War and Leftism

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An
anti-war paleolibertarian questions his leftist colleagues.

One
might safely speak of the present college population as having come
of age, intellectually and politically, during George W. Bush's
tumultuous and contentious presidency.  Today's students have
taken their first thinking steps in a world where, in many eyes,
a Republican administration seems perpetually to be invading and
attempting to reconstruct foreign nations for dubious (and eventually
demolished) reasons while remaining wholly unimpressed by the disastrous
consequences.  Meanwhile, almost all of the prominent critics
of the war that we hear from are members and supporters of the democratic
left.  It's unsurprising, then, to discover a great number
of students rejecting interest in conservatism in favor of a left-liberal
stance and what they believe can be the only available set of moral
and constructive views on foreign policy.

If
I've succeeded in identifying a situation the reader recognizes
as at least significant, then it is worth asking whether peaceful
inclination necessitates or even permits support for any sort of
leftish politics.  Stated differently, how peaceful is leftism?
 If important elements of leftist thought are accepted and
promoted, might we arrive in the future at a safer, more secure,
less violent and destructive situation?

My
impression is that the typical college student sees no pressing
reason to suspect otherwise.  Certainly among thoughtful members
of this and every community I've inhabited one might identify feelings
of angst and dissatisfaction with orthodox bromides of both left-
and right-wing origin. Yet I've noticed that whenever a counterpart
of mine is moved to endorse non-interventionist, anti-militarist
political solutions, he never fails to utilize left-wing champions
in his argument.  He might find the dramatically anti-imperial
statements of figures like Gandhi, Eugene Debs, and Martin Luther
King, Jr., wholly satisfying, and he never suspects that one interested
in less foreign intervention could find company on the right.

Yet
rhetorical denunciations of empire are far less than guarantees
that one can offer constructive solutions to real defense dilemmas.
 Further, that a person identifies himself as anti-war does
not ensure that acting on his own normative thoughts on morality,
politics, and government might not result in support for disastrous
policy, perhaps even more disastrous than the warfare he originally
sought to prevent or end.

I
will say at this early point that I am persuaded that leftism, rather
than providing an intellectual framework that can act as a barrier
to interventionist foreign policy, instead logically arrives at
a larger, more powerful and chaotic warfare state.  One reason
for my view is purely historical.  Whereas most of my colleagues
hold an innocent view of the development of the American national
state in its increasing use as a tool of egalitarian social reconstruction,
I cannot help but notice events and phenomena that disturb a benign
narrative.  In my study of history I repeatedly discover individuals
and groups with wholly left-brained philosophies who are also outspoken
imperialists, and who see their imperialism as logical extensions
of their social thought.  Hence they have often applauded American
expansion, and are continually engaged in the task of undermining
the moral, intellectual, and constitutional arguments against a
more powerful state and a diminished level of foreign intervention.
 Though they have a dark view of pure, private-property capitalism,
they see state-directed capitalism and the union of business and
government as an appropriate means of arranging and rearranging
societies at home and abroad.

I'd
hark back to World War I as a poignant illustration of this phenomenon.
That struggle in particular was the critical moment of arrival for
progressives of this vicious stripe.  Simply as an urgent crisis,
that war, as all other wars, afforded particular interest groups
the opportunity to press forward with their respective agendas.
 Arguing that no matriel could be spared from the war effort,
prohibitionists were able to obtain sweeping bans on the manufacture
and sale of alcohol, culminating in the Eighteenth Amendment to
the Constitution. Feminists promoted war as a matter both of patriotism
and of strengthening their own argument for reorienting their role
in society, arguing with Ida Tarbell that "the growing consciousness
everywhere that this great enterprise for democracy which we are
launching [U.S. entry into the war] is a national affair, and if
an individual or a society is going to do its bit it must act with
and under the government at Washington."   Collectivists
in and out of government like Walter Lippman, John Dewey, Herbert
Croly, Bernard Baruch, and Rexford Guy Tugwell, seized the war as
their moment to establish a great union of business and government,
in which the state leapt forward in its management of the economy
through regulations, wage laws, and price controls in a bid to eliminate
economic waste and maximize social efficiency.

What
matters for the present argument is less the content of this particular
breed of hawkish social philosophy than the simple fact that the
most influential progressives saw World War I as fulfillment, not
disappointment. That war meant the effective end of monarchy and
triumph of political democracy everywhere in the West, and it announced
the presence of the United States as a force willing and increasingly
committed to spreading and enforcing a particular view of social
justice around the globe — events the greater part of the American
left cheered.  Indeed, a handful of the most ambitious collectivists
mourned, not because of the war's unspeakable death and destruction,
but because it came to an end before they had taken their political
agenda to its logical conclusion.  "We were on the verge
of having an international industrial machine when peace broke,"
wrote Tugwell, later a member FDR's Brain Trust.  "Only
the Armistice prevented a great experiment in control of production,
control of prices, and control of consumption."

