Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Isaih Berlin and the dream of reason

The New York Review of Books website is running a speech that liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin gave  on 11/25/1994, A Message to the 21st Century 10/23/2014.

I'm not that familiar with Berlin's work. But if this speech is representative, a simplistic anti-Communism was a big part of his worldview.

Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997)

I've discussed before the "From Luther to Hitler" position that tries to trace Nazism back to major figures in German intellectual life going back to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. See, e.g., Anthony Quinton on Hegel's metaphysics 10/11/2010.

Berlin's argument in that 1994 speech, he takes what could be called a from Fichte To Hitler And Mao Zedong Too approach:

Men have for millennia destroyed each other, but the deeds of Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Napoleon (who introduced mass killings in war), even the Armenian massacres, pale into insignificance before the Russian Revolution and its aftermath: the oppression, torture, murder which can be laid at the doors of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and the systematic falsification of information which prevented knowledge of these horrors for years—these are unparalleled. They were not natural disasters, but preventable human crimes, and whatever those who believe in historical determinism may think, they could have been averted. ...

They were, in my view, not caused by the ordinary negative human sentiments, as Spinoza called them—fear, greed, tribal hatreds, jealousy, love of power—though of course these have played their wicked part. They have been caused, in our time, by ideas; or rather, by one particular idea. It is paradoxical that Karl Marx, who played down the importance of ideas in comparison with impersonal social and economic forces, should, by his writings, have caused the transformation of the twentieth century, both in the direction of what he wanted and, by reaction, against it. ...

[Heinrich Heine] predicted that the armed disciples of the German philosophers — Fichte, Schelling, and the other fathers of German nationalism — would one day destroy the great monuments of Western Europe in a wave of fanatical destruction before which the French Revolution would seem child's play. This may have been unfair to the German metaphysicians, yet Heine’s central idea seems to me valid: in a debased form, the Nazi ideology did have roots in German anti-Enlightenment thought. There are men who will kill and maim with a tranquil conscience under the influence of the words and writings of some of those who are certain that they know perfection can be reached. [my emphasis]
Much of what Berlin says there fits so well with stock Cold War rhetoric that many of his hearers and readers may take this speech as a statement of the obvious.

But it's worth asking about those "men who will kill and maim with a tranquil conscience." He's describing psychopaths and sociopaths there, people who seem to have no conscience.

Is there any such evidence that such characteristics emerge "under the influence of the words and writings of some of those who are certain that they know perfection can be reached"?

The short answer would be, no.

Psychopaths and sociopaths may gravitate to causes that allow them to exercise power over others. Police departments try as well as they can (or at least they're supposed to!) to screen such people out. But they aren't necessarily especially linked to totalizing ideologies, much less a quest to reach perfection.

Fanaticism can lead people to do ugly things. Cult environments can create conditions in which people set their consciences aside. But those kinds of things typically happen with certain kinds of leadership. Cults are characterized more by the prevalence of an authoritarian (and often psychopathic) type of leadership.

Training in normal national armies focus not only on teaching particular skills but on building team spirit and group cohesion.

If we ask the general question, "Do ideas matter in peoples' conduct?", of course the answer is, yes.

But do they matter in the way Berlin describes in this speech? Let's take one of his bogeymen, Fichte, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814). Fichte was a philosopher who considered himself a disciple of Kant, continuing Kant's work on transcendental idealism. He developed the subjective side of Kant's theory, emphasizing the ways in which the ego constitutes the external world. Put that way, it sounds like a religious mystical dogma. Or a philosophy of autism. But there is much more to it than that. For instance, he had a more radical theory of the social contract than Kant.

But where is there an identifiable train of thought that leads from Fichte to Hitler? Or to Stalin? Fichte was one of the heavies of classical German philosophy, now usually regarded as a transition figure between Kant and Hegel. That classical German philosophical tradition formed the intellectual background for figures as diverse as Bruno Bauer, Karl Marx, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche and many others. Around 1850, the leading philosophical trend in Germany was toward materialist philosophies and away from both Hegelians and Romanticism of thinkers like Schelling (Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling).

It's a long and winding road indeed to get from Fichte to Goebbels!

Fichte is probably a good topic on which to ask whether Berlin's notion of a totalizing idea is well-defined enough to be meaningful. Fichte looked for a unifying point for all of scientific knowledge. But does that translated into developing an idea by which people "know perfection can be reached" in the here-and-now? Fichte wrote about political theory. But he was engaged in a philosophical project, not cooking up an ideology for a cult to use to kill people in order to touch of the final struggle that would bring on the Last Days, or whatever.

I'm assuming that Berlin also realized that a variety of material factors - sociological, economic, psychological, military - played an enormous role in those situations he describes. But did the particular ideologies themselves create the brutality he describes?

