The Dishonesty of the ‘Antiwar’ Left
The left abhors the one figure in decades who has meaningfully rolled back the self-righteous imperium.
According to one strand of leftist thinking, progressives should embrace U.S. global dominance as a vehicle for global emancipation. If that sounds crazy, it’s because it is. And while only a very few, relatively marginal figures today openly profess it—Christopher Hitchens was probably the last famous and unabashed proponent—the theory is, in fact, all too alive and operative on the mainstream left, albeit in unacknowledged fashion.
The imperialism-as-emancipation theory explains, I increasingly believe, the otherwise inexplicable absence of any measurable progressive dissent from relentless U.S. escalation in Ukraine, and from the way Washington has used the conflict to reassert total hegemony over Europe. It also accounts for the refusal of most on the left to acknowledge an inconvenient reality: that Donald J. Trump was the most antiwar, anti-imperial U.S. president in two generations.
Here is the hard-Marxist version of the theory (which, again, remains marginal on the Marxist left): Too much of the world is still dominated by feudal, patriarchal, and otherwise backwards social systems. These are places where, for one reason or another, capitalist development hasn’t made much headway or failed to follow its ordinary course. As a result, local bourgeoisies are weak, and the bourgeois political form—liberal democracy—has failed to emerge. That’s a problem, because societies must go through the bourgeois, liberal-democratic stage before they can achieve more radical egalitarian models.
Enter the United States. As the unrivaled power at the center of global capitalism, America has been tasked by history to terraform the earth’s still-feudal spaces, bringing about a political geography more hospitable to the emancipation of the oppressed. American power can and must engender the liberation of women, sexual and ethnic minorities, and so on as a precondition to deeper emancipations. In this sense, U.S. power objectively acts as a revolutionary force (even if the people occupying Washington’s commanding heights would never think of their role in this way).
There is a “softer” variation. According to this version, the post-Cold War order defined by U.S.-led globalization is more or less satisfactory—or at any rate, it is here to stay. The main task of the left now is to confront the forces of Islamic atavism and “fascism,” a global resurgence of the right represented by Iranian ayatollahs, Serbian nationalists, Russian and Chinese revanchists, and the like. Against these enemies, progressives have no better allies than the Pentagon, the one force on earth capable of putting them in their place.
The softer version gained wide circulation with the publication in the 2006 of the Euston Manifesto. Named after London’s Euston Road, where the signatories met to hash out their ideas, the statement was principally drafted by the late British Marxist political theorist Norman Geras. The Eustonites declared themselves for democracy, universal human rights, globalized development, and modernity—and against “tyranny.” That last, tyranny, was to be found not anywhere in the West, but chiefly in places like Iraq. Thus, said the signatories,
we are…united in our view about the reactionary, semi-fascist, and murderous character of the Baathist regime in Iraq, and we recognize its overthrow as a liberation of the Iraqi people. We are also united in the view that, since the day on which this occurred, the proper concern of genuine liberals and members of the left should have been the battle to put in place in Iraq a democratic political order and to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, to create after decades of the most brutal oppression a life for Iraqis which those living in democratic countries take for granted — rather than picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention.
The Euston Manifesto was greeted with jeers across the Western left at the time, its author and signatories denounced as crypto-neoconservatives. As I say, these lines of thinking, both the hard-“materialist” version and the softer Euston version, are taboo on the official left. Leftists in good standing are not supposed to identify with the American-NATO imperium—even if its troops march under the banner of LGBT Pride and help teach Afghan women about Dadaist art.
But they do, for the most part, support the imperium.
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Sen. Bernie Sanders has yet to come across a Ukraine military-aid package he opposes; House progressives retract even their milquetoast letter suggesting a modicum of restraint over Ukraine; progressive lawmakers declare total war against Russia as the epicenter of “anti-trans” ideology; avant-garde artists throw paper airplanes from the Guggenheim’s balconies in support of a no-fly zone over Ukraine; and German Greens chant “Free the Leopards” (successfully demanding that their government hand over its prized Leopard tanks to the Kiev government).
At the same time, the U.S. and global left abhors the one figure who in my lifetime has meaningfully rolled back the self-righteous imperium: namely, Donald Trump. As a campaigner, he skewered Republican hawks and had the courage to call the Iraq War a disaster. In office, he didn’t start any new conflicts, negotiated a settlement with the Taliban (setting the stage for his successor’s withdrawal from Afghanistan), and declined to go to war with Iran over a downed drone. Since leaving office, he has unequivocally called for peace talks in Ukraine, more than can be said for any of his GOP rivals.
Having made all sorts of compromises with the imperium, the left suddenly turns ultra-principled when it comes to judging Trump’s record as an anti-imperial president: He wasn’t a total pacifist! He talked about “taking their oil.” What about Yemen? Come on. At least Hitchens and the Euston types were honest. They didn’t pretend to be anti-imperialists. Chalk it up as another sign of recent decline that we have to deal with dishonest left imperialists.