He Gets Ideas
THE ECONOMIST HAS CALLED Paul Berman “One of America’s best exponents of recent intellectual history.” The 56-year-old Boerum Hill resident’s often lengthy but always lucid essays on politics, literature, and ideas grace the pages of venerable publications such as The New York Times, The New Republic, and Dissent.
A student activist in the Sixties, Berman is perhaps best known for his writing about left-wing politics and the youthful passions of his fellow baby-boomers. His wide-ranging and widely acclaimed 1998 book A Tale of Two Utopias cast a loving yet critical eye on the revolutionary generation of 1968—the young idealists of Berkeley and Paris, Mexico City and Prague, bound together in their belief that they could bring about a radically better world.
Since the attacks of September 11, Berman has emerged as one of the American left’s leading hawks. His 2003 polemic Terror and Liberalism made the case that Islamist radicalism is a form of totalitarianism akin to 20th-century fascism and Stalinism—a menace that demands a clear-eyed and vigorous response from liberals. More controversially, Berman was a vocal supporter of Western action to topple Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime.
His latest book, Power and the Idealists: Or, The Passion of Joschka Fischer and Its Aftermath, published late last year by Brooklyn’s Soft Skull Press, brings together themes from his two preceding works. It traces the political evolution of the generation of 1968 through the lives of figures like Joschka Fischer, a onetime radical street-fighter who in 1998 rose to the post of German foreign minister, and Bernard Kouchner, a former communist who went on to co-found Doctors Without Borders and become an outspoken advocate for humanitarian interventionism. Berman chronicles how some of the leading lights of the European left moved beyond the dogmas of their youth, abandoning their reflexive anti-Americanism and rigid anti-war views; how their idealism matured as they confronted the responsibilities of power; and, ultimately, their bitter disagreements with one another over the Iraq war and the challenges of our post-9/11 world.
Berman spoke with The Inquirer during the spring.
Why did you write Power and the Idealists?
I wanted to explain to myself and to everyone else why it was that so many people back in the Sixties and Seventies participated in the radical left, and why so many people from those days went on to develop some new kinds of political activity and a new kind of political imagination. I wanted to say something about how people change, and how they remain the same. And I wanted to experiment with a complicated way of recounting historical events. I wanted to write a narrative with shifting heroes and even a collective hero, a narrative that takes place in the present, the past, and the far past and in several countries all at the same time. A very complicated structure. More like a novel than like a conventional history. That was my intention. It was a literary ambition as much as anything else.
Does the book have any particular lesson for today’s world.
It does, or so I think. It has a political lesson. It says that the tradition of the political left, the deepest tradition, ought to be a tradition of solidarity with people who are oppressed. Values like these ought to lead us to certain conclusions. We ought to be militant for human rights. We ought to push to see despotic governments and totalitarian movements defeated. Wherever people are struggling against those kinds of things, we ought to find a way to show some solidarity. Pretty simple values, really.
How is it that so many people who have come out of this idealism of the Sixties left have drawn opposite conclusions from you? Today, arguably the leading intellectual figures who are identified with the left are people like Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn, people who seem to believe that American power is the root cause of all problems.
I guess I interpret the values of the left and the lessons of recent times a little differently from how they do. There’s a long history on the left of being dead wrong. The great causes of the left are, or ought to be, the struggle against economic oppression and the struggle against certain kinds of social oppression. The great cause ought to be the struggle against totalitarian movements—the worst political plague of the last century. From my point of view, the struggle against fascism and the struggle against communism, these are really parts of the same campaign. Of course, I’m talking about the anti-totalitarian left, which is not the same as the conventional left. From the point of view of the anti-totalitarian left, the United States has sometimes been wrong and sometimes been right, and sometimes the United States has managed to be right and wrong at the same time, which means that we ought to get into the political fight and do what we can to set the country on a better course.
Which of the two lefts, your left or theirs, do you think the generation of 1968 gave more steam to?
Well, the story that I tell is about people who came up in the conventional radicalism of the Sixties and evolved in an anti-totalitarian direction. I describe a number of people in Western Europe, in France, in Germany, plus Poland and a few other places—well-known people, well-regarded, people with a lot of admirers, who are, in my judgment, representative of a lot of other people in other parts of the world. I think that these people have developed a distinctive politics, a new politics of the left, and this distinctive new politics is not what you see in the old-fashioned, orthodox left. But you can see it in my book—the modern anti-totalitarian left that came out of the radicalism of 1968.
The German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that Bill Clinton had said that he stayed up all night reading your book.
Yes, think of that! The book has already come out in Germany. It’s going to come out in seven languages altogether, apart from English, and this is going to be interesting to see. The fact it’s coming out in so many languages reflects, I think, how representative is my story. I write about particular individuals, but I think that readers in different parts of the world are going to be able to identify with those particular individuals—the modern, new-style leftists, who have had to put up a fight against the old-fashioned left. A complicated story.
Do you think Bill Clinton would fit into the trajectory that your European subjects followed?
