Tuesday, March 28, 2006

From '68er to Neo-Con

Few have been more articulate in tracing the connection between old-school liberalism and modern neon-cons than Paul Berman.

Here, Geoffrey Kurtz reviews Berman's latest book, "Power and the Idealists." According to the review, Berman connects the political journey of the revolutionary generation of '68 -- students then, leaders of Europe today -- to the lingering trauma of World War II totalitarianism.

The essential question, to one who grew up amid the European ruins of that time, was, "what would I have been? A resister or a collaborator?"

The tactics for resolving this tension have changed dramatically in the years since 1968, and led the '68ers down a politically tortuous path.

This shift toward political responsibility began slowly in the 1970s but really flowered in the 1990s, especially in response to ethnic violence in the Balkans. If the NATO air strikes on Serbia were “the '68ers’ war,” then a deep change would seem to have taken place: the New Left, after all, held opposition to the US war in Vietnam as one of its central articles. However, if the heart of the New Left was the desire to be a résistant rather than a collabo, this evolution makes sense: the New Left, Berman argues, had matured into a “liberal anti-totalitarianism.” For Berman, who notes his own roots in the anarchisant wing of the New Left, this evolution is a vindication: the best of the '68er Maoists and Frankfurt School neo-Marxists, he tells us, have since come around to a politics that takes liberty as its definitive norm, as they should have done all along.

Kurtz's verdict on Berman, however, is that the argument in this book collapses under scrutiny. He finds Berman too committed to his defense of the war to overthrow Saddam, and willing to sacrifice such good points as he can make for the sake of ones he wishes to make, but can't logically support from the facts.

That may or may not be (I haven't read Berman's book), but Kurtz cites Berman's earlier book (which is also on my wish list) as an example of the vision that once was before us.

Just before the Iraq War began, Berman argued in Terror and Liberalism for a response to Islamist neo-fascism that would draw inspiration from the left-wing anti-communism of the late 1940s. Berman cited Léon Blum’s call for a democratic socialist “Third Force,” a “free-lance, left-wing internationalism, without government support” that would “out-compete Communism on the left” in Western Europe. Today’s anti-terrorist Third Force, Berman wrote, should be “neither realist nor pacifist—a Third Force devoted to a politics of human rights and especially women’s rights…a politics of ethnic and religious tolerance …a politics of secular education, of pluralism and law…a politics to fight against poverty and oppression; a politics of authentic solidarity for the Muslim world.” A “war on terror,” thus, would need to be “partly military but ultimately intellectual, a war of ideas.”