The real mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a consequence of the perishability of parchment and papyrus
The real mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a consequence of the perishability of parchment and papyrus. Since the 19th century, the Middle East has yielded up wave after rich wave of literary, legal, annalistic, and cultic materials, many of them in hitherto unknown languages. Through them it became possible to reconstruct, sometimes in vivid and surprising detail, the variegated ancient world before, behind, and around the Bible. The texts from this world were generally written on clay tablets or incised in steles. When unearthed by the archeologist’s spade, they might often be chipped or cracked or broken, but the solid material of inscription sufficed to carry into the present these precious messages from a past three or four millennia removed. From ancient Israel proper, we have innumerable names on seals, fragments of writing or writing exercises on shards of pottery, and one continuous version of the Priestly Blessing in a silver filigree ornament, but the consecutive literature of the culture was committed to scrolls made of locally manufactured parchment or often (as the Israeli scholar Menahem Haran has persuasively argued) of papyrus imported from Egypt. These materials, alas, like the acid-impregnated paper of many of the books on our own library shelves, were destined to be turned into dust by time’s inexorable chemistry. Thus, the oldest integral manuscript of the Hebrew Bible goes back only to around 1000 C.E., nearly twelve centuries after the writing of the latest biblical book, Daniel, and nearly two millennia after the composition of the earliest biblical texts.
It is against this background that the accidental discovery in 1947 by a Bedouin boy of ancient Hebrew scrolls in a cave overlooking the northwestern edge of the Dead Sea set off a firestorm of scholarly and then popular interest that has still not abated. Over the past year, the Dead Sea Scrolls have again been in the news week after week, for reasons I will summarize, in front-page articles, editorials, op-ed pieces, and passionate letters to the editor. In the heated atmosphere of journalistic coverage, the scrolls have been described as “the greatest archeological find of the 20th century,” which is a perhaps defensible but certainly debatable proposition. More accurately, they have been called “the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times,” for it is chiefly manuscripts, as I have indicated, that have not come down to us from the written records of the ancient world. The bone-dry climate of the Dead Sea region and the protection of many of the scrolls in sealed earthenware jars had proved to have the most fortunate, perhaps unique, preservative effect. Who wrote these manuscripts, what they might have to say, and, above all, what is their intrinsic value as spiritual or literary productions are matters that very much remain to be resolved.
In order to understand the great hullabaloo over the Dead Sea Scrolls in the fall of 1991, it will be necessary to retrace briefly the often told story of the initial acquisition of the scrolls and their subsequent history of jurisdictional entanglements. The first Bedouin finders brought seven complete scrolls to Bethlehem and sold them for a pittance to a Christian-Arab dealer in antiquities. He in turn conveyed four of these to the Metropolitan of the Syrian Jacobite Church in Jerusalem, and sold the other three clandestinely to Eleazar Sukenik, an archeologist at the Hebrew University, in the very heat of battle between Israelis and Arabs in 1948. In 1954, Metropolitan Samuel took his four scrolls with him to the United States and placed a discreet advertisement for their sale in the Wall Street Journal. Yigael Yadin, Sukenik’s son, and himself on the way to becoming a distinguished archeologist, acquired the Metropolitan’s scrolls for $250,000 through the cover of an intermediary (Samuel would hardly have sold them knowingly to an Israeli). Thus the seven original scrolls, all subsequently published, came under Israeli jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, in the most literal sense, no stone was left unturned in the Qumran region where the first find was made. By the early 1950’s, extensive archeological digs were initiated under the direction of Pére Roland de Vaux of the Dominican Ecole Biblique in Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem. (Until 1967, it must be remembered, the Qumran region was in Jordanian hands.) In one cave alone, Cave 4, 800 scrolls and fragments were discovered. At the same time, the Bedouins, now realizing there were objects in these honeycombed cliffs with a high market value, searched the caves surreptitiously, removing scrolls and scraps of writing, much of which made its circuitous way to the scholars, but some of which may conceivably still be sitting in the safes of antiquity dealers anywhere in the Middle East, waiting for the moment when the price is right.
Most of the scrolls, then, were deposited in the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem, essentially under de Vaux’s authority. Beginning in 1953, an international team of just seven scholars was assembled to decipher, edit, and publish the scrolls. Most of them were Catholic and there were no Jews. Given the political divisions of the time, it would have been unthinkable to invite Israeli participation, and in any case, Père de Vaux, a member of the fascist Action Française during his youth in France, was both anti-Zionist and frankly anti-Semitic. As a result of the conquest of East Jerusalem in June 1967, the Rockefeller Museum came under the jurisdiction of the Israel Antiquities Department. But its director, Avraham Biram, was loath to interfere with the arrangements made by the existing team of researchers, perhaps fearing a public uproar or diplomatic incident. He insisted only on a necessary modification of nomenclature—that the words “of Jordan” be stricken from the title of the publication series, Discoveries in the Judean Desert of Jordan. Meanwhile, the pace of publication was slowing from respectable to scandalous: the fifth volume of the scrolls appeared in 1968; a sixth volume did not see the light of day until 1977. I shall return to the issue of delay, which has been at the center of the current controversy.
In 1985, John Strugnell of Harvard, a British-born convert to Catholicism and a member of the team since the 1950’s, was appointed head of the international editorial committee, succeeding Père Benoit of the Ecole Biblique who had taken over after Pére de Vaux. This appointment set the fuse for the recent explosion. Strugnell, according to the testimony of those who have worked with him, is a brilliant and engaging, or at least amusing, person. He brought onto the team its first Jewish member, Emanuel Tov of the Hebrew University, who had been his student at Harvard, and he also has consulted closely with the talmudist Ezra Sussman on technical issues of Jewish law raised by one of the scrolls. But Strugnell is also an anti-Zionist and a doctrinal if not emotional anti-Semite, and in recent years he has had serious problems with alcoholism and emotional instability. All this surfaced spectacularly in the fall of 1990 in an interview Strugnell gave in one of his weaker moments to the Hebrew daily Ha’aretz, in which he openly declared his contempt for Judaism as a religion and his belief that the Jews should put an end to their collective existence by converting to the true faith.
In the ensuing scandal, Strugnell, who needed hospitalization for psychiatric care, was forced to resign his post by Amir Drori, the man who had taken over the Israel Antiquities Department in 1988 and transformed it into the Antiquities Authority, an entity with more far-reaching powers. Emanuel Tov was appointed as the new editor-in-chief of the scrolls project. Some deference was still given to the international committee, which designated Père Emile Puech of the Ecole Biblique and Eugene Ulrich of Notre Dame as co-editors, but it was clear that the Israelis were now calling the shots. Drori, moreover, an archeologist, a retired general, and a decided activist as an administrator, had taken another step toward assumption of responsibility two years earlier by appointing a three-man Israeli scrolls advisory committee consisting of Magen Broshi, curator of the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum where the seven original scrolls are housed, and Jonas Greenfield and Shemaryahu Talmon, both eminent Hebrew University authorities on the scrolls and on Hebrew and Aramaic philology. Broshi held some 40 half-day meetings with his advisory committee during its first two years of operation. He also insisted that each scholar assigned to editing a scroll be given an unambiguous deadline, with 1997 set as the date for submission of all materials and 2000 as the date for the completion of publication. These energetic steps have by and large been ignored in the recent outcry over the withholding of the scrolls.
The leather-lunged cheerleader of the outcry is Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, a stylish mass-circulation bimonthly that publishes excellent short articles by leading scholars accompanied by sumptuous photographs. Shanks had begun in the mid-80’s to issue a series of clarion calls for the rapid publication of the rest of the scrolls and the immediate granting to all scholars of access to the texts. Understandably, when the Strugnell scandal broke a year ago, Shanks was quick to turn a spotlight in his magazine on the latest shame of the scrolls committee. Anti-Semitism apart, the image of a disheveled Strugnell in his cubicle in the Ecole Biblique filing vital documents for the scrolls project in empty beer cartons did not inspire confidence in the custodial scruples of the team he directed, and he himself over the years had published precious little of the material with which he had been entrusted. The Israeli authorities meanwhile insisted that the project was now proceeding with all deliberate haste. This contention by no means satisfied Shanks, who sponsored a maneuver that decisively pushed the long-guarded scrolls into the public domain.
In early September 1991, Shanks announced that the Biblical Archaeology Society, which he chairs and which is the publisher of his magazine, was about to issue the first of a series of volumes called A Preliminary Edition of the Unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls. The text had been prepared by Ben-Zion Wacholder, a professor of Talmud at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, working together with Martin G. Abegg, Jr., a graduate student and computer specialist, and it is a peculiar artifact of the age of high technology. In 1960, a privately circulated concordance had been prepared of the unpublished Qumran texts; a few years ago it was printed in a very small edition. Using the concordance, which cites not merely single words but the complete clauses in which they appear, Wacholder and Abegg were able with the aid of a computer to generate whole texts. “Whole texts,” however, is something of an exaggeration, since the one volume (Hebrew only) that has appeared is made up entirely of fragments, most of them fewer than ten lines, and often defective lines at that. The exclusive subject of the fragments is a system of rotation of priestly celebrants, hardly a topic that will revolutionize our understanding of Jewish visions of reality around the time of Jesus.
