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Balancing the books —

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a precarious matter, unless you are accustomed to carrying books that way ]

Here’s a DoubleTweet in the form of a call-and-response, with an intriguing appearance of symmetry.

Does the formal symmetry here have something to say to us? Is it hopelessly skewed? If so, which way does the balance tip for you, and why?

Intellectuals and their Romance with Political Barbarism

Saturday, July 4th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Martin Heidegger, Eric Hobsbawm and Ezra Pound

A  meandering post inspired by Reason Magazine and Charles Cameron.

Reason.com is best known for giving a scrappy libertarian take on current events, crime, technology and pop culture, but recently, an article by Charles Paul Freund touched a deeper, darker vein of twentieth century history and, in my view, a problematic recurring pattern in intellectual life:

Hunger for Fascism

Al Pacino has withdrawn from a Danish stage version of Knut Hamsun’s novel, Hunger, after learning that the Norwegian Nobel prize-winning author had been an ardent supporter of Nazi Germany. The move dismayed some of Hamsun’s defenders, but it’s also a reminder of the appalling state of intellectual life during the rise of fascism. So many writers and thinkers embraced fascism in those years that they constituted what came to be called a “fascist foreign legion.”

Hunger (1890) is considered a classic of psychological literature, and Hamsun himself is regarded by many critics and writers as one of the fathers of literary Modernism, and an important influence on such writers as Franz Kafka, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, and many others. In a 1987 introduction to Hunger, Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote that “The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.”

[….] Hamsun’s fascism was hardly a byproduct of hardening of the arteries. He lived for a time in the 1880s in the U.S., and came to dislike the country for its egalitarian principles, and because it had a large black population (even though that population wasn’t benefitting much from the egalitarianism). His 1918 novel, Growth of the Soil, is a pretty good example of “blood and soil” lit. John Carey, a British critic, cites a passage from Hamsun’s Kareno trilogy of dramas, written in the 1890s, as indicative of his outlook:

“I believe in the born leader, the natural despot, the master, not the man who is chosen but the man who elects himself to be ruler over the masses. I believe in and hope for one thing, and that is the return of the great terrorist, the living essence of human power, the Caesar.”

Hamsun, who gave his Nobel to Hitler as a mark of his esteem, remained faithful to the fascist cause to the bitter end. Hamsun’s most-often quoted words come from the brief eulogy for Hitler that he published in a collaborationist newspaper in May 1945, a week after the Fuehrer died.

[….] George Orwell wrote in 1946 that, “The relationship between fascism and the literary intelligentsia badly needs investigating, and [William Butler] Yeats might well be the starting point.” Such investigations have since been written, of course, and they include the expected chapters on Yeats as well as others on D.H. Lawrence (The Plumed Serpent may be the clearest example of Lawrence’s fascism), T.S. Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis (who at this point is probably as well known for his fascism as for anything else he did).

What was the appeal of fascism to such people? It wasn’t just that many of them were racists and/or anti-Semites (though that didn’t hurt); plenty of authors have been racists without embracing totalitarian systems. The underlying issue for many of these figures, according to investigations by John R. Harrison and by John Carey, was an antipathy to democracy.

“Many twentieth-century writers,” wrote John R. Harrison in The Reactionaries: A study of the anti-democratic intelligentsia (1966), “have decided that culture has been sacrificed to democracy; the spread of culture has meant that the level of the masses is raised, but that the level of the elite is lowered.” As for writers like Pound, Yeats, and others, “they realized there was no hope of a return to an earlier form of civilization, so they hoped for a stability provided by totalitarian regimes.”[….]

Read the whole thing here.

The dark romance of intellectuals with Fascism died in 1945. Their bloody affair with Communism has dwindled significantly, but lingers in some quarters still.

Why though was 20th century totalitarianism so attractive to the West’s leading thinkers, artists and writers? After all, once you got past the snazzy uniforms, the trains running on time and land for the peasants, the overt reveling in barbarism and cruelty by Fascists and Communists was hard to miss – and if you missed it, the Nazis gave choreographed tours of concentration camps and the Soviets held show trials right in the face of world media. Very little of the bloodbath was hidden, except to the willingly blind, who tended to most often be well educated and otherwise thoughtful people yet found ways to morally rationalize collaboration and fellow traveling.

There are, in my view, a number of reasons. These tended to differ somewhat depending on whether the intellectual in question gravitated more to fascism or communism, but even here there is a significant, muddling, psychological, overlap between the two. So much so, that Fascism’s creator cut his political teeth as a firey socialist agitator and as thuggish a Nazi leader as Ernst Rohm could boast of his admiration for his Communist enemies’ “idealism” and street fighting courage. Indeed, in training his stormtroopers, Rohm remarked that ex-communists made the best SA men.

