Few people know the power of evil ideas more intimately than Zeev Sternhell, the eminent Israeli political scientist. As a child, Sternhell, who was born in Poland in 1935, saw his mother killed in the Holocaust. He was sheltered by Polish Catholics, and survived the war thanks to false Aryan identity papers. After 1945 he lived with relatives in France, then emigrated to Israel in 1951. His long scholarly career has been dedicated to tracing the intellectual origins of fascism: his best-known and most original book, Neither Right Nor Left, showed how progressive and reactionary radicalisms mixed together, with poisonous consequences, in European intellectual life between the wars. In addition to his renown as a scholar—he is a longtime professor at the Hebrew University, and a winner of the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor—Sternhell is known in Israel as a committed left-wing Zionist and a prominent dove. It was on account of his political views that, in 2008, a fanatical West Bank settler (he is now on trial) attempted to assassinate Sternhell with a pipe bomb—thus demonstrating that the evils of fanaticism and chauvinism can attack the Jewish people from within as well as from the outside.
It makes sense, then, that when Sternhell comes to consider what he calls “the anti-Enlightenment tradition," he should write with something more than detached intellectual curiosity. Even the title of the book has a polemical edge. Ordinarily, when historians of ideas talk about conservative and nationalist thinkers such as Burke and Herder—eighteenth-century figures who opposed the rationalist and universalist ideas of their age—they speak of the “counter-Enlightenment.” The term was popularized by Isaiah Berlin, a rationalist who explored deeply the works of the Enlightenment’s critics and suggested that the “counter-Enlightenment” was a useful corrective to some of the excesses of the tradition of Voltaire and Rousseau, or at least a potential resource for combating the Enlightenment’s hubris.
For Sternhell, who makes Berlin in particular a target of stinging criticism, there is nothing worth taking from that alternative tradition. For Sternhell, this is a struggle between darkness and light. As his title suggests, he sees not a “counter” to the Enlightenment but simply an anti-Enlightenment, whose representatives from Burke to Berlin have been intent on destroying the values of freedom, justice, and reason. (The cover design of Sternhell’s book, which puts the “anti” in big black Gothic letters, ominously captures the author’s intent.) “If the French Enlightenment…produced the great intellectual revolution of rationalist modernity,” Sternhell writes, the anti-Enlightenment sponsored a different modernity, one that “revolted against rationalism, the autonomy of the individual, and all that unites people: their condition as rational beings with natural rights.”
This “second modernity,” as he calls it, “was based on all that differentiates and divides people—history, culture, language.” And this was no academic debate, no matter how recondite some of the texts Sternhell analyzes might seem. Starting with Burke and Herder, he traces the intellectual lineage of the anti-Enlightenment directly to figures such as Charles Maurras, the godfather of French fascism, and Oswald Spengler, whose influential book The Decline of the West helped to undermine Weimar Germany’s democracy. In the early twentieth century, Sterhnell writes, the anti-Enlightenment “came down into the street,” with catastrophic results for the world, and for the Jews in particular.
Sternhell’s book is organized around major themes in anti-Enlightenment thought. There are chapters devoted to “The Revolt against Reason and Natural Rights,” “The Intellectual Foundations of Nationalism,” and “The Law of Inequality and the War on Democracy.” But Sternhell returns again and again to the same hated figures and ideas, and so his book reads less like an intellectual history than like a torrential indictment. The chief figures in the dock are Burke, who opposed the French Revolution and exalted the bonds of tradition, and Herder, who saw the French love of abstract ideas as a threat to the German genius for instinct and poetry. They are followed by the Scottish conservative Thomas Carlyle, the French historians Ernest Renan and Hippolyte Taine, the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, Maurras, Spengler, and a few others, all of them foes of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the idea of universal reason.
Reading Sternhell’s unrelentingly hostile account of these thinkers leaves no doubt—but of course we already knew this—that they promoted many repugnant and dangerous ideas. They taught that human beings cannot be trusted to govern their own destinies; that only force can compel the herd of men to behave themselves; that nations are essentially divided by culture and language, and so can never truly understand one another; that progress in education and democracy meant the decline of the spiritual and social order which made the Middle Ages, in their view, the high point of human history. A world governed on anti-Enlightenment principles would be infinitely worse than a world governed on the principles of Voltaire and Diderot.
What is missing from Sternhell’s book is any sense of why the anti-Enlightenment flourished in the first place, and how it produced thinkers of the stature of Burke and Herder. Sternhell takes for granted that the Enlightenment—or his preferred version of it—is mankind’s only hope, so that its opponents cannot seem anything other than perverse and malevolent. Yet it was not just these thinkers who felt that the advance of science and liberalism was making the world less happy. The same intuition can be found in almost all the literature of the nineteenth century, from Wordsworth to Dostoevsky, and sometimes even in Mill, the greatest liberal of all. And it was not just conservatives such as Carlyle who attacked the dehumanizing effects of modern life. Liberals and socialists such as Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and William Morris all felt the same way. When such thinkers looked back to a more organic and religious past, it was not because they were enemies of the human spirit, but because they felt that the spirit was starving in modern conditions. Traditionalism is not always the same as authoritarianism.
Sternhell never really engages this critique of the Enlightenment and its legacy. He simply dismisses it out of hand, leaving the reader to wonder why some of the arguments of Burke and Herder sound so reasonable. On the subject of progress, for instance, Sternhell quotes Kant with implicit approval: “Earlier generations seem to perform their laborious tasks only for the sake of the after ones, so as to prepare for them a further stage from which they can raise still higher the structure intended by nature.” This vision of perpetual progress is noble and appealing; but surely it is not an accurate picture of how history actually proceeds. Worse, it also suggests that our lives are simply tools for building the future, an idea that, in the hands of Stalinism, resulted in a dogma of historical necessity for which no individual life in the present had any intrinsic value. Obviously Kant is not a forefather of Stalin, for whom human beings were means and not ends; but ideas and implications and influence travel in strange ways. And against this view—captured in the old communist slogan that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs”—there appears to be a tonic wisdom in Herder’s belief that “no individual has the right to believe that he exists for the sake of another individual, or for the sake of posterity.”
At the same time, Sternhell’s belief in the power of ideas means that he offers little sense of how political, economic, and social changes affected the way ideas were received and transformed. He blasts Renan, for example, for writing that “the masses only have the right to govern if they know better than anyone else what is best,” a frankly elitist and anti-democratic notion. But as Sternhell notes, Renan wrote this in reaction to the demise of the Second Republic in France, when the majority of the people elected Napoleon’s corrupt, ineffectual nephew as president and then applauded his decision to abolish democracy and become emperor. It was this coup that, Renan said, “made me disgusted with the people,” and it was a feeling shared by many liberals at the time. Even Mill opposed universal suffrage.
Sternhell’s exclusive focus on ideas also means that, at times, he seems to grant thinkers an incredible degree of power over history. In his epilogue, he attacks the German historian Ernst Nolte, who became notorious in the 1980s for excusing Nazism as a mere defensive reaction against Communism. In Sternhell’s words, Nolte was guilty of “explaining the European disaster not by the long war against the Franco-Kantian Enlightenment but by 1914 and 1917”—that is, by World War I and the Russian Revolution. Yet isn’t it obviously true that 1914 and 1917 were responsible, even primarily responsible, for the rise of Nazism? If not, why is it that the nationalist ideas of Herder did not produce Nazism at the time of Napoleon? The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition certainly reminds us that ideas have consequences; but they are not the only things that have consequences.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. This piece originally appeared in Tablet Magazine.
©2010, Tablet Magazine