It’s just a coincidence that George W. Bush gave a speech announcing that the U.S. was leading a “global democratic revolution” on the eve of Leon Trotsky’s birthday, but it is one that neatly illustrates the militant revolutionism at the core of American foreign policy in the post-9/11 era.
The proximity to Trotsky’s birthday was fortuitous, but the venue of this revolutionary proclamation was not: it was a speech commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the brainchild of neoconservative ideologues, many of whom have their roots on the Trotskyite Left. Having given up the dream of revolutionary socialism for the more practical project of global “democracy,” the troublesome little sect of neoconservatives, not so affectionately known as “neocons,” is at last having its moment in the sun.
The NED was a sop thrown to the neocons during the Reagan administration, so they could have a little domain of their own, a small but strategically placed contingent of “Socialists for Reagan” embedded deep in the bowels of the U.S. government. The first President of the group, Carl Gershman, was a longtime member of the Social Democrats, USA, formerly the Socialist Party, a group dominated by the legendary Max Shachtman. The founder of “third camp” neo-Trotskyism, Shachtman broke with Trotsky in the 1940s and evolved, over the years, into a firm supporter of U.S. military intervention worldwide, while retaining like Sidney Hook his dedication to the “democratic” socialist cause.
As top advisors to the Lane Kirkland wing of the AFL-CIO, Shachtman and his followers burrowed deep in the labor movement, and lobbied extensively for the establishment of a government-subsidized “quasi-private” foundation that would help them extend their labor connections internationally, The effort bloomed in the Carter years, when the two parties agreed to share in the spoils, and bore fruit at the start of the Reagan years. The legislation establishing the National Endowment for Democracy mandated that most of its funding, at least initially, would go to the Free Trade Union Institute (FTUI), an arm of the AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Department.
Aside from the subsidy, however, the benefits to the Shachtmanites were also ideological: from their perch at the NED, they could egg on the administration to confront the Soviet Union and agitate for the prosecution of the cold war to the fullest all at taxpayers’ expense. When the Soviet Union imploded, however, so did the rationale for the NED and it narrowly escaped the budget ax. But post-9/11, the NED along with the neoconservative movement was given a new lease on life. Certainly George W. Bush’s conversion to Shachtmanism, as evidenced by his NED address, represents the apotheosis of neocon dominance in Washington.
The odd combination of Soviet-style phraseology with ostensibly conservative rhetoric made for a speech of unsurpassed weirdness. On the one hand, the President celebrated the victory of capitalism, hailing the triumph of “democracy,” “free enterprise,” and “markets,” and yet somehow managed to do it the style of a socialist orator out of the 1930s.
The U.S., according to Bush, was no ordinary country, nor even one especially blessed, but an “inspiration for oppressed peoples,” whose acolytes worldwide “knew of at least one place a bright and hopeful land where freedom was valued and secure” kind of like the Soviet Union was to the Commies of yesteryear. Here, too, are references to the necessity for “sacrifice” a favorite theme of the old Soviet rhetoricians including this Orwellian formulation:
“By definition, the success of freedom rests upon the choices and the courage of free peoples, and upon their willingness to sacrifice.”
The speeches of the Soviet leaders, and their American imitators, were always filled with new “turns,” announcing the most recent twist in the party line, and the Bush speech displays the same grandiose tic:
“We’ve reached another great turning point and the resolve we show will shape the next stage of the world democratic movement.”
America as the leader of a “world movement” the idea is positively Leninist.
Full of revolutionary resolve, the U.S. must now focus on the Middle East “for decades to come,” said Bush. For some strange reason, Mesopotamia does not yet share Montana’s enthusiasm for democratic governance, and this is impermissible:
“Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom, and never even to have a choice in the matter? I, for one, do not believe it. I believe every person has the ability and the right to be free.”
Yes, but as Frederick Douglass put it, he who would be free must strike the first blow. It is not for us to say how or if the peoples of the Middle East will find their way to freedom and, consequently, to prosperity. Perhaps it is religion, and the willful pull of tradition, that holds that whole region of the world back: but doesn’t freedom also include the freedom to say no to modernity? Oh, but we mustn’t say that, it’s politically incorrect to even imply that all peoples everywhere and at every time are something more or less than multi-cultural clones of Homo Americanus:
“Some skeptics of democracy assert that the traditions of Islam are inhospitable to the representative government. This ‘cultural condescension,’ as Ronald Reagan termed it, has a long history. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, a so-called Japan expert asserted that democracy in that former empire would ‘never work.'”
Speaking of cultural condescension: Japan had “democracy” long before World War II, with an elected Diet, a figurehead monarch, and a relatively free expression of Western liberal and even radical ideas. The assertion that U.S. troops brought these alien concepts with them for the first time and imposed them by force on reluctant Japanese is laughable.
And the idea that postwar Japanese democracy is an unqualified success is certainly arguable, as Tokyo proves unable to reform its entrenched bureaucracy and put its economic house in order. Even the determined revolutionist Junichiro Koizumi has only just managed to lurch from one crisis to another: the land of the rising sun may yet fall beneath a tsunami of bank debt. So much for the virtues of Japanese democracy: Japan is still a society run by consensus, where Western-style individualism is considered a form of mental illness.
The President applies this same mindless universalism to the problems of the Middle East, which can all be solved if only we recognize that, in the end, ideology must trump such reactionary vestiges of the past as culture and religion:
“It should be clear to all that Islam the faith of one-fifth of humanity is consistent with democratic rule. Democratic progress is found in many predominantly Muslim countries in Turkey and Indonesia, and Senegal and Albania, Niger and Sierra Leone. Muslim men and women are good citizens of India and South Africa, of the nations of Western Europe, and of the United States of America.”