The first person to offer a coherent explanation of the individuals drawn to fascism was the German-Jewish journalist Konrad Heiden. In Der Fuehrer,  Heiden’s groundbreaking 1944 political biography of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement, referred to two categories of potential adherents : “Armed Bohemians” and the “Armed Intellectuals”.  The former were the freebooting roughnecks and men of habitual violence who were always restless and ill at ease in civilized society. Men like Ernst Rohm, who found in totalitarian movements a political cause to justify themselves. These men do not concern us here.

The latter group are also ill at ease in established society. The armed intellectuals are the born critics, gadflies, dreamers, autodidacts, bar-room philosophers, self-styled poets and no small number of crackpots and cranks; what these quarrelsome eccentrics lacked in muscle or raw courage, they more than made up for in the blizzard of half-baked ideas and skill at words which they employed with maniacal zeal.  Heiden’s taxonomy was mirrored a few years later by Eric Hoffer in the groups Hoffer called “practical men of action” and the “fanatics” in his classic, The True Believer The armed intellectuals were seldom noteworthy as intellectual heavyweights – men like Alfred Rosenberg and Grigory Zinoviev were third-rate minds, or worse – but they excelled at propagating ideas and simplifying them in the fashion required to build and sustain a mass movement; ideas as war banners or flags of political tribalism rather than as part of a coherent system of thought.  Or as Ortega y Gasset wrote at the time of the fascists and radicals “….ideas are in effect, nothing more than appetites in words, something like musical romanzas.”

Yet, as Charles Paul Freund indicates, totalitarianism attracted as supporters and admirers not just intellectual crackpots like Gottfried Feder, Dietrich Eckhart or Trofim Lysenko, but genuinely substantive men of letters, art and science. Many of these did not officially become “party comrades”, though some like philosophers Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt did, most were content to wield their pens as admirers, fellow travelers, enthusiastic supporters and public apologists. Being intellectuals, they were of course entranced by ideas – on the Right, the totemic, mythic, reactionary idolatry and the volkisch ur-narratives of messianic nationalism (much of which was the mummery of fools). Neither Hitler nor Mussolini were innovators here; the bombastic poet Gabriele D’Annunzio’s grandiose adventurism in Fiume, for example, presaged much of Fascist Italy’s swaggering Il Duce and his bullying blackshirts. On the left, by the intoxicating prospect of revolutionary “justice” and being on the “right side of history”, which could allegedly be explained with “scientific laws” of dialectical materialism. It was all rubbish but it was politically potent rubbish.

There were also material rewards – the Third Reich and the Soviet Union liked to lavish medals, Stalin Prizes and various emoluments on its foreign sycophants, while intellectuals who were particularly active minions, like Heidegger and Maxim Gorky, were given public honors by their respective regimes. This did not always work out well, however. Unlike Heidegger, who outlived the destruction of his Reich in 1945 to embrace and be embraced by the deconstructionist and postmodernist European left, Gorky was likely murdered by his master, an age-old risk for courtiers of tyrants. While the rewards and awards were highly esteemed, see Paul Robeson’s  pathetic, groveling, gratitude for his Stalin Prize, the primary driver of slavish loyalty was always political. Too many intellectuals in that era were fascinated with totalitarian power, accepted cruelty as strength and despised liberal democracy and individualism, unless if it was individualism as heroic symbolism for some kind of impending vanguard  – square-jawed, blond SS men, muscular Stakhanovite workers brandishing sledgehammers and so on. The barbarism of these regimes the intellectuals either ignored, explained away or embraced.

This longwinded preface brings me to a question that Charles Cameron asked me in regard to the article in Reason:

“I notice that quote about how many early 20C intellectuals “realized there was no hope of a return to an earlier form of civilization, so they hoped for a stability provided by totalitarian regimes” and wonder how you see it corresponding with current thoughts which view the dismantling of the Gaddafi, Hussein, and Mubarak regimes as enabling the rise of AQI > ISIS > IS?”

This is a great question.

The regimes of Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi shared some similarities, notably official secularism and modernization, but they also had some important ideological and structural differences. Saddam’s regime and Mubrak’s Egypt were rooted in pan-Arab nationalism, a regional anti-imperialist movement the built in fervor from the 20’s and peaked in the late fifties with the personality cult of Nasserism and a characteristic that was shared initially in the early years of Gaddafi’s rule in Libya, who idolized Nasser and for a time, hoped to inherit his mantle. All of the regimes were secular, modernizing, anti-monarchical, anti-imperialist and “socialist” in a nationalist style more suggestive of Hitler and Mussolini than Marx and Lenin. Saddam’s Iraq, furthermore, was like Syria,  Baathist in its pan-Arabism and its founding generation of activists like Michel Aflaq, were directly influenced in by the European totalitarian parties of the 1930’s Left and Right and the extremist movements of the French Third Republic .

