THE SPIRIT OF THE AGE: AN ACCOUNT OF OUR TIMES
For those who felt uplifted by Rocking Bill Clinton’s inauguration, this book is the ideal antidote. Its lurid tales of rape and pillage, Aids proliferation and ethnic cleansing, neo-Nazism and Islamic fundamentalism, are guaranteed to depress even the most questioning optimist’s hopes for a new Camelot. Apocalypse now: for David Selbourne lays it on thick and viscous at the beginning of each chapter, entrapping the unsuspecting reader in the horror of it all.
There is, he asserts, a moral crisis affecting the west. The dignity of human life, the rule of law and the spirit of toleration are all being pushed aside. The spirit of the age is a Sodom Sod’emi and Gomorrah soap writ real and large. Unusually, the vehicle for analysis is a Judaic one. Not a history of the Jews, but a “Jewish history of our times”. As a lapsed leftist, Selbourne’s approach is not the stereotypical neo-conservatism of the New Right, but the awkward and often antagonistic delivery of an indefinable maverick. Describing himself as a “partially disguised Jew”, he has clearly reclaimed his Jewishness to understand his own dissent and to standardise his status as an outsider. His inhabitation of Jewish ambivalence forms the basis of his assault on past ideological certitude.
“Within the most creative and innovative of intellectual Jews, however radical, there is generally a cautious and conservative being who is unsure about how far he should go,” he argues. Such ambivalence is rooted in the Jewish experience of alienation and reconciliation, of exile and return, the demand for change and the need for stability. Thus Selbourne comments that “truth-telling for Jews is a holy passion”. As we know, history has not looked kindly on such activities. The Jews were indeed disproportionate in number among the leadership of the early Bolsheviks, but also among the first Soviet dissidents. Today’s difficulties are blamed almost totally on the influence of the Soviet Union, as if Thatcherism had never existed. No doubt a large part of the left was reticent to criticise the USSR for fear of helping the right, but it is something else to blur the distinction between Russian Stalinism and European socialism. Socialism certainly promised messianic perfection and earned the embrace of large numbers of Jews, but to speak of its moral demise is somewhat premature.
The old structures have indeed been cast onto the rubbish tip of history, but the fundamental Jewish task of securing justice and tikkun olam—repairing the world—remain. To suggest that the outcome of the Soviet experiment is “a form of Jewish failure” does not take into account the complexities of history. Lenin not only destroyed the left in Russia but also suppressed the national life of the Jews. Jewish workers, in fact, generally supported the Mensheviks in 1917.
Bolshevism was never of the left; it was beyond it: a poisonous weed which grew on fertile ground. Most Jews came to understand this only too well. The murderous pogroms of the Whites, the seductive prospect of building Jerusalem in Moscow and communism’s firm stand against fascism in the early 1930s certainly earned Jewish support. The failure of the Jews was not the failure of socialism, as Selbourne suggests, but their inability to transform the Bolshevik coup d’etat into a just society rooted in the vision of the biblical prophets. The exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union was a recognition that this transformation was an impossibility. Selbourne is highly selective in choosing references and quotations to suppport his thesis. Many of the polarised claims of the Jewish right are repeated where anti-Semitism and Zionism are concerned. The centrality of Israel is curiously underplayed. The tsarist anti-Semitic tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion may be on sale in several Muslim bookshops in Britain, but that has not prevented Pakistan from contemplating diplomatic relations with Israel. Though Selbourne rightly attacks political correctness and the distortion of language, his own anglicised references to Jews often sound like those of a pre-war high Tory. “The Jew believes this”; “The Jew thinks that”, coupled with allusions to “the Jewish race” and “Jewish sense of superiority”, ironically illustrate his only partial emergence from the invisibility of assimilationism.
New Statesman 5 February 1993