Book review: “The Irony of American History” by Reinhold Niebuhr

I picked up Reinold Niebuhr as a must-read author somewhere in my pile of religious and political books, but I can’t pin down which. If you do a quick Wikipedia search, you will find that Niebuhr actually has some modern-day relevance, being cited by Barack Obama as a source of inspiration. He wrote The Irony of American History in the midst of the Cold War, much of the book is dedicated to how to approach Communism from a foreign policy standpoint. Despite the fear and anxiety of the times, Niebuhr talks about Communism critically, but level-headedly, not like an Elder Harold B. Lee railing about “godless Communism” in one of his conference talks. Niebuhr apparently hails left of center, but many of the themes and ideas he discusses feel very much at home in classical conservative thought. He talks about original sin: he doesn’t believe in the inherent goodness of man putting him at odds with Rousseau. He is very skeptical of our ability to theorize or plan history, and advises a dash of humility in foreign policy in this regard. Both of these are major themes in one of my favorite books in conservative literature Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present.

Conflict with Communism

Communism is a vivid object lesson in the monstrous consequences of moral complacency about the relation of dubious means to supposedly good ends.

The Irony of American History was published in 1952, just as the Cold War was starting to heat up. I think this is a good book to reflect on, as communism seems to be getting new attention from a millennial generation that is willing to look past historic Communism’s errors as the mistakes of previous generations. Niehbuhr disagrees and thinks that its baked into Communism as a whole. Throughout the book, talks about Communism in religious terms:

A vast religious-political movement which generates more extravagant forms of political injustice and cruelty out of the pretensions of innocency than we have ever known in human history.

But this isn’t just another tirade devoted to tearing Communism apart. He in fact tries to take the beam out of his own eye before taking the mote out of his brother’s eye. He examines some of the weaknesses on our own system. The error of American liberalism is assuming that economic interests are not a source of power:

One of the most prolific causes of delusion about power in a commercial society is that economic power is more covert than political or military power.

The error of Communism is assuming that the proletariat (and ruling oligarchy) are entirely free from economic interests.

Marxism added another mistake to this error. It ascribed economic power purely to ownership, thus hiding the power of the manager and manipulator. The consequence of these errors makes it possible for consistent Marxism to create an oligarchy in which the economic and political power in a community are combined while no checks are placed upon such inordinate concentration.

Definitely worth the read here. It’s lucidity is refreshing.

The irony in American history

The rest of the book deals with an intertwined theme: America trying to define its place in the international sphere. He dedicates a lot of time outlining America’s changing perspective from one of perceived innocency (pre-World War era) to one of increasing responsibility. It’s one we took on reluctantly, and now we have to deal with the consequences. The introduction includes an interesting current affairs application with regards to Iraq and the Middle East. The discussion is very applicable.

Early on in the book, Niebuhr defines irony and contrasts it with both pathos and tragedy:

Irony consists of apparently fortuitous incongruities in life which are discovered, upon closer examination, to be not merely fortuitous. Incongruity as such is merely comic. It elicits laughter. This element of comedy is never completely eliminated from irony. But irony is something more than comedy. A comic situation is proved to be an ironic one if a hidden relation is discovered in the incongruity. If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits—in all such cases the situation is ironic. The ironic situation is distinguished from a pathetic one by the fact that the person involved in it bears some responsibility for it. It is differentiated from tragedy by the fact that the responsibility is related to an unconscious weakness rather than to a conscious resolution.

This sounds more like a literary analysis than history, no? But Niebuhr is of the camp that history cannot be entirely rational or subject to the scientific method: it is ultimately subjective. He devotes to chapter to this discussion:

Any interpretation of historical patterns and configurations raises the question whether the patterns, which the observer discerns, are “objectively” true or are imposed upon the vast stuff of history by his imagination. History might be likened to the confusion of spots on the cards used by psychiatrists in a Rorschach test. The patient is asked to report what he sees in these spots; and he may claim to find the outlines of an elephant, butterfly or frog. The psychiatrist draws conclusions from these judgments about the state of the patient’s imagination rather than about the actual configuration of spots on the card. Are historical patterns equally subjective?

Much of Niebuhr’s critique is aimed at those who think they can plan history, who have interpreted history through the lens of a grand narrative and can thus predict the future. This applies to Communists (who according to Niebuhr worship the ‘historical dialectic’) as well as our branch of American liberalism attempting to export democracy. History is much more sly than that, and it is with humility to this fact that Niebuhr asks us to submit. We must not erroneously equate the mastery of nature with the mastery of historical destiny.

The irony in scripture

As a Christian writer, Niebuhr includes a lot of insightful scriptural exegeses. My favorite is his explanation of the Christian interpretation of mankind as one of irony. We aren’t in a pathetic state, victims of universal forces that we can’t control. And neither is life a tragedy, as interpreted by the Greeks. Instead, our free will and agency give life a sense of irony. Our greatest weaknesses are often undetected and are actually caused by our greatest strengths. Take this passage:

There is irony in the Biblical history as well as in Biblical admonitions. Christ is crucified by the priests of the purest religion of his day and by the minions of the justest, the Roman Law. The fanaticism of the priests is the fanaticism of all good men, who do not know that they are not as good as they esteem themselves. The complacence of Pilate represents the moral mediocrity of all communities, however just. They cannot distinguish between a criminal and the Saviour because each violates the laws and customs which represent some minimal order, too low for the Saviour and too high for the criminal.

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