Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 5, 2004

Paul Berman and Philip Roth

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on October 5, 2004

I suppose that many people–especially on the Marxism list–have the same kind of aversion to Paul Berman that I do, but I felt compelled to read his +5000 word review (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/03/books/review/03BERMAN.html) of Philip Roth’s new novel “The Plot Against America” in much the same way I would take in a highway accident. The real Lindbergh was an aviator who achieved fame for his solo flight to Europe in 1927. Lindbergh was also an admirer of Hitler and an anti-Semite. Roth’s novel imagines Charles Lindbergh becoming the fascist president of the USA and rounding up the Jews.

When he was a columnist for the liberal, postmodernist Village Voice in the 1980s, Paul Berman was blazing a trail for Christopher Hitchens as he used the newsweekly to rally readers against the Sandinista threat to freedom. Using anarchist jargon that he would drop after his career began to skyrocket later on, Berman would make the case for Costa Rica-based contra Eden Pastora who would break with the FSLN early on after discovering, along with Ronald Reagan, that they were “Communists.”

In the 1990s, Berman became a cheerleader for war on Yugoslavia, thus indicating that he retained a keen sense for where the big bucks were. Writing screeds against Milosevic would almost certainly endear you to the publishers of leading journals of the soft left, while finding something of value in what was left of Titoism would get you tarred as a WWP supporter or worse. As everybody knows, supporting NATO’s war on Yugoslavia prepared Berman, Hitchens and many other Dissentoid types for cheering on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Berman wrote a book last year that defended Western Liberalism against Islamo-fascism. Berman and Philip Roth seem to share a belief that fascism of any stripe has more to do with ideology spinning out of control rather than material conditions. In the 1930s, according to Berman, German hatred for liberal values led them to back Hitler just as reading the obscure Islamic radical Sayyid Qutb to excess might have led to 9/11.

This prompts Nation Magazine reviewer George Scialabba to point out:

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

full: http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20030428&c=2&s=scialabba

Stuck in the middle of Berman’s interminable review is a bilious diatribe directed against the antiwar movement in the USA:

The anti-Semitism Roth describes in the 1940’s springs mostly from an antiwar resentment — from the belief that the Jews, and not the Nazis, bear responsibility for the war, and are trying to advance their own narrow interests at everyone else’s expense. And perhaps a bit of this has likewise turned up in our own time. During the last two or three years, large publics in Western Europe and even in the United States have taken up the view that, if extremist political movements have swept across large swaths of the Muslim world, and if Baathists and radical Islamists have slaughtered literally millions of people during these last years, and then have ended up at war with the United States, Israel and its crimes must ultimately be to blame. And if America has been drawn into war in Iraq, it is because President Bush’s second-level foreign policy advisers include a few Jews (though all of his toplevel advisers are Protestants), and these second-level figures have manipulated everyone else to the bidding of Ariel Sharon.

Quite a few protesters who subscribe to interpretations of this sort have found it natural during the last few years to march through the streets bearing placards denouncing Sharon, and sometimes comparing him to Hitler — quite as if Sharon were the embodiment of evil in the modern world. Some people have found it natural to go a bit farther, and have proclaimed an outright approval of suicide terrorism, as happened in Washington, where people marching in the street chanted, ”Martyrs, not murderers!”

It has become natural in these last years for political cartoonists in Europe to draw Sharon in the memorable style that Nazi cartoonists used to reserve for Jews; natural for a notorious and well-designed poster in San Francisco to suggest, in the spirit of medieval anti- Semitism, that Israelis murder Palestinian children in order to eat them; natural for Jewish students to feel intimidated at more than a few American college campuses; natural, in Paris, for a handful of militants to veer off from the biggest of the protest marches against the invasion of Iraq and rough up a few Jews — these many astonishing developments that depart pretty sharply from the protest atmosphere of the Vietnam era, yet do conjure a few scents and flavors of the 1930’s and 40’s.

Or is it ludicrous to suggest any such parallels? Maybe the mere act of noticing a few odors of a long-ago past insinuates a slander against the overwhelming mass of good-hearted antiwar protesters from our current era, who have never dabbled in scapegoat theories and cannot be held responsible for every zealot of the anti-Zionist cause or proponent of radical Islamism who chooses to carry a placard or to shout slogans. For that matter, is it fair to see any parallels at all between the heavy hand and cynical manipulations of the Bush administration, and the heavier hand and even more cynical manipulations of true-blue authoritarians from darker times and more sinister places, long ago? I have my opinions on these matters, and so does everyone else, and so does Philip Roth, I imagine.

Yeah, and I have my own opinion as well. Paul Berman is full of shit.

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