Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Paul Berman, on the "Unworldliness" of the American Left

Via Literary Saloon, I came across a Paul Berman essay in the new Bookforum. It's Berman considering the career of the sociologist Daniel Bell, who published a series of books analyzing the American left, starting in the late 19th century.

The highlight for me are the following paragraphs, summarizing the argument of Bell's book Marxian Socialism in the United States:

Marxian Socialism in the United States is a work of great psychological acuity. Martin Luther said of the church that it was "in the world, but not of it," and Bell quoted this remark to evoke a quality of unworldliness in the American Left. He meant that, over the decades, the socialist movement in America had never quite been able to accept the political world as it was, preferring instead to dwell apart, in a world of dreams and moral postures. Marxian Socialism in the United States has received, over the years, mountains of criticism for this one quotation from Luther. And yet something about that phrase has always been on the mark, as I think anyone can see, with a glance at Debs's four presidential campaigns at the start of the twentieth century, and at Ralph Nader's two campaigns at the start of the twenty-first.

The phrase "in the world, but not of it" strikes me as pretty astute on the topic of the New Left, too—the New Left that commanded the allegiance of several million Americans in the '60s and '70s but was never able to break into conventional political life, with a couple of exceptions. For the New Left too preferred to dwell apart, in its own world of dreams and moral postures. This habit did the movement no harm at all, by the way, in regard to cultural issues—which is why it succeeded in capturing whole neighborhoods in a number of cities, and used those neighborhoods to conduct experiments on cultural matters, and sent those experiments orbiting outward to the rest of American society. Nor did a few unworldly habits do the New Left any harm at the universities, once the graduate-student militants had succeeded in shoving aside the populist anti-intellectuals. But the kind of movement that was capable of capturing a student neighborhood or an English department was never going to capture a state assembly.

Being a person who likes to think of himself as both in the world, and of it -- and being no big fan of Ralph Nader -- I want to agree with Berman on this characterization. Using the polemical charge of Bell's religious metaphor, Berman turns Marxist idealism into a kind of Priesthood.

But I know several left-leaning folks (Michael Hardt, for instance) who don't fit this characterization at all. There are more complex ways of using and working with idealism than Berman allows. That one rejects certain dominant political and economic frameworks on ethical grounds doesn't necessarily mean one harbors unrealistic ideas about human nature (one thinks of the old cliché that Marxists believe humanity must suddenly turn altruistic for the systme to work). In my view, it's quite possible for realism and idealism not to contradict each other. But it requires a somewhat more multi-dimensional way of thinking about political ideology than the tired old Left-Right axis.

Berman also continues to work with the Marxism-as-religion metaphor beyond where it is probably useful. The following paragraph, for instance, doesn't make very much sense to me:

"Among the radical, as among the religious minded," [Daniel Bell] wrote, "there are the once born and the twice born. The former is the enthusiast, the ‘sky-blue healthy-minded moralist' to whom sin and evil—the ‘soul's mumps and measles and whooping coughs,' in Emerson's phrase—are merely transient episodes to be glanced at and ignored in the cheerful saunter of life. To the twice born, the world is ‘a double-storied mystery' which shrouds the evil and renders false the good; and in order to find truth, one must lift the veil and look Medusa in the face."

A textbook case of mixed metaphors, this. Reading the above paragraph reminds me why it's wrong to do it: the problem isn't that mixed metaphors will annoy Grammar Sticklers, but rather that no one will know what you're talking about.

Still, an interesting read overall from Paul Berman, author of the interesting (if a little maddening) Terror and Liberalism, a book much-talked about in the blog-world a couple of years ago.


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