Anti-Interventionism: The Left-Wing Tradition

Where are the antiwar lefties of yesteryear?

by , September 08, 2010

In conversation with a progressive friend of mine the other day, I had occasion to hear a valid criticism of my writing: why, he asked me, do you limit yourself to attacking the left on the war question, why not praise them when they’re doing something right? This is a paraphrase, and not a word for word quotation, but you get the idea: an entirely negative critique, given the left’s storied history of anti-interventionism, is not entirely fair.

However, it is precisely because of the long, heroic tradition of left-wing anti-imperialism that I tend to get a bit bitchy when it comes to the contemporary record, which hardly measures up. When I hear that United For Peace and Justice, the major antiwar coalition controlled by Communist party types, has basically dissolved itself – at a time when the US is fighting two and a half wars, with a third in the making – I tend to suspect they’re just not that into it, as the saying goes. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that their hero, President Obama, is the one fighting the wars now, and without George W. Bush to demonize anymore, the fight has gone out of them.

Be that as it may, the American radical movement has been in the front lines of the antiwar movement in this country ever since World War I, when radical and socialist newspapers were closed down by the tyrant Wilson, and Eugene Debs was jailed for speaking out against the slaughter. Back then, the Socialist party took the lead, staging antiwar demonstrations and denouncing the conflict as a capitalist scheme to divide up the world amongst the imperial powers. The war, they explained, was just an inter-imperialist feud over how to divide up the colonial spoils, and a competition for foreign markets that had turned violent. In this they were absolutely correct, but it was only after the war that the nation began to see their point.

Woodrow Wilson, whose prissy intellectualism and rhetorical devotion to “self-determination” and “democracy” won over the liberals over at The New Republic, was the first of the “humanitarian” interventionists, albeit unfortunately not the last. He dressed up his war aims in such highfalutin’ phrases that one would have thought he and his armies were angels of mercy, or perhaps college professors intent on teaching the world how to live in peace: lots of liberals fell for it, and so did the American people – but not for long.

When the “peace” at Versailles was wheeled out, finally, all the noble war aims of the Wilsonians fell by the wayside: Germany was punished severely, saddled with huge war reparations, while the victors divided up her colonies, and detached  entire German-speaking provinces, awarding them to Poland, in the east, France in the west, and the newly-created Central European states carved out of the old Austro-Hungarian empire.

So much for the Wilsonian principles of “national self-determination” and “democracy”!

A wave of disillusionment swept over the liberals and other “idealists” who had once supported Wilson’s war: was this why millions had died in the trenches, and destroyed the lights of civilization in Europe – so that France might claim Alsace-Lorraine?

The US government had set up a propaganda organization, devoted to convincing the American people that the war was just and necessary, whose work was effective as long as the shooting didn’t stop: but once the guns were silenced, the cries of “Fraud!” were heard loud and clear. And shouting the loudest were progressives like the distinguished historian Charles A. Beard, famous for his economic analysis of the Constitution as a device to further entrench the power of the ruling class, who described the official story on the genesis of the war with sardonic wit:

“Three pure and innocent boys – Russia, France and England – without military guile in their hearts, were suddenly assailed while on the way to Sunday school by two deep-dyed villains – Germany and Austria – who had long been plotting cruel deeds in the dark.”

Beard, whose influence and prestige made him the dean of American historians, was a principled anti-interventionist, whose progressive politics were totally in tune with his foreign policy views. He saw historical events through the prism of economic self-interest, and located the “principles” that supposedly motivated men and nations precisely where they often originated: in their pocketbooks. This kind of unmasking, as a method, naturally led him to question the platitudes that issued forth from the mouths of our pious rulers when they decided to go to war. He described the operating principle of American expansionism as the “open door” policy, essentially a mercantilist effort to undo the alleged effects of the “lost frontier” by projecting American power – particularly naval power – to the four corners of the globe: foreign markets would take the place of the frontier and ensure the ever onward and upward development of American capitalism.

Although he had supported the Great War, initially, it was the domestic consequences of that bloody paroxysm that turned him around. A professor of history at Columbia University, he was traumatized by the persecution of two antiwar professors who were forced out by the administration on account of their views: “I learned what war could do,” he wrote, “I saw Columbia use the War to suppress men. . . . I saw the freedom of the press trampled by gangs of spies, public and private.”

In 1948, Beard looked back with astonishment on how Wilson had smuggled into the public discourse and legitimized as holy writ the idea “that the President of the United States has the constitutional and moral right to proclaim noble sentiments of politics, economics, and peace for the whole world and commit the United States to these sentiments by making speeches and signing pieces of paper on his own motion.” Today, of course, this is not only the accepted view in Washington – it is the only view. Back then, however, Americans were still innocent enough to be astounded and even shocked by it.

