Self-Deceptions of Empire

David Bromwich

  • The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr
    Chicago, 174 pp, £8.50, June 2008, ISBN 978 0 226 58398 3

‘Nations,’ wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, ‘will always find it more difficult than individuals to behold the beam that is in their own eye while they observe the mote that is in their brother’s eye; and individuals find it difficult enough.’ The last six words crystallise the thought. Niebuhr’s political writings are an exhortation – part history, part criticism, part sermon – to hold nations as closely as possible to the individual standard; to make them recognise that even when they oppose a great evil, what they themselves embody still includes much evil. All of the good that a nation can do by violence is contingent; the evil is real and palpable. ‘Nothing is intrinsically good,’ Niebuhr remarks, ‘except goodwill.’ Hence the need for the discipline of prayer; a wish for the purity of heart to sustain the attention necessary for good will. ‘God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other’: Niebuhr’s own most famous prayer imagines a life of patience and fortitude in which a great many satisfying actions have been refrained from, and strength has been shown in a fight against many evils, not all of them external.

He was born in 1892, in Wright City, Missouri, the son of a German pastor. His religious calling found him early – he was ordained in his mid-twenties – and he worked as a pastor in Detroit from 1915 to 1928, where he supported the efforts of Ford workers to organise. He helped to found the Fellowship of Socialist Christians and later served as an editor of the liberal magazine Christianity and Crisis. In the years of his prime, at Union Theological Seminary from 1928 to 1952 (when he suffered a stroke), Niebuhr was the pre-eminent American Protestant thinker. And thinker is the only possible word: his range comprised theology, political theory, foreign policy, and the tactics of social reform. His views were disseminated in pamphlets, columns, book reviews and polemics, in religious and academic publications but also in the Atlantic Monthly, the Nation and the New Republic. He achieved wide renown with his arguments against the Christian pacifism that had been the dominant strain in Protestant intellectual circles in the 1930s; a teacher of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and an associate of Paul Tillich, he worked with as single a mind as theirs to draw the German people away from Hitler’s party. By the spring of 1940, when the lend-lease policy for Britain was first discussed by President Roosevelt and his advisers, Niebuhr was a firm supporter of American intervention in the European war. But not even at the height of the war, in 1942 and 1943, did Niebuhr cast himself as a ‘war preacher’. No argument from necessity, no certainty that the other side was worse, could wipe clean the fact that war is legal murder. In 1946, he helped to draft, and signed, the statement by the Federal Council of Churches which judged that ‘the surprise bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are morally indefensible,’ and added:

Even though the use of the new weapon last August may well have shortened the war, the moral cost was too high. As the power that first used the atomic bomb under these circumstances, we have sinned grievously against the laws of God and against the people of Japan.

In a life of public acts and public speaking, Niebuhr gave a concrete sense to the work of seeing the beam that is in your own eye.

He did it characteristically by asking what we have in common with our unlucky brothers. How did the state, in Germany under Hitler and in Russia under Stalin, achieve so tight a hold on modern societies? What is the enchantment of such collective entities for people who are capable of thought but liable in critical times to lapse from citizens into subjects? A striking passage of Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) gave an answer Niebuhr would reiterate in his later writings:

Patriotism transmutes individual unselfishness into national egoism. Loyalty to the nation is a high form of altruism when compared with lesser loyalties and more parochial interests. It therefore becomes the vehicle of all the altruistic impulses and expresses itself, on occasion, with such fervour that the critical attitude of the individual toward the nation and its enterprises is almost completely destroyed. The unqualified character of this devotion is the very basis of the nation’s power and of the freedom to use the power without moral restraint. Thus the unselfishness of individuals makes for the selfishness of nations.

The analysis is not, as it is sometimes taken to be, a melancholy defence of the necessary selfishness of nations. It is a lament for the fall of man.

The projection of the generous instincts of self-sacrifice from the individual to a collective object is a psychological jump that contributes a new and unnecessary evil to the life of society – unnecessary because it goes beyond the minimum necessary evils of regulation, coercion and punishment. The allure of the gregarious satisfaction – as if a team by a victory did more than a person through love – makes a promise only fantasy can deliver, against which reason is helpless and conscience cannot find itself. In action on behalf of the group, I do for my kind (whether they need it or not) what I will not do for a stranger: an inversion of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Yet a large portion of the other-regarding energies which seem a fortunate condition of social life, could never be summoned without the substitution by which I donate my conscious will to a larger and unthinking not-me. The process, indeed, is close to the fictive transfer of properties that we come to know in allegories and in dreams; and there is no doubt, says Niebuhr, that this ‘combination of unselfishness and vicarious selfishness’ is the main element that goes to form the sentiment of nationalism. Vicarious selfishness. What a troubling thought lies buried in that phrase. And it has the temperamental accent of Niebuhr, striving against the flattery of the cheap comfort.

In Gandhi alone among modern thinkers, Niebuhr detected a possible method for averting the transfer of unselfish sentiments to the state and the consequent downward sublimation of fellow-feeling into national loyalty. Non-violence, taken as a principle, may counteract the most pernicious of collective fictions, because it robs enmity of its sting. By exposure to the tactic and to the underlying principle of non-violence, the oppressor is made to see his own actions in a starker light. Also, Niebuhr observes, the method of non-violence works to ‘rob the opponent of the moral conceit by which he identifies his interests with the peace and order of society’. Who is disturbing the peace when a policeman assaults with a club a man and a woman standing quietly in a boycott line? Niebuhr speculated in 1932 that ‘the emancipation of the Negro race in America probably waits upon the adequate development of this kind of social and political strategy.’ As it fell out, many of the Civil Rights leaders who worked closely with Martin Luther King had been trained by Niebuhr’s students, or were conversant with his thinking. King’s great ‘Letter from Birmingham City Jail’ would mention Niebuhr as a source of the precept that ‘groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.’

For King himself, according to his biographer David Garrow, Moral Man and Immoral Society was an early and crucial influence. It turned him away from the social-gospel Christianity which looked on war as a unique enemy of progress; Niebuhr, by contrast, taught that war was only one manifestation of that selfishness by which the more benevolent instincts are narrowed and misprised. Yet – and the reservation is typical – much as Niebuhr admired Gandhi for the deliberateness of his campaign to lift the oppression of an empire without reliance on cruelty or revenge, he took care to add that non-violent resistance was often itself a case of the lesser evil. Some of its acts of willing self-sacrifice called for the sacrifice of unasked persons elsewhere: ‘Gandhi’s boycott of British cotton results in the undernourishment of children in Manchester . . . It is impossible to coerce a group without damaging both life and property and without imperilling the interests of the innocent with those of the guilty.’

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