Seattle, Philadelphia, Prague, Quebec City, Genoa. "Anarchist troublemakers" was the antique expression I heard on the TV news not long ago. Congratulations, Peter Glassgold--you couldn't be more timely.
Since the A-word is a dirty one to many, it's likely that the presence and actions of anarchists at recent demonstrations have been exaggerated to discredit the anti-WTO, global-justice movement. But it's also possible that anarchism is visible on the left because it has less competition at present. Now, as in the late 1960s, it may channel discontent after other outlets have been rejected. It can serve as the radicalism of last resort, profiting from crises in other camps. Socialism, sharing political power in much of Western Europe, has made so many deals and compromises with big business that it no longer seems principled to a lot of people. And there's widespread suspicion that ex-Communists are weak on democracy, having made excuses for repressive states for so long.
Anarchists have the advantage of exclusion, the nobility of failure, so to speak.
They've rarely had much power; in fact, they've rarely gotten on well with the powerful. There are exceptions to that oppositional stance, however, and Glassgold's book gives glimpses of some of them. The famous anarchist theoretician Peter Kropotkin supported France when it fought the German Kaiser in World War I. The prominent propagandists and agitators Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman rallied around the Bolsheviks in 1917, though they became angry and disillusioned when Lenin and his followers soon turned against rivaling revolutionary tendencies.
A "Philosophy of Non-Submission" was one name for anarchism, and the state and its institutions have not been the only target of anarchist wrath. Mother Earth, a New York journal edited by Goldman and Berkman, among others, which accepted work by anarchists and nonanarchists in the United States and abroad, spoke out against capitalism, the private ownership of land, religion, monogamy, female modesty, middle-class feminism--and I could go on. Glassgold's choice of texts captures not just the breadth but the depth of its antagonisms. "I do not want to 'love my enemies,' nor 'let bygones be bygones.' I do not want to be philosophical, nor preach their inclusion in the brotherhood of man. I want to hate them--utterly," wrote the American anarchist writer and activist Voltairine de Cleyre.
Clearly, the movement has attracted not only those who can bear angry isolation but those who find pleasure and strength in it. Berkman loved the menace in the black flag. When people try to inspire fear and loathing, I don't guarantee them satisfaction. I read this anthology with detached interest, to hear what all the Sturm und Drang was about.
Glassgold chose well when he culled from Mother Earth. The exuberance of its prose is what summaries of anarchism often fail to capture. It is all too easy for historians to make the movement sound more consistent and systematic than it was. The magazine itself, which I've examined in facsimile in a library, is full of a highly emotive type of writing and relies not just on metaphor but on a host of oratorical devices to stir an audience. Irony alternates with inspirational appeals for a better future. Essays in the journal often read like speeches (and sometimes were), where hyperbole covers holes in the arguments and exhortation often substitutes for analysis. But Glassgold hasn't prettified them.
Nor has he excised the extremism in anarchist history, which is sometimes moving, sometimes painful to read about. He doesn't skip over its martyrology: the periodic celebration and commemoration of those who suffered or died defending their ideal. With hagiography and eulogies, the movement articulated and reinforced its values: purity, courage, perseverance, self-sacrifice, devotion. These are military qualities, demanded of the soldier under fire, for anarchists were at war with society. But battles were not fought by men alone. In the anarchist milieu, women were allowed to be comrades and leaders, and to display what was at the time an unladylike anger. Revenge was tolerated, sometimes encouraged in the movement of the era. "Even animals possess the spirit of revenge," Berkman wrote in 1906. "As long as the world is ruled by violence, violence will accomplish results," he added in 1911.
Not all anarchists have taken his position. Alternative revolutionary methods, such as the general strike, were advocated at the time. Direct action could mean, simply, that the people must liberate themselves and not delegate that job to parliaments or other representatives. But at the end of the nineteenth century, it was associated with dynamite used by lone individuals or small conspiracies, and Mother Earth shows a lingering sympathy for such tactics. The process of renouncing them was slow, faltering and, in the case of some anarchists, incomplete. To omit this history would be to whitewash the movement. But to restrict anarchism to this tendency would be unfair as well.
The title Mother Earth points to an equally important and oft-neglected aspect of the movement: its appeal to a romanticized nature as the ultimate standard. While Glassgold is right that "the message of the name was not environmental but libertarian," anarchism was and remains a philosophy of nature. One of its major theorists, the Russian exile Kropotkin, was a Darwinist of a particular stripe who believed that evolution favors mutual support and cooperation, not competition. "Without that [sociable] instinct not one single race could survive in the struggle for life against the hostile forces of Nature," he stated in a lecture to a eugenics congress in London that was printed in Mother Earth in 1912. Two years later, he asserted in the same journal that
once it is recognized that the social instinct is a permanent and powerful instinct in every animal species, and still more so in man, we are enabled to establish the foundations of Ethics (the Morality of Society) upon the sound basis of the observation of Nature and need not look for it in supernatural revelation. The idea which Bacon, Grotius, Goethe, and Darwin himself (in his second work, The Descent of Man) were advocating is thus finding a full confirmation, once we direct our attention to the extent to which mutual aid is carried on in Nature.
