Anti-Interventionism, Then and Now A brief history of the anti-interventionist movement, from World War I to the present day

The following is the transcript of a talk given on October 26, at California Lutheran University, hosted by the Steven and Susan Woskow Trust and co-sponsored by Students for Liberty, the World Can’t Wait, Ventura County Libertarian Party, and the Center for Equality & Justice. The text has been edited for publication.

The subject at hand, the anti-interventionist trend in American politics, is of more than academic interest. As I speak, American troops are engaged in two wars, and Washington is threatening a third. On the left, the prostration of the former antiwar movement is near total: the speed and abjectness of the capitulation before the cult of Obama has been astonishing. Never has a movement evaporated so quickly, and with such alacrity, the long tradition of left-wing anti-interventionism betrayed and forgotten. Eugene Victor Debs is spinning in his grave.

On the right, the exact opposite is occurring: conservatives are rediscovering an anti-imperialist tradition that has long been reviled by the former leftists who now u201Cpoliceu201D their movement. Once forgotten, the slogan of u201CAmerica Firstu201D has been making a comeback in recent years, ever since Patrick J. Buchanan revived it back in the early 1990s, making it the leitmotif of his presidential campaigns. Indeed, it was Buchanan who, in response to the first Gulf war, raised the banner of a movement that had the courage to ask: u201CWhy should a single American die for the Emir of Kuwait?u201D A decade later, when Bush Jr. invaded Iraq, he was not alone among conservatives in predicting disaster.

Now, in response to President Obama’s escalation of our endless u201Cwar on terrorism,u201D many conservatives are moving into opposition. Cynics may say that this is due entirely to political opportunism, but may I remind you that opportunism in the cause of peace is no vice — and if, in search of a rationale for this turnabout, conservatives care to reclaim their historical legacy, it is there for the taking.

Yet it is on the left that the anti-imperialist tradition is so deeply imprinted that there’s less chance of forgetting it, and no excuse for betraying it. A left shorn of its opposition to America’s wars of aggression is no longer the left in any recognizable sense of the term: and yet that is what seems to have happened to the so-called progressive movement in America, which has been largely subsumed by the Obama cult. As a liberal Democratic President wages two wars and threatens a third — Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan — the great historical traditions of the left-wing movement in America are being trod underfoot.

Internationalism is — or was — the signature spirit of the socialist movement worldwide, and I don’t mean that in the contemporary sense of the word. Today, internationalism refers to the actions of states in regard to other states: a modern u201Cinternationalistu201D is one who advocates intervention in the affairs of other nations on the basis of some notion of u201Ccollective security,u201D or spreading u201Cfreedom,u201D or some such nonsense.

Back in the old days, however, at the birth of the socialist and left-wing tendencies in American politics, internationalism was understood in the individual sense, that is, as the solidarity of individual workers internationally against their own ruling classes — and against war, which, they believed, was generated by the very dynamics of the capitalist system. Imperialism, said the Communists, is the final stage of capitalism, when the crisis of overproduction forces the capitalists to turn to foreign markets, and the wars between capitalist nations were seen in this context — inter-imperialist rivalries over the spoils of capitalist exploitation. In these conflicts, the early socialists argued, the workers don’t take a side — they take their own side, which is for the abolition of capitalism and war.

This principle was sorely tested when World War I broke out, and the socialist parties in Germany, Russia, and all throughout Europe and the world were faced with a choice: support the war and go along to get along, or uphold the internationalist spirit and the platform of the Socialist International, which called on the workers of the world to oppose war. The Germans chose to go along, and so did the socialist parties of Western Europe and Russia. Only the followers of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the so-called Bolsheviks, not only opposed the war but called for the defeat of their own ruling class.

Amid the ruins of a devastated Western Europe, the pro-war wing of the Social Democracy lost the confidence and support of their formerly massive base. In the East, however, it was quite a different story: there the Bolshevik program of land, bread, and peace had gained popular support, even as the Russian armies fell back in retreat. The Czarist regime began to crumble, and, after a brief phase of democratic liberalism, the Bolsheviks and their allies gained the upper hand. The Russian Revolution was in full swing, and, in very short order, given the scale of the event, the Soviet state had replaced the rule of the Romanoffs. The so-called u201Cworkers’ fatherlandu201D was an international fact of reality — and so was its distorting impact on the development of the international socialist movement.

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The effects of that distortion didn’t kick in quite yet, however: the pristine purity of the original internationalist ideal was still intact, embodied by the nascent Communist or Third International. In America, the old Socialist Party split, with the pro-war right-wing capitulating before Woodrow Wilson’s witch hunt, and the more principled wing, led by Eugene Victor Debs, facing the full onslaught of government repression head on and virtually alone. Debs was jailed for making a speech against the war, and the Socialist press was closed down. The teaching of the German language was banned in all schools, and the music of Brahms and Beethoven was banished from the concert halls.

