Commentary Magazine


Cold War Controversy

To the Editor:

George Lichtheim has scanned the current literature of the cold war and attempted to place that literature—and the cold war itself—in some perspective [“The Cold War in Perspective,” June]. In the course of that survey he has been good enough to devote some considerable attention to our book, The Politics of Hysteria. Much of what he said was critical, and to answer critics directly is seldom a useful procedure; but Mr. Lichtheim’s challenge to us suggests some points of general interest and importance. What is at issue is the quality of the politics practiced by Mr. Lichtheim’s intellectual generation, and in particular the validity of Mr. Lichtheim’s implied view of what has happened in the history of this century, and why.

It is curious and, we believe, significant that Mr. Lichtheim deals with us by inventing for us several positions (and a political philosophy, “neo-conservatism”) which we do not in fact hold. He obviously does so without malice and in the conviction that these are the positions and philosophy which we ought to hold; and so we should if politics were adequately defined by Mr. Lichtheim’s categories. But we must insist—and it is a fundamental argument in our book—that the conventional political assumptions of today, Mr. Lichtheim’s included, are largely irrelevant to the realities of contemporary politics: indeed, that they are reactionary, powerless to interpret what has happened to the world in the last fifty years, and pernicious in their effect on policy for the present and future.

Let us begin by noting some of Mr. Lichtheim’s criticisms of our book as evidence of more fundamental disagreements. He invents for us an admiration for “the superior spirituality of ‘the East’ in general and India in particular.” He adds the libelous assertion that we hold the Nazis and Allies of World War II to a moral equality. We would, he insists, like Niebuhr and Toynbee, abandon the liberalism of the West: we are “neo-conservatives.” Indeed—Mr. Lichtheim’s voice rises in judgment—we are unfit to serve in that army of the righteous which battles Communism in the villages and slums of Afro-Asia. If we, and the likes of us, get too much in the way of the West’s tough-minded and tough-spirited defenders in this war, “. . . the Communist cooks will take over.”

If we put aside Mr. Lichtheim’s claim to the post of selection officer for cold war cadres, what this all adds up to is evidence of his inability to grasp that radical criticism of the West and of its political assumptions can come from men explicitly committed to the liberal West and its values. Thus his attempt to disarm the arguments made in The Politics of Hysteria by, first, a denial of their relevance: such critics of the West as ourselves must merely be crypto-Indians, sentimental admirers of some moonlight civilization of the East. But we are not. Failing that, the critics must be romantics, nostalgic for the archaic pre-liberal, pre-industrial world, self-conscious conservatives. But we feel no such nostalgia. Finally, if denial is not enough, the critics must be rendered abhorrent: thus his libel that by criticizing the Allied fire-storm raids of World War II against Tokyo, Dresden, and Hamburg, and the nuclear attacks on Japan, we hold “the scales of justice [between Nazis and Allies] . . . even.” But we took note of these acts of the Allies precisely because they were instances of unrestrained violence intended to sustain liberal values—Mr. Lichtheim’s values and ours—and were carried out by Britain and America, as we put it, “nations central to the development of the humane tradition.” We went on to remark that “a moral ascendency over Nazism is no very difficult eminence to attain.”

The truth appears to be that Mr. Lichtheim’s judgments are historicist judgments; and his commitment to the liberal West is one which requires that West to be of seamless virtue. The former point we will return to in a moment; the latter is, we hold, rather too innocent by half, and bespeaks a weakness of commitment. We hold that the civilization of Western Europe, and of those states whose cultures have been formed by Europe, is of “incomparable originality and power,” but that it is also a civilization which has committed immense crimes which are of a particular character—that there is evidence in the West (to quote our book) “of a disturbing taste for [ideological] violence . . . a violence which, like the intellectual and aesthetic adventurism of Western man, is not easily made aware of limits.” We can hardly recapitulate here supporting arguments that take up the better part of a book, but we believe that the impact of this Faustian West upon other societies is damaging as well as creative.

In the Western world, used to self-celebration, the process of the westernizing of the world is habitually treated as a benign one. But as the Western historical experience, once a geographically limited experience, is extended to the world at large, we ought to be able to sec that this process goes forward in a peculiarly violent way. The conditions of the interaction are cruel and destructive; the consequences are sometimes benign but as often pernicious. And if it be true that the West has characteristic crimes in its past, as well as those manifest virtues we are quick to acknowledge, then we must face the possibility that a disposition to these crimes—primarily the crime of ideological violence—is neither burned out in our West itself nor precluded in those vaster regions of the world now being swept into the ambiguous experiences of our own disordered Western past.

We argue that much of the violence and hysteria of contemporary politics—in Ghana and Indonesia as well as in Russia and China—is a result of the revolutionary impact of this powerful but ambiguous Western culture upon cultures which do not have, or have lost, or perhaps never had, the ability to compete with the West—the ability to compete not merely in industrial and military power, but in the kind of intellectual creativity which dominates modern politics and economics.