Colonel Gaddafi, who came to power in a coup in 1969, was somewhat different ideologically and probably psychologically. Initially a pan-Arab Nasserite, Gaddafi soon went his own way, drifting toward Third World revolutionary terrorism, a muddled Islamic Libyan utopianism based on a personality cult and finally as a pan-African interventionist given to bizarre and unpredictable behavior. Fearing coups, Gaddafi deliberately weakened and hollowed out the Libyan state, including the military, weakening them institutionally, relying upon competing revolutionary committees, militias, secret police agencies and the like run by members of his extended family until the entire structure was more or less entirely dependent upon Gaddafi’s personal whims. By contrast, Nasser, Mubarak and Saddam Hussein were centralizers who built states centered on the military and security services and a government dominated economy that did not tolerate political rivals. Saddam in particular, took this tendency to an extreme in a conscious imitation of Stalin and Iraq had up until the first Gulf War, a complex bureaucratic state, albeit one dominated by a Baath Party run by the al-Tikriti clan (Saddam’s rule slid more toward Gaddafi’s in practice as postwar decay and sanctions eroded the efficiency of Iraq’s government and arbitrary terror and corruption increasingly were used to prop up the regime)

These dictators, whether hostile to the West (Saddam, Gaddafi) or friendly (Mubarak) lacked the advantage of having a western, fellow-traveling, amen chorus of influential intellectuals as the Fascist and Communist tyrants once enjoyed.  Serious intellectuals and public figures had made pilgrimages to Moscow, Berlin and Rome; no one was going to play John Reed to Muammar Gadaffi’s Lenin or Saddam and say their ramshackle future “worked”. So, when Western leaders, especially the American President, decided it might be good for these regimes to go, the only westerners to defend them in the court of public opinion were those already regarded as minor nuisances, political cranks and buffoons. Furthermore, rather than being viewed as linchpins of stability against radical Islamism, many western politicians and intellectuals of the neoconservative and liberal internationalist variety saw these dictatorships as a cause of radical Islam’s growth at best, or complicit with groups like al Qaida in promoting international terrorism at worst.  Unfortunately, while both Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi had a long and bloody history of funding terrorism, mainly of the radical Palestinian nationalist variety, neither were much interested in helping al Qaida or radical Salafis; Gaddafi  in fact, was fairly busy imprisoning and torturing them on a regular basis, as did the more restrained military backed dictatorship of the Egyptians during most of its existence (the brief period of tolerating Islamism, under Anwar Sadat, resulted in Sadat being assassinated by Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which later merged with al Qaida. The Egyptian military did not tolerate them again until coerced into it by the Arab Spring and pressure from the Obama administration).

These police state regimes of the Arab world also played an indirect role in the rise of AQIISIS in the sense that their savage repression of all other political alternatives, especially democratic and liberal ones, created a vacuum in civil society that radical Islamism in all its manifestations could fill. This was not unlike the dynamic of Indochina where Ho’s  Communists were greatly helped by the French first brutally suppressing the right wing Vietnamese nationalists in the 1930’s and then Diem’s regime wiping out all the other potential rivals to the Viet Cong in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, leaving the Communists as the voice of political opposition.  The security services of most Arab states, not just Saddam’s or Gaddafi’s, were efficient enough that no real political opposition existed anywhere outside of the mosque from Oman to Morocco, except on sufferance.  These states also played a passive theological role as foils in shaping decades of jihadi discourse at home, in prison, in exile and online regarding the ruler’s “apostasy”, their strategic priority as ” the Near Enemy” and the Islamic legitimacy of supporting or rejecting peaceful, democratic politics as a tool of struggle. During the course of the years of debates, as in secular revolutionary movements, there was a “ratcheting effect” in Islamist discourse towards progressively more radical, more militant and ever more takfirikhawairijte mythologizing tendencies that glorified barbaric violence, all of which was seen clearly in early 1990’s Algeria even before the rise of the Taliban [An important caveat: it is dubious that  liberal or democratic regimes would have changed the radicalization curve for Islamists much as these too would have been regarded as apostasy by Salafi militants, though there might have possibly been fewer of them, at least outside of Egypt].

