Martin Bright

Rediscovering Paul Berman

Text settings

Six years ago I wrote a review for the Observer about Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, a quite brilliant polemic about the way the legitimate liberal desire to overturn the conventional or the bourgeois can so often turn to murderous terror.

I recognised at the time that it was an extraordinary book, but I couldn't quite accept his final conclusions, which seemed to elide different forms of barbarism so that Palestinian suicide bombers became equated with the genocide of the Nazi death camps. I still think it is important to make distinctions between the geographical, cultural and historical specifics of individual patterns of atrocity. This is not to say there is a hierarchy of such things. But at the end of the review, I now realise, I made the same mistake myself: 

"In light of recent events, Berman's description of a paranoid 'people of God' convinced of its own righteousness, prepared to kill its enemies and sacrifice its own in pursuit of a realm of pure truth might just as easily apply to the United States as to its Baathist and Islamist foes." I now think I was badly wrong. 

Someone recently recommended Berman's Power and the Idealists, which examines the 1968 generation of student revolutionaries came to develop the anti-totalitarian concept of humanitarian intervention. The essay is four years old now, but has come as a huge revelation to me. 

It argues that, although some on the European left continued to promote a knee-jerk anti-American, anti-colonialist position well into the 1990s, others (Bernard Kouchner in France, Joscha Fischer in Germany) began to realise that such "anti-fascist" sentiment could easily mutate into its opposite. This is most obvious when Israel enters the equation.

What is so interesting about reading the book now is the realisation that no British '68ers of note have made the journey away from the old attitudes. None have entered the political mainstream in the way that Daniel Cohn-Bendit did in Germany or Kouchner in France. 

Berman has been written off as the philosopher king of the liberal hawks (that's pretty much what I did in my 2003 review). How wrong I was to do so.