We go on to argue that within the West, and within other societies so far as their politics are ruled by Western ideas, political thought today continues to be dominated by concepts that derive from a pre-Freudian, pre-totalitarian, pre-nuclear optimism characteristic of the 19th century but discredited by the major political experiences of the world since 1914. That these ideas are inadequate, or false, many political men—and Mr. Lichtheim must be included—deny with a fixity that bespeaks an inner terror. Yet our West, and Mr. Lichtheim’s, even though he may not wish to acknowledge the kinship, has within the last twenty years gassed to death six million helpless Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs. This is not the vague rumor of an antediluvian crime: it happened in Mr. Lichtheim’s lifetime and ours. “Ours is a society,” we wrote in the book,

which twice within the memory of living men has lost its equilibrium and plunged into suicidal war. Within the memory of living men it has suffered a succession of profound, even unique crises of a political, economic, and moral quality that wholly confound our formal beliefs. They were our crises; the crimes were ours, arising from our culture, our West, the same society which today is essentially unchanged from what it was those few years ago when it originated these convulsions, these self-mutilations. We have not yet begun to account for these things. And yet while we hardly grasp the scale of the dark side of modern experience, the world as a whole is being swept into the same experience.

The implications are immense. The truth is that there is absolutely no reason to believe that the catastrophes which have taken place within Western society—limited catastrophes so far—will not have their counterparts upon an extended stage. The non-Western world, its own traditions pulverized, can hardly be expected to cope any better than we with the destructive impulses of the modern political and industrial life that we ourselves originated.

But to write such things as this, says Mr. Lichtheim, is “modish despair.” To search the Western experience for an understanding of this violence with a hope of checking it in the future is, he says, to weaken the West in its struggle with Communism. The Communists, he tells his readers, suffer no such weakling self-examination, and “their menu appeals to the masses.” Yet Mr. Lichtheim must know that this is cant. Where are these masses for whom Communism is so attractive that they clamor for its rule? If anything has been demonstrated in Iraq and Egypt and the Congo and Guinea and, for that matter, Cuba, it is that the revolutions of the underdeveloped world are far beyond the powers of Communism to define and cure. Communism today cannot even keep its own camp disciplined. Its only external successes in the last fifteen years, and there have been few of them, have come from politico-military interventions in revolutionary situations of native origins, and they have had little to do with how attractive the “menu” of Communism is to “the masses.” But Mr. Lichtheim goes on: “To hell with . . . [Still-man & Pfaff]; if they can’t stand the heat, let them get out of the kitchen.” If his remarks sound like those denunciations of pale intellectuals heard in San Francisco in July, it is because Mr. Lichtheim provides still more evidence of our argument that today’s Left and Right (and not just the Communists and Fascists) are both of them obsolescent, clinging to ideas that are ludicrous in men who have lived through the last fifty years, or even the last five.

Marxism with its variants, and the official liberalism of the West with its faith in the essential reasonableness of political conduct and its materialist assertion that Afro-Asians (to say nothing of Russians and Americans) are primarily motivated in their behavior by the desire for a just share in the world’s wealth, both express a callow optimism quite incapable of explaining why the nations of Europe plunged into the slaughters of 1914-1918, or the rise of Fascism and Nazism, or the deliberate murder of six million non-Nordic peoples by the Nazis, or the ample terror—the show trials, purges, and population transfers—of Stalinism, or, for that matter, some of the things that recently have been happening in Vietnam, Cuba, Indonesia, or the United States. We hold that any man who seriously believes that the violence and hysteria in modern politics results from the fact that—as Mr. Lichtheim says—“most people need, and haven’t got . . . three square meals a day and the right to be treated as human beings,” is a man who is living in fantasy. That people need and must have food and decent treatment is no news to anyone; but by this time it ought to be clear to anyone as intelligent as Mr. Lichtheim that human affairs include more sinister motivations. Nazism and Stalinism are not explicable in terms of people’s need for three square meals. Six million did not die in the gas chambers because the German nation longed for decent treatment. The Mau-Mau were not economic reformers, nor are the internal upheavals of Vietnam or the Congo or Cyprus or China really to be explained in terms of the need for bread and liberal government.

What are these things all about? Does Mr. Lichthem not care to ask questions? Does he never wonder if the old answers are good enough? He remarks that there are “theological roots” to our thought which we “do not even bother to conceal.” One of us is a Roman Catholic of whom that can fairly be said. The other is an atheist; but he is willing to defend the proposition that original sin is a more satisfactory hypothesis in explanation of the political experience of this century than that political philosophy of naive materialism, sired by Marxism out of sentimentality, which Mr. Lichtheim does not bother to conceal.

Mr. Lichtheim calls us “treasonable clerks” because we say such things as this, because we talk about ideological violence in the West. When we take note of the ideological terror of the French Revolution and the mass violence—the “peoples’ war”—that accompanied Napoleon’s wars of nationalism as instances of this trait in Europe’s history (along with the First and Second World Wars, the Wars of Religion, and the Crusade against the Cathars; and they do not exhaust the list), he demands to know if we cannot tell the difference “between meaningless slaughter and meaningful progress”? We can indeed. But we also choose to call a spade a bloody spade. We choose to believe that in an age which has produced Stalin and Hitler, treason lies with those political men who can still make the historicist assertion that progressive terror is O.K. terror.

