“Skepticism is less reprehensible in inquiring years, and no crime in juvenile exercitation.”

—Joseph Glanville

In an intellectual climate characterized by conformity and wishful thinking, John Gray is among the most interesting and consequential thinkers contemporary Britain has to show.  From his office at the London School of Economics (where he is professor of European thought) comes a stream of bracing and aphoristic books that challenge all consensuses.  From the failings of socialism to the failings of the free market, the uses and misuses of religion, and the demerits of progress to the demerits of tradition, Gray has a highly individualistic (in fact, iconoclastic) perspective on just about every dilemma that vexes post-postmodernity.

His independence has not prevented him from pursuing a distinguished academic career or publishing influential books.  Among these are Isaiah Berlin (1995), False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998), Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002), Al Qaeda and What It Means To Be Modern (2003), and Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions (2004).

Always antisocialist, despite or because of his impoverished upbringing (his father was a shipyard worker), Professor Gray became an early Thatcherite, before he realized that the prime minister’s economic reforms were having devastating social effects.  In a 2007 interview with his friend Brian Appleyard, he put it this way: “[Mrs. Thatcher] produced a society that was almost the opposite of the one she intended.  The free market dissolved the very values she espoused.”  Since then, he has plowed a lonely furrow—a pioneering sower and reaper often several years in advance of more plodding husbandmen.

John Gray has now morphed into a generic Eeyore, pessimistic about the viability and desirability of every ideology, every initiative, and about human beings themselves.  If his different intellectual positions have a common denominator, it is a cool skepticism borne of honest examination of all premises.  Peter Wilby, editor of the New Statesman, has observed, “Any kind of ideology—the more he looks at it, the more he decides that it crumbles apart.”  An academic friend has noted, “Give him any collection of pigeons and he’ll set a cat among them.”

Gray’s literally “disillusioned” views have caused him to be disliked by progressives.  The Marxist professor Terry Eagleton, for instance, wrote petulantly in the Guardian in 2002,

We must just accept that progress is a myth, freedom a fantasy, selfhood a delusion, morality a kind of sickness, justice a mere matter of custom and illusion our natural condition.  Technology cannot be controlled, and human beings are entirely helpless.  Political tyrannies will be the norm for the future, if we have any future at all.  It isn’t the best motivation for getting out of bed.

Eagleton’s Grayphobia will not be assuaged by Black Mass, which examines such progressives as Ilya Ivanov, ordered by Stalin to look into the creation of “a new invincible human being.”  Ivanov sought to fulfill his task by crossbreeding humans and apes, in a disgusting experiment that sounds as if it were inspired by The Island of  Doctor Moreau.  The book also considers Mao’s attempts, during the “Great Leap Forward,” to exterminate the common sparrow for fear that it was consuming too much grain.  Having virtually succeeded in wiping out their sparrows, the Chinese were afflicted by plagues of insects—a crisis that led to a secret request for Russian sparrows to replenish the wild stock.  Gray also records that the French visionary Charles Fourier (1772-1837) apparently anticipated the emergence of brand-new species—“anti-lions” and “anti-whales”—which would exist solely to serve humans, and the eventual transmutation of the sea into lemonade.

Utopianism and apocalyptic religion are the topics of Black Mass.  These are not the same phenomena, but they are often related.  Even the most sanguinary and selective vision of apocalypse has behind and beyond it a wish for a placid eternity, a colorful, cartoonish landscape rather like that depicted in the Pennsylvanian primitive painter Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom.  “The myth of the End,” Gray writes, “has caused untold suffering and is now as dangerous as it has ever been.”  Gray wishes to vaccinate against such perfervid viruses and encourage a more modest way of looking at the world.  “At its best, politics is not a vehicle for universal projects but the art of responding to the flux of circumstances.”

The book’s tone is set by an appropriate quote from the French 18th-century conservative Joseph de Maistre:

THE SENATOR—This is an abyss into which it is better not to look.

THE COUNT—My friend, we are not free not to look.