The immigrant German and Irish miners were caught up in this hysteria, much of it based on ethnicity, and came under particular scrutiny, on account of their alleged u201Csubversiveu201D sympathies. Union leaders were accused of sabotaging the war effort.

You’ve heard of u201Ccompany townsu201D: well, in those days Montana was a company state, and that company was Anaconda Copper. The Montana Council of Defense, a group appointed by the Company-owned governor, assumed almost total power in the state — in the name of winning the war, of course.

There then arose a champion of freedom to defend the Germans, the Irish, and the unions against the War Party: Burton K. Wheeler, a longtime enemy of Anaconda, who, with the help of the liberal faction of the Democratic party, managed to get himself appointed state district attorney on the resignation of the incumbent. Wheeler, who had defended union organizers from Anaconda, now felt called on to defend a Non Partisan League organizer who was beaten and driven out of town by a pro-war mob: he searched (in vain) for the murderers who dragged Frank Little, an IWW organizer who spoke out against the war, from his bed and hanged him from a railroad trestle in Butte. More than 2500 mourners turned Little’s funeral procession into an antiwar protest. When the editor of the Butte Bulletin, Bill Dunn, thundered that "every man, woman and child knows that Company agents perpetrated this foulest of all crimes," he was accused of sedition. But Wheeler refused to prosecute him, just as he refused to prosecute all the other dissidents whose only crime was to take the US Constitution seriously.

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The Council of Defense went on the warpath, and the newspapers joined in, demanding his resignation. Wheeler’s life was threatened. His friends crossed the street to avoid him. While his wife stood by his side, and his good friend, Senator Thomas Walsh, offered to reappoint him despite the tremendous political pressure to dump him, Wheeler resigned, and returned to the practice of law, sidelined for the moment — but with a bright future ahead of him as a US Senator, and one of the leading progressive opponents of interventionism in that august body. But we are getting ahead of ourselves….

The Wilsonian internationalism of the progressives, grouped around The New Republic magazine, was the exact opposite of the Marxist internationalism that motivated Debs to defy the sedition laws and energized the midwestern populists of the Non Partisan League, the Socialist party left wing, and the nascent Communist party. In Wilson’s vision, the US and a concert of nations would secure the peace and enforce the right of national self-determination, ending the enslavement of small nations and setting up an international league of states that would enforce the peace. It was to be a revolution from above, on an international scale.

The results were quite different: not universal peace, but the farce of the Versailles treaty, which divided up Europe (and the colonies of the defeated nations) among the victorious powers, imposed draconian conditions on prostrate Germany, and created the conditions for another world war. The disillusionment of the Wilsonian liberals, who had put their hearts into this campaign of international moral and political uplift, was complete, and led to a wave of revulsion which soured the public and the intellectuals on interventionism for many years afterwards. An entire generation grew up in the shadow of the Great War, a war many came to believe had been fought under false pretenses, and this gave rise to an entrenched national skepticism towards internationalism of the Wilsonian variety, or, indeed, any other variety.

The rise of the Soviet Union as the lodestar of the left, internationally and in this country, began to have its effect on the peace movement in the 1930s, as Hitler rose to power in Germany and the consequences of the Versailles u201Cpeaceu201D settlement began to boil over. At first posing as the greatest enemies of fascism, the Communist parties in the West characterized Hitler as a danger that could only be faced by a Communist regime: refusing to join in an alliance with the Socialists and the moderate parties against the Nazi wave, the German Communists were crushed by Hitler’s legions and the Nazis rode into power in the last real elections Germany would hold until after the war.

The party line changed with each shift in the Kremlin’s international machinations: the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact, in 1939, meant that the Communists were busy organizing a plethora of u201Cpeaceu201D groups. Their slogan was: u201CThe Yanks Are Not Coming!u201D This lasted until June, 1941, when Hitler broke the pact and invaded the Soviet Union: legend has it that a Communist party speaker, hectoring an audience in New York City’s Union Square, reportedly changed his line in mid-sentence after a note was passed to him relaying the news.

With robotic uniformity, Communists working in the peace movement completely changed their tune, as the party rushed to join the growing chorus for US intervention in the European war. Enslaved to the foreign policy of the Soviet Union, the Communists and their many fellow travelers in the United States switched gears without missing a beat. Overnight they became the vanguard of the War Party, and the most zealous in attacking the growing anti-interventionist movement.

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