In Hitler's case, Nazism was a specifically anti-liberal ideology. That is to say that it was a radical, reactionary philosophy that rejected democratic and republican ideas of the modern era and wanted to construct a different kind of modern state and society in the guise of returning to old values and traditions. Those values being the alleged virtue of the Aryan race. Unlike Western democracy or Communism, Nazism specifically valued racial discrimination and glorified brutality and militarism.

However, the horror we now know as the Holocaust took place in the context of war and annexation. The mass roundup of Jews began in Austria after the Anschluss (annexation) of early 1938. Historians like Christopher Browning have combed through the evidence to establish a timeline on the decision to initiate mass killings. And it's clear that the decision came in 1941 around the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Now, Hitler's determination to get rid of the Jews in Europe was one of the two core ideological points the Nazis consistently took seriously, the other being gaining "living space" by invading and conquering the USSR. So ideology played a part. But the fulfillment of the first point was dependent on the conditions of full-blown war mobilization required by the second. And we have to ask if an ideology which had those two points at its core actually counts as one that made its followers think they were reaching for perfection in the immediate future.

Berlin suggests some kind of straight line influence from Karl Marx' thought to mass deaths in the Soviet Union and China in the following century. In Cold War terminology that sounds entirely plausible. Both countries called themselves "Marxist," didn't they?

But here again, we're talking about very particular structures and specific policy decisions. In both cases, the largest number of deaths directly attributable to state policy came from starvation in the wake of reforms affecting agriculture. In the USSR, it was the massive collectivization of farming in parallel to what the Soviets called the de-kulakization campaign, aimed at breaking the power of the dominant class in agriculture. The disruptions involved with that process contributed to the Soviet famine of 1932-33 that hit the Ukraine particularly hard. Similarly, Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward of 1958-60 disrupted Chinese agriculture and resulted in famine, as well.

But do those events trace backward in a clear intellectual history to Marx and Fichte? It's hard to see how. Marx focused on the advanced economies of Western Europe and the US, and didn't write up any blueprints for how a soviet state would collectivize agriculture. (For that matter, the "soviet" or worker's council as a key phenomenon in a socialist revolution didn't emerge until the Russian Revolution of 1905.) And in practice, Mao's Great Leap Forward was more an attempt to jump-start industrial development than it was an agricultural reform, though it diverted many peasant farmers from farming and therefore generated famine. But the whole idea was a rejection of the Soviet blueprint for a socialist country's development. It's hard to see how one could squeeze as simple a tale of continuity out of that set of events as Berlin seems to be doing here.

And what did poor old Fichte have to do with it?

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814)

Berlin's philosophical liberal argument - which shouldn't be confused with the particular American political meaning of "liberal" - is directed against what came to be called totalitarianism, though Berlin doesn't use that still-disputed term here. This portion not only elaborates his idea of that. It also raises an interesting point about the continuity of "German anti-Enlightenment thought" that he sees at work:

If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used — if necessary, terror, slaughter. Lenin believed this after reading Das Kapital, and consistently taught that if a just, peaceful, happy, free, virtuous society could be created by the means he advocated, then the end justified any methods that needed to be used, literally any. [my emphasis]
Actually, in the real world, people believe all the time in ideal solutions, particularly religious ones, without resorting to the extreme methods Berlin specifies here as the inevitable result of such a belief. People can and do believe that there are solutions that would produce "an ideal society," or something close to it, without throwing away all moral restraints and all respect for established institutions. It may have been obvious in Cold War terms that the Other Side that "must believe that no price can be too high." Just as now Islamophobes of various sorts believe something similar about all Muslims and all forms of Islam. But it doesn't describe the real world.

The Enlightenment notions of Reason weren't the last word on philosophy, either. Even the Enlightenment had it's dark side, as Goya famously depicted in "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters":

I'd be curious to see the context of Lenin's statement about the effect of Marx's Capital on him. (Another Cold War verbal habit: calling it "Das Kapital" in an English sentence makes it sound more foreign and German.) But it also calls into question the from-Fichte-to-Stalin continuity of which Berlin is complaining. Capital is a work on political economy. And it is an imminent critique of the field it analyzes, with lots of attention paid to Adam Smith and David Ricardo, especially. These were classical liberal thinkers and also Brits. Maybe it was the influence of British liberal political economists more than German Idealists and Romantics that so influenced Lenin in that direction!

Ideas do have consequences. Including liberal ideas. Like those of the economic neoliberalism that wreaks havoc on many developing countries and has imposed brutal costs on the economies of the eurozone, Japan and even the United States. (Paul Krugman, Notes on Japan 10/28/2014)

But we would do much better looking at the dangers of dogmatism and fanaticism than to look for one evil idea to eradicate.

Berlin's broad statement of his perspective sounds good to American ears trained to regard them as truisms: "So we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals."

But when it comes to real-world cases on an issue like same-sex marriage or abortion, this live-and-let-live credo often quickly gives way in practice to other forms of dogmatism and fanaticism, many of them all the while declaring their allegiance to ideals of liberal democracy.

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