In any case, the Shanks-Wacholder-Abegg publication elicited cries of piracy and theft from a number of established scrolls scholars. One undeniable criticism was that this was a shaky if not shady way to establish a text, and that even if the computer extrapolations were dependable, the 1960 concordance in many respects was not. But the barn door had been kicked open, and everything that had been locked inside rapidly galloped out.
Within a few weeks, the Huntington Library of San Marino, California announced that it would make available for the use of all scholars the complete set of photographs of the scrolls which it had in its possession. (The photographs had been made in 1980 as a safeguard against destruction of the texts in war or other disaster.) The Israeli authorities at first grumbled and issued vague threats of taking legal action; but, accepting the inevitable, Emanuel Tov announced on October 27, 1991 that duplicate sets of the photographs—at the Rockefeller Museum, Oxford University, the Hebrew Union College, and the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center at Claremont College—would be available for the free use of scholars, with permission to quote limited portions of the scrolls but “for personal research only and not for the production of a text edition.” Hershel Shanks called this “a subterfuge for controlling access.” Three weeks later, on November 20, his moment of triumph came. Two scholars, Robert H. Eisenman of California State University at Long Beach (more about him presently) and James M. Robinson of Claremont College, announced that a lawyer representing an anonymous benefactor had presented them with a set of 1,787 photographs of all the scrolls. These had been taken some years earlier by an Arab photographer, Najib Albina—how, it is not clear, but evidently not through the good offices of the international scrolls committee. The attorney of the anonymous benefactor, however, assured everyone that no legal prerogatives had been violated. Shanks’s Biblical Archaelogy Society announced it was preparing to issue a two-volume facsimile edition of all the scrolls for $195, well within the research allowance of even the most modest scholar. The Dead Sea Scrolls were now fully public.
This twisted chain of events spanning 44 years, with its clandestine transfers of texts and photos, its shadowy benefactors and anonymous advertisements, its mixture of painstaking scholarship and flamboyant alcoholism, looks like a cross between the Marx Brothers and John Le Carré. Observers overly fond of spy stories and inattentive to the elements of inadvertent farce in the Qumran capers have been receptive to conspiracy theories to explain the withholding of the scrolls. (It is, by the way, not even clear how much has been “withheld”: Israeli authorities claim as much as 80 percent of the materials has already been published; some critics put the figure at only 25 percent. Percentages are likely to be misleading because much of what remains consists of tiny fragments, not in any sense “books,” and some of these duplicate one another.) Edmund Wilson, in his still beautifully readable and on the whole balanced popular account of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1957, revised edition 1969), was one of many who set the stage for conspiracy theories by suggesting that the Qumran material might be threatening to Judaism by undermining the authority of the Masoretic text of the Bible—in fact, hardly a major vested interest of non-fundamentalist Jewish scholarship—and to Christianity by compromising the uniqueness of Jesus and his messianic role. By now, however, most scholars have concluded that the doctrines of the Qumran sectarians have only an indirect and by no means causal connection with the rise of Christianity, though Robert Eisenman is a notable exception in this regard.
Two young journalists, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, unfortunately have swallowed Eisenman’s theories whole, virtually becoming his publicists, in their new book, The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception.1 Their account reflects that vision of the sinister machinations of Rome which has repeatedly flourished in English-speaking countries ever since the Reformation. Although they are right that the scrolls have been for the most part in Catholic hands and that several of the editors have also been outspoken anti-Semites, they make the highly implausible claim that Vatican authorities have secretly controlled the whole project, suppressing essential scroll material because it would have an “explosive” effect on Christian faith. Even so vehement a critic of the scrolls committee as Hershel Shanks has aptly noted in a review of Baigent and Leigh (Biblical Archaeology Review, November-December 1991) that the many Catholic scholars involved in Qumran work, including one at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, betray no evidence of this alleged bias, and that several of them have actually been vocal in demanding the prompt release of the unpublished texts.
The sheer withholding of documents unfortunately encourages fantasies that they contain portentous information. At the far end of this continuum of response shared by Baigent and Leigh, sensational weekly tabloids like the Sun and the Canadian Weekly World News have been announcing that the unpublished scrolls will reveal: proof of life after death, a miracle cure for AIDS and cancer, the date of the end of the world, the invasion of earth by extraterrestrials in the biblical era, and, what is sure to throw the Vatican iconographers for a loop, the physical appearance of God. (“Though the description is sketchy, the scrolls say He has fiery green eyes, flowing brown hair, and stands 9 feet tall,” we are told by Kathryn LaRocque of the Weekly World News, who appears to have devoted too many television hours to watching the Incredible Hulk.) Even the sober editorialist of the New York Times, in applauding the publication of the Wacholder-Abegg volume, piously intones that we as a civilization must have all the scrolls for “what they say about the common roots of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism.” In fact, what the scrolls tell us about either Christianity or rabbinic Judaism is more marginal than many have imagined, and it is unlikely that world-shaking revelations will emerge from the texts yet to be published.
The snail’s pace of publication after the early 1960’s has certainly been disgraceful, even granting the immense difficulties of piecing together thousands of tiny fragments and reconstructing defective texts. But this slowness is almost entirely attributable to the institutional vices of academic life, of which laymen may have no adequate notion, and not to a secret plot. The original seven scholars were given assignments to prepare critical editions of specific texts. As is the common academic practice with manuscript materials, they regarded these materials as their private scholarly property until the actual publication. Working with that academic inner calendar which measures time not in months or years but in sabbaticals and jubilees, many of them lingered for decades over their texts. Scrolls were parceled out to their graduate students as dissertation topics—academic work is, after all, a form of intellectual entrepreneurialism—while established scholars not associated with the team were often refused access. An original editor with one of the largest hoards of texts, the Paris-based J. T. Milik, does not even answer his mail.
The claim of members of the scrolls committee that time is needed in order to prepare “definitive” editions of the texts is unconvincing. Of course, no one wants to encourage harum-scarum scholarship, and one can anticipate that with total access even more foolish things will be written about the scrolls than have been written in the past. But everywhere in humanistic scholarship, even for far more recent and intelligible texts, the idea of the definitive edition has proved a will-o’-the-wisp: one generation’s reconstruction generally requires redoing a couple of generations later. The Israeli authorities were surely remiss in failing to intervene during their first 21 years of jurisdiction over the scrolls. In the last three years they have begun at last to force oil into the frozen gears of the project, and the new chain of sensational developments, whatever the exaggerations it has encouraged, has had the salutary effect of jolting the project into the forward motion it should have achieved decades ago.
But what, after all, is the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Above all, they provide ancient testimony to the life of a crucial period in Western cultural history about which our knowledge is full of yawning gaps bridged by shaky conjecture. In the early years after the discovery, there were a few dissenting scholars who argued that the texts were late, or forged; but there is now virtual unanimity about their antiquity, based on paleographic and linguistic analysis, carbon-14 dating, and minute attention to the veiled historical references of the documents. The oldest manuscripts may go back as far as the late 3rd century B.CE (and this, of course, does not preclude the possibility that a few of the texts are copies of still older compositions). The religious commune—yahad—at Qumran was probably established around the middle of the 2nd century B.CE. and continued until 68 C.E., the time of the arrival of the armies of Vespasian and Titus in the Dead Sea region. Though some texts may have originated close to this later date, the compositions that most directly reflect the life of the sect (The Manual of Discipline, The Damascus Covenant, The War Scroll, The Thanksgiving Hymns) were in all likelihood written between the beginning and the middle of the last pre-Christian century. The probability of this early dating argues strongly against the sundry sensationalistic proposals that the literature of the sect refers to Jesus, to his brother James the Just, or to Paul.
Three categories of materials have been unearthed at Qumran, all of keen interest to specialists in the period, but only one of which is likely to engage the attention of the layman. At least portions of all the books of the Hebrew Bible have been found, except for Esther, with a complete Isaiah among the first seven scrolls. Several books of the Apocrypha were also discovered in the Qumran library. Finally, there is a variety of hitherto unknown compositions, many, but perhaps not all, reflecting the ritual and communal life and doctrines of the sectarians.
The biblical manuscripts are obviously of first importance in understanding the history of the biblical text. In many instances they represent manuscript traditions that diverge from that of the Masoretic text, though one cannot assume that the versions of the sectarian scribes are automatically and invariably more authoritative than those that were later consolidated in the Masoretic text. The books of the Apocrypha are precious finds because they provide Hebrew and Aramaic originals of works previously known only through Greek, Latin, and other translations. They also offer some indication of what were the extra-canonical texts in circulation at the time, at least among Jewish readers of this particular religious bent.
