The case of Christopher Hitchens is emblematic of so many things: how success can ruin a writer, how far an aristocratic British accent can get you on the American scene, how Trotskyism can morph into Rumsfeld-ism without any visible exertion. The former features editor of the Socialist Worker newspaper is today the Court Polemicist of the War Party, whose jeremiads now grace the glossy pages of Vanity Fair magazine. His evolution, more clearly and interestingly than any other figure, maps the progress of a new ideology, a political phenomenon unique to our time, one that is neither “left” nor “right.” It is new because what made it possible is the global primacy of American military power, and Hitchens is its most consistent and articulate spokesman.
Up until now, this new ideology has gone under more than a few aliases: neoconservatism, Shachtmanism, the Third Camp, Menshevism, social democracy, New Labour, the New Democrats. But now Hitchens, clever to a fault, has coined a new phrase, one that fits as none of the others ever did.
At the end of his review of Eric Hobsbawm‘s recent memoir, in Sunday’s New York Times, Hitchens discusses the decline of the British far left as the dominant force in the Labour Party. He notes that the supposedly unrepentant admirer of the Soviet Union and longtime Communist Party stalwart looked on this development approvingly. The labor movement, Hobsbawm argued, was a relic, its militancy long since dissipated by the rising standard of living. Hitchens writes:
“This was timed with extraordinary, if accidental, deftness. For many people on the existing left, it raised the curtain, not only on the decline of British Labor but also and then much less thinkable on the corollary ascendancy of Margaret Thatcher. Hobsbawm, in a whole chapter on this episode, makes it clear that he understood and even welcomed the logic of what he had said: the left had to be defeated, and its illusions dispelled, if progress was to resume.”
In a “dialectical” twist that seems almost a caricature of the concept, however, defeat has turned into victory for the British left. Shorn of illusions and radiating certainty, New Labour has achieved a new ideological synthesis that would have warmed the cockles of old Karl‘s heart. As Hitchens put it:
“After a long and arduous shakeout, this has culminated in the near obliteration of the Tory Party and the rise to power of Tony Blair, at once the most radical and the most conservative of politicians. Very many of Blair’s tough young acolytes received their political baptism in what I try to call the Marxist Right, the doctrines of which might be termed Hobsbawmian. Thus a long life devoted to the idea that history was inexorable has, as its summary achievement, the grand recognition that irony outlasts the dialectic.”
If Hitchens has been “trying” to call it “the “Marxist Right,” then certainly libertarians and paleoconservatives ought to help him out. He has coined a very useful and deadly accurate phrase, one that should be immediately expropriated and spread far and wide. It precisely describes the up-until-now nameless creed that glories in the power and majesty of a rising Anglo-American imperium, and is being marketed in both “left” and “right" editions.
The “Marxist Right” may be oxymoronic, but then that would make perfect sense in our post-9/11 Bizarro world, where up is down, left is right, and the ghost of Leon Trotsky roams the halls of the White House.
In fighting a war, and more to come, to force the Middle East to undergo a “transformation,” the U.S., under an ostensibly conservative chief executive, is undertaking a social engineering project beyond the wildest dreams of any Soviet commissar. Even the rhetoric of the War Party has acquired a Soviet lilt, complete with routine references to the “liberation” of Iraq and clumsy propaganda campaigns like the saga of Jessica Lynch.
The “Marxist Right” that is what the movement or, I should say, persuasion of the neoconservatives is all about, not only intellectually, but also stylistically and in its methods of operation. It is a movement whose commissars are ruthless in purging all dissidents, where unconditional support of a foreign power is a fundamental canon, and where power-worship is the secular religion of the intellectuals.
Hitchens’ brilliant formulation recalls the historical analogy made by Walter Russell Mead, in Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World: differentiating the Wilsonian and Jeffersonian schools of American foreign policy, he wrote that, while “the highest aim of Jeffersonian statecraft” centered around defending and preserving the libertarian legacy of the American Revolution,
“This defensive spirit is very far from the international revolutionary fervor of the Wilsonian current in American life. Wilsonians could be called the Trotskyites of the American Revolution; they believe that the security and success of the Revolution at home demands its universal extension though the world. Jeffersonians take the Stalinist point of view: Building democracy in one country is enough challenge for them, and they are both skeptical about the prospects for revolutionary victories abroad and concerned about the dangers to the domestic Revolution that might result from excessive entanglements in foreign quarrels. Wilsonians are reasonably confident that the Revolutionary legacy in the United States is secure from internal dangers. They also believe that the United States, without too much blood or gold, can spread democracy around the world.”
