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Power and the Idealists, Or, The Passion of Joschka Fischer and Its Aftermath, by Paul Berman

reviewed by Geoffrey Kurtz


Revolutions are not child’s play, nor are they academic debates in which only vanities are hurt in furious clashes, nor literary jousts wherein only ink is spilled profusely. Revolution means war, and that implies the destruction of men and things.


—Mikhail Bakunin, quoted in Paul Berman, Quotations from the Anarchists (1972)



here are two reasons to read Paul Berman's latest book. The first is that Berman is a fine storyteller, an expert at weaving events into narrative, at picking up and putting down threads in patterns that might perplex the myopic vision of specialists but that will please those he calls “readers of literature, who judge by smell and feel.” This is a good way to write history, although not the only good way, and Berman does it as well as anyone today. The second reason to read Berman is that people on the left who oppose President Bush's foreign policy need to understand the thinking of our estranged cousins, the liberal hawks.

Power and the Idealists begins in 2001 with the scandal that erupted when the German magazine Stern published old photos of Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer as a street-fighting New Left militant. Berman leads us from that event back to 1968 and then forward again to what he sees as the Bush administration's tragic fumbling of the Iraq War. He invites us to read this book as a sequel to his 1996 work A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968, in which he cast the anti-Communist revolutions of 1989 as the unexpected fulfillment of the revolutions of 1968. Power and the Idealists presents the Iraq War as the latest act in the long unfolding drama of ‘68er radicalism.

The key to the appeal of Berman's writing is that he writes history without time: everything feels contemporaneous and thus immediate. People and events unfold outward from any given point in webs of relationships, within and across calendar-lines, in a degrees-of-separation whirl where no element of the past century’s political history is more than a few steps apart from any other. For instance, consider this sequence: Iran is an Islamist theocracy that bears resemblance to the fascisms of the 1930s; Azar Nafisi writes about Iran; Azar Nafisi is a ‘68er; Joschka Fischer is also a ‘68er; Fischer’s politics in the 1960s were a kind of rebellion against Germany’s fascist past. And so we're back to 1938, a 1938 that contains echoes, as it were, of Germany in 1968 and Iran in 1979. It is no surprise, then, that Power and the Idealists shines when Berman is tracing connections but that Berman’s argument crumples when distinctions need to be drawn.

Power and the Idealists starts and ends with Joschka Fischer, and Fischer makes appearances in the middle of the story as well, but he is not the main character of this book so much as a figure whose recurrence helps Berman's story remain a fabric and not a tangle. Starting with Fischer’s own role in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Berman guides us quickly through the would-be-revolutionary denouement of the New Left. As Berman portrays them, the New Left militants were “a young people's movement motivated by fear.” They feared Europe's fascist past and the West's imperial and one-dimensional present, but they feared something else as well, something more personal, more interior. Two-thirds of the way through Power and the Idealists, we get our clearest sense of what this something else was as we listen in on a conversation between Daniel (“Danny the Red”) Cohn-Bendit and Bernard Kouchner, two former 1968 militants, one now a Green Member of the European Parliament and one a prominent administrator of NGO and UN humanitarian efforts. Cohn-Bendit and Kouchner, Berman relates, both grew up in the shadow of the Second World War and the legacy of the Resistance, obsessed with the same questions:

To wit, what would you have done, in France under the German occupation? In 1943, say—before it was obvious that D-Day was coming to the rescue. Would you have risked your neck and joined the Resistance? Or would you have kept your head down—perhaps even collaborated with the occupation? Would you have been a résistant? Or a collabo?

The fear behind the politics of 1968, as Berman tells the story, was at bottom a moral self-doubt. The ‘68ers were, Berman writes, “résistants who had nothing to resist,” beset by what he called in A Tale of Two Utopias an “illegitimacy complex,” forever bound to the moral standard set by the Resistance, but never able to know what they would have done during the occupation.

Fear—not so much of fascism as of being insufficiently committed to resisting fascism—inspired the ‘68er fascination with violence, then, since extreme moral tests demand extreme commitment, and violence signifies an extreme commitment. At first, New Left violence was violence by proxy: ‘68ers found their heroes in Third World dictators and would-be dictators like Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara. Later, groups like West Germany's Red Army Fraction (not “Faction,” as Berman takes pains to explain) or the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground in the US turned to violent acts of their own.