It is, however, to the third category of material, original compositions, that the general public looks for revelations. Their nature and provenance are still a scholarly battleground, though there is a consensus view, which I will try to summarize, not presuming to rush in with an independent judgment where specialists fear to tread.
From the contemporaneous account of the historian Josephus, it is conventional to divide Palestinian Jewry around the turn of the Christian era into three important religious trends: the Pharisees, essentially the founders of the revolutionary movement in law and theology that became rabbinic Judaism; the Sadducees, the priestly and aristocratic party who were strict constructionists on biblical doctrine; and the Essenes, a group that, according to Josephus (who claims to have been briefly a member of the sect), was ascetic, pietistic, and separatist. Given the Essenes’ sectarian practices and the indications in several ancient sources that they had a commune in the Dead Sea area, most scholars from the beginning have been prepared to identify the Qumran group with the Essenes. This view still seems the most plausible one, though of late, as I shall explain, it has been refined and complicated.
Challenges to the consensus are vehement but unconvincing. Robert Eisenman imagines that several of these texts are the polemical work of the first generation of Jewish Christians, followers of Jesus who still insisted on the punctilious observance of Jewish law. In Eisenman’s reading of the Habbakuk Pesher and other scrolls, a figure called the Righteous Teacher of the Qumranites is James the Just, while one called the Preacher of Lies is Paul, who abrogated Jewish law. Apart from the improbably late dating of the texts required by this piece of cryptography, it is based on some dubious philological claims. To cite one crucial instance, the designation Preacher of Lies, matif hakazav, is translated “Pourer Out of Lying” and is said to evince “baptismal imagery.” It is true that the etymological root of matif is a verb meaning “to drip” (not “to pour”), but the term is already firmly lexicalized in the Bible in the sense of preacher, making Eisenman’s contention extremely far-fetched.
In a less fanciful vein, the University of Chicago scholar, Norman Golb, has recently argued (American Scholar, Spring 1989) that the Dead Sea Scrolls were not written at the Dead Sea and are not sectarian productions. He points to various pieces of evidence that contradict the consensus view. The ruins at Qumran show the presence of a military garrison, though the Essenes were supposed to have been pacifists. Women were buried there, though the commune was supposed to have been celibate. His contention is that refugees from the Roman onslaught against Jerusalem brought with them a collection of texts that covered the whole spectrum of literary productivity of lst century Jewry. While Golb is surely right in saying there is no reason to assume that every Qumran text was actually composed at Qumran, there are two lines of special pleading in his argument. He must insist on striking ideological disparities among texts where the continuities of outlook and sensibility, whatever the incidental discrepancies, are impressive. Second, from the absence of any Pharisean or early Christian documents in this supposedly eclectic collection of Jewish texts he is compelled to conclude that rabbinic Judaism and Christianity “did not yet exist as movements,” which is surely allowing an initial premise to dictate a conclusion in the face of evidence that argues against it.
There will no doubt be still other theories, for the archeological evidence, like that of the manuscripts, is ambiguous. Roland de Vaux was sure he had uncovered the remains of a “monastery” with a scriptorium, a conclusion questioned by Golb and also by a pair of Belgian archeologists who have reexamined de Vaux’s work and think that the structure at Qumran may have been a luxurious “winter villa” to which members of the Sadducean aristocracy repaired. Whatever the actual nature of the building above the caves, and whether or not the character of its use may have been changed radically in 68 C.E., there appears to be a more complicated if less dramatic link betwen the Dead Sea denizens and the Sadducees. This is a view persuasively argued by Yakov Sussman in an important new article in the Hebrew quarterly Tarbits (no. 59, 1990).
Sussman finds that where principles of halakhah, Jewish law, emerge in the scrolls, they stand consistently in opposition to the halakhah of the Pharisees and in consonance with the rulings represented as “Sadducean” by the heirs of the Pharisees in the Talmud. Sussman proposes that the Essenes were a breakaway group originating among the Sadducees. They vehemently objected, he suggests, to the aristocratic worldliness of the Sadducean priesthood while they clung to the strict constructionism of the Sadducees’ approach to biblical law and thus fiercely opposed the relative flexibility and the popular character of the Pharisees’ new legal system. Later talmudic tradition amalgamated the Sadducees and the separatist Essenes into a single Sadducean halakhah, which it roundly rejected.
This image of the Qumran sectarians Intransigently fighting their fellow Jews on two different fronts at once certainly accords with the quality of spiritual ferocity that marks most of the scrolls that have been published. However valuable these documents may be as evidence of the nature of Jewish sectarianism toward the end of the Second Temple period, the sectarians themselves are hardly the sort of ancestors whom either Jews or Christians would want to rush to claim, and in terms of the evolution of religion, they actually represent a dead end, not a nourishing source of either Judaism or Christianity. There were not very many of them—the number of graves suggests a limit of 200 at one time, as against a probable several thousand urban Essenes—and in their retreat to the Judean wilderness they were akin to those American sectarians who periodically follow some spiritual leader to an isolated spot in the mountains of Montana or Oregon to await the imminent end of the world.
Perched on the rim of history, looking out toward the End, the Qumran sectarians were scarcely equipped to engage moral life or the political realm with any nuance or complexity. Apocalyptic thunder drums through many of their texts. The world is divided uncompromisingly into the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. The former are few, indeed are limited to the sectarians themselves, and they alone will be spared the terrible divine wrath that is about to descend. Truth itself is conceived as an esoteric matter to be concealed from all but the elect: the master of the commune “shall conceal the teaching of the Law from men of falsehood, but shall impart true knowledge and righteous judgment to those who have chosen the way.” The preapocalyptic moment in which the sectarians constantly live dictates a draconian code of morality and spiritual surveillance and a strictly hierarchical order that make rabbinic Judaism look almost libertarian and democratic by contrast. The Qumran texts are imbued with a brooding sense of sinfulness, a revulsion from the very carnality of human existence. Here, for example (in my translation), are three lines that appear with variations several times in The Thanksgiving Hymns:
I am a creature of clay, compact of water,
The secret of nakedness, the source of pollution,
The crucible of iniquity and the fabric of sin.
Especially because the term for nakedness, ‘ervah, is the one that refers to forbidden sexual parts, and the word for pollution, nidah, alludes to menstruation, the lines project an almost Augustinian sense of disgust at coming into the world from the shameful hidden parts of a woman’s body.
Much has been made of the literary character of the scrolls, without sufficient warrant. Yigael Yadin once claimed of The Thanksgiving Hymns that no one who did not read them in the Hebrew could conceive the poetic magnificence of these psalmotic compositions. As a student of biblical poetry, I would concur that it is exciting to have at our disposal several dozen new Hebrew poems in the biblical mode, but I must also say that in most respects this is derivative, epigonic verse. Here and there one encounters an arresting image or line, but for the most part the poems are pastiches of biblical poetry, repeatedly taking the urgency of the supplication psalms—Lord save me, my enemies encompass me—and coloring it with the crude emotional hues of apocalyptic ressentiment.
In general, there is a disquieting note in the relation of the sectarian writers to Hebrew textuality and the Bible. They were not, after all, building a new edifice on the foundation of the Bible like their adversaries the Pharisees, but rather sustaining through literary pastiche and apocalyptic fulmination the illusion that they were still living at the heart of the biblical destiny in all its Davidic and Aaronite glory, that they were continuing to write the Bible. Shemaryahu Talmon has drawn a trenchant distinction between the sectarians and the rabbis precisely in these terms in his recent The World of Qumran from Within:
(Proto) rabbinic Jewry viewed the biblical era as a closed chapter and their own times as being profoundly different from that preceding age. In contradistinction, the Covenanters [at Qumran] perceived themselves as standing within the orbit of the biblical era and their community as the rejuvenated embodiment of biblical Israel: they were the “righteous remnant” whom God had spared when He delivered Judah and Jerusalem to the sword of the Babylonians. . . .
Such an orientation toward history through the reliving and extension of sacred texts encourages megalomaniacal self-importance and contempt for others as well as a kind of hallucinatory relation to present events. A particularly scary and symptomatic document of this mentality is The War Scroll. Although scraps and tatters of images drawn from Roman military practice float through the text, its choreography of confrontation between the forces of light and darkness is not really anchored in historical time. As Talmon has said of the sectarians in general, this is a piece of writing “suspended in limbo between the real and the visionary stage of history.” The scroll’s long list of “orders of battle,” with its catalogues of trumpets and banners and weapons ornamented in silver and gold, is really a continuous act of incantatory word-magic. It is not through political action or social institution or legal initiative that this writer copes with the quandaries and terrors of life under the Roman empire but rather through the sheer exalting sonority of Hebrew words steeped in biblical memories. It is hardly surprising that nothing that would live on in history ever grew in this rocky ground overlooking—spiritually as well as literally—a slate-gray sea of salt.