Utopianism, the author argues, derives originally from Christianity but has now filtered through into avowedly anti-Christian intellectual and political movements.  Gray claims that “visions of Apocalypse have haunted Western life” ever since the earliest Christians (he doesn’t mention the Odinist Ragnarok), and that almost all political ideologies that have arisen in Europe and the European-derived world have at their hearts a belief that, sooner or later, there will come a “rapture”—achieved, for Christians, after a “final battle,” or, for secularists, after more education and other government expenditure.

With the decline of Christianity in the West has come not irreligion but a new belief system, in which God has been replaced by more earthly objects of veneration, such as the tinfoil idols of human rights and international law.  The crusading and authoritarian impulses that once propelled Christianity have not disappeared as Christian observance has waned in the West; rather, they have been desacralized and transferred.  Specifically, Gray is concerned to show that neoconservatism is as much a chiliastic and “progressive” ideology as certain brands of Christianity or Marxism.  For the author, “end-of-history” proponents—whether pastors who believe the world will end at 6:18 p.m. on November 21; Panglossian liberals; Pelagian free traders; or even communists or fascists—are really not all that far apart emotionally, nor in the effects of their teaching.

A basic failure to comprehend what human beings are really like and what can be achieved leads pipe-dreamers and (often) society into three fundamental errors: believing that people are plastic; that societies are perfectible; and that, some halcyon day, there can be an end to all problems, from the casting down of Satan and the inauguration of world peace, all the way down the bathetic scale to the elimination of drunk driving.

One of the most interesting and important aspects of Gray’s argument is his discussion of the legacy of Karl Marx—not communism, but the truly revolutionary ideology of free-trade capitalism.  This comes from a wider rereading of Marx by well-known intellectuals, such as Jacques Attali, who has noted that Marx “was strongly in favour of capitalism as progress towards liberty for mankind.  He was in favour of free markets.”  Talking with Will Self of the Independent in 2002, Gray spoke of “Thatcherism’s Bolshevik aspect, which was to shake up the whole of Britain quite fundamentally.”  In Black Mass, he underlines the point.  “Thatcher always had a firm belief in human progress, and if she had anything like a personal philosophy it was not Tory but Whig.”  Small wonder, then, that a great many former Trotskyists could so easily migrate toward their erstwhile opponents once the Cold War was over.

Gray dismisses virtually every postclassical Western tradition as unfit for purpose, the partial exceptions being Augustinian Christianity—which always distinguished between the “City of God” and the “City of Man”—and liberalism.  He can see little good in the world, no meaning in the universe, and finds evil running throughout Western modernity.  Gray avers that national socialism was an inevitable byproduct of Western thinking, not the aberration it is conveniently assumed to be.  Conventionally, national socialism is viewed as a neopagan, counter-Enlightenment, ultra-Romantic phenomenon, which it was—at least in part.  But it also harked back to Christian (particularly, he claims, Lutheran) traditions—antisemitism, apocalyptic enthusiasm—and certain strands of Enlightenment thinking, such as a belief in social and racial hierarchies, humanism, positivism, and the need for organic national communities.

Gray even blames the West for spawning its enemy du jour.  In Al Qae­da: What It Means To Be Modern, he opines that Islamists owe a conceptual debt to the West, because most important Islamists are or were educated in the West, or at least exposed to thinkers such as Nietzsche.  Gray thinks that the French Revolution provided Muslims with an original object lesson in terror and suggests the term “Islamo-Jacobinism” instead of “Islamofascism.”  This reading does not explain the Muslim fanatics over the 11 centuries between Muhammad’s birth and the Enlightenment.  It seems unlikely that the dervishes who cut down General Gordon were avid readers of Voltaire.

The trouble is, Gray is too analytical to be satisfied with anything, including non-Western traditions.  Once he has rejected everything he considers intellectually unsustainable, there is virtually nothing left standing on the field—except Gray himself, privately gratified perhaps by everyone else’s nakedness and discomfiture.  Yet John Gray does have his beliefs.  Brian Appleyard observed,

He believes in the liberal state, and believes it is worth defending, but does not do so with empty optimism or with any belief that it should attempt to impose its ways on others.  The best we can hope to do is protect, for a time, our cherished ways of life.