Only a few New Leftists engaged in terrorist violence, but quite a few more vaguely sympathized with them, and some members of these wider circles thought that it made sense at least to hit back when the police started roughing you up. These distinctions were not always clear, especially to outsiders. So, when Stern published old photos of Fischer striking a policeman three decades earlier, the story was picked up throughout the European mass media, and the result was what one French journalist called “the trial of the generation of 1968.” Given Berman's subtitle, though, he seems to see these events as a story of crucifixion and resurrection. This “trial”, he writes, revealed that the New Left’s decline had been followed by a quiet transformation. Since 1968, “large numbers of veterans of the New Left” found that they had to, and could, “put aside matters of mere philosophy or attitude and adopt actual positions and accept the political consequences.” This shift toward political responsibility began slowly in the 1970s but really flowered in the 1990s, especially in response to ethnic violence in the Balkans. If the NATO air strikes on Serbia were “the ‘68ers’ war,” then a deep change would seem to have taken place: the New Left, after all, held opposition to the US war in Vietnam as one of its central articles. However, if the heart of the New Left was the desire to be a résistant rather than a collabo, this evolution makes sense: the New Left, Berman argues, had matured into a “liberal anti-totalitarianism.” For Berman, who notes his own roots in the anarchisant wing of the New Left, this evolution is a vindication: the best of the ‘68er Maoists and Frankfurt School neo-Marxists, he tells us, have since come around to a politics that takes liberty as its definitive norm, as they should have done all along.

The story of this evolution, this slow move toward a new way of expressing a consistent anti-fascist impulse, this unfolding of the New Left's mislaid potential, carries Berman from Germany to France, from Western Europe to Eastern, from Europe to the Americas, and back across the Atlantic to the Middle East as well. Berman traces the political and intellectual careers of several ‘68ers, but the central figure of his story is Bernard Kouchner. A French red diaper baby who was turned down when he volunteered his services to revolutionary Cuba in the early 1960s, Kouchner followed Che another way: by becoming a doctor. After serving with the Red Cross in Biafra, he founded Doctors Without Borders, an organization whose bold direct-action humanitarianism represented, Berman suggests, a “Guevarism of the rights of man.”

The pivotal incident in Power and the Idealists comes when Kouchner turns his attention to the Vietnamese boat people, desperate refugees from Communism precariously afloat in the South China Sea in 1979. By “trolling in the sea for the purpose of rescuing the enemies of the People's Republic,” Kouchner's rescue mission raised fundamental questions about sovereignty and anti-Communism. Humanitarian principles, Kouchner proposed, trumped left fears that opposition to Communist regimes might prove objectively pro-imperialist, and legal claims of sovereignty were no match for the “higher right” of humanitarianism. If this new form of résistant politics was persuasive, though, it raised new questions:

For if Kouchner was doing a good thing by sailing the seas of East Asia in a rented ship with six doctors (followed by a few other ships, after a while), why stop there? Why not launch rescue missions on a much larger scale, with more than a rented boat?…If a rented ship from France was a good idea, the Sixth Fleet was a better idea. This logic was undeniable. At least, Kouchner seemed to think so.

Berman seems to think so too, and he plays out Kouchner's logic: if Kouchner's Boat for Vietnam was a good idea, and if the Sixth Fleet is like the Boat for Vietnam, only better, and if Baathism is one of the contemporary guises of fascism, then the résistant commitment stretches in a clear if not straight line from the French Resistance itself to New Left militance to support for the Iraq War. For Berman, the Iraq War is the form that the politics of 1968 take when they grow up and become a foreign policy.

This is where Berman’s argument falls apart. Berman seems to be playing a shell game with himself in which the distinction between similar and same disappears in the shuffle. Fighting fascism is like fighting hunger and disease; European fascism is like Baathism and Baathism is like Islamism; Kouchner's Boat for Vietnam is like the US Navy: somehow, the differences between these terms come to seem irrelevant, and the Iraq War ends up as a moral synthesis of the Resistance, the movement against the Vietnam War, New Left alternative kindergartens, and Doctors Without Borders. Once Berman reaches this conclusion, he trips over himself in his eagerness to defend the war. His deftness fails him as he strains to shore up the claims that promoting democracy was central to the Bush administration's Iraq policy all along, that anyway the other reasons for the war were not as disingenuous as they appeared (or appear), that the only problem with the war was bumbling incompetence, that the invasion could easily have had vastly different results. When the Iraq War the Bush administration fights turns out not to be the same as the Iraq War Berman wants, he seems surprised. Many readers will recognize their own responses to Berman’s case for the war in Joschka Fischer’s reply to Donald Rumsfeld's: “Excuse me, I'm not convinced.