A Wisdom poem discovered in Cave 4 offers a particularly instructive illustration of the relation of the Qumran literature to its biblical antecedents because it derives so explicitly from one biblical poem, Proverbs 7, with additional borrowings from a related poem in Proverbs 5. The text from Cave 4 has been dated paleographically to the 1st century B.C.E., though some scholars think the original composition may be older. It is quite possible that only a couple of centuries separate it from Proverbs 7, but a world of imaginative difference stands between the two poems. The biblical text is a warning cast in narrative form about the dangers of the seductress. The speaker is a worldly Mentor who addresses a vulnerable “lad.” After an initial exhortation, he represents the seductress in the tricky twilight shadows waiting in the streets to pounce on her sexual prey:
She seizes him and kisses him,
impudently she speaks:
“I had to make peace-sacrifices,
today I fulfilled my vows.
So I came out to meet you,
to seek your presence, and I found you.
With coverlets I’ve spread my couch
dyed cloths of Egyptian linen.
I’ve sprinkled my bed
with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon.
Let’s drink our fill of love till dawn,
let’s revel in love’s delights.
For the man is not at home,
he’s gone on a far-off way.
The purse of silver he took in his hand,
at the full moon he’ll come back home.”
She draws him aside with all her talk,
with her smooth speech she lures him. . . .
The result, of course, is disastrous. “An arrow splits his liver”—evidently a reference to venereal disease—and the Mentor concludes in a formal exordium by warning all young men not to “stray on her paths.//For many are the victims she has felled/numberless all she’s killed.//Through her house are the ways to Sheol,/going down to the chambers of death” (my translation). This is, of course, not a very cheerful view of the pleasures of a one-night stand, but the poet has a keen eye for the alluring sensuous textures of seduction—all those imported luxury items, the bedclothes from Egypt and the fragrant spices from the East—and the seductress herself is a vivid figure, assuring the presumably hesitant young man that her husband is off on a business trip and won’t be back for a couple of weeks, since the action, as an earlier line implies, takes place in the dark of the moon.
What does the poem found at Qumran make of this material? Just like the seductress of Proverbs 7 (in the sequence of lines leading up to the section I have quoted), the wicked woman of this text lingers about the city squares, her eyes glancing lasciviously. Here is how she is represented in the body of the poem:
She is ever prompt to oil her words,
and she flatters with irony,
deriding with iniquitous l[ips]. . . .
Her clothes are shades of twilight,
and her ornaments plagues of corruption.
Her couches are beds of corruption
and her [. . .] depths of the pit.
Her inns are couches of darkness,
and her dominions in the midst of the
night. . . .
For her ways are ways of death,
and her paths are roads of sin,
and her tracks are pathways to iniquity,
and her byways are rebellious
Her gates are gates of death. . . .
None of those who enter will ever return. . . .
[Translation by Geza Vermes]
My excerpting spares the reader some of the flood of sheer synonymity that gives the poem whatever momentum it has. Beginning on the purely verbal level, there is virtually no independent invention in this biblicizing poem: it is all strung together out of overlapping phrases taken from Proverbs, with an occasional locution from one of the Prophets. As literature, the poem is purely derivative. As an expression of the moral imagination, it reflects an even steeper decline from its model in Proverbs. For nothing can happen in the world of this poem. The witty narrative of Proverbs 7, like the enlivening persona of its Mentor, is entirely absent. The seductress is no longer a vivid human figure moving in a familiar medium of social institutions and material culture but an abstract emblem of hateful evil. She may even be, as Geza Vermes has suggested, an allegorical representation of false doctrine. In any case, she is evoked linguistically through that incantatory use of synonymity characteristic of many of the Qumran texts. If in Proverbs there is sometimes an intimation of imagistic association between “the pit” (Sheol) and the vaginal cavity of the seductress, in the Qumran text that link becomes an obsessive equation. Note in the lines quoted the repetitive insistence on corruption in whatever touches the body of the seductress—her ornaments and her bed—and in the following two lines, the sense of some radical awfulness lurking beneath the woman’s skirts: “Her legs go down to work wickedness,/and to walk in wrongdoings.//Her [. . .] are foundations of darkness,/and a multitude of sins in her skirts.” The seductress of Proverbs has been recast in the darkly brooding tones of “the secret of nakedness, the source of pollution” that we encounter in The Thanksgiving Hymns.
There is no question that a good deal more is now known about a pivotal moment in Jewish history through the Dead Sea Scrolls. We have even learned instructive things about the evolution of the Hebrew language, its orthography, and the way it may have been pronounced around the turn of the Christian era. But the popular fascination with the scrolls that has been sustained for over four decades and the inordinate hopes for a grand revelation from these scraps of parchment betoken one of the great modern illusions—that if only we could take within our grasp the material substance of the past, if only we could empty out all the contents of its buried time capsules, we might touch an ultimate secret of origins, understand in a new and illuminating way how we came to be what we are. Whatever the wealth of historical testimony discovered in the Qumran texts, and perhaps still to be discovered, we will almost certainly not find in them any such truth of origins. By the time the sectarians fled their Dead Sea dwelling in 68 C.E., the early Christians (chiefly Paul) and the early rabbis had already taken decisive steps toward creating supple new systems of belief and religious practice out of the texts and ideas of the Hebrew Bible—on the one hand, a bold synthesis of monotheism with the mythic power of the mystery cults and a translation of theological universalism into a universalism of religious constituency; on the other hand, a refashioning of biblical doctrine as an intricate and developing system of law, based on learning, and, at least in principle, accessible to all Jews.
Against these achievements, whose power is still palpably projected from that turbulent era to ours, the writings of the Qumran sectarians seem narrow and rigid and shrill. They withdrew from the teeming city to a rock-strewn desert, hearkening to the voice of their master and awaiting the destruction of their enemies. The air they breathed was an atmosphere of hypnotic words that insulated them from the changing winds of history. The texts they left behind will continue to be intriguing objects of scrutiny but can offer scant sustenance for us who live in the unfolding movement of historical time.
1 Summit, 268 pp., $20.00.
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How Important Are the Dead Sea Scrolls?
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Their coming-and-going polka—now you see ’im, now you don’t—consumed the first 10 days of March. One week Cohn was in the driver’s seat of U.S. economic policy, steering his boss into a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code and preparing him for a huge disgorgement of taxpayer money to repair some nebulous entity called “our crumbling infrastructure.” The next week Cohn had disappeared and in his place at the president’s side Navarro suddenly materialized. With Navarro’s encouragement, the president unexpectedly announced hefty, world-wobbling tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. At first the financial markets tumbled, and nobody in Washington, including the president’s friends, seemed happy. Nobody, that is, except Navarro, whose Cheshire-cat grin quickly became unavoidable on the alphabet-soup channels of cable news. It’s the perfect place for him, front and center, trying to disentangle the conflicting strands of the president’s economic policy. Far more than Cohn, the president’s newest and most powerful economic adviser is a suitable poster boy for Trumpism, whatever that might be.
So where, the capital wondered, did this Navarro fellow come from? (The question So where did this Cohn guy go? barely lasted a news cycle.) Insiders and political obsessives dimly remembered Navarro from Trump’s presidential campaign. With Wilbur Ross, now the secretary of commerce, Navarro wrote the most articulate brief for the Trump economic plan in the months before the election, which by my reckoning occurred roughly 277 years ago. (Ross is also Navarro’s co-conspirator in pushing the steel tariffs. They’re an Odd Couple indeed: Navarro is well-coiffed and tidy and as smooth as a California anchorman, while Ross is what Barney Fife might have looked like if he’d given up his job as Mayberry’s deputy sheriff and gotten a degree in mortuary science.) The Navarro-Ross paper drew predictable skepticism from mainstream economists and their proxies in the press, particularly its eye-popping claim that Trump’s “trade policy reforms” would generate an additional $1.7 trillion in government revenue over the next 10 years.
Navarro is nominally a professor at University of California, Irvine. His ideological pedigree, like the president’s, is that of a mongrel. After a decade securing tenure by writing academic papers (“A Critical Comparison of Utility-type Ratemaking Methodologies in Oil Pipeline Regulation”), he set his attention on politics. In the 1990s, he earned the distinction of losing four political races in six years, all in San Diego or its surrounding suburbs—one for mayor, another for county supervisor, another for city council. He was a Democrat in those days, as Trump was; he campaigned against sprawl and for heavy environmental regulation. In 1996, he ran for Congress as “The Democrat Newt Gingrich Fears Most.” The TV actor Ed Asner filmed a commercial for him. This proved less helpful than hoped when his Republican opponent reminded voters that a few years earlier, Asner had been a chief fundraiser for the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador.
