The anniversary of Karl Marx’s birthday 200 years ago has gifted us with dozens of polemics, both pro and con, debating the theoretical prognostications and real world consequences of the ideology that bears his name. I won’t add to this genre except to note that the revolutionary character of the regimes that claimed his legacy have either gone by the wayside, like the Soviet Union, or else abandoned all but a content-less formal allegiance to Marxist orthodoxy, like China. For those still-believing Marxists the world over, the revolution has been betrayed – to which one can only add: welcome to reality, comrade!
The theme of “the revolution betrayed” is an all-too-familiar one in human history: indeed, there hasn’t been a revolution anywhere on earth that hasn’t been betrayed in an important sense – or at least I can’t think of one. It is the title of one of Leon Trotsky’s polemics against Stalinism, and as a phrase it encapsulates the anti-Stalinist left’s critique of the Soviet Union and the Stalinized Communist parties worldwide. It also summarizes, less famously, the libertarian view of the American revolution and its aftermath: although there are no monsters of Stalin’s stature in this narrative, there are plenty of villains of lesser stature: neo-royalists, Federalists, the Republican party of the nineteenth century, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, etc. ad nauseam.
Although the essential natures of the Russian and American revolutions are quite different, to the extent that all revolutions share certain characteristics in common it is somewhat useful to look to the former for clues to the historical development of the latter. While the Marxists have a long history of discussing strategy and tactics – the means to conquer power – their adversaries (and especially libertarians) in the West have shown little interest in this topic aside from simply enunciating their ends. In this context, examining the left-wing critics of the Soviet Union can give us some perspective on why – and by whom – the American revolution was betrayed, and how the mutant Empire that arose in its place can be defeated and our old republic restored.
Isaac Deutscher (1907-67), the distinguished Marxist scholar and commentator on the Soviet Union, was unique among anti-Stalinist communists in that his view of Stalin and the Eastern bloc after the death of Lenin was marked by the one characteristic that the rest of the left was (and still is) sorely lacking: subtlety. As leader of a dissident faction in the Polish Communist Party, he was expelled in 1932 for criticizing Stalin and became sympathetic to Leon Trotsky’s critique of Soviet bureaucratism. However, Deutscher did not join Trotsky’s “Fourth International,” which never took root in any country. It was, he said, too early, the movement was too small, and the Fourth International, unlike the other three, was founded in the absence of a major revolutionary upsurge.
Deutscher was right about that, but his differences with Trotsky went much deeper than a mere tactical dispute. In his biography of Stalin, Deutscher makes clear that his view of the post-Leninist Soviet Union was fundamentally at odds with the Trotskyist stance, which was that the Stalinist leadership had gutted the Soviet Union of its revolutionary character and that therefore a “political revolution” was necessary to overthrow it by force. Deutscher, on the other hand, held that the Soviet leadership, in its crude, unthinking, nearly unconscious way, was forging a form of socialism in Russia that would eventually correct itself: Stalinism, he thought, was just a small blip on the large screen of history, which would inevitably end in the victory of authentic socialism.
As it turned out, the Soviet bureaucracy did reform itself – not into an “authentic” socialist leadership as envisioned by Marx, but into a capitalist class that dissolved the Soviet Union, seized the remaining assets of the country, and proceeded to dismantle the collectivized property relations established by the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Here we bump into the limitations of looking to the leftist-Communist tradition for lessons in history: since Marxism is an erroneous theory, based on an unworkable economics and “false consciousness” (as the Marxists would put it), Deutscher was wrong about the Soviet system’s ultimate fate. Yet he was right in a general sense that the Soviet empire, even with Stalin at the height of his power, was undergoing a systemic change, one that was largely invisible to facile observers.
In writing about the United States, and specifically about domestic politics and the “Trumpist” phenomenon, I have taken a leaf from Deutscher’s book. In its stumbling, contradictory, vulgar, and occasionally completely retrograde way, the populist movement that put Donald J. Trump in the White House represents a “political revolution” (to borrow the Trotskyist lingo) against a bureaucratic caste, Washington’s bipartisan “permanent government” that is now trying desperately to reverse its historic defeat and overthrow him.
It is hard to see this through the confusing twists and turns of this administration, and its rather unruly reign: but then again, what revolutions aren’t unruly, disorganized, and often quite ugly when you get too close to them? Yet if you step back from the day-to-day scandals, machinations, and meaningless brouhahas, it’s possible to get an overview of the general direction in which the country is headed – and where the present leadership wants to take us.
Trump campaigned on an openly “isolationist” platform, even to the extent of reviving “America First” – the name and slogan of the biggest anti-interventionist movement in our history, long reviled by warmongers right and left. Once in office, however, and subject to the pressures that every White House is assaulted by, he appeared to pull back, out of necessity rather than preference: indeed, he often seems at war with his own White House staff over foreign policy, and particularly when it comes to policy toward Russia.