The disillusion with Wilson’s war, which had driven many formerly pro-Wilson progressives into the antiwar camp, had largely worn off by the 1930s, however – especially after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, and threatened the very existence of the “workers fatherland.” Suddenly, formerly pro-peace organizations began to either go silent, or else come out for intervention on behalf of our Soviet “brothers.” Communist Party members, who had been the organizational backbone of these ostensible “peace” groups, turned on a dime and began agitating for US entry into the war. Indeed, the Communists became the most militant wing of the War Party, playing the catalyzing role that the neoconservatives of today played in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.  They viciously attacked antiwar liberals, such as Beard, who stuck to their guns, so to speak, and refused to cave in either to the war hysteria or orders from Moscow.

The failure of the New Deal to bring the country out of the depression, and the need to divert attention away from this uncomfortable fact, was, Beard believed, a major motivation behind FDR’s clandestine efforts to get us into the European war. Clandestine because the American people resisted the strenuous efforts of well-funded and very active interventionist organizations, and opposed getting in right up until Pearl Harbor.

Beard argued America’s history, geography, and national interests dictated a policy of non-intervention in the war: the Allied powers of Britain, France, and Russia had a record of imperialism that far surpassed the relatively minor colonial adventurism of either Germany or Japan. Why should we bail out the empires of Europe: would American boys die to preserve the British Raj? Or French domination of Morocco?

Beard was not only an acerbic critic of the newly militant internationalism of the Popular Front left, he posed a fully elaborated alternative, expounded in his many books and articles, which he called Continental Americanism. “The two words,” he wrote, “imply a concentration of interest on the continental domain and on building here a civilization in many respects peculiar to American life and the potentials of the American heritage. In concrete terms the words mean non-intervention in the controversies and wars of Europe and Asia and resistance to the intrusion of European or Asiatic powers, systems, and imperial ambitions into the western hemisphere.”

Beard’s  antiwar stance cost him dearly, in terms of prestige and academic standing, but he never gave in: indeed, he spent the greater part of his postwar career proving that Roosevelt did everything he could to provoke the Japanese into striking Pearl Harbor, presaging later research confirming the President’s foreknowledge of the attack.

Although he fell out of favor with liberal historians, who could not countenance his opposition to World War II and Saint FDR, Beard was rediscovered in the 1960s by New Left historians such as William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, and James Weinstein. Beard’s was a distinctly American radicalism, not a foreign import like the phony “peace activists” of the “Red Decade,” and it was only natural that these New Left types would resurrect him: the New Left was, at least in the beginning, born in search of an indigenous tradition to which it could anchor its inchoate and often libertarian yearnings. Failing to find it, or lacking the patience to dig a bit deeper than the Encyclopedia Brittanica, such groups as SDS turned to the Little Red Book, the machismo of Che Guevara, and the wit and wisdom of Enver Hoxha.

Founding SDS leader Carl Oglesby, in his book Containment and Change, invoked the old “isolationist” tradition personified by Beard, and evoked the Old Right of the America First Committee and its conservative allies, as a usable tradition, but he was drowned out by the shrill voices of the nihilist Weathermen and other ultra-leftists who were more interested in self-dramatization and acting out their “rage” against bourgeois America than in the actual fate of their Vietnamese “comrades” – or in learning anything about how US imperialism really functions, and how it might be stymied.

There is indeed a very long and distinguished left-wing anti-imperialist tradition, one that has been largely forgotten by modern liberals, and disdained by what passes for “radicals,” i.e. either Marxists or anarchists. The former I have discussed in recent sallies against the sectarians of “Socialist Action,” who aren’t interested in the idea of discovering an indigenous radicalism because this might successfully compete against the foreign import they’re peddling – Trotskyism in the case of the Socialist Actioneers. The latter show some spirit, but seem to disdain knowledge – especially historical knowledge – as a matter of high-principle, and thus are unlikely to engage in a project devoted to excavating Beard, or paying attention to anything labeled “Right,” whether it be Old or New.

The internationalist impulse embedded in Marxist and most Western leftist ideologies makes their followers peculiarly vulnerable to the snares and delusions of interventionism – the idea of conducting a vast social engineering project halfway across the globe appeals to the modern “progressive” imagination, much as they find appealing the same sort of project conducted on the home front. A “war on poverty,” a “war on homelessness,” a “war on illiteracy,” or cancer, or whatever – why not a “war on terrorism,” after all?

Only when the left succeeds in forging – or rediscovering – a distinctively American radicalism will it prove immune to the War Party’s wiles. That’s a long term project, but in the meantime, can we all just get along for the sake of a good cause?

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

I’m taking my show on the road this autumn, to campuses around thecountry, talking about some of the ideas expressed above, giving a talk entitled “Why Has the Left Sold Out the Antiwar Movement?” ­which is sure to provoke a controversy, or at least that’s the hope.

If you’re interested in booking me at your campus, write wendy@antiwar.com, or call the Antiwar.com office, at: 510-217-8665.

Read more by Justin Raimondo