The
First World War may seem to some to contain faint significance for
a discussion of the War on Terror, but that earlier event announced
the broad working plans of a political class that has not much amended
them in the intervening period.  The collapse of the USSR and
the organization of an American conservative movement have weakened
greatly support for full economic socialism, but national and international
state initiative remains the favorite means toward enacting whatever
version of democratic egalitarianism our political leaders manage
to agree upon.  Thus, whatever disputes have played themselves
out on the Washington stage since 1919, the political leadership
has tended to agree that the restraints on the authority of the
executive office and American influence abroad are impediments to
ultimate peace and justice, and they have voted and argued accordingly.
 And it would be hard to deny the role of progressivism in
this process of preparing the way for more frequent and irresponsible
use of executive war power.  Since 1945 pro-democrats and pro-egalitarians
have made entire careers out of ratifying the records of America's
most violent and crusading politicians.  In spite of wistful
glances toward the Democrats as a force of peace, they have almost
totally abdicated a role in developing responsible, less militarist
solutions to international dilemmas.

One might object to my line of thought by pointing to the significant
and active group of left-wingers in and out of Washington whose
expressions frequently fall on the side of nonintervention, if not
in support of complete demilitarization. It's correct to note their
influence, but how consistent is their pattern of thought?  If
high levels of intervention, democratic government, and state-supported
egalitarianism are mandatory features of the domestic scene, isn't
it arbitrary to decide that these wonderful products should be kept
only within certain boundaries?  Is there any point at which
our nation's leadership is blessed with a mandate to export the
glorious product that is democracy to the remainder of the unreformed
planet?  On this score the only hesitations I'm able to discover
on the left are worries about cultural obstacles to democracy —
questions, for example, about the extent to which a fundamentalist
Islamic society can accept egalitarian democracy.  Such considerations
may be sophisticated and valid, but they hardly constitute a strong
obstacle to disastrous executive leadership and the galloping warfare
state.

Sincerely
pro-peace leftists undermine the anti-war cause in another crucial
way.  Though I find that in classifying their opponents leftists
are characteristically incapable of making meaningful political
distinctions — former National Review staffer Joseph Sobran
once quipped that, if one were to take seriously the body of left-wing
expression, Nazism, Stalinism, fascism, libertarianism, traditional
conservatism, market anarchism, and Ku Klux Klan-ism are all the
same, and they all belong to something called the right — but they
are, at least, able to identify which brands of conservatism are
more threatening to their cause and express their preference for
other varieties of opposition.   A neoconservative like Irving
Kristol, for example, who at least has positive thoughts about the
New Deal, the civil rights movement, the welfare state, and other
thrilling episodes in the self-produced egalitarian biopic, appears
a far more desirable ideological opponent than an unreconstructed
conservative who insists upon serious discussion of secession and
states' rights.  Such an attitude, dominant in the mainstream
media I'm familiar with, produces an often-monolithic influence
in favor of the former variety of conservative thought, and peaceful
left-liberals might see no reason to be upset with this.  But
they later grow frustrated when those pesky neoconservatives turn
around and publish columns thumping for invasion and benevolent
American hegemony abroad — as if these thinkers' imperialist persuasions
were a well-kept secret.  Leftists look around and wonder,
as I noticed Garrison Keillor doing this year at Salon.com, what
happened to all the conservatives interested in "old ideas"
like "constitutional checks and balances, fiscal responsibility,
and the notion of realism in foreign affairs and taking actions
that serve the national interest."  Why is the GOP dominated
by people who "led us into a reckless foreign war and steered
the economy toward receivership and wielded power as if there were
no rules"?

Why,
indeed.  Old-fashioned conservatives may have been overtaken
by their global adventurist cousins, but to imply that the suffering
Old Right ever received a great deal of sympathy from the left ought
to be the punch line to a cruel joke. And the situation hasn't changed
now that leftists are daily complaining about the current conflict.
Last year when Regnery released a book by little-known historian
Tom Woods, Jr., entitled The
Politically Incorrect Guide to American History
, the initial
reaction of the New York Times was to run an angry editorial
by Adam Cohen.  All Cohen could discover in Woods' flatly paleoconservative,
libertarian work was right-wing extremism, "fringe scholarship,"
and sympathy for bigotry and Southern slaveholders.  In my
reading I failed to reproduce the results of Cohen's experiment;
instead, I found in Woods' book, among other useful ideas, an attempt
to revive interest in constitutionalism and the tradition of thought
once practiced in America by men like John T. Flynn, Harry Elmer
Barnes, and Charles Beard, that emphasized the idea of "just
war" and was not afraid to criticize the nation's leadership.
 Cohen and other leftists are apparently incapable of considering
how useful this brand of scholarship might be to anyone forming
arguments against future foreign debacles, as well as the War on
Terror as it is currently being practiced.  Anti-war conservatives
and libertarians are left out of the discussion because they've
failed to accept the egalitarian project, and hence appear, together
with beer-bellied neo-Nazis, on lists of those who practice "hate
speech."  Incidentally, Cohen's attitude was not noticeably
different from that shown in neoconservative Max Boot's review of
the book in the Weekly Standard.  That the representatives
of the left and the hawkish right both saw demons in Woods' work
is an instructive piece of information.

The
peaceful posture of our left-liberal friends, then, may be an ill-fitting
disguise masking the actual role the movement has played in strengthening
America's force and authority abroad.  In other words, it might
be possible to say that the left is basically pro-empire.  At
another level the symptoms I'm attempting to diagnose might be simple
matters of ignorance and lack of sophistication.  In either
event, raised fists and self-righteous shouting against all things
conservative on grounds that the War on Terror is woefully misbegotten
ought to appear much less as a faint halo than an ongoing embarrassment
to would-be left-wing critics.

September
11, 2006

Evan
McLaren [send him mail]
is a junior at Kenyon College.

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