Historical Justice and the Cold War

The Politics of War

by Gabriel Kolko
Random House, 685 pp., $12.95

Goethe remarked to Eckermann that the man who acts is always unjust and that nobody can be just except the man who observes. Twenty-five years ago, I quoted that epigram with approval. But having in the meantime read the writings of many trained observers of past political events, that is, of professional historians, I now conclude that the epigram, like most epigrams, is in need of considerable emendation. Most certainly, the act itself, impinging upon men and things on behalf of the actor’s interests, is bound to be unjust. For it at best neglects and at worst impairs the interests of others. That is true even of the unselfish act. By supporting an old-age home I withhold support for the hungry who also have a claim on my charity.

In short, the claims of justice by far exceed man’s ability to satisfy them. Thus man establishes a hierarchy among the interests to be served, and his own interests and preferences take precedence over all others. Nobody but God knows what actions the “just” hierarchy would require, but it can safely be said that a hierarchy oriented toward the interests and preferences of one man among hundreds of millions can have but a negligible chance of coinciding with the “just” order of the universe.

But while the act cannot be just, except by remote coincidence, the act, to be successful, cannot afford to be without an element of justice. That is particularly true of the political act. The requisite element of justice pertains to the intellectual sphere. The successful political act presupposes a respectful understanding of its object, its nature, its interests, its propensities and potentialities. The political actor may hate his opponent or despise the one whose support he seeks. But for the very sake of the satisfaction of his interests and preferences, that is, for the very sake of his own injustice, he must “do justice” to the other man. He must detach himself from his own emotions and aspirations and judge the other man with an objectivity similar to that with which a scientist tries to understand the phenomena of nature. He must put himself into the other man’s shoes, look at the world and judge it as that man does, anticipate in thought the way he will feel and act under certain circumstances. Seeking to deprive him of his worth as a person by using, diminishing, or destroying him, he must assess him exactly as a person in his own right. Paradoxically, he must be just in judgment in order to be effectively unjust in action.

If indeed the actor is always unjust in action while he must be just in judgment, what must we say of the corollary that nobody can be just but the one who observes? Mark that Goethe does not say that he who observes is always just, but that he is the only one who can be just. He can be just because he does not act and, hence …

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Letters

Historical Differences September 11, 1969