Turkey is democratic except when the military decides that democracy is bringing the country too close to the edge of an Islamic revolution, in which case it reverts to its roots as the prototypical Oriental despotism. Before we set up Niger, Senegal, and Sierra Leone as exemplars of the democratic progress, perhaps it would be wiser to wait and see if they don’t return some time tomorrow to historic patterns of repression and civil war.
We are told that the Middle East needs to be “transformed” before we can sleep safe in our beds at night. But if “more than half of all the Muslims in the world live in freedom under democratically constituted governments,” as the President averred, then what’s the problem? These very same peoples hate our guts, that’s what, and democracy hasn’t ameliorated their hatred only given it freer expression.
While the President goes on to assert wrongly, in my view that Islam is compatible with the Western concept of limited government and individual rights, for some unexplained reason there seems to be a “freedom deficit” prevalent in Muslim countries:
“Whole societies remain stagnant while the world moves ahead. These are not the failures of a culture or a religion. These are the failures of political and economic doctrines.”
But political and economic doctrines cannot be understood except as they relate to and are derived from cultural and especially religious ideas. As Murray N. Rothbard showed in his monumental “An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought,” the development of economic ideas in the West the varieties of socialism, including Marxism, as well as capitalism was rooted in the religious and cultural trends prevalent in pre-industrial Europe. The idea that political and economic doctrines are something separate and aloof from the cultural traditions of a given country or region, to be applied by social engineers at gunpoint, is a grave error inherent in our “liberationist” foreign policy.
Like the Commie leaders of the past, who disdained the role and power of religion, and were conscious enemies of tradition, Bush sees himself as the instrument of History. All progress is measured by the speed of his victories. He is shocked shocked! that
“There are governments that still fear and repress independent thought and creativity, and private enterprise the human qualities that make for a strong and successful societies.”
Yes, and one of them is Israel a country that systematically steals Palestinian land, bulldozes private homes and businesses, and won’t even let its helots travel from one city to another, let alone provide some outlet for their “creativity.” Billions per year in U.S. aid pays for the systematic dehumanization of an entire people at Israel’s hands.
The Israelis are not mentioned by the President, but he has plenty of advice for the Palestinians:
“For the Palestinian people, the only path to independence and dignity and progress is the path of democracy. And the Palestinian leaders who block and undermine democratic reform, and feed hatred and encourage violence are not leaders at all. They’re the main obstacles to peace, and to the success of the Palestinian people.”
Is it really only Yasser Arafat who blocks and undermines “democratic reform”? What does “democratic reform” mean in the context of having your house bulldozed, your shop destroyed, your olive trees uprooted and sold, your land stolen out from under your feet?
By urging the adoption of democracy from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, the President should be careful, for he may get what he wants: the end result, however, will almost certainly not resemble anything desirable from the American point of view. Democratic elections in Algeria, held in 1991, led to a radical Islamist victory at the polls, and the election was promptly cancelled. A similar result would surely ensue if, today, Bush could press a button and instantly implement his democratist panacea throughout the region thanks, in large part, to U.S. military intervention in Iraq and our unconditional support to Israel.
The President then turns his Olympian gaze on Iraq, praises the Iraqi Governing Council even as the U.S. contemplates plans to ditch it and rallies his fellow revolutionaries around a long-term commitment of troops and treasure:
“This is a massive and difficult undertaking it is worth our effort, it is worth our sacrifice, because we know the stakes. The failure of Iraqi democracy would embolden terrorists around the world, increase dangers to the American people, and extinguish the hopes of millions in the region. Iraqi democracy will succeed and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Teheran that freedom can be the future of every nation. The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.”
The idea that we must wait for the democratization of the Middle East before we can even begin to recapture the safety of the pre-9/11 world is ludicrous. Do we really have to conquer most of the rest of the earth before we can ensure our own legitimate national security interests? This is precisely what Trotsky theorized about the Soviet Union that the revolution must spread, to protect the “workers’ state” from its implacable enemies. The neocons are selling us the same sort of malarkey using the President as their mouthpiece only this time packaged as 100 percent Americanism.
That may be the biggest of the many lies we’ve been told lately. Nothing could be more anti-American than a policy of perpetual war in the name of “peace.” What emboldens and creates terrorists is the neocon conceit that we can stage manage the development of Iraqi society or any society. Such a policy subverts our constitutional form of democracy at home, and undermines our interests abroad.
The great error of Marxism was the idea that liberal ends (the withering away of the state) could be achieved by coercive means (the “dictatorship of the proletariat“). There was to be a “transition period” of indeterminate length before the workers paradise could be achieved, and Soviet workers were continually exhorted to “sacrifice” so that they might “liberate” the “oppressed peoples” abroad and usher in a new world order. If any of this sounds familiar, it is because a Marxism of the Right has won the day in Washington.
The conservative economist and columnist Paul Craig Roberts, an assistant secretary of the treasury in the early years of the Reagan administration, calls our neocon policymakers “neo-Jacobins,” and he is entirely right to compare the neocons to that ruthless and notoriously bloodthirsty faction of the French Revolution. The name has become a synonym for revolutionary tyranny, a dangerous perversion of the libertarian ideal into its complete opposite. That is precisely the nature of the enemy we now face.
In the case of the original Jacobins, their policies quickly led to their own undoing. Whether we can hope the same fate will befall the neos, at least any time soon, is a matter of some speculation that, lately, seems almost likely. At any rate, we can always hope.