Review of The Politics of Authenticity: Radical Individualism and the Emergence of Modern Society

Review of The Politics of Authenticity: Radical Individualism and the Emergence of Modern Society, by Marshall Berman, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 68, No. 3 (Sep. 1974), pp. 1297-1299.


This book is a model of a new kind of scholarship, passionate or committed scholarship. Its author attempts to look at the past by way of what he believes to be the most important issue of our times: the repression of the self by the system. The book, according to its author, comes at a favorable moment when one can again after the disappointments of Stalinism hope for a political solution to the problem of the self, a moment when political and self-consciousness can go hand in hand. The approach to the works he interprets is determined by his view of the world: Marxist in its revolutionary appeal and in its economic understanding of the sources of alienation and false consciousness; Freudian in its apparent assertion that sex is the backbone of the self; existentialist in its treatment of the self and its concentration on authenticity; above all New Left in its commitment to unprogrammatic political change and in having as twin goals freedom, understood to mean being and doing whatever one wants to be or do, and community. In short this small book bears the weight of all the most dazzling intellectual positions of the day. Whether it can make them coherent is another question. And even if, improbably, this question were answered in the affirmative, it would further have to be asked whether this reading of Montesquieu and Rousseau does justice to the integrity of their teachings.

This issue of the adequacy of the interpretations becomes pressing from the beginning of the book with the presentation of Montesquieu, which is a sort of preface to the much fuller treatment of Rousseau. Berman speaks only of the Persian Letters, which he asserts, without serious argument, to be in contradiction with the Spirit of the Laws. He concentrates largely on the erotic themes connected with Usbek and his harem and draws therefrom that Montesquieu was criticizing the ancien regime, which is true, and that he was a radical individualist, which is not true, at least in the sense intended by Berman. Berman is at his strongest in characterizing the ways in which certain kinds of society enslave and manipulate men; at his weakest when he tries to elaborate what either his philosophers or he himself thinks is the good or nonalienated society. This weakness is not fortuitous; it stems from his religious devotion to the self, undefined, undefinable, unlimited and unlimitable, the source of all value and all right. Berman knows what is bad-alienation- but he does not and cannot tell us what is good. With Montesquieu, all to the contrary, a clear view of what is good, what man’s nature and natural needs are, is elaborated, and his satire is based on the contrast between established practice and natural right. Berman simply adopts the critical part of Montesquieu’s teaching, because it can be misread to imply that anything goes, that any constraint of inclination is tyranny, and rejects as a conservative loss of nerve the positive teaching about what is legitimate behavior and what is not. Montesquieu’s teaching concerns civil freedom, not authenticity, for a being that has a nature, not a self.