After that defeat, Navarro got the message and retired from politics. He returned to teaching, became an off-and-on-again Republican, and set about writing financial potboilers, mostly on investment strategies for a world increasingly unreceptive to American leadership. One of them, Death by China (2011), purported to describe the slow but inexorable sapping of American wealth and spirit through Chinese devilry. As it happened, this was Donald Trump’s favorite theme as well. From the beginning of his 40-year public career, Trump has stuck to his insistence that someone, in geo-economic terms, is bullying this great country of his. The identity of the bully has varied over time: In the 1980s, it was the Soviets who, following their cataclysmic implosion, gave way to Japan, which was replaced, after its own economic collapse, by America’s neighbors to the north and south, who have been joined, since the end of the last decade, by China. In Death by China, the man, the moment, and the message came together with perfect timing. Trump loved it.
It’s not clear that he read it, however. Trump is a visual learner, as the educational theorists used to say. He will retain more from Fox and Friends as he constructs his hair in the morning than from a half day buried in a stack of white papers from the Department of Labor. When Navarro decided to make a movie of the book, directed by himself, Trump attended a screening and lustily endorsed it. You can see why. Navarro’s use of animation is spare but compelling; the most vivid image shows a dagger of Asiatic design plunging (up to the hilt and beyond!) into the heart of a two-dimensional map of the U.S., causing the country’s blood to spray wildly across the screen, then seep in rivulets around the world. It’s Wes Cravenomics.
Most of the movie, however, is taken up by talking heads. Nearly everyone of these heads is attached to a left-wing Democrat, a socialist, or, in a couple of instances, an anarchist from the Occupy movement. Watched today, Death by China is a reminder of how lonely—how marginal—the anti-China obsession has been. This is not to its discredit; yesterday’s fringe often becomes today’s mainstream, just as today’s consensus is often disproved by the events of tomorrow. Not so long ago, for instance, the establishment catechism declared that economic liberalization and the prosperity it created led inexorably to political liberalization; from free markets, we were told, came free societies. In the last generation, China has put this fantasy to rest. Only the willfully ignorant would deny that the behavior of the Chinese government, at home and abroad, is the work of swine. Even so, the past three presidents have seen China only as a subject for scolding, never retaliation.
And this brings us to another mystery of Trumpism, as Navarro embodies it. Retaliation against China and its bullying trade practices is exactly what Trump has promised as both candidate and president. More than a year into his presidency, with his tariffs on steel and aluminum, he has struck against the bullies at last, just as he vowed to do. And the bullies, we discover, are mostly our friends—Germans, Brazilians, South Koreans, and other partners who sell us their aluminum and steel for less than we can make it ourselves. Accounting for 2 percent of U.S. steel imports, the Chinese are barely scratched in the president’s first great foray in protectionism.
In announcing the tariffs, Trump cited Chinese “dumping,” as if out of habit. Yet Navarro himself seems at a loss to explain why he and his boss have chosen to go after our friends instead of our preeminent adversary in world trade. “China is in many ways the root of the problem for all countries of the world in aluminum and steel,” he told CNN the day after the tariffs were announced. Really? How’s that? “The bigger picture is, China has tremendous overcapacity in both aluminum and steel. So what they do is, they flood the world market, and this trickles down to our shores, and to other countries.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, we had only to wait three days. By then Navarro was telling other interviewers, “This has nothing to do with China, directly or indirectly.”
This is not the first time Trumpism has shown signs of incoherence. With Peter Navarro at the president’s side, and with Gary Cohn a fading memory, it is unlikely to be the last.
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Review of 'Political Tribes' By Amy Chua
Amy Chua has an explanation for what ails us at home and abroad: Elites keep ignoring the primacy of tribalism both in the United States and elsewhere and so are blindsided every time people act in accordance with their group instinct. In Political Tribes, she offers a survey of tribal dynamics around the globe and renders judgments about the ways in which the United States has serially misread us-and-them conflicts. In the book’s final chapters, Chua, a Yale University law professor best known for her parenting polemic Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, focuses on the clashing group instincts that now threaten to sunder the American body politic.
As Chua sees it, “our blindness to political tribalism abroad reflects America at both its best and worst.” Because the United States is a nation made up of diverse immigrant populations—a “supergroup”—Americans can sometimes underestimate how hard it is for people in other countries to set aside their religious or ethnic ties and find common national purpose. That’s American ignorance in its most optimistic and benevolent form. But then there’s the more noxious variety: “In some cases, like Vietnam,” she writes, “ethnically blind racism has been part of our obliviousness.”
During the Vietnam War, Chua notes, the United States failed to distinguish between the ethnically homogeneous Vietnamese majority and the Chinese minority who were targets of mass resentment. In Vietnam, national identity was built largely on historical accounts of the courageous heroes who had been repelling Chinese invaders since 111 b.c.e., when China first conquered its neighbor to the south. This defining antipathy toward the Chinese was exacerbated by the fact that Vietnam’s Chinese minority was on average far wealthier and more politically powerful than the ethnic Vietnamese masses. “Yet astonishingly,” writes Chua, “U.S. foreign policy makers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn—merely ‘a stalking horse for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’”
Throughout the book, Chua captures tribal conflicts in clear and engrossing prose. But as a guide to foreign policy, one gets the sense that her emphasis on tribal ties might not be able to do all the work she expects of it. The first hint comes in her Vietnam analysis. If American ignorance of Chinese–Vietnam tensions is to blame for our having fought and lost the war, what would a better understanding of such things have yielded? She gets to that, sort of. “Could we have supported Ho [Chi Minh] against the French, capitalizing on Vietnam’s historical hostility toward China to keep the Vietnamese within our sphere of influence?” Chua asks. “We’ll never know. Somehow we never saw or took seriously the enmity between Vietnam and China.” It’s hard to see the U.S.’s backing a mass-murdering Communist against a putatively democratic ally as anything but a surreal thought experiment, let alone a lost opportunity.
On Afghanistan, Chua is correct about a number of things. There are indeed long-simmering tensions between Pashtuns, Punjabs, and other tribes in the region. The U.S. did pay insufficient attention to Afghanistan in the decade leading up to 9/11. The Taliban did play on Pashtun aspirations to fuel their rise. But how, exactly, are we to understand our failures in Afghanistan as resulting from ignorance of tribal relations? The Taliban went on to forge a protective agreement with al-Qaeda that had little if anything to do with tribal ties. And it was that relationship that had tragic consequences for the United States.
Not only was Osama bin Laden not Pashtun; he was an Arab millionaire, and his terrorist organization was made up of jihadists from all around the world. If anything, it was Bin Laden’s trans-tribal movement that the U.S. should have been focused on. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance was based on pooling resources against perceived common threats, compatible (but not identical) religious notions, and large cash payments from Bin Laden. No American understanding of tribal relations could have interfered with that.
And while an ambitious tribe-savvy counterinsurgency strategy might have gone a long way in helping the U.S.’s war effort, there has never been broad public support for such a commitment. Ultimately, our problems in Afghanistan have less to do with neglecting tribal politics and more to do with general neglect.
In Chua’s chapter on the Iraq War, however, her paradigm aligns more closely with the facts. “Could we have done better if we hadn’t been so blind to tribal politics in Iraq?” she asks. “There’s very good evidence that the answer is yes.” Here Chua offers a concise account of the U.S.’s successful 2007 troop surge. “While the additional U.S. soldiers—sent primarily to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province—were of course a critical factor,” she writes, “the surge succeeded only because it was accompanied by a 180-degree shift in our approach to the local population.”
Chua goes into colorful detail about then colonel H.R. McMaster’s efforts to educate American troops in local Iraqi customs and his decision to position them among the local population in Tal Afar. This won the trust of Iraqis who were forthcoming with critical intelligence. She also covers the work of Col. Sean MacFarland who forged relationships with Sunni sheikhs. Those sheikhs, in turn, convinced their tribespeople to work with U.S. forces and function as a local police force. Finally, Chua explains how Gen. David Petraeus combined the work of McMaster and MacFarland and achieved the miraculous in pacifying Baghdad. In spite of U.S. gains—and the successful navigation of tribes—there was little American popular will to keep Iraq on course and, over the next few years, the country inevitably unraveled.I n writing about life in the United States, Chua is on firmer ground altogether, and her diagnostic powers are impressive. “It turns out that in America, there’s a chasm between the tribal identities of the country’s haves and have-nots,” she writes, “a chasm of the same kind wreaking political havoc in many developing and non-Western countries.” In the U.S., however, there’s a crucial difference to this dynamic, and Chua puts her finger right on it: “In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism.”
