Ideas Are Weapons

by Max Lerner
[Viking, $3.50]
HERE is a book which should make every democrat rejoice, not because it preaches democracy, but because its very publication is a sign of intellectual democracy working in our midst and on a very high level. These 450 pages consist of the articles and reviews published in the last ten years by Max Lerner, one-time editor of the Nation and now Professor of Government at Williams College. The substance is thus strictly journalism, but the quality is as much a tribute to the press as to the author. Some of these articles appeared, sometimes in truncated form, in periodicals ranging from the Nation and the New Republic to the Harvard Law Review and the Herald-Tribune Books; others were contributed to Stage magazine and the Encyclopædia of the Social Sciences. The collection, therefore, though possessing the unity of a thinking mind, naturally does not follow the stated bias of any of these organs of opinion, not even the academic bias of an ordinary encyclopædia. What it displays abundantly is a nervous and prolific pen subserving a sharp analytic faculty, whose interests embrace and organize all the chaotic forces of our culture from art to economics and from law to education.
At the outset Mr. Lerner gives us two chapters that justify his title and direct the reader’s subsequent attention. Ideas, he says, are not merely pictures; they are weapons. That is to say, they are used for practical ends; they are, as James pointed out, pragmatic devices. Here our author introduces a distinction between the instrumental and the manipulative use of ideas. The former use is socially beneficial, as when we use scientific ideas to save lives; the latter use merely exploits ideas for their power over the minds of men, as when superstitious lies serve to swindle the public or incite a mob to violence. This distinction suggests that Mr. Lerner’s title says less than he intends; ideas are weapons — granted; but they are also tools. An idea, in other words, is precisely like a knife, which can not only cut but kill. And since the two uses are hard to distinguish in theory, we are thrown back on the test of moral intention plus actual practice in order to choose among our ideas.
Mr. Lerner’s own actual practice varies in both power and subtlety, depending on his subject. He is at his best in dealing with American problems, particularly legal problems. The whole of Part II is a delight from beginning to end, and makes one’s mouth water for the book on the Supreme Court which he has been preparing and to which these socio-legal essays form a wonderful series of alternative prefaces.
It is perhaps surprising that the author’s psychological insight into individuals should not keep pace with his insight into mass movements and collective facts. The essay on Swift, for example, is disappointingly shallow — untrue to any conceivable human experience, with the ‘genius’ added to a commonplace life at the last minute, like a pinch of salt to a mediocre dish. Similarly, Mr. Lerner’s proposal for the control of press and radio by a board of fair-minded judges of propaganda rests on the psychologically unsound assumption that propaganda is a virus working from outside upon passive victims; whereas it is really the adroit satisfaction of existing desires which are already hitched up to superstitious ideas.
And finally, what seems to me the last form of this single fallacy, marring an otherwise splendid book, is the feeling of indignation implied in every reference to Machiavelli, in every mention of ‘cynical statesmanship’ or ‘cowardly abandonment’ on the part of this or that umbrella-bearing Minister. Why suspect individual cynicism in matters which have never been successfully carried on except in violation of Christian ethics? Machiavelli did not invent or propound a new idea; he merely described the ideas unconsciously used by all rulers as instruments of national policy — thus fulfilling precisely the pattern of behavior which Mr. Lerner himself bids us observe and analyze with the aid of his own excellent mind.
JACQUES BARZUN