Blogs > Cliopatria > Lee P. Ruddin: Review of John Gray’s Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (Allen Lane, 2007)

Sep 13, 2007 8:24 pm

Lee P. Ruddin: Review of John Gray’s Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (Allen Lane, 2007)

Has politics taken the shape of Abrahamic faith? Are modern revolutionary movements a continuation of religion by other means? Are the Jacobins, Communists, Nazis and Neo-conservatives cut from the same secular apocalyptic cloth? If so, would that not make Robespierre and Osama bin Laden soul mates?

Enter John Gray. The British philosopher’s latest book affords political flesh to pessimism surrounding the human condition. Yet Gray—described on the front cover as “the most important living philosopher”—rather than answering the above questions at length, in a severe fit of Bush-loathing, stipulates that the Iraq war is the last Utopian project that emerged form the Enlightenment. Simultaneously, Gray caricatures Bush and Blair as crazed millenarians ad nauseam, whose policies—like the revolutionary terror of Robespierre or the institutionalised massacres of Stalin—rejoice in advancing the eschatological “End-Time.” As if to rub salt in their idealist wounds, Gray, Professor of European Thought at LSE, concludes with a call for a renaissance of realpolitk thought.

Tenebrous, contemptuous, baleful, fatalistic, even disturbing: Just five words that illustrate Gray’s earth-shatteringly sobering treatise. The glum prognosticator’s scorn for progress is penned in hardboiled prose acting as a universal acid for progress of any version, anywhere, anytime (post-Enlightenment) by anyone. Gray is indeed the latest fully paid-up member of the anti-Utopian tradition. It is the LSE man’s anti-Utopianism, the consistency in all his thought, which escorts his garlands of praise.

Those embarking on reading Black Mass will certainly need their thinking caps aboard for the voyage ahead. Gray steers passengers on a historical, philosophical and political journey—departing medieval millenarism, arriving at “rightwing utopianism” (p.29)—with consummate ease only an experienced navigator possesses.

Black Mass traverses the work of a number of commentators, both past and present: Isaiah Berlin and his thesis of positive and negative liberty (not overlooking Gray’s debt to David Hume, Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper); Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens pertaining to faith and fanaticism; Niall Ferguson with reference to the genesis of terror and the western tradition and racial science and genocide; Edward Said concerning racial prejudices; and Adam Curtis in relation to his morally-equivalencing movie-documentaries (despite only the first two Oxonians being referenced!).

In Gray’s world, there is nothing but moral equivalences: everything is like everything else, and his critique reads like a relativist mess:

Nineteenth-century anarchists such as Nechayev and Bakunin, the Bolsheviks Lenin and Trotsky, anti-colonial thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, the regimes of Mao and Pol Pot, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Italian Red Guard in the 1980s, radical Islamic movements and the neo-conservative groups mesmerized by fantasies of creative destruction—these highly disparate elements are at one in their faith in the liberating power of violence. In this they are all disciples of the Jacobins (pp. 26-7).

Aside from taking issue with Gray’s characterization of the Bush administration as “revolutionary” (p.29), pernicious referrals to an “American defeat in Iraq” (p.30) and the sickening moral-equivalence catalogued between Christianity and Islam (pp.69-73)—culminating in an undifferentiated miasma of polemic, two factual errors have gone unobserved during the editing process: one pertaining “to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1543” (p.43) (as opposed to 1453); the other concerning Lebanon and the 1983 terrorist attack on US installations “which killed over 100 Marines” (p.176) (as opposed to 241 American servicemen, 220 of them marines).

Put crudely, the title reads like an anti-neo-con reader—and one four years too late. Starting at least as early as 2003, to paraphrase Martin van Creveld, the literature on US foreign policy-bashing is so voluminous that, had it been shipped aboard the Titanic, it would have certainly have sunk without the aid of an iceberg.

Gray harbours a special animus towards neo-conservative theorists, the heirs of Karl Schmitt and Leo Strauss, such as Albert Wohlstetter, Irving Kristol and, Gray’s darling of the dunce’s, Francis Fukuyama, whose academic paper and subsequent international bestseller appeared like a red rag to a bull (for Gray to etch out “The Death of Utopia,” he employs the exact same genre as those others—paradoxically—who have earlier written about “The End of History”). The author’s contempt is palpable notwithstanding an assault on neo-conservatism reading both hastily and hackneyed. In supporting his thesis, Gray, morally-equivalently, reasons that the apocalyptic torch has been passed from Pol Pot to George W. Bush. Indigestible or what! What is more, on the one hand Iraq is some neo-con Utopian project; while on the other hand, page after page is littered with—not very Utopian—neo-con oil motives. Which of the two is it? It cannot be both Professor Gray.

Gray, desperate to deliver his blurb on Iraq, has enveloped a 200-page hardback in the guise of a work of scholarly philosophy—when, as a matter of fact, 50 percent is anything but.

Least admirable of all is the trenchant opinion that Utopian ideals are superfluous. Tell me, what could be worse than blindly accepting that anything and everything is unobtainable when were we only to attempt it; anything and everything is obtainable? 200 years ago slavery was abolished—a feat then considered “inherently impossible” (to use Michael Oakeshott’s tongue)—much to the annoyance of the eighteenth-century John Grays. Abolition back then was no more realizable than bringing democracy to Iraq is today.

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