With the Arab police states having cleared a space internally for Islamism to dominate underground political discourse the removal of the regimes themselves by American invasion, popular uprising abetted by foreign air support or foreign pressure did eventually enable the rise of ISIS. As much as the cruelty and corruption of the dictators drove their dissatisfied countrymen toward political Islam, they also had means to intimidate, contain or punish those who stepped too far out of line with great severity. No one doubted the ruthlessness of the Assads, Saddam’s willingness to employ terror or the Mad Colonel’s paranoid vindictiveness and when the surety of coercion and retribution disappeared, so too did the restraints on the freedom of action of Islamist radicals. American power was not a substitute for a fearsome native strongman. In the eyes of our enemies we were erratic and soft; capable of miraculous  military feats of devastation if sufficiently provoked, but usually culturally clueless where or when to use our power or against whom, often leaving allies in the lurch or ignoring them spitting in our faces. Instead of fearing the Americans the way they had feared Saddam, the worst jihadis like Zarqawi were emboldened to unleash the kind of medieval barbarism in Iraq that foreshadowed ISIS.

What alarms me regarding ISIS is that it is theologically a radical-apocalyptic Islamist movement blending insurgency, terrorism and conventional warfare that is also reviving the secular pageantry of Fascism with its grandiose mythmaking, blood rituals, compelling uniforms, Fuhrerprinzip and war-worship. It is an unholy combination that exudes a dark romanticism, a glamour of evil that rootless young Muslim men – a new generation of “armed bohemians” and “armed intellectuals” – find mesmerizing the way young Germans, Italians, Spaniards and Japanese did decades ago. Worse, while we may rightly laugh at the mummery of a dime store “Caliphate” and Islamists cribbing their P.R. style from Triumph of the Will, their success in manipulating deep cultural avatars as the key to power will inspire imitators in barbarism elsewhere that we can ill afford.

Fascism is dead – but it may not stay that way.


Get Out Your Godwin’s Law-O-Meter

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

HNN is running a symposium on Jonah Goldberg’s recent book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning:

While I know a great deal about the historical period in question, I have not read Goldberg’s book, so I am not going to comment on his core proposition except to say that IMHO, I tend to find arguments that the intellectual roots of Fascism and Nazism are located exclusively on one side of the political spectrum are flatly and demonstrably wrong. Goldberg’s polemical thesis though, yields a hysterical reaction because he is jubilantly shredding the hoary (and false) assertion of the academic Left, going back to the pre-Popular Front Communist Party line of the 1930’s, that Fascism is a form of radicalized conservatism and a secret pawn of big business capitalism.

Therefore, the following series amounts to an intellectual food fight between Goldberg and (mostly) a band of clearly enraged Leftist professors. Enjoy!:

HNN Special: A Symposium on Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism

After all, who doesn’t like an intemperate, online argument about Nazs? 🙂

    Book Review: The Forty Years War

    Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

    The Forty Years War: The Rise and Fall of the Neocons, from Nixon to Obama by Len Colodny and Tom Shachtman

    I mentioned this book previously, expressing some serious skepticism of the authors’ core argument of a struggle between President Richard Nixon and the Neocons. Nevertheless, I ordered a copy and found The Forty Years War to be an absorbing read; for those with an interest in the administration of Richard Nixon, the history of the late Cold War period or the politics of American foreign policy, this book is a must read. I have a good working knowledge from my own research of primary and secondary source material related to Richard Nixon and his battle to re-shape American foreign policy and national strategy; yet I can say that and Colodny and Shachtman, working with newly transcribed archival material, demonstrated that we still have much to learn about the inner workings of the Nixon administration.

    The authors have three important themes in The Forty Years War:

    1. The intellectual legacy of militarist- moral idealism of Fritz G.A. Kraemer, the German-born Defense Department geopolitical theorist who was a mentor, adviser or ally to a glittering constellation of policy makers including Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, James Schlesinger, Fred Ikle, Andrew Marshall, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and others. Shachtman and Colodny call Kraemer:

    “….the unacknowledged godfather of the George W. Bush administration’s ways of relating the United States to the rest of the world – more so than the philosophies of the university of Chicago’s Leo Strauss or those Trotskyites turned conservatives who founded the neocon movement”

    2. That there has been a “forty years war” for the control over U.S. foreign policy not between Left and Right or Hawks and Doves but between foreign policy “Pragmatists” in the mold of Richard Nixon and “Neocons” or more broadly (and accurately in my view), “Hardliners” adhering to the rigid moralism and supreme confidence in military supremacy of Fritz Kraemer.