The Marxist Right echoes its leftist antecedents in its sense of historical inevitability. As Mead puts it, the Wilsonians believe
“The tide of history is running with American democracy. The American revolution is sweeping the world.”
The neoconservatives, having once convinced themselves that the End of Ideology was upon us, came up with a new one in the 1990s: the End of History. The philosophy of Alexander Kojeve, who pronounced the United States as the embodiment and instrument of the Marxist vision of a “world homogenous state,” was revived. The fall of the Kremlin, and the final victory of liberal democracy, or social democratic capitalism, meant that the battle was over: now it was just a matter of ironing out the details and defeating the last remnants of premodernity. History, it seems, is on the side of the neocons. This is what Irving Kristol, in his recent reaffirmation of the neoconservative faith, meant when he wrote:
“Neoconservatism is the first variant of American conservatism in the past century that is in the ‘American grain.’ It is hopeful, not lugubrious; forward-looking, not nostalgic; and its general tone is cheerful, not grim or dyspeptic.”
While Americans have been optimistic about themselves and their abilities, this does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that others have the same capacity or desire. Nor does optimism about the ability of individuals to transform the world translate easily into the belief that governments can have the same effect. It will take a triumph of “dialectical” thinking for the Marxist Right to explain how the deep conservative suspicion of government power at home becomes a naïve embrace of state-sponsored utopianism abroad.
Hitchens, with characteristic perceptiveness, has homed in on a development both exciting and horrific. The Marxist Right is on the march. Trotsky-cons and Straussians, Israel Firsters and careerists on the make, the ranks of this new movement are varied and at times bizarre but they serve an essential function in the social economy of Empire. They are the Court Intellectuals, and every Imperial Court needs them: their job is to rationalize the Empire, to make sure it has support not only among the influentials, the cultural leaders and social and academic elites who dominate the national discourse, but also that this sense of fealty trickles down to the great unwashed masses.
As an ideological current, the Marxist Right synthesizes the worst aspects of both sides of the political spectrum the militant utopianism of the left and the militaristic elitism of the right. It is the marriage of Socialism or Social Democracy, at any rate and Empire. A more compatible couple could not be imagined: this is a marriage made in Heaven, and Hitchens is their not-so-angelic offspring.
The rise of the Marxist Right has to mean, therefore, the divorce of the neocons from their former allies, the traditional conservatives. That the two are parting ways at the crossroads of Empire is increasingly understood by both parties. Certainly it was understood by the late Murray N. Rothbard, the founder of the modern libertarian movement, in his 1992 speech to the John Randolph Club:
“Social democracy is still here in all its variants, defining our entire respectable political spectrum, from advanced victimology and feminism on the left over to neoconservatism on the right. We are now trapped, in America, inside a Menshevik fantasy, with the narrow bounds of respectable debate set for us by various brands of Marxists. It is now our task, the task of the resurgent right, of the paleo movement, to break those bonds, to finish the job, to finish off Marxism forever.”
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
Put Cato Institute President Ed Crane’s online interview with readers of the Washington Post in the category of Not to Be Missed. Long-time Crane-watchers such as myself were fascinated to see Ed rationalize waffling on free trade and foreign policy issues by some of his Cato associates on the grounds that we have to believe in “humility,” like F. A. Hayek supposedly did. I’m glad to see Crane come out in favor of humility: now if only he could bring himself to experience it.
Another question touched on the neocons, and the conservative intramural debate, and I cheered as Crane came out guns blazing:
“Neoconservatives, in my view, are a pernicious force with dismaying influence in the Bush administration. On domestic policy they support big government across the board. They were the ones who created the “faith-based initiative” and talked Bush into supporting the greatest federal intrusion in education in American history. They support a massive welfare state. In foreign affairs they are reckless interventionists. The fiasco in Iraq can be laid at their feet. What we need is an alliance of libertarians, traditional limited government conservatives and those few liberals who still support true civil liberties.”
No humility there, and a good thing too!
But the best part of the interview was the following exchange:
New York, N.Y.: “You should be ashamed of yourselves. Cato is a big-business sponsored anarchists’ club. You advocate denying access to courts, the elimination of all safety and health regulation, and the complete return of society to the dark ages. You are personally and professionally a villain, and the enemy of all civilized people.”
Edward H. Crane: “Dear Sir: You may well be right.”
Good old Ed. My hat’s off to you .