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The Problem With Progressives

Can you count on them to stand against war, regardless of who is in office? By Thomas E. Woods Jr. On February 20, a meeting took place in Washington, D.C., between progressives, libertarians, and conservatives who deviate from the bipartisan foreign-policy consensus and favor an antiwar, anti-imperial alternative. Participants were indeed all over the ideological […]

Can you count on them to stand against war, regardless of who is in office?

By Thomas E. Woods Jr.

On February 20, a meeting took place in Washington, D.C., between progressives, libertarians, and conservatives who deviate from the bipartisan foreign-policy consensus and favor an antiwar, anti-imperial alternative. Participants were indeed all over the ideological map, as these interesting summaries (1, 2) reveal. (I was invited to attend but could not make it; I’d already been at CPAC and needed to get home to my wife and our new baby.)

Does this mean a genuine cross-ideological coalition against war is brewing? I would like nothing more than to think so. I am confident that many libertarians and conservatives would welcome it. But I am not so sure about the progressives.

Do not misunderstand me: I am all in favor of such a thing. Here’s my article on a great model such a coalition might follow. And it was in this spirit that Murray Polner (a man of the Left, who did attend the February 20 meeting) and I wrote our book We Who Dared to Say No to War: American Antiwar Writing from 1812 to Now (Basic Books, 2008).

As I wrote when our book came out, “Our aversion to mass murder was the common personality quirk that drew us together, and we decided that that was a pretty good basis for a fruitful collaboration. It’s a privilege to know Murray, and I’m happy to say our joint efforts have borne some good fruit indeed.” The book includes (but is far from limited to) contributions from Daniel Webster, John Randolph, John Quincy Adams, Charles Sumner, Julia Ward Howe, Lysander Spooner, Stephen Crane, William Graham Sumner, William Jennings Bryan, Robert La Follette, Randolph Bourne, Helen Keller, Jeanette Rankin, David Dellinger, Robert Taft, Murray Rothbard, Russell Kirk, George McGovern, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, Butler Shaffer, Country Joe & the Fish, Andrew Bacevich, Pat Buchanan, Bill Kauffman, Paul Craig Roberts, Howard Zinn, and Lew Rockwell. Now that’s a diverse coalition.

Murray and I brought these great people together between the covers of a book. But can they be brought together under the aegis of an activist organization?

The jury is still out. For example, an organization called Historians Against the War (HAW) began auspiciously enough in 2003, as a group of, well, historians against the war. People of all political persuasions were welcome. With the passage of time, though, being against the war was no longer enough. You had to hold particular economic views, be a “progressive,” and support Obama. It was insufficient simply to hold the libertarian position against corporatism, the warfare state, and the military-industrial complex. (Chalmers Johnson evidently likes my article on the subject, which he calls an “important exegesis,” but although I was never an active member of HAW, my work would apparently not have satisfied its more exacting standards.)

And thus began the purges of those who did not conform, and in particular of those who scolded the organization for softening its antiwar rhetoric following the election of Obama. Instead of viewing Obama as merely a left-variant of the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment, which he obviously is, these critical thinkers bought into the pretty speeches and left it at that.

Thaddeus Russell is a progressive historian who is friendly with libertarians, and with whom I myself have had some valuable correspondence. He was purged from the blog. He wrote:

As a member since the earliest days of the organization (I signed on shortly after the Iraq invasion), I ask – and am on the verge of very publicly demanding – that the HAW steering committee clarify whether the organization is limited to “progressive” historians (as the AHA flyer as well as many other statements made by the steering committee strongly suggest) or just historians who are AGAINST THE WARS. If the former, I will resign immediately since I refuse to identify myself with Wilson, the Roosevelts, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and the “progressive” tradition that is responsible for the largest imperialist wars in U.S. history. [Emphasis added.]

That is what an actual progressive would say. Now try to imagine the phonies at the Huffington Post or TalkingPointsMemo saying it. Why, it’s not respectable! And it is mainstream respectability more than anything else that these left-wing phonies crave.

Part of my skepticism about the interest of progressives in a left-right coalition derives from my own fate at the hands of those who are supposed to be so devoted to the antiwar cause. Just weeks ago, Think Progress, after a one-sentence summary of my career that (as usual) left out the past 16 years, actually quoted Max Boot against me, as if Boot’s opposition to my work was sufficient to bury me forever. So instead of an antiwar libertarian, these progressives prefer neocon Max Boot, who according to Juan Cole “never saw a war he didn’t love, never saw a conquest he didn’t find exhilarating, never saw an occupied land he didn’t think could be handled.” They approvingly quoted Boot’s dumb-guy propaganda line that “Woods’ sympathy extends not only to slave-owning rebels but also to German militarists” (because, like 99 percent of people who have studied the matter, I think Woodrow Wilson’s conduct during the early years of World War I was based on a double standard between Britain and Germany). This is the same sense in which Ron Paul “sympathizes” with al-Qaeda because he doesn’t buy U.S. war propaganda. (I did reply to Boot, by the way.)

And these are the progressives?

(Note to real progressives: now you know what libertarians go through, when spokesmen for a cause are more eager to curry favor with the regime than to stick to their principles and let the chips fall where they may.)

I have a book coming out toward the end of June that might have had some appeal to progressives in the tradition of Kirkpatrick Sale and William Appleman Williams, two scholars whom modern progressives, who know nothing of their own history, have never heard of. The sellouts and phonies who populate the official precincts of modern progressivism, on the other hand, will greet the book with a vicious smear campaign. Mark my words.

Thankfully, the Internet is the great equalizer. Any fair-minded person anywhere can review my work and background for himself, and see if it sounds like the ogre they’ll be describing.

In the midst of the last such smear campaign, economist Robert P. Murphy wondered if the person the so-called progressives were calumniating could really be me. Funny Tom Woods is actually an enemy of mankind and an oppressor of society’s most vulnerable? Both of us concluded that we would never again form our opinions of anyone on the basis of two sentences uttered by his enemies, even if we might happen to be ideologically sympathetic to those enemies.

Now if you actually do care about war and peace, and would in fact like to work with people of varying political persuasions, I recommend the Antiwar League. Although started by a man on the Left, it genuinely welcomes everyone. In principle, then, and even to some extent in practice, it can be done.

But many obstacles remain. We have been trained to treat each other as categories rather than as human beings. We have been conditioned to point and shout slogans at those who deviate from the mainstream – that glorious continuum ranging from Mitch McConnell to Hillary Clinton. Never answered, because never asked, is why we should want to belong to a mainstream that has yielded us a century of war, propaganda, and fiscal ruin.

The so-called mainstream is where the real extremists are to be found. Libertarians understand that. Once the progressives do, we’ll be getting somewhere.

Thomas E. Woods Jr. is senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and author, most recently, of Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse. This article originally appeared at LewRockwell.com.



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