    3. That Watergate, contrary to the orthodox historiography (argued by historians like Stanley I. Kutler and Robert Dallek), was exploited and aggravated by Kraemerites and proto-Neocons, especially General Al Haig, specifically to bring down Richard Nixon in an attempt to smash detente and institute more aggressive U.S. posture in the Cold War. Haig emerges as a central villain in the Watergate conspiracy in The Forty Years War and Nixon’s ability to inspire disloyalty in his closest aides is breathtaking.

    While illuminating and deeply provocative, The Forty Years War is a quirky book, almost two different books with the first half devoted to the Nixon era and the second half sailing from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama. In a sense, this is unavoidable because it is the Nixon administration docs that are being rapidly declassified and subsequent administrations will not be releasing similar material for years or decades. Equal depth of treatment for every administration would also have swelled the number of pages to a staggeringly unmanageable size for authors and readers alike.

    I am also not comfortable with the authors’ casual use of the label “Neocon” to describe a range of policy makers on the right, some of whom are not at all neoconservatives in a tight or ideological sense of the term. Toward the end of The Forty Years War, Colodny and Shachtman draw more nuanced distinctions that I think, is a more precise rendering of the positions of various figures in Republican administrations or Congress.

    The Forty Years War is a book that deserves to have a much higher public profile as Colodny and Shachtman are marshalling new evidence to challenge conventional interpretations of late Cold War political history and foreign policy.

    Strongly recommended.

    Nixon vs. The Neoconservatives?

    Friday, December 11th, 2009


    Some interesting, if oddly interpreted, background at HNN on Fritz Kraemer, the influential hardliner and  intellectual mentor of Henry Kissinger and Al Haig, and Kraemer’s influence in American foreign policy:

    Luke A. Nichter: Who Was Fritz Kraemer? And Why We Should Care.

    Whether Vietnam, Iraq, or now Afghanistan, wars come and go, but the real battle is a philosophic one between two sects of conservatives. In The Forty Years War: The Rise and Fall of the Neocons from Nixon to Obama, authors Len Colodny and Tom Shachtman challenge readers to examine the role of a little-known Pentagon figure named Fritz G.A. Kraemer. Colodny and Shachtman argue that Kraemer was the leading intellectual behind what became known as the neo-conservative movement, witnessed by the fact that Kraemer influenced so many high-ranking conservative figures over the course of  six decades.….This meeting was probably the only one to have occurred during the Nixon presidency in which Nixon and Kissinger permitted a rigorous debate, in the Oval Office no less, over the merits of not just Vietnam policy, but Nixon foreign policy more generally. Kraemer knew the issues well enough that both Nixon and Kissinger were forced to defend themselves to someone who represented an increasingly disenchanted sect of conservatives. Kraemer believed, as other conservatives did, that the conduct of Nixon foreign policy had became tainted by short-term political considerations, and that politicians had acted as a restraining influence on military leaders who believed they were capable of achieving a military victory.. 

    The Nixon Quartet

    ….At the heart of the dance was a fundamental philosophic difference between Kraemer’s ideologically purist, militarist, anti-diplomacy stance, and Nixon’s quintessential pragmatic stance.  Kissinger and Haig were caught between these antipodal poles.  Kraemer had “discovered” Kissinger in 1944 at Camp Claiborne, had superseded his goal of becoming an accountant and readied him intellectually for Harvard.  As Kissinger would later acknowledge, “Kraemer shaped my reading and thinking, influenced my choice of college, awakened my interest in political philosophy and history, inspired both my undergraduate and graduate theses and became an integral and indispensable part of my life.”  In the Pentagon in 1961, Kraemer had similarly discovered Haig, and recommended him for greater responsibilities in the office of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.  At the moment of entering the White House in 1969, both Kissinger and Haig subscribed largely to Kraemer’s tenets.…..There’s much more to the story of this quartet, including Haig’s efforts to push Nixon up the plank toward resignation, and how those who detested Nixon’s foreign policies became the neocons in the Ford and Carter years, when they continued and magnified their efforts to undermine those presidents’ Nixonian foreign policies.

    The two articles have a lot of interesting snippets of information but I am finding the ideological spin to be strange. The neoconservatives moved from the Left to the Right, starting roughly in this period, but they would not be identifiably so until the mid to late 1970’s. Nor are most of the conservative figures like Alexander Haig in the neoconservative group. When Haig was Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, his relationship with the administration’s actual neoconservatives like Jeanne Kirkpatrick was very poor ( they were also poor with the administration’s moderates). The authors, in my view, are also overestimating Kraemer’s influence on Richard Nixon, who entered office with a firm vision of his foreign policy objectives.

    Nevertheless, of serious interest to the Nixon scholar.

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