Book Of The Week: Moral Clarity, By Susan Neiman

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The Independent Culture

Moral clarity is something that everyone claims to admire, so it is always useful to find out what they mean by it. In the case of Susan Neiman, one need not look very far. In the first chapter of her "guide for grown-up idealists", discussing the crimes of the last century, she writes: "Arbitrary imprisonment, famine, and murder were not new, though the scale seen in the 20th century was. What was devastating about Soviet crimes was that they were committed in the name of principles most of us hold dear. The rebuttal to this is easy enough: Theoretically speaking, Stalin's Gulags no more undermined the legitimacy of socialist ideals than the Inquisition undermined Christian ones."

This passage, and many others like it dotted throughout the book, give the reader a pretty good idea of how Neiman understands clarity in moral thinking. She is clear that morality is a matter of having ideals, and no less clear about which ideals we are obliged to serve. "Most of us", she writes, cherish the ideals of the former Soviet Union." If post-communist Russians prefer to forget the Soviet era, the explanation is "easy enough": the Soviet state did not live up to the hopes on which it was founded.

The possibility that most Russians - along with most people in communist regimes everywhere - may never have shared these hopes does not occur to her. The 19th-century Russian anarchist Bakunin shrewdly defined Marx's ideal society as a pedantocracy, and Lenin's dreary collectivist utopia may be a pedant's idea of heaven.

But for the mass of humankind - and on this point I count myself with the human majority - a world in which practically every aspect of life is yoked to a vision of progress is just a repulsive fantasy. The actuality, with all its horrors, is preferable.

The comprehensive failure of the Soviet experiment was in fact its only redeeming feature. This is something of a problem for Neiman for, despite the tens of millions it killed, she undoubtedly views communism as a progressive cause. But it is not a problem that detains her for very long, for the solution is straightforward: we must all simply try harder.

From time to time, no doubt, there may be tricky choices to be made; but Neiman is clear that anyone who does not share her ideals is obtuse, confused or else wicked. The ideals are those of the Enlightenment - or a version of it, which she believes is quintessentially American. "From its very beginning," she writes, "the United States was held to be Enlightenment made tangible. Europe may have invented the Enlightenment, but America was in a position to realize it."

Sadly, the waters of the American Enlightenment have become muddied. A sinister clique of Hobbesian realists came to power in the Bush era, and plunged the US into the Iraq war. Happily, Obama is now in the White House, and America can once again lead the world towards the light.

Why any American disciple of Hobbes would support an attack on Iraq, which posed no security threat to the US, Neiman does not explain. Nor does her garbled version of events recount how liberal interventionists were pivotal in securing support for the neo-con adventure.

Instead, she gives the reader a comic-book history of ideas, in which the forces of Enlightenment are struggling valiantly with the intellectual propagators of darkness - a devilish alliance of postmodernists, relativists and reactionaries. Hobbes is a major villain in this morality tale, along with Max Horkheimer, Isaiah Berlin and even (in a walk-on role) myself.

If this is intellectual history, it is done manga-style. Though Neiman may not be aware of it, Hobbes is generally, and correctly, viewed as an early Enlightenment thinker. No one who has studied his writings for more than five minutes could think of him as a relativist: one of the worst vices in Neiman's moral lexicon.

At the same time, no one who has even a smattering of historical knowledge could fail to be aware that the Enlightenment contains many of the seeds of contemporary relativism. It was the early 18th-century philosophe Montesquieu who introduced the idea that human values vary with geography, climate and culture, beginning an Enlightenment tradition of relativism that Karl Mannheim and Richard Rorty continued to the present day.

Neiman's picture of the critics of the Enlightenment is just as cartoonish. According to her, they have claimed that "the Enlightenment held human nature to be perfect and human progress to be inevitable, reason and science to be infallible, faith to be a worn-out answer to the questions of the past, and technology to a solution to all the problems of the future." When one thinks of critics of the Enlightenment, figures such as Pascal, de Maistre, Herder, Burke, Hamann, Coleridge, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and Oakeshott spring to mind.

They are an extremely mixed bunch; but not one of these Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, or their more recent counterparts, advanced any of the banalities that Neiman lists. Their objections were somewhat more subtle, which may be why Neiman discusses most of these thinkers only in passing, if at all. The same is true of Sigmund Freud, who is barely mentioned despite being by far the most impressive 20th-century Enlightenment thinker.

The exclusion of Freud from Neiman's narrative is telling, for it gives a clue to the genre in which she is writing. Moral Clarity is not an exercise in the history of ideas, however ill-informed. It is a liberal version of agitprop, in which inconvenient facts are lost in fog of turgid rhetoric.

As an example, readers will search in vain for any discussion of Francis Galton, the 19th-century British founder of modern psychology and eugenicist whose writings on "the comparative worth of different races" helped give legitimacy to "scientific racism" between the two world wars.

No one, no matter how historically illiterate, could argue that Galton was a Counter-Enlightenment thinker. Reminding us of the seamy side of the Enlightenment and the fact that the progressive intelligentsia has often been racist, he is an awkward presence in Neiman's struggle between darkness and light. So, like Trotsky in Soviet photographs, Galton has been airbrushed from history. If Freud has also been edited out of Neiman's tale, it is because he too is an uncomfortable figure, though in a different way. A genuine and intrepid rationalist, the founder of psychoanalysis had nothing but contempt for edifying cant. It is not hard to imagine what he would have made of Moral Clarity, chicken soup for the progressive soul.

John Gray's latest book is 'Gray's Anatomy: selected writings' (Allen Lane)

The Age of Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was an 18th century movementthat marked a radical shift from an unquestioned belief in religious authority to faith in rational discourse and scientific enquiry. Thinkers who valued empiricism above religious doctrine such as David Hume (opposite), John Locke and the French philosopher Rene Decartes, who grappled with notions of individual freedom and equality, became key proponents of the movement, and their theories are said to have led to the birth of Modernism.