In a small way, I suppose so. Clinton was never a genuine leftist or a militant, but I think that he went through aspects of this evolution. He entered political life by organizing against the war in Vietnam as a student, and then by working for George McGovern back in 1972, and the impulse back then among liberals and leftists was to oppose the very idea of American interventions elsewhere in the world. Yet Clinton is the president who led the most successful of modern American interventions, especially in the Balkans. He was too slow about it, but when he got himself mobilized, he did show how that sort of thing could be done. So he did go through an evolution. It’s a dreadful shame that we have such an inept and foolish administration right now, which has shown itself incapable of profiting from any of Clinton’s lessons or deploying the skills that he deployed.
You were a student radical in the Sixties. Did you follow a similar ideological trajectory as your book’s subjects?
I did. My book is not about me, but I think I’ve been able to understand the evolution of the people I do write about from the inside, so to speak. I think I understand their inner motivations, even if they are Europeans and I am not.
What was your evolution?
Oh, as a kid I was an agitator in Students for a Democratic Society, which was the big left-wing student organization in the later Sixties. I played my tiny foot soldier’s role in some of the civil rights agitations and in the antiwar movement. But when a lot of other people began to take up an enthusiasm for Marxism-Leninism and that sort of thing (which no one admits having done today, but it was big, in its day), I was turned off. Like a lot of people of my generation, I was moved by the dissidents in Eastern Europe in the Seventies and Eighties. Those people made a revolution, and I thought and think they were great.
In Terror and Liberalism you made the case that radical Islamism is a totalitarian movement with intellectual origins in the West. And you happen to live a short walk from a stretch of Atlantic Avenue that in the 1990s was a center for jihad in America. Is Brooklyn a front in the war on Islamic extremism?
Brooklyn is definitely a front. There are any number of Islamic bookstores in Brooklyn, and the question of what the people are reading in these places is pretty important. One of the principal things I did in Terror and Liberalism was to argue with Sayyid Qutb, the great theorist for jihadi radicals. I read thousands of pages of Qutb’s writings, and I devoted a big portion of the book to explaining his viewpoint and arguing against it. My argument was that, for all the deeply Islamic qualities in his thinking, the most important aspect of his thinking does not come out of ancient Islam or the Muslim religion. It comes out of the totalitarian ideas of the 20th century. Jihadi radicalism is a modern idea, and it has a number of European roots. That means that we can argue against it.
How do you think the war for the hearts and minds of Muslims in the West is going?
The Bush administration is just the most inept thing I’ve ever seen. The administration understands very little. Still, quite a battle is going on among Muslims themselves and among intellectuals around the world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. I can’t judge how well the argument is going—sometimes I get pretty discouraged—but I know at least that such a battle is, in fact, going on in books and magazines and newspapers.
You backed the Iraq war. Do you have any regrets?
I have huge regrets, which are that my own criticisms and recommendations from before the war were not especially heeded. I took the position, before the war, that it was a good idea to overthrow Saddam. But the administration’s approach was all wrong. I argued for emphasizing a war of ideas, for finding allies, for drawing on the precedents from the Clinton administration, for making the humanitarian case central, for drawing lessons from Kosovo, and so forth. There was no particular rush—though we couldn’t wait forever, given that, in the meanwhile, we were crushing the Iraqi people in slow motion with our policy of sanctions. Twelve years of sanctions pretty much decimated the Iraqi middle class and Iraqi culture. A disaster. But Bush went about it in a weird mood of hysteria and arrogance. I predicted doom. I did this in The New Republic, pre-war. I worried out loud in those pages that Bush was going to dissipate America’s power. But, of course, once the invasion got underway, I hoped fervently that, on balance, things would turn out well. Now my worst fears are coming true, and not my best hopes. But we’ll see. There are a lot of good people in Iraq, and they do need our help, if only we would provide it—we and the other democracies around the world, in spite of Bush. By the way, a lot of people from Brooklyn are fighting in Iraq right now, and my heart is with them.
How did you wind up publishing Power and the Idealists with a small, independent publisher like Soft Skull?
I published with Soft Skull because at one point their office was down the block from my home, and I ran into the publisher at a sandwich shop and asked him if he wanted to publish something of mine, and he said, “yes.” That was it. Purely a neighborhood thing. I admire Soft Skull’s layout and design skills. I do think they did a handsome job publishing my book, with the photographs of a left-wing street battle in the opening pages, like a movie that begins before you see the title.
One thing that’s striking about this match is that Soft Skull has a fairly radical bent, and many of their authors and readers would probably be more than a little bit skeptical of your foreign policy views?
I have those readers especially in mind. I want to lay out an alternative, anti-totalitarian picture of what the left ought to be. I want readers who consider themselves on the left to read my book and to think about the deeper purposes of the left—maybe to give their own assumptions a second thought. It’s good to be against George Bush. I am against George Bush. Down with Bush! But it’s bad to let George Bush dictate one’s own political thinking. Just because Bush says the sun rises in the east does not oblige the rest of us to say, “Oh ho, that cannot be.” Bush overthrew the Taliban and Saddam. That was good. He did it wretchedly. That was bad. There we are, and we’re paying the price.
What’s next for you? Do you have any other projects you’re working on?
I’ve edited a selection of Carl Sandburg’s poetry for the American Poets Project, which is put out by the Library of America. The collection is going to come out in the fall, which means that I’ve gone back to my literary roots. Sandburg—he wrote quite a few marvelous things.
Daniel Treiman is the editor of The Brooklynite. He is now in search of gainful employment.