“This book tells a story about the twentieth century, which has in it a lesson for the twenty-first—one that I would think unlikely to be learned, since it is a moral lesson, concerning the role of virtue in human existence, and we know about moral lessons.” Thus begins William Pfaff’s incisive and bracing study of the appeal, and destructive history, of utopian violence in the 20th (and now 21st) century.
The Bullet’s Song is organized around six key figures (including artists, soldiers, intellectuals, and propagandists) of the last century, each of whom embraced violence as a legitimate means either to personal transcendence or to redemptive revolution. They are T.E. Lawrence (the British officer who led the Arab revolt against the Ottomans), Ernst Junger (the German storm trooper and postwar scientist and author), Gabriele D’Annunzio (the Italian poet and playwright who took over the city of Fiume in 1919), Willi Munzenberg (the brilliant German propagandist who headed the Comintern during the 1920’s and 30’s), André Malraux (the French novelist and communist fellow traveler and later Gaullist), and Arthur Koestler (the expatriate Hungarian novelist who turned from Stalinism to militant anticommunism). Other men considered are the Italian artist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, whose futurism prefigured fascism, and Benito Mussolini, who fused nationalism and socialism into a powerful combination.
Pfaff believes World War I was the inaugurating event of the 20th century and the last, destructive, act of the 19th. It overturned governments, dissolved empires, engendered revolutions, disrupted societies, and blew apart the moral and legal frameworks that had governed Europe for centuries. Lawrence and Junger, by far the most admirable and ethical of the historical figures studied here, illustrate two important lessons to be learned from this upheaval. First, men will always be drawn to war, which offers adventure and escape, the solidarity of comradeship and collective endeavor, heightened experience, and the freedom to destroy. Second, the survival of civilization depends on the secure and lasting recovery of the 19th-century code of European chivalry, which imposed limits upon war, governing both personal and collective conduct. Given the allure of war, and mankind’s constant temptation to violence, Pfaff views the loss of this code as nothing less than catastrophic.
Lawrence and Junger remained loyal to the earlier tradition; neither approved of what rose in its place. Lawrence opposed his government’s policy to extend imperial control over the Arabs, and Junger, while initially supportive of National Socialism, turned against Hitler when he saw what he was doing to Germany, the Jews, and Europe. The rest of Pfaff’s subjects, however, reveled in the postwar disillusion and disorder and embraced various forms of violent political romanticism, based on “the most influential myth of modern Western political society”: that of “the total and redemptive transformation of human society through political means,” which now included totalitarian dictatorship and total war. Pfaff believes faith in utopian war was the most “disruptive force in international politics from 1918 to 1989,” adding ominously that that faith “has reappeared today in official and unofficial circles.” He is referring, of course, to the neoconservative Bush administration.
Pfaff believes that the sole great state to have survived the cataclysms of the century is now a global military hegemon driven by the same kind of utopian expectations and the same faith in redemptive violence that characterized earlier historical disruptions. He is openly contemptuous of Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that history is reaching its end with the universalization of American democratic capitalism. Pfaff regards Trotsky and Che Guevara as the founding fathers of neoconservatism. Guevara naively believed that the Cuban revolution could be replicated in other Latin countries. When he tried to instigate revolution in Bolivia, he was shot. He failed to realize that successful revolutions are the products of “indigenous forces” and cannot be orchestrated or imposed from outside. “The American project to deliver democracy to the ‘greater Middle East’ through politico-military intervention” is “founded on the identical fallacy.”
“Modern governments,” Pfaff argues, “led by the United States, increasingly act within the dimensions of a virtual reality their own propaganda has created,” (following the pattern established by Munzenberg’s Comintern), with the result that ideological constructs and meaningless abstractions “acquire a power over political imagination and discourse, and official decisions,” that is almost absolute. President Bush has repeatedly insisted that the United States battles evil itself in the global “War on Terror.” He has relentlessly dehumanized Palestinian resistance fighters, Iraqi insurgents, and Saudi hard-liners as nameless “terrorists” who have no other motivation than hatred of freedom, opposition to democracy, and jealousy of the United States. In such eschatological warfare, “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists,” in the words of the President. For Pfaff, such apocalyptic rhetoric evidences the descent of “American political thought toward the darkness of totalitarian conceptions and discourse, translating human conflict into metaphysical combat.” “[R]eal American conservatives,” he observes, are opposed to this kind of ideological warfare and among those “most anxious about the country’s future.”
Pfaff prefers an “anti-utopian tradition of thought” that accepts the “permanent realities of politics and history” and teaches us to “look for solutions . . . within experienced reality rather than [in] imagination about the future.” This tradition, he believes, can be traced to the Old Testament, as well as to Aristotle, and it finds modern champions in Milton, Tocqueville, Burke, Burckhardt, Acton, Niebuhr, Aron, Arendt, and Kennan, all of whom believed that art is more important to human civilization than politics and that the true test of a nation is not her military or economic power but her cultural achievements, her quality of life, and the ethical behavior of her people. These thinkers hold to a tragic, rather than an heroic or eschatological, view of history and to a realistic view of man’s predicament in a world in which evil is ineradicable; suffering and injustice, inescapable; and continuity, rather than progress, the story of man’s moral state.
Pfaff’s concluding lesson, that violence should be rejected as a means of social and political change, is so amply supported by argument and example as to seem unanswerable. Those who have sought to remove evil, suffering, and injustice from the world by means of war and revolution have only added to the sum of its villainy. As American artillery, tanks, and aircraft bombard the cities of Iraq, we do well to remember that “to sacrifice living human beings to make ‘a better world’ is an act of totalitarian morality and is also futile. There is no collective solution to the human condition.” Our most important duty, as Aristotle taught and Pfaff believes, is rather to cultivate virtue and all forms of excellence within ourselves.
[The Bullet’s Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia, by William Pfaff (New York: Simon & Schuster) 368 pp., $27.95]
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