War and Leftism


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