First let me say I love your essays. I get excited every time I see a new one posted. I must partially disagree however, with your concluding sentence of your last column. “In the form of Islam, the West confronts a challenge quite different from communism.”
A compelling case can be made that communism, fascism and even Islam were all reactions to “liberal capitalism.” While Marx’s writings can easily be seen as a reaction to 19th century laze faire capitalism, a similar “reactionary” form can be seen in the Koran.
The great creed of Islam – “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet” – can be seen as the keystone to Muhammed’s reaction to his perception of the Christian Trinity – three Gods. The foundations of liberal capitalism can be traced to Christianity. In a sense then, both Islam and communism are responses to Christianity. One much older, some 1,200 years older. One now near extinction, the older experiencing a revival.
The common theme of returning to traditional self-contained “community” through bloody “revolution” – jihad – is interesting as well. Isn’t Mao’s idea to discard trade and commerce and maintain self sufficient communities very similar to the goals of militant Mohammedans?
Green Bay, Wisconsin, US
Dear Mr. Hughes,
Thank you for your generous praise and thoughtful remarks, but I still disagree. Consider the following: How many emigrants from the former Soviet Union until its demise continued to sympathize with the communist cause? (Answer: virtually none). How many emigrants from the Islamic world sympathize with radical Islam? (Answer unknown, but the proportion is large).
The West won a bloodless victory over the Soviet empire during the 1980s, although considerable blood was shed earlier in proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere. Victory against radical Islam is by no means assured, and if the West achieves it, I expect it to be at far greater cost. The threat, I maintain, is essentially different.
This may sound like a quibble, but I do not see how Islam could be construed to be a reaction to liberal capitalism, which did not flourish in the empires of the Near East and South Asia during the 7th century. Liberal capitalism might be said to have arisen from a form of Christianity some eight centuries later, but that reformed Christianity stood in open rebellion against the reigning currents of the low Middle Ages.
If I were to take your side of the argument, I would put it this way: Islam’s spirit of equality bears at least some resemblance to that of communism, whose hymn (from the Paris Commune of 1870) proclaims, “Arise! ye prisoners of starvation/Arise! ye wretched of the earth.” Islam swept through the Indian subcontinent by converting the true wretched of the earth, namely the lowest castes of Hindu society. Like communism, it juxtaposed the austere virtues of the poor to the lascivious corruption of the Persian and Byzantine Empires.
That is where the similarity ends, however. Communism presupposed an urban proletariat estranged from traditional society, with no connection to the past and little stake in the present. The Communards of Paris sang, “No more tradition’s chains will bind us.” Marx believed that a New Man would emerge from this uprooted mass, guided by science rather than superstition. Marxism, to be sure, had religious characteristics, along with the trappings of an established church, dissenters, persecutions for heresy, and so forth. One might go further, along the lines of Paul Johnson (in Intellectuals) and argue that Marx, the son of a Rhineland rabbi, caricatured the prophets of his Hebrew ancestors. Similar things are said about Siegmund Freud, doubtless with some justification.
Far from being a new class, Marx’s proletariat was a passing phenomenon, not quite as ephemeral as the American cowboy on the open range, but most impermanent nevertheless. Rising skill levels brought middle-class living standards and middle-class habits to industrial workers, and geographical dispersion shifted the manufacturing base away from the place of its creation. Despite Marx’s hope, the proletariat never broke with traditional society to the point of embracing a synthetic new religion. Russia’s communists reverted to the habits of the czars, and exterminated the Bolshevik intellectuals (many of them Jewish) who sincerely believed in Marx’s synthetic religion.
Hitlerian fascism, imbued with race mysticism and larded with bits of the old pagan cults, might be characterized as a religion as well. Ba’athism sprouted from the Nazi trunk, as Marc Erikson showed in an ATol series entitled Islamism, fascism and terrorism (Nov 5, 2002). One might argue that Saddam Hussein’s effortless transmogrification from secular Ba’athist into Islamist betrays the underlying identity of the two belief-structures. Daniel Pipes argues that modern Islamism has less to do with the traditional religion of the past than with the totalitarian political movements of the 20th century.
There is something missing from these arguments, I believe, and that is the desperate nostalgia that draws educated Muslims back to Islamic radicalism. Mohammed Atta and his companions did not live in the West, so much as haunt it. The habits and longings of traditional society clung to them as they made their desultory way through engineering courses at European universities. To the Arabs and some of the peoples converted to Islam, the creative destruction of the West offers a great deal of destruction and very little creation. China and perhaps India will emerge as the beneficiaries of Pax Americana, while the Arab world (which, apart from oil, exports as much as Finland) will languish in backwardness and poverty. What does the West offer the Arabs but sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll? Consider today’s Japan, where teenage girls sell themselves to older men for pocket money, green hair is normal, and the adolescent suicide rate is the highest in history. The American dream has a nightmarish aspect as well, and that is what Muslim traditional society fears.
Communism offered a credible alternative only to the intellectual with the mental tools to delude himself. Islamism appeals to the educated man or woman uprooted from traditional life, unable and unwilling to merge into the melting pot of the West, fatally wistful for the certainties of the past. Of some clinical interest is Orhan Pamuk’s fictional poet “Ka,” whose inspiration revives after his visit to an Islamist circle in a provincial town (In defense of Turkish cigarettes, Aug 24, 2004). “Tradition’s chains shall bind us forever!” they sing, in contrast to the Communards of Paris.