To Gray, it must be possible to construct a minimal universal moral framework.  Certain practices—such as the use of torture—would, he hopes, become universally unacceptable, but there would be no homogenizing pressure to make them so.  Gray regards a humble, nonaggressive liberalism as the best of all possible ideologies, for the worst of all possible worlds.

Yet this is surely more of the kind of wishful thinking he (rightly) deplores.  Gray mentions that “the project of universal democracy ended in the blood-soaked streets of Iraq . . . ”  Of course, that project has not ended and may at any time be reenacted in other “blood-soaked streets.”  Even if the United States does not attack Iran, outwardly reasonable yet inwardly frantic fantasists will continue their “nation-building” efforts in Iraq, Kosovo and Serbia, and any other place that excites the “international community.”

With his hatred of cant and scorn for sentiment, his awareness of human baseness, his dislike of collectivism, his belief in minimal government, and his delight in expressing unpopular ideas, John Gray could have become a conservative, and—like Francis Bacon—supported the right “because it made the best of a bad job.”  But Gray fears that cynicism about reform can become corrosive.

Even if a “plan of government” is unachievable, might not the attempt to achieve it make the world a better place? . . . To remain within the boundaries of what is believed to be practicable is to abandon hope.

And he dislikes the “nativism” of paleoconservatism.  To his mind,

Conservatism has ceased to be a coherent political project.  The links it requires with the past have been severed.  Any attempt to revive them can only be atavistic, and when conservative parties resist the temptation of reaction they become vehicles for a progressive agenda that easily degenerates into utopianism.

In other words, either conservatives are unpleasant or they are unconservative.  This is a sophisticated spin on a conventional prejudice.

Indeed, John Gray’s views have a vaguely leftist coloration.  Gray uses the word religion very loosely, to cover the gamut from “animal rights” to Zoroastrianism, though religions by definition have supernatural foci.  He is exercised by the persistence of “racism” and “homophobia” in society—loaded terms which he uses as objective descriptions.  (Gray does not regard the drive to abolish such deeply and widely held human feelings as a virulent variant of the utopianism he deplores in other contexts.)  He implies that a belief in innate human inequality is uniquely Western, though, in fact, it has been inherent in virtually all civilizations.  He does admit that racial prejudice is “immemorial” but distinguishes this from “racism” without really explaining the difference.

Gray describes Mrs. Thatcher’s approach to the European Union as an “irrational extremity”—an intemperate way to describe her model of independent-minded, but generally cooperative, nation-states.  He applauds Brussels for having “abandoned the belief that human life can be remade by force”; but does this really represent a new pragmatism, or simply a lack of fortitude?  He opines that “most of the population resemble a new proletariat, with high levels of income but nothing resembling a long term career”; but is job stability the sole definition of middle-class status?  And how exactly would his ideal of a gently chiding liberalism defend itself against more assertive forces, such as Islam or populist nationalism?

The basic and probably fatal weakness of Gray’s stripped-down philosophy is its sheer unattractiveness to 99.9 percent of real people.  He is aware of the problem: “Human beings will no more stop being religious than they will stop being sexual, playful or violent.”

Few will ever care to believe in a world where there is no purpose beyond securing the next meal, and no prospect other than to become compost for one’s own children.  There will always be a profound human need to believe in divine dispensations and specific plans, a desire for order, a wish not to be alone in a vast and hostile cosmos.  Even if men deny the literal existence of God, they still want to believe in something that they can achieve through faith and good works.  Absent God, post-Christians still believe in something better beyond the dissatisfying here and now, and so they give massively to famine-relief charities, adopt the cause of a free Tibet, and cheer on the dinghies that disrupt the Japanese whalers.  And the more unpleasant life becomes—elsewhere, Gray portends a future of resource wars, irreversible environmental degradation, and social collapse—the more men will be searching for (some sort of) faith.  Still, like the best of the Enlightenment thinkers, John Gray is invariably intrepid, honest, provocative, and open to new ideas.  He helps us to see old phenomena in a new and sometimes clearer light.   And his steady gaze into the abyss and unflinching logic make him an appealing antidote for an age drugged on dross. 


[Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopiaby John Gray (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 256 pp., $24.00]