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Anti-Anticommunism Revisited

My WWWTW colleague Steve Burton discusses Richard’s Takimag post against Lukacs and my response concerning Lukacs’ (and Kennan’s) anti-anticommunism.  I appreciated Steve’s comments, and he raises an important challenge that goes to the heart of why I think many conservatives find Lukacs and found Kennan to be so puzzling when they have critiqued popular anticommunism:

It just strikes me as incredible that any reasonable human being could still believe that universalist communism was, in the long run, a trivial threat, in comparison to German nationalism.

I mean, c’mon, guys…what is the biggest problem we face today? Is it nationalism, of any stripe?

Or is it universalism?

These are two different issues, but both are relevant to the ongoing debate.  First, we should clear up some misconceptions.  I should say straightaway that the anti-anticommunism I have been defending is the kind Lukacs described thus: 

And there is another kind of anti-anticommunist who has no sympathy for communism but who is appalled by the errors and dishonesty of anticommunist ideology and its propagation.

As Grant Havers correctly notes, Lukacs has some things in common with Peter Viereck.  Viereck, of course, quarreled with National Review and with Russell Kirk himself back in the ’50s over the question of anticommunism and “its propagation,” and specifically over the response to Joe McCarthy.   

As Lukacs argued in The Poverty of Anticommunism and again in later works, the threat from universalist communism was less (though I don’t know that anyone would claim that it was “trivial”) because universalist communism could not inspire the same enduring loyalty that various nationalisms could and did inspire.  One part of the argument is that Soviet communism derived most of the strength it had and also derived at least its external objectives from Russian nationalism, and I think this interpretation is strong for the post-1924 period and even stronger for the WWII and postwar periods.  The extension of that argument is that communist revolutions have fed off of nationalist resistance movements or communists have taken the lead in fomenting nationalist resistance movements, which meant that communists often provided the leadership of nationalist revolutions and guerrilla forces but they gained the popular support that they had because they pursued nationalist goals (chief among which was independence from colonial rule or foreign interference) first and foremost.  Having acquired power or credibility through this use of nationalism, communists either established themselves as the new government or, in the case of their failures, were outflanked in gaining popular support by a stronger anticommunist nationalism that could effectively tie the communist insurgents to foreign patrons to undermine their claims to national loyalty. 

The second part of the argument is that the USSR qua Russian empire represented a significantly less dangerous strategic threat than Germany, especially if we are talking about a Germany victorious over the Soviet Union and in control of most or all of Europe.  While I find the idea of enduring German rule in a counterfactual postwar world far less compelling (precisely because domination by one nation would provoke nationalist resistance), the two points are simply these: 1) communism is not a system that people wanted to defend to the death (hence the much-maligned references to the suicide rates of Nazis vs. the preservation instinct of apparatchiks) because it is not a system that inspired genuine belief, or at least certainly not on a large scale, whereas a nationalist ideal does inspire such devotion and consequently is a much more potent belief; 2) the USSR was much less of a threat than Germany in terms of ability to project power and the spectre of unified global communist was always something of a chimera because of the national rivalries between different communist regimes that would hinder collaboration and would provoke intra-communist conflicts (as actually happened briefly between the USSR and China in the 1960s and China and Vietnam in 1978) and made it possible to split non-Stalinist communist regimes away from the USSR (as Washington did in 1972 with China and again in cultivating good relations with Yugoslavia). 

The ideological reading of the Soviet threat exaggerated the long-term international appeal of communism and also exaggerated the staying power of the Soviet system, which, as we all remember, crumbled in a matter of a few years with only the most minimal resistance from the old guard.  Instead of going down with their ideological ship, communist apparatchiks became “ex-communists” or “reformed” communists all over Europe, began preaching the virtues of liberal democracy and started obeying their new masters in Washington and Brussels.  So, nationalism is more powerful than communism for mobilising popular support and loyalty because it inspires genuine and stronger belief, in part because it is tapping into (and also perverting) natural affinities and loyalties.  Universalist ideologies are dangerous because of their imperative for attacking and demonising those natural affinities and loyalties, but they have less staying power because they are constantly in conflict with those affinities and loyalties.  As Lukacs would say, nationalism is a half-truth and communism is a lie, which is why the latter is weaker.  Some might say that this doesn’t give lies enough credit, but I don’t think that’s a very strong objection.  So it isn’t a question of whether German nationalism would have remained a long-term threat, but that nationalism is more powerful than communism because it is likely to be considered more acceptable and will be more popular because it is drawing on (and abusing) natural sentiments, and in a contrast between a German nationalist empire and a Soviet empire that is, in this interpretation, basically a Russian nationalist empire the German one poses a greater threat because Germany was a wealthier, more efficient, more modernised state capable of greater power projection than its Russian counterpart.  The world is seeing today in the case of China of a nominally communist system that mobilises loyalty to the regime on the basis of Chinese nationalism.  The loss of confidence in Maoism as a reigning ideology is pretty much an open secret.  For that matter, on what did the CCP build its political credibility?  To some large extent on its reputation as an anti-Japanese, anti-colonial force that successfully consolidated control over all of China.  All of that seems to confirm the estimate that nationalism was and continues to be the most powerful force in the last hundred years.  

Think of it another way: what destroyed most of European civilisation?  The short answer is WWI, in part because WWI also unleashed the forces that led to WWII, and so the forces that led to WWI were responsible for a much graver, more enduring work of destruction, and among the forces that led to the war the foremost was nationalism.  There are important arguments that many of the horrors that find their origins in WWI might not have happened had the post-war settlement not taken place in the wake of an American-backed Allied victory, but this view implies that 1914 was the decisive year of the century and 1917 merely an after-effect whose long-term consequences might have been avoided or checked.  In any case, much of the damage to European civilisation had already been done by then, and the governments of Europe had been taken over the edge into that abyss in no small part by popular enthusiasm fuelled by nationalism and given expression through democracy; it was, of course, the democratic nature of most of the belligerents’ governments and the nationalist passions stirred by the war that ensured that it lasted as long as it did. 

As for what the biggest problem “we” face today might be, it depends on how we define this “we.”  Confronted with progressive globalists here at home, many on the right think that we could stand to have a little more nationalism and a little less criticism of nationalism, and certainly there is the temptation to embrace nationalism because it is more powerful than universalist systems, whether liberal or otherwise, but as with the Ring nationalism is a force that cannot be used without inviting the dangers that almost always accompany it.  It is precisely because nationalism has the potential to be more powerful that it is also extremely volatile and the effects of encouraging it can lead to very undesirable outcomes.  Whether or not you want to agree with me that many members of this administration are ideological nationalists of a specifically universalist, propositionalist kind, it seems harder to dispute that the wave of nationalist enthusiasm that swept the country in 2001-03 made the war in Iraq not only politically viable but also advantageous.  Ideas of national greatness and national mission intoxicated a lot of people in that period, if they did not already hold them before then, and it is hard to imagine how the war could have gone forward with the overwhelming support that it had without these passions and ideas blunting all criticism and dissent and making it politically risky for any prominent member of the opposition party to resist administration policy.  So when we are asking what big problems we face, it seems to me that we need to bear in mind how one of the greatest policy blunders of the last 30 years unfolded and what forces made that blunder possible.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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