To enumerate the slips in Berman's logic would be boring; the slips are there, and are easy enough to identify. Berman has invited us to judge Power and the Idealists by the standards of literature, though, to judge it “by smell and feel.” It is hard to ignore the rotten odor: something is wrong here, and the problem is not just with Berman's logical slipperiness but, more importantly, with his moral hastiness, his stumbling hurry to enlist—figuratively, at least—in The Cause. Why the rush?

Berman does not tell us the answer to this question. He tells us, though, what Bernard Kouchner thought of Joschka Fischer's refusal to support the Iraq War. Kouchner noted to Cohn-Bendit that Fischer had long ago traded in the blue jeans he first wore to Parliament for more formal clothes. Perhaps, Kouchner speculated, Fischer “began to lose his way with his three-piece suit.” Ensconced in a world of diplomats and bureaucrats, Fischer had become too wedded to consensus, dialog, caution. Fischer's failing, Berman invites us to conclude, was not that he remained faithful to the politics of 1968, but that he broke that faith: we could say that he set his street-fighting days behind him just when Berman thinks street-fighting of another sort is called for.

The most interesting way to read Berman might be to take him at his word. What if the liberal hawks’ case for the Iraq War really is the contemporary guise of the politics of 1968? A politics of fear, a fascination with violence (or at least violence by proxy), an urgent need to prove oneself a résistant: what if these are themes that did not disappear from our politics when the dust settled after the Chicago convention? Kouchner's complaint about Fischer's three-piece suit sounds like what we might have expected Weather Underground sympathizers to say about the “clean for Gene” kids. Do the resemblances end there? Berman tells us about how the violent focos at the New Left's fringe received

the active and even enthusiastic support of a not-so-small number of people, plus the passive support of far larger numbers, the leftists who would never have endorsed a program of violence and who wanted nothing to do with murders, but who would have said that, even so, the Red Army Fraction did have reason to despise bourgeois society.

It is easy to think of terms we could substitute for “Red Army Fraction” and “bourgeois” to give the passage a contemporary punch.

Berman asks us to be résistants rather than collabos, and he is surely right. He does not help us much, though, in figuring out when the résistant question is the right one to ask. Berman tells us that Fischer, in rejecting the Iraq War, wanted instead to pursue “a subtle and complicated fight against the new totalitarianism.” Berman finds this insufficiently résistant, but in rejecting Fischer’s formulation, he seems to forget his own best arguments. Just before the Iraq War began, Berman argued in Terror and Liberalism for a response to Islamist neo-fascism that would draw inspiration from the left-wing anti-communism of the late 1940s. Berman cited Léon Blum’s call for a democratic socialist “Third Force,” a “free-lance, left-wing internationalism, without government support” that would “out-compete Communism on the left” in Western Europe. Today’s anti-terrorist Third Force, Berman wrote, should be “neither realist nor pacifist—a Third Force devoted to a politics of human rights and especially women’s rights…a politics of ethnic and religious tolerance …a  politics of secular education, of pluralism and law…a politics to fight against poverty and oppression; a politics of authentic solidarity for the Muslim world.” A “war on terror,” thus, would need to be “partly military but ultimately intellectual, a war of ideas.” In Power and the Idealists, Berman sweeps those ideas aside in favor of blunt militarism, but somewhere in that set of concepts lies the core of a liberal (and social democratic) anti-totalitarianism that is not so indebted to the moral panic of 1968. That calmer and more patient anti-totalitarianism might not help us convince ourselves that we would have been fearless résistants if we had been part of the generation of 1938. That is all right, though: we are not the generation of 1938, despite the ugly similarities between that time and ours. Berman reminds us that idealists need to be concerned with power; we need to think a bit harder, now, about what kinds of power can serve our ideals.


Logos 5.1 - winter 2006
© Logosonline 2006