Anti-totalitarianism was once an animating feature of the Democratic Party, and the American left in general. It was FDR who led the United States against Fascism, Harry Truman who aided anti-communists fighting in Turkey and Greece and John F. Kennedy who stated that the United States "would pay any price, bear any burden" to defend freedom abroad. The American labor movement played a crucial role in fighting communism (both domestically and internationally), with the AFL-CIO's Lane Kirkland, the "Champion of American Labor," at the helm.
What has happened to this spirit? That's a question I ask today, in reference to Bayard Rustin, one of the most enigmatic, independent-minded, consistent--yet barely remembered--heroes of 20th century liberalism (he also happened to be openly gay, an aspect of Rustin's life that Andrew examined here). A social democrat to the end, he joined other liberals (many of whom would eventually become neo-conservatives) in supporting Scoop Jackson for president in 1976, formed the Coalition for a Democratic Majority to fight the McGovernite wing of the party and was a founding member of the Committee on the Present Danger. He was also a strong supporter of Israel and one of the few black American leaders to warn of the dangers that a Zimbabwe led by Robert Mugabe would bring to bear.
Vietnam certainly played a large part in turning the left against muscular, progressive internationalism, as the war split traditional liberals from leftists. For the latter, America had become unredeemable because of its involvement in Indochina. The Soviet Union and the United States were morally indistinguishable, in this analysis, and the "Free World"--a term sneered at by many on the left--was no longer worth fighting for, if it ever had been in the first place. Rustin was part of a coterie of liberals, along with American Federation of Teachers head Al Shanker (profiled Monday by Freedom House's Arch Puddington in the Wall Street Journal) who rejected the left's rejection of America.
With the impending realist takeover
of the Democratic Party, anti-totalitarianism will recede, and this is unfortunate. Whereas once the AFL-CIO had a large and effective international office, you'd be hard-pressed to hear, for instance, what they're doing for Iraqi trade-unionists. But the intellectual failings of the American left cannot compare with the infighting of the
British left. A fascinating feud has erupted over the
past few weeks amongst several left-wing British writers over the
future of the European left. It begins with Nick Cohen, a co-writer of
the much-heralded Euston Manifesto, whose book, "What's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way" presents an historical examination of "the willingness of people on the liberal-left to support or, more
often, excuse or explain away totalitarian movements of the ultra right." Johann Hari, a columnist for the Independent and an erstwhile supporter of the Iraq War himself, trashed the book in Dissent and renounced Euston for being explicitly pro-war (Cohen responds here). Yet one of the signers of Euston was Michael Walzer, himself opposed to the Iraq War.
Oliver Kamm, columnist for the Times of London, has weighed in on the Cohen-Hari fight. His most important point is this one:
The left, with few exceptions, seems not so much content as insouciant at the political damage sustained by an approach that in the 1990s rebuffed the genocidal aggression of Slobodan Milosevic, preserved Sierra Leone from the vicious rule of private armies, and overthrew theocratic barbarism in Afghanistan.
Liberal interventionism, as a doctrine, has worked and ought to stay alive in the hearts of those claiming to be liberals--in spite of the failures of Iraq. Beyond the particularities of specific military interventions, what is most worrying is that the left has become so embittered by the response to 9/11 that it has withdrawn into a feral crouch from which it is more suspicious of what the Western democracies do to protect themselves than it is with the plight of oppressed people abroad.
Michael Weiss has a good summary of this brouhaha, and brings us back to the original point:
Cohen’s most chilling prophecy, brought to reality by his cheapest heckler, is that once the mainstream left runs out of banner enemies, what then? Tony Blair is gone. George W. Bush is on his way out. With fewer and fewer bugbears to assail, the left will have to face real monsters sooner or later, and when it does, it will find that all of its old casuistries and excuses have come to dust.
Indeed, Tony Blair is gone and his evil puppeteer George W. Bush will soon be out as well. We may very well have a Democratic president. But what will inform their foreign policy values now that the Democratic Party is not animated by the anti-totalitarianism of old, but rather a mere hatred for the president and a serious lack of faith in even the potential role America can play in the world? If they were alive today, I'd like to think that Bayard Rustin, Lane Kirkland and Al Shanker would be enthusiastic signatories of the Euston Manifesto. Perhaps the Democrats can look to these 20th century liberal giants for a start.
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