She backs up this contention with statistics. Some of the most interesting revelations have to do with the Occupy movement. In actual fact, those who gathered in cities across the country to protest systemic inequality in 2012 were “disproportionately affluent.” In fact, “more than half had incomes of $75,000 or more.” Occupy faded away, as she notes, because it “attracted so few members from the many disadvantaged groups it purported to be fighting for.” Chua puts things in perspective: “Imagine if the suffragette movement hadn’t included large numbers of women, or if the civil-rights movement included very few African Americans, or if the gay-rights movement included very few gays.” America’s poorer classes, for their part, are “deeply patriotic, even if they feel they’re losing the country to distant elites who know nothing about them.”
Chua is perceptive on both the inhabitants of Trump Country and the elites who disdain them. She takes American attitudes toward professional wrestling as emblematic of the split between those who support Donald Trump and those who detest him. Trump is a bona fide hero in the world of pro wrestling; he has participated in “bouts” and was actually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. What WWE fans get from watching wrestling they also get from watching Trump—“showmanship and symbols,” a world held together by enticing false storylines, and, ultimately, “something playfully spectacular.” Those on the academic left, on the other hand, “are fascinated, even obsessed in a horrified way, with the ‘phenomenology’ of watching professional wrestling.” In the book’s most arresting line, Chua writes that “there is now so little interaction, commonality, and intermarriage between rural/heartland/working-class whites and urban/coastal whites that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an ‘ethnic difference.’”
Of course, there’s much today dividing America along racial lines as well. While Americans of color still contend with the legacy of institutional intolerance, “it is simply a fact that ‘diversity’ policies at the most select American universities and in some sectors of the economy have had a disparate adverse impact on whites.” So, both blacks and whites (and most everyone else) feel threatened to some degree. This has sharpened the edge of identity politics on the left and right. In Chua’s reading, these tribal differences will not actually break the country apart. But, she believes, they could fundamentally and irreversibly change “who we are.”
Political Tribes, however, is no doomsday prediction. Despite our clannish resentments, Chua sees, in her daily interactions, people’s willingness to form bonds beyond those of their in-group and a relaxing of tribal ties. What’s needed is for haves and have-nots, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to enjoy more meaningful exposure to one another. This pat prescription would come across as criminally sappy if not for the genuinely loving and patriotic way in which Chua writes about our responsibilities as a “supergroup.” “It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings,” she says, “we need to view one another as fellow Americans.” Americans as a higher ontological category than human beings—there’s poetry in that. And a healthy bit of tribalism, too.
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Then again, you know what happens when you assume.
“Here is my prediction,” Kristof wrote. “The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning writer, will be released from prison.”
True, Kristof conceded, “I may be wrong entirely.” But, he went on, “my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.”
Five years later, the Chinese economy, while large, is saddled with debt. Analysts and government officials are worried about its real-estate bubble. Despite harsh controls, capital continues to flee China. Nor has there been “some political easing.” On the contrary, repression has worsened. The Great Firewall blocks freedom of speech and inquiry, human-rights advocates are jailed, and the provinces resemble surveillance states out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Mao rests comfortably in his mausoleum. Not only did Liu Xiaobo remain a prisoner, he was also denied medical treatment when he contracted cancer, and he died in captivity in 2017.
As for Xi Jinping, he turned out not to be a reformer but a dictator. Steadily, under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns, Xi decimated alternative centers of power within the Communist Party. He built up a cult of personality around “Xi Jinping thought” and his “Chinese dream” of economic, cultural, and military strength. His preeminence was highlighted in October 2017 when the Politburo declined to name his successor. Then, in March of this year, the Chinese abolished the term limits that have guaranteed rotation in office since the death of Mao. Xi reigns supreme.
Bizarrely, this latest development seems to have come as a surprise to the American press. The headline of Emily Rauhala’s Washington Post article read: “China proposes removal of two-term limit, potentially paving way for President Xi Jinping to stay on.” Potentially? Xi’s accession to emperor-like status, wrote Julie Bogen of Vox, “could destabilize decades of progress toward democracy and instead move China even further toward authoritarianism.” Could? Bogen did not specify which “decades of progress toward democracy” she was talking about, but that is probably because, since 1989, there haven’t been any.
Xi’s assumption of dictatorial powers should not have shocked anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to recent Chinese history. The Chinese government, until last month a collective dictatorship, has exercised despotic control over its people since the very founding of the state in 1949. And yet the insatiable desire among media to incorporate news events into a preestablished storyline led reporters to cover the party announcement as a sudden reversal. Why? Because only then would the latest decision of an increasingly embattled and belligerent Chinese leadership fit into the prefabricated narrative that says we are living in an authoritarian moment.
For example, one article in the February 26, 2018, New York Times was headlined, “With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen.” CNN’s James Griffiths wrote, “While Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the traditional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system itself, with reformers and conservatives seeing their power and influence waxing and waning over time.” Checks and balances, reformers and conservatives—why, they are just like us, only within the context of a one-party state that ruthlessly brooks no dissent.
Now, we do happen to live in an era when democracy and autocracy are at odds. But China is not joining the “authoritarian trend.” It helped create and promote the trend. Next year, China’s “era of strongmen” will enter its seventh decade. The fundamental nature of the Communist regime in Beijing has not changed during this time.
My suspicion is that journalists were taken aback by Xi’s revelation of his true nature because they, like most Western elites, have bought into the myth of China’s “peaceful rise.” For decades, Americans have been told that China’s economic development and participation in international organizations and markets would lead inevitably to its political liberalization. What James Mann calls “the China fantasy” manifested itself in the leadership of both major political parties and in the pronouncements of the chattering class across the ideological spectrum.
Indeed, not only was the soothing scenario of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on the glide path to democracy widespread, but media figures also admonished Americans for not living up to Chinese standards. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Tom Friedman conceded in an infamous 2009 column. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” For instance, Friedman went on, “it is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power.” The following year, during an episode of Meet the Press, Friedman admitted, “I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but what if we could just be China for a day?” Just think of all the electric cars the government could force us to buy.
This attitude toward Chinese Communism as a public-policy exemplar became still more pronounced after Donald Trump was elected president on an “America First” agenda. China’s theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, harassment and exploitation of Western companies, currency manipulation, mercantilist subsidies and tariffs, chronic pollution, military buildup, and interference in democratic politics and university life did not prevent it from proclaiming itself the defender of globalization and environmentalism.
When Xi visited the Davos World Economic Forum last year, the Economist noted the “fawning reception” that greeted him. The speech he delivered, pledging to uphold the international order that had facilitated his nation’s rise as well as his own, received excellent reviews. On January 15, 2017, Fareed Zakaria said, “In an America-first world, China is filling the vacuum.” A few days later, Charlie Rose told his CBS audience, “It’s almost like China is saying, ‘we are the champions of globalization, not the United States.’” And on January 30, 2017, the New York Times quoted a “Berlin-based private equity fund manager,” who said, “We heard a Chinese president becoming leader of the free world.”
The chorus of praise for China grew louder last spring when Trump announced American withdrawal from an international climate accord. In April 2017, Rick Stengel said on cable television that China is becoming “the global leader on the environment.” On June 8, a CBS reporter said that Xi is “now viewed as the world’s leader on climate change.” On June 19, 2017, on Bloomberg news, Dana Hull said, “China is the leader on climate change, especially when it comes to autos.” Also that month, one NBC anchor asked Senator Mike Lee of Utah, “Are you concerned at all that China may be seen as sort of the global leader when it comes to bringing countries together, more so than the United States?”
Last I checked, Xi Jinping’s China has not excelled at “bringing countries together,” unless—like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—those countries are allying with the United States to balance against China. What instead should concern Senator Lee, and all of us, is an American media filled with people suckered by foreign propaganda that happens to coincide with their political preferences, and who are unable to make elementary distinctions between tyrannical governments and consensual ones.
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Marx didn’t supplant old ideas about money and commerce; he intensified them
rom the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. “In the city that is most finely governed,” Aristotle wrote, “the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”1 In Plato’s vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling “guardians” would own no property to avoid tearing “the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’” He added that “all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things.” Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for “shaming his family.”
At his website humanprogress.org, Marian L. Tupy quotes D.C. Earl of the University of Leeds, who wrote that in Ancient Rome, “all trade was stigmatized as undignified … the word mercator [merchant] appears as almost a term of abuse.” Cicero noted in the first century b.c.e. that retail commerce is sordidus (vile) because merchants “would not make any profit unless they lied constantly.”
Early Christianity expanded this point of view. Jesus himself was clearly hostile to the pursuit of riches. “For where your treasure is,” he proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, “there will your heart be also.” And of course he insisted that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Catholic Church incorporated this view into its teachings for centuries, holding that economics was zero-sum. “The Fathers of the Church adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others,” the economic historian Jerry Muller explains in his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. As St. Augustine put it, “Si unus non perdit, alter non acquirit”—“If one does not lose, the other does not gain.”