The Spanish educator Francisco Ferrer also tied anarchism to evolution, writing in Mother Earth about the need to adapt instruction to "natural laws" and "the spontaneous response of the child." And Max Baginski, a German-born editor of Mother Earth, spurned the "artificial, forced, obligatory" aid of one trade union to another in times of trouble, preferring solidarity based on human nature--that is, his concept of it: "The gist of the anarchistic idea is this, that there are qualities present in man which permit the possibilities of social life, organization and co-operative work without the application of force." Optimistic faith in the goodness and beneficence of nature, combined with intense distrust of the "machinery" of government, the law courts and the military, distinguished anarchists from most Marxists before the First World War. And still does today. It is this combination of ideas, I think, that has become diffused among contemporary leftists who would not identify themselves as anarchists. For many radicals, then as now, nature is what Richard M. Weaver (in The Ethics of Rhetoric) calls a "god term" because it trumps all others.
Of course, one may well ask exactly what the anarchists' nature--including human nature--consists of. Shouldn't it be interrogated, not assumed? After all, the nature of nature is not self-evident. Sorry to disappoint: In Mother Earth, as in most other anarchist writing, the concept of nature was not analyzed but invoked and revered. The magazine appealed to enthusiasts. In fact, it raised what Berkman called "active enthusiasm" to a principle. There Kropotkin declared, "In a revolutionary epoch, when destructive work precedes constructive efforts, bursts of enthusiasm possess marvelous power." (When Emma Goldman was convicted in New York in 1916 for spreading birth control information in an allegedly indecent manner to an allegedly promiscuous audience, her friend and supporter Leonard Abbott reported, "Her face was alight with enthusiasm.") As Voltairine de Cleyre put it, "Wholesale enthusiasm is a straw fire which burns out quickly; therefore it must be utilized at once, if at all; therefore, those who seek to burn barriers away with it must direct it to the barriers at once."
Fire, storm, earthquake, volcano--when the topic was the coming revolution, anarchists tended to transform human actors into a force of nature. Berkman, who served a long prison sentence for attempting to kill the steel magnate Henry Clay Frick after workers had been shot in the Homestead steel strike, declared in Mother Earth that the bomb "is manhood's lightning out of an atmosphere of degradation of misery that king, president and plutocrat have heaped upon humanity." Anarchist metaphors made the rebel and criminal part of earth science, integrating and naturalizing them.
And then there are the environmental images for the vitality, joy and beauty of the anarchist goal. I wish I had a nickel for every "dawn" and "blooming spring" I've met in old anarchist publications. Glassgold's anthology has some superior examples. Praising the Paris Commune of 1871, Kropotkin asserted in Mother Earth, "The Government evaporated like a pond of stagnant water in a spring breeze." And the first cover of the magazine was heavy with traditional, even banal, symbols of paradise: human nakedness within lush vegetation. A New Age scene, Glassgold cannily observes.
Indeed, the alternative lifestyle we now call New Age was intertwined with anarchism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Health and dress reformers, homeopaths and herbalists, practitioners of free love and nudism were often sympathetic to anarchism, friends and neighbors of anarchists, if not anarchists themselves. In the German-speaking world, this symbiosis is relatively well-known, since it has been described in such books as Ulrich Linse's Ökopax und Anarchie("Ecopeace and Anarchy," 1986). The historian Paul Avrich has often demonstrated the close connection of anarchism to bohemia, and the tie between the two tendencies cannot be missed in the writings and biographies of Emma Goldman, Mabel Dodge and Margaret Anderson.
Yet it remains to be shown that in the American cultural realm, anarchists have had an influence out of proportion to their numbers. If we knew the continuity of anarchism in America--its influence on Gestalt psychology, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, the folk-song counterculture of Joan Baez, the avant-garde art of Yvonne Rainer, etc.--we might not be surprised when it pops up in the news today. Certain ideas are in the air, distributed by word of mouth, more than secondhand. You may well repeat them never knowing they appeared in Freud, Marx or perhaps Bakunin. The process of popularization is notoriously hard to chart, which is probably one reason historians and social scientists tend not to study it. But the fact that something is vague and elusive doesn't necessarily make it trivial and unimportant. Is the marginalism of anarchism only apparent? I vote to leave this question open.
Let me lay my cards on the table: "I am not now nor have I ever been" an anarchist, but I've written essays as well as fiction about this tradition because I think it's widely misunderstood. Ignored, idealized or caricatured, it is still largely the stuff of polemics. Glassgold's achievement is to help it be heard in its intensity and complexity.
A half-century after the appearance of The Vital Center, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s spirited political polemic, we have more than sufficient cause to meditate on what might be called Dead Centrism.