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November 25, 2007

Gray Dawn

At a certain point while working on my review of Black Mass, the little light bulb went off over my head and I thought: "The best way of characterizing John Gray's outlook would be to say that it's like Isaiah Berlin in a really bad mood."

Quite right -- and yet not something I had room to unpack, since the word count assigned for the piece was strict. The final version comes to exactly one page of the New York Times Book Review, and is accompanied by a rather striking little piece of artwork:

mclemee190.jpg

I might have to write about Gray again. His understanding of Marx and Marxism is feeble indeed, which is probably a function of knowing it at second or third hand, via Sir Isaiah.

There are some real howlers in the book, such as when Gray quotes Lenin saying, "The combination of the Russian revolutionary sweep with American efficiency is the essence of Leninism." Nobody with any real background in the history would fall for the idea of Lenin talking about "Leninism." That alone is a dead giveaway that the quotation is inaccurate.

But it's really just the tip of the iceberg. Treating Marx as a figure of the Counter-Enlightenment and opposed to individualism and trade? Having him be deeply influenced by the Saint-Simonians? Sheesh. Credible to the credulous but not to anybody who knows the texts.

Again, something I had to bracket, for reasons of space -- and in any case a matter deserving of its own essay. I got a lot out of Gray's book Enlightenment's Wake and have quite a bit to say about Straw Dogs that would require a real detour to get into.

For his own sake, though, I hope Gray never writes about Marx again -- or at least not until he's read some better cribs than he's been relying on. George Lichtheim or Leszek Kolakowski would probably have samed him some embarrassment.

(crossposted from Cliopatria)

Posted by smclemee at November 25, 2007 11:38 AM

COMMENTS

His understanding of Marx and Marxism is feeble indeed, which is probably a function of knowing it at second or third hand, via Sir Isaiah.

[....] Credible to the credulous but not to anybody who knows the texts.

Is this vice in Gray's work limited to Marx?

Posted by: Shane Taylor at November 25, 2007 1:01 PM

Good question. I'm not as prepared to come to my own judgment regarding some of it. Experts seem to consider his monograph on Hayek to be one of the best around (so Hayek himself thought) and I've heard good things about his book on Berlin.

His discussion of American neoconservatism is much better than most of what gets said by pundits. Tthe standard there is incredibly low, but Gray's discussion of it is better informed, for the most part, than the hearsay making the rounds over the past few years. (I think I said that in the review.)

But he's a lumper and not a splitter -- someone who pushes unrelated sets of political and philosophical thought into extremely broad categories, rather than paying attention to distinctions. This can make for sloppiness. It doesn't have to do so, of course, and there are intellectual vices that go with splitting things too fine.

Gray can be pretty sharp about zeroing in on specific points where varieties of conservative thought are differentiated. I tend to think of Gray as being a lot like Oakshott, for example, but he's made arguments about how the two of them are quite distinct. No doubt he's right about that, and I'd look like an idiot if I lumped Gray in with five other conservative thinkers who don't really resemble each other that much. That's pretty much what Gray does with wide swathes of intellectual history, though.

He's a bit like some Marxists I've known who figure out what their analysis on a subject is, then go to the library to find references to prove it. Why bother reading things that don't fit the analysis? Why think about them? How indulgent!

Gray is not that dogmatic, or pathetic, by any means. But I do get a sense of someone who has worked out a big picture and isn't much concerned with anything but filling in the schema.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at November 25, 2007 1:44 PM

Yes, you did mention Gray's better than average handling of Leo Strauss and neoconservates in the review. What sets Gray's discussion above the rest?

Posted by: Shane Taylor at November 25, 2007 3:14 PM

Usually the discussion is hearsay -- people who've never read a word of Strauss turning a vague notion that he advocated deception into the conspiratorial "key" to understanding neocon policy. For of course nobody in the field of foreign policy would lie without a sophisticated theory justifying it. Right?

Instead of that sort of nonsense, he discusses how the Straussian interest in reading gaps and silences in philosophical texts helped foster a curious approach to intelligence work apropos the Soviet arms buildup in the 1960s and '70s -- a tendency to think that the absence of any evidence that a certain kind of technology was being developed was, in fact, proof that it actually was being developed.

It's just much smarter about the relationship between ideas and policy -- how one shapes the other -- than the garbage making the rounds a few years ago, when journalists where writing headlines about "the Straussian cabal" and then guessing about how it must work.

The same people were going on and on about how the neocons used to be Trotskyists hence the Bush doctrine was an application of "the theory of permanent revolution." They had no idea what the latter actually was, and assumed that it meant you...uh... have a revolution all the time? Something like that. Well, not quite, but it was much easier to make a joke about "Bush's Bad Case of the Trots" and call it a day.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at November 25, 2007 6:51 PM

Such as neoconservative Team B shtick in the Cold War of arguing that the lack of evidence that the Soviets had an acoustic submarine detection system was itself evidence of a non-acoustic system. Mere facts don't refute them because their argument is made between the facts?

Posted by: Shane Taylor at November 25, 2007 10:16 PM

Since I've not read Gray's Black Mass, I'll have to take your word for it that he assigns to Lenin the phrase "The combination of the Russian revolutionary sweep with American efficiency is the essence of Leninism." It's apparently from Stalin. But is this "error" a "howler" as you say? And why didn't you give us the correct source? Me thinks you are looking for a mole to make a mountain.

Posted by: Bill Johnston Jr at November 26, 2007 1:31 AM

Maybe "groaner" would be more precise? But it's pretty bad when the professor of the history of European thought at the London School of Economics (no less) makes sweeping statements about the sources and implications of a doctrine but can't recognize that the line he is attributing to Lenin would never, ever have been written by Lenin.

From John Doe writing in Reader's Digest? Sure, no big deal. From the professor of the history of European thought at the London School of Economics? A big deal.

I was not aware that it was my responsibility to give the correct source of the quotation. But the implication here -- that the mistake is no big deal, since the line was actually by Stalin, also a Russian guy -- does not persuade.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at November 26, 2007 7:06 AM