Mr. Lichtheim shares with some men of the Right an air of tough-mindedness. But the toughness is of attitude, not of mind. So long as he, and those who are of his persuasion, can evade the radical criticism of their own tradition, their own society; so long as they make their standard of politics those mauled but apparently irreplaceable historicisms of a half-century ago—they must be judged the new romantics, the new reactionaries. The scandal of this generation is that it still is in intellectual shock over what happened to the cult of optimism and progress in the camps at Belsen and Dachau, in the fields of Verdun and the Somme. The shock has produced denial, not reason. An intellectual system is clung to which was—barely—defensible in the days of Edward VII. Such an abdication of responsibility may be forgiven among the stupid; it is not so easily forgiven in a George Lichtheim.

Edmund Stillman
William Pfaff

New York City

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Mr. Lichtheim writes:

I had not really intended my critical remarks about Messrs. Still-man and Pfaff to serve as the starting point for a discussion of the issues. For that, their book is not important enough—though one gathers that they take it (and themselves) pretty seriously. Their earnest, long-winded, rhetorical complaint about my article implies that deeper thought should have been devoted to their theme. In the face of this challenge I am bound to reaffirm that their joint production is not really a critical analysis of recent history, but a mere tract for the times: intelligent and opinionated, but rather slight, and full of modish neo-conservative sentiments of the kind that, for the past fifteen years at least, have been highly acceptable in the dominant political and academic quarters, both in America and Britain. Why should I go back on this judgment? It is borne out by every line of their reply. I find it puzzling that they disclaim the label. After all, conservatism is quite an ancient and respectable creed. I happen to dislike it and to find it boring, but that is no reason why it should not be refurbished from time to time. How else will there be any argument?

My “intellectual generation” has at least one advantage over that represented by Stillman and Pfaff: we have seen it all before. Some of us can even remember the days when that imbecile clothes-horse, Metternich, was solemnly advertised as a great statesman: not by lady novelists, but by so-called historians. There is in these matters a simple but infallible test: anyone who bewails the French Revolution as a great disaster is a conservative. By this never-failing standard, Stillman and Pfaff are conservatives—as they have every right to be. I only wish they were more forthcoming about the rest of their creed (it is nice to see that the theological roots are not altogether denied).

Leaving aside the rhetoric and the polemical claptrap (“Mr. Lichtheim must know that this is cant”), what is the argument about? The cold war? It seems I am suspected of wanting to hot it up! Now it so happens that for the past fifteen years I have been wearing out my lungs and my typewriter trying to explain: (1) that the cold war cannot be won; (2) that “cold war” and “coexistence” are two sides of the same coin, or two names for the same thing; (3) that the principal issue at stake is control over the “third world” of backward, pre-industrial countries. Does that sound like bellicose Westernism? In the very article to part of which Stillman and Pfaff object because it deals with their manifesto, I took pains to recommend Mr. Sinai’s work, which is as detached and non-inflammatory as anyone could wish. (It also makes the point that the backward countries stand in need of drastic modernization, but there is no suggestion that this can or should be done by outsiders.)

I pass over the earnest, puzzled, rather sophomoric attempt to grapple with modern history since 1914. Some of us had noticed Stalin and Hitler before Stillman and Pfaff did. We even managed to live through that epoch, and in the process shed whatever illusions about peaceful progress were entertained by our grandfathers. There may be American liberals who still believe that the behavior of the new nations is accounted for by “the desire for a just share in the world’s wealth” (though the formulation is Papal rather than liberal); there aren’t many such people in Europe. In any case I did not employ such Encyclical language: I spoke of “three square meals a day,” and hinted that Stillman and Pfaff were somewhat remote from the daily concerns of starving people. Nothing in their reply makes me revise that impression.

Comparisons of Eastern and Western criminality are boring. The point at issue is that human life has traditionally been cheap in Asia, partly because of the constant famines, and in part due to the traditions of oriental despotism—a subject to which Karl Wittfogel is a better guide than Arnold J. Toynbee. I have yet to hear of any Asian Communist who was shocked by Stalin: plenty of European Communists were. Indeed, this is at the bottom of the current split, as a glance at the recent Sino-Soviet exchanges shows. Instead of sentimentalizing over the “destructive” record of the “Faustian” West, Stillman and Pfaff should have interviewed a few Indian or Japanese or Indonesian Communists (off the record). They might then have discovered that the less Westernized people are, the more they take the methods of Stalin (and Hitler) for granted. It is a fact that Far Easterners and Middle Easterners (including anti-Communists like Nasser) admired Stalin, and still do, whatever they may say in public. His crimes did not shock them. Had he butchered half the population and erected a pyramid of skulls in the center of Moscow, they would have admired him even more. The same goes for Hitler, whose massacres (not only of Jews) made him a hero all over the East before the Arabs had cause to resent Israel, and even in countries where the Jewish issue did not come in. It was an Indian, Manabendra Nath Roy (once a Communist, later a liberal) who wrote: “Asian nationalism is radically evil.” He knew what he was talking about. Stillman and Pfaff don’t.

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