Yet if you look at his actions, rather than the rhetoric emitted by Nikki Haley, what is immediately noticeable is that for every typically interventionist move and pronouncement – e.g., the air strikes against Syrian government facilities – there is a counter-move taking us in the opposite direction. The latest example is the abrupt defunding of the “White Helmets,” the pro-jihadist “rescue squad” working in Syria that has done so much to target the government of Bashar al-Assad and promote regime change. It was this group which reported the false flag “gas attack” on Douma that resulted in a US air strike at Syrian military bases: they have been the source of similar hoaxes for years in the region. The White Helmets received about a third of their funding from the US State Department, and the rest from the Saudis and other supporters of Sunni terrorism worldwide.
To cut off this primary source of the War Party’s propaganda is a huge blow to them, and the howling has already started.
The significance of this cannot be overstated: our involvement in Syria was meant to be the spark that sets off a regional conflagration, pitting the US and Israel against Iran, Assad, Hezbollah, and – standing behind them – Russia. With the White Helmets out of the picture, and Trump intent on getting us out of Syria, a major tripwire has been pulled up and the danger of war with Iran recedes. This contradicts the panic over the supposedly imminent withdrawal of the US from the Iran deal negotiated by President Obama – but even that is in some doubt, despite the rhetoric of this administration and the expectations of the pundits.
And so we see that, on the one hand, we have the Nikki Haley/John Bolton/Rudy Giuliani types bloviating about “regime change,” while the actions of this White House cut in the opposite direction.
Another major blow to the War Party is the President’s Korean peace initiative, which has the entire Washington Establishment is a tizzy. So much money, so many reputations, and such a long stretch of absolute folly is at stake that the Beltway mandarins can hardly contain their panic as Trump threatens the ever-so-delicate architecture of their beloved “liberal international order.”
No, he isn’t consistent. No, his administration is not peopled exclusively by advocates of a more peaceful, less interventionist foreign policy. And, no, he isn’t the ideal leader of a movement – and that’s a definite understatement. Yet he grasped what no political leader with more experience and less personal baggage has understood: that our political class has not only failed, but has plunged the country into a crisis on account of its insufferable hubris – and that a key consequence of this has been a series of unnecessary, unwinnable, and expensive foreign wars that have all but bankrupted the country.
The scenarios imagined by intellectuals and ideologues of all shapes and sizes invariably have a narrative unity about them: they unfold in logical and predictable ways along neat little pathways, as straight and narrow as the imagination that conjures them. Yet real history doesn’t happen in this way: it is messy, contradictory, hesitant, impulsive – and utterly unpredictable. Contra Deutscher and the Marxists, nothing is “inevitable” – history has no direction or predetermined “end” in a socialist utopia (or a neoconservative “universal homogenous state”).
This messiness is confusing: it can hide the real trends behind the detritus of outlived conditions and controversies, which persist long after they have ceased to have any meaning or relevance to the way people actually live. That’s a good part of the reason why the Trump phenomenon has been so misunderstood by all too many of the very people who ought to welcome it. They want to see straight lines and a logical progression: the “two steps forward, one step back” pattern of events disorients them. They retreat into familiar formulas, as did Trotsky’s followers even as history proved the founder of the Red Army wrong – or, worse, they fall for the propaganda of the Deep State, which is reacting to Trump’s populist revolution with a counter-revolutionary strike at the White House.
Change doesn’t come easily or predictably: and it often comes in a form that is difficult to recognize at first or even second or third glance. That’s why, for one example, only a few farsighted individuals foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the death of the international communist movement when our own CIA – funded in the billions of dollars and top-heavy with “expert” analysts – missed it. Today the same “experts” are telling us the post-cold war order represents the apex of human history and that Trump’s efforts to reform it are impossible – or else all too possible and therefore entirely disastrous.
I have said this from the beginning, and I stand by my view that change is coming in the long run. Trump’s unlikely election victory is only the beginning of a sea-change in our domestic politics, one that has the potential to bring about a revolution in our foreign policy – that is, a reversal of our globalist policies, and the restoration of the noninterventionist policy of the Founders. Despite his maddening inconsistencies, the President of the United States was elected on a platform of peace with Russia, and less intervention abroad, while taking as his campaign theme the slogan of “America First” – the battle cry of the Old Right.
That he doesn’t apply these principles consistently, or with his usual combativeness, is largely irrelevant when measuring the depth and significance of the movement that made his presidency possible. Indeed, his inconsistencies will provoke – and are provoking – the development of a fairly consistent anti-interventionist tendency among his followers, who are up in arms whenever he caves to the War Party. Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, and Tucker Carlson, as well as many lesser known pundits and foot-soldiers of the Right, are now firmly ensconced in the anti-interventionist camp – and are among Antiwar.com’s most constant and supportive readers. We welcome them with open arms.
History doesn’t bow to the demands of ideologues, nor does it reveal itself in a smooth unbroken narrative like the plot of a novel: those who are too impatient to await its verdict are bound to misinterpret current events, which refuse to fit into a predetermined pattern. Blinded by preconceptions that disallow fresh thinking, they are the equivalent of zombies who – not realizing that their time on earth is over – are determined to do as much damage to the living as possible. That is where we are at today: in a battle against our zombie-run foreign policy, which is mired in the outlived conundrums of the cold war. It’s a fight we anti-interventionist America Firsters can win – but only if we recognize that our victory will likely come in increments, and in a form not immediately recognizable.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.