The most evil form of wealth accumulation was the use of money to make money—usury. Lending money at interest was unnatural, in this view, and therefore invidious. “While expertise in exchange is justly blamed since it is not according to nature but involves taking from others,” Aristotle insisted, “usury is most reasonably hated because one’s possessions derive from money itself and not from that for which it was supplied.” In the Christian tradition, the only noble labor was physical labor, and so earning wealth from the manipulation of money was seen as inherently ignoble.
In the somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period, Thomas Aquinas helped make private property and commerce more acceptable, but he did not fundamentally break with the Aristotelian view that trade was suspect and the pursuit of wealth was sinful. The merchant’s life was in conflict with the teachings of Christianity if it led to pride or avarice. “Echoing Aristotle,” Muller writes, “Aquinas reasserted that justice in the distribution of material goods was fulfilled when someone received in proportion to his status, office, and function within the institutions of an existing, structured community. Hence Aquinas decried as covetousness the accumulation of wealth to improve one’s place in the social order.”
In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness. Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that “this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another.”2 The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, “whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest.” Thus, as Muller has argued, anti-Semitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.
Early Protestantism did not reject these views. It amplified them.3 Martin Luther despised commerce. “There is on earth no greater enemy of man, after the Devil, than a gripe-money and usurer, for he wants to be God over all men…. Usury is a great, huge monster, like a werewolf …. And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers, and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill … hunt down, curse, and behead all usurers!”4
It should therefore come as no surprise that Luther’s views of Jews, the living manifestation of usury in the medieval mind, were just as immodest. In his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, he offers a seven-point plan on how to deal with them:
- “First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools .…This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
- “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… ”
- “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside … ”
- “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them … ”
- “Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.… But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., … then eject them forever from the country … ”
Luther agitated against the Jews throughout Europe, condemning local officials for insufficient anti-Semitism (a word that did not exist at the time and a sentiment that was not necessarily linked to more modern biological racism). His demonization of the Jews was derived from more than anti-capitalism. But his belief that the Jewish spirit of commerce was corrupting of Christianity was nonetheless central to his indictment. He sermonized again and again that it must be cleansed from Christendom, either through conversion, annihilation, or expulsion.
Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.
The idea at the center of virtually all of Marx’s economic writing is the labor theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a laborer or laborers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics—and elementary logic—this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labor that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.
Marx had philosophical, metaphysical, and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labor theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism—or what we would now call “commerce” plain and simple—was exploitative by its very nature. In Marx, the term “exploitation” takes a number of forms. It is not merely evocative of child laborers working in horrid conditions; it covers virtually all profits. If all value is captured by labor, any “surplus value” collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just “dead labor.” For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of “labor-power” in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource. Slavery and wage-labor were different forms of the same exploitation because both involved extracting the common resource. In fact, while Marx despised slavery, he thought wage-labor was only a tiny improvement because wage-labor reduced costs for capitalists in that they were not required to feed or clothe wage laborers.
Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity. As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:
To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as “exploitation” Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten.
In his book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber suggests that “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”5
Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way “the system” required selling out to the demands of the market and a career. The frustrated poet turned to the embryonic language of social science to express his angry barbaric yawp at The Man. “His critique of the stultifying effects of labor in a capitalist society,” Muller writes, “is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society.”
In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms—from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.
As Rousseau, widely seen as the first romantic, explained in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, modernity—specifically the culture of commerce and science—was oppressive. The baubles of the Enlightenment were mere “garlands of flowers” that concealed “the chains which weigh [men] down” and led people to “love their own slavery.”
This is a better context for understanding Marx’s and Engels’s hatred of the division of labor and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption, like Rousseau’s, is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism. “Within the tribe there is as yet no difference between rights and duties,” Engels writes in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. “The question whether participation in public affairs, in blood revenge or atonement, is a right or a duty, does not exist for the Indian; it would seem to him just as absurd as the question whether it was a right or a duty to sleep, eat, or hunt. A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible.”
For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term “alienation” is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labor encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialization and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe. “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” Marx writes. “Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.”
Marx’s muse was not analytical reason, but resentment. That is what fueled his false consciousness. To understand this fully, we should look at how that most ancient and eternal resentment—Jew-hatred—informed his worldview.
The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay “On the Jewish Question”:
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew—not the Sabbath Jew … but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money [Emphasis in original]
The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew—at least the one who set up shop in Marx’s head—makes his money from money. He adds no value. Worse, the Jews considered themselves to be outside the organic social order, Marx complained, but then again that is what capitalism encourages—individual independence from the body politic and the selfish (in Marx’s mind) pursuit of individual success or happiness. For Marx, individualism was a kind of heresy because it meant violating the sacred bond of the community. Private property empowered individuals to live as individuals “without regard to other men,” as Marx put it.
This is the essence of Marx’s view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as laborers in the industrial machine. The division of labor inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:
The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]
He adds, “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” And he concludes: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” [Emphasis in original]
In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” [Emphasis in original]
In his “Theories of Surplus Value,” he praises Luther’s indictment of usury. Luther “has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole.” Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. “In their description of the confrontation of capital and labor, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury,” Muller observes. Or, as Deirdre McCloskey notes, “the history that Marx thought he perceived went with his erroneous logic that capitalism—drawing on an anticommercial theme as old as commerce—just is the same thing as greed.”6 Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.”7
For Marx, capital and the Jew are different faces of the same monster: “The capitalist knows that all commodities—however shabby they may look or bad they may smell—are in faith and in fact money, internally circumcised Jews, and in addition magical means by which to make more money out of money.”
Marx’s writing, particularly on surplus value, is drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has bought from him.” The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the “bloodsucking” nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat.
Marx writes how the extension of the workday into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor,” resulting in the fact that “the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.’” As Mark Neocleous of Brunel University documents in his brilliant essay, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires,” the images of blood and bloodsucking capital in Das Kapital are even more prominent motifs: “Capital ‘sucks up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking,’ while U.S. capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children.’ The appropriation of labor is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism,’ while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children’s blood into capital.’”
Marx’s vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of both Catholics as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding “scientific” theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word. “If Marx’s vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic,” Muller writes. “As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx’s thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith, or Voltaire.”
In fairness to Marx, he does not claim that he wants to return to a feudal society marked by inherited social status and aristocracy. He is more reactionary than that. The Marxist final fantasy holds that at the end of history, when the state “withers away,” man is liberated from all exploitation and returns to the tribal state in which there is no division of labor, no dichotomy of rights and duties.
Marx’s “social science” was swept into history’s dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognize, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.
It is an old conservative habit—one I’ve been guilty of myself—of looking around society and politics, finding things we don’t like or disagree with, and then running through an old trunk of Marxist bric-a-brac to spruce up our objections. It is undeniably true that the influence of Marx, particularly in the academy, remains staggering. Moreover, his indirect influence is as hard to measure as it is extensive. How many novels, plays, and movies have been shaped by Marx or informed by people shaped by Marx? It’s unknowable.
And yet, this is overdone. The truth is that Marx’s ideas were sticky for several reasons. First, they conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world—far more than Marxist zealots have ever realized. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labors, was hardly invented by him. In a sense, it wasn’t invented by anybody. Conspiracy theories are as old as mankind, stretching back to prehistory.
There’s ample reason—with ample research to back it up—to believe that there is a natural and universal human appetite for conspiracy theories. It is a by-product of our adapted ability to detect patterns, particularly patterns that may help us anticipate a threat—and, as Mark van Vugt has written, “the biggest threat facing humans throughout history has been other people, particularly when they teamed up against you.”8
To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is —an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses. Marx himself was an avid conspiracy theorist, as so many brilliant bohemian misfits tend to be, believing that the English deliberately orchestrated the Irish potato famine to “carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords.” He even argued that the Crimean War was a kind of false-flag operation to hide the true nature of Russian-English collusion.
Contemporary political figures on the left and the right routinely employ the language of exploitation and conspiracy. They do so not because they’ve internalized Marx, but because of their own internal psychological architecture. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, the talented left-wing writer, describes Goldman Sachs (the subject of quite a few conspiracy theories) thus:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
Marx would be jealous that he didn’t think of the phrase “the great vampire squid.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has occasionally traded in the same kind of language, even evoking some ancient anti-Semitic tropes. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors,” Trump said in one campaign speech. “This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged.” He added: “Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers—to some—a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
The 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire had stripped the transcendent from its central place in human affairs. God had been dethroned and “We the People”—and our things—had taken His place. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”9
The religious views of the Romantic writers and artists Marx was raised on (and whom he had once hoped to emulate) ran the gamut from atheism to heartfelt devotion, but they shared an anger and frustration with the way the new order had banished the richness of faith from the land. “Now we have got the freedom of believing in public nothing but what can be rationally demonstrated,” the writer Johann Heinrich Merck complained. “They have deprived religion of all its sensuous elements, that is, of all its relish. They have carved it up into its parts and reduced it to a skeleton without color and light…. And now it’s put in a jar and nobody wants to taste it.”10
When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, “the people” became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people’s spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralized group took over. In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and “globalist” Marxism are closely related. They are both “re-enchantment creeds,” as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.