As much as food or water, men require the promise of remembrance, the assurance that their lives have significance for those whom they remember, and for those who will remember them. Before the fall of the Soviet empire, the misery of its victims was unique. Clusters of men stood silent on the street corners of every city in Eastern Europe, empty-eyed and drunk. The truth is that after the purges of the 1930s, there were very few communists left in Russia, much less in Eastern Europe. The twisted idealists were dead, and parroting careerists ruled in their place. That is why communism gave up without firing a shot. The Russian military knew that the communist system could not provide it with the technological means to compete with the United States.
Outside of Western universities, no one had a passion for communism. But the passion for Islam has reawakened among millions of educated Arabs, Turks, Pakistanis and others who a generation ago would have considered themselves secular. That, I maintain, is why the challenge is so different. The passion for Islam is an existential matter.
I was intrigued to discover a summary of my August 14 essay (Islam: Religion or political ideology) on a religious Jewish website, www.amhaaretz.com. Because the summary might be clearer than my original, I reproduce it here:
Spengler observes: People search for immortality. The Jews are [or consider themselves – Spengler] an immortal nation, in accordance with God’s promise. Thus, Jews, as a people, have no worries about dying out. All other peoples, on the other hand, are susceptible to death.
Christianity was born during calamitous times, when the mortality of nations was clearly visible. The Christian term “original sin” means the inherent mortality of the Gentile nations. To combat this inherent mortality, Christianity offers individuals membership in a new nation, which they hope is immortal, and which they call “new Israel.” Individual Christians leave their dying nations of birth and come into this new nation. Thus, Christianity does not even attempt to save whole nations from their death, only the individuals who have decided that they want to live.
Islam, on the other hand, attempts to save its follower nations from their mortality by making a direct effort to save these nations as they are, in their traditional forms, rather than saving individuals while allowing the nations themselves to die (which is what Christianity attempts to do). Islamic nations feel threatened by the West because the West is change, change that means the death of traditional society. The only logical response under Islam is jihad – to fight the impending death tooth and nail, until the end.
In jihad, the fragile and threatened traditional society turns the tables on the cosmopolitan civilization that threatens to absorb it. “I will not be absorbed!” swears the jihadist, “but instead I will break you, and remake the world in the image of traditional society.” Existential desperation of this sort implies a frightening sort of nihilism. Communism styled itself the true vehicle for technological progress, and held out an optimistic vision of the future. Radical Islam extols the traditional life of the past and threatens to destroy the industrial base of the West. “My grandfather rode a camel,” one correspondent characterized the mindset of today’s Saudi radicals, “and I will ride a camel again.” This is a different sort of challenger to the West, in one respect less fearsome than the nuclear-armed Soviets, but in other ways less tractable.
In your response to Eponymous M, you claim: “World War II destroyed the intellectual centers of Jewish life of Europe, and nothing has emerged elsewhere to replace them” [Spengler responds to readers, Aug 17]. The problem is that World War II destroyed all the intellectual centers everywhere. The post-modern bohemian trash that passes for intellectualism these days offers no hope for a young Rosenzweig or Soloveitchik. They’d immediately be denied tenure and wind up either teaching Talmud or writing for Commentary magazine.
Dear Mr Berman,
Your point is well taken, and would be stronger if you were to add that some of the intellectual centers of Europe (the name Martin Heidegger springs to mind) helped to destroy themselves. But Rosenzweig write for Commentary, the house organ of the neo-conservatives? The journal’s intellectual flavor derives from the old Partisan Review, in which the critic Clement Greenberg taught the world to adulate the besotted, talentless paint-spatterer Jackson Pollack. The desire to be conservative and cutting-edge at the same time permeates the pages of Commentary, except that the avant-garde of the 1940s have become the old fuddy-duddies of today. In cultural matters, Commentary remains frozen in time, standing with High Modernism against Post-Modernism, progressive jazz against rap, Stravinsky against Boulez, and so forth. If Norman Podhoretz goes to hell, I suspect that his punishment will be to spend eternity with Commentary’s culture correspondent Terry Teachout.
Franz Rosenzweig soared above such concerns. No spirit more intrepid breathed the air of the 20th century. Although I disagree with him frequently, the abandon with which he threw himself at the philosophical demons of his time quickens my blood. That is intellectual heroism.
Irving Kristol (Commentary editor 1947-1952) once remarked that he had wanted to learn German in order to read Rosenzweig, but never found the time; his protege Norman Podhoretz (Commentary editor 1960-1995) evidently had less patience than Kristol, judging from his 2003 book The Prophets (Neo-conservatives in a religious bind, Nov 3, 2003). There Podhoretz remarks that Islam is less tolerant of idolatry than Judaism itself, quite the contrary of what Rosenzweig believed. Such blunders are common to polemicists who are thrashed by their own straw men. Kristol and Podhoretz are feuilletonistes, “men of letters” rather than scholars. To Kristol I give full credit for the most important political innovation of the past 30 years, namely that evangelical Christians and their concerns would change the balance of power in American politics. Leo Strauss, who played the gypsy Melchiades to the Macondo of American conservatism, influenced Kristol more than any other thinker, with unfortunate consequences.
No, Mr Berman, I do not believe the editors of Commentary could stomach another Rosenzweig, were the good Lord to send us such another. The high culture of the West is nearly inaccessible, like an ancient language decipherable only to a handful of sages. I know some of these, noble men and women who work in quiet, whose academic papers are read by a few hundred pairs of eyes. Perhaps after the storm has broken upon the West in earnest, another generation will dig into the past to explain the upheaval that so changed their lives.