For Marx, the inevitable victory of Communism would arrive when the people, collectively, seized their rightful place on the Throne of History.11 The cult of unity found a new home in countless ideologies, each of which determined, in accord with their own dogma, to, in Voegelin’s words, “build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanizing than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There’s a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It’s not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited. The angry populace is always already convinced. The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures—priests!—with ready-made theories about why the masses’ gut feelings were right all along. They don’t need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. They know that already. The story Marxists tell doesn’t have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.
1 Muller, Jerry Z.. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought (p. 5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Muller, Jerry Z. Capitalism and the Jews (pp. 23-24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Luther’s economic thought, reflected in his “Long Sermon on Usury of 1520” and his tract On Trade and Usury of 1524, was hostile to commerce in general and to international trade in particular, and stricter than the canonists in its condemnation of moneylending. Muller, Jerry Z.. Capitalism and the Jews (p. 26). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
4 Quoted approvingly in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “Capitalist Production.” Capital: Critical Analysis of Production, Volume II. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, trans. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey, & Co. 1887. p. 604
5 Sperber, Jonathan. “Introduction.” Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corporation. 2013. xiii.
6 McCloskey, Deirdre. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 142
7 Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals (Kindle Locations 1325-1326). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
8 See also: Sunstain, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian. “Syposium on Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures.” The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 17, Number 2, 2009, pp. 202-227. http://www.ask-force.org/web/Discourse/Sunstein-Conspiracy-Theories-2009.pdf
9 Think of the story of the Golden Calf. Moses departs for Mt. Sinai to talk with God and receive the Ten Commandments. No sooner had he left did the Israelites switch their allegiance to false idol, the Golden Calf, treating a worldly inanimate object as their deity. So it is with modern man. Hence, Voegelin’s quip that for the Marxist “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”
10 Blanning, Tim. The Romantic Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 34) (Kindle Locations 445-450). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
11 Marx: “Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”
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Review of 'Realism and Democracy' By Elliott Abrams
Then, in 1966, Syrian Baathists—believers in a different transnational unite-all-the-Arabs ideology—overthrew the government in Damascus and lent their support to Palestinian guerrillas in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank to attack Israel. Later that year, a Jordanian-linked counter-coup in Syria failed, and the key figures behind it fled to Jordan. Then, on the eve of the Six-Day War in May 1967, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a mutual-defense pact with Egypt, agreeing to deploy Iraqi troops on Jordanian soil and effectively giving Nasser command and control over Jordan’s own armed forces.
This is just a snapshot of the havoc wreaked on the Middle East by the conceit of pan-Arabism. This history is worth recalling when reading Elliott Abrams’s idealistic yet clearheaded Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring. One of the book’s key insights is the importance of legitimacy for regimes that rule “not nation-states” but rather “Sykes-Picot states”—the colonial heirlooms of Britain and France created in the wake of the two world wars. At times, these states barely seem to acknowledge, let alone respect, their own sovereignty.
When the spirit of revolution hit the Arab world in 2010, the states with external legitimacy—monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait—survived. Regimes that ruled merely by brute force—Egypt, Yemen, Libya—didn’t. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has only held on thanks to the intervention of Iran and Russia, and it is difficult to argue that there is any such thing as “Syria” anymore. What this all proved was that the “stability” of Arab dictatorships, a central conceit of U.S. foreign policy, was in many cases an illusion.
That is the first hard lesson in pan-Arabism from Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The second is this: The extremists who filled the power vacuums in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other countries led Western analysts to believe that there was an “Islamic exceptionalism” at play that demonstrated Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Abrams effectively debunks this by showing that the real culprit stymieing the spread of liberty in the Middle East was not Islam but pan-Arabism, which stems from secular roots. He notes one study showing that, in the 30 years between 1973 and 2003, “a non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost 20 times more likely to be ‘electorally competitive’ than an Arab-majority Muslim country.”
Abrams is thus an optimist on the subject of Islam and democracy—which is heartening, considering his experience and expertise. He worked for legendary cold-warrior Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and served as an assistant secretary of state for human rights under Ronald Reagan and later as George W. Bush’s deputy national-security adviser for global democracy strategy. Realism and Democracy is about U.S. policy and the Arab world—but it is also about the nature of participatory politics itself. Its theme is: Ideas have consequences. And what sets Abrams’s book apart is its concrete policy recommendations to put flesh on the bones of those ideas, and bring them to life.
The dreary disintegration of the Arab Spring saw Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which after a year was displaced in a military coup. Syria’s civil war has seen about 400,000 killed and millions displaced. Into the vacuum stepped numerous Islamist terror groups. The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has resulted in total state collapse. Yemen’s civil war bleeds on.
Stability in authoritarian states with little or no legitimacy is a fiction. Communist police states were likely to fall, and the longer they took to do so, the longer the opposition sat in a balled-up rage. That, Abrams notes, is precisely what happened in Egypt. Mubarak’s repression gave the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage once the playing field opened up: The group had decades of organizing under its belt, a coherent raison d’être, and a track record of providing health and education services where the state lagged. No other parties or opposition groups had anything resembling this kind of coordination.
Abrams trenchantly concludes from this that “tyranny in the Arab world is dangerous and should itself be viewed as a form of political extremism that is likely to feed other forms.” Yet even this extremism can be tempered by power, he suggests. In a democracy, Islamist parties will have to compromise and moderate or be voted out. In Tunisia, electorally successful Islamists chose the former, and it stands as a rare success story.
Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood took a different path in Egypt, with parlous results. Its government began pulling up the ladder behind it, closing avenues of political resistance and civic participation. Hamas did the same after winning Palestinian elections in 2006. Abrams thinks that the odds of such a bait-and-switch can be reduced. He quotes the academic Stephen R. Grand, who calls for all political parties “to take an oath of allegiance to the state, to respect the outcome of democratic elections, to abide by the rules of the constitution, and to forswear violence.” If they keep their word, they will open up the political space for non-Islamist parties to get in the game. If they don’t—well, let the Egyptian coup stand as a warning.
Abrams, to his credit, does not avoid the Mesopotamian elephant in the room. The Iraq War has become Exhibit A in the dangers of democracy promotion. This is understandable, but it is misguided. The Bush administration made the decision to decapitate the regime of Saddam Hussein based on national-security calculations, mainly the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Once the decapitation had occurred, the administration could hardly have been expected to replace Saddam with another strongman whose depravities would this time be on America’s conscience. Critics of the war reverse the order here and paint a false portrait.
Here is where Abrams’s book stands out: He provides, in the last two chapters, an accounting of the weaknesses in U.S. policy, including mistakes made by the administration he served, and a series of concrete proposals to show that democracy promotion can be effective without the use of force.
One mistake, according to Abrams, is America’s favoring of civil-society groups over political parties. These groups do much good, generally have strong English-language skills, and are less likely to be tied to the government or ancien régime. But those are also strikes against them. Abrams relates a story told by former U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman about Nelson Mandela. Nigerian activists asked the South African freedom fighter to support an oil embargo against their own government. Mandela declined because, Lyman says, there was as yet no serious, organized political opposition party: “What Mandela was saying to the Nigerian activists is that, in the absence of political movements dedicated not just to democracy but also to governing when the opportunity arises, social, civic, and economic pressures against tyranny will not suffice.” Without properly focused democracy promotion, other tools to punish repressive regimes will be off the table.
Egypt offers a good example of another principle: Backsliding must be punished. The Bush administration’s pressure on Mubarak over his treatment of opposition figures changed regime behavior in 2005. Yet by the end of Bush’s second term, the pressure had let up and Mubarak’s misbehavior continued, with no consequences from either Bush or his successor, Barack Obama, until it was too late.
That, in turn, leads to another of Abrams’s recommendations: “American diplomacy can be effective only when it is clear that the president and secretary of state are behind whatever diplomatic moves or statements an official in Washington or a U.S. ambassador is making.” This is good advice for the current Oval Office occupant and his advisers. President Trump’s supporters advise critics of his dismissive attitude toward human-rights violations to focus on what the president does, not what he says. But Trump’s refusal to take a hard line against Vladimir Putin and his recent praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to become president for life undermine lower-level officials’ attempts to encourage reform.
There won’t be democracy without democrats. Pro-democracy education, Abrams advises, can teach freedom-seekers to speak the ennobling language of liberty, which is the crucial first step toward building a culture that prizes it. And in the process, we might do some ennobling ourselves.