Wednesday, January 05, 2005

MORE YALE BLOGGING: I've recently learnt that there's yet another blog written by Yale graduates out there, this one called Dissemination. Of the various contributors, I know Ethan Leib (author of the recently published Deliberative Democracy in America), and none of the others, but they all seem, from a quick reading of the still-fledgling blog, like thoughtful, intelligent, decent people, so do give it a look.

Something very odd has happened in the world, or sub-world, of liberal political magazines and debates, and to me, recently. A topic I've long been interested in, and have lately been studying (or supposed to be studying), has suddenly become an important part of contemporary political discourse, a topic of heated debate. I refer here to the political ideas of post-World War Two anti-Communist liberals, or, to frame the same thing from a slightly different perspective, Cold War liberal anti-Communism as an ideology and a movement.
Thus, Eric Alterman, writing in the Nation (which continues to wage a now somewhat forlorn battle not only against McCarthyism, but against what one can only describe as all forms of anti-anti-anti-Communism), praised two surviving and distinguished architects and exemplars of this position, Arthur Schlesinger Jr and John Kenneth Galbraith. Kevin Mattson, a historian and public intellectual who has written for the democratic socialist Dissent and the iconoclastically progressive The Baffler, has recently published a book (which I've recently read) on Schlesinger, Galbraith, and their fellow post-war liberals (primarilly Reinhold Niebuhr and James Weschler). And, in the intervention that has probably had the most repurcussions, Peter Beinart has invoked Cold War liberalism as a model for the contemporary Democratic Party in the New Republic. Beinart's piece has provoked a good deal of controversy, including a rejoinder from Alterman, who seems profoundly irked by Beinart's use of the same banner that Alterman recently brandished to advocate a policy to which Alterman is strongly antipathetic.
The debate surrounding Beinart's piece reveals the deep divisions within liberalism and the left in America today -- a division that even opposition to the victorious forces of Bushism cannot obscure or heal or even, it seems, quiet down (my own view, for the record, is that rather than hammering at one another irately and often, I think, unfairly, liberals should be gearing up to fight the next disastrously blinkered Bush nomination or policy or war). In seeking to act in the present, we should be guided by the problems, and sensitive to the possibilities, of the present, and not misled by false analogies to the past (the invocation of Munich, and still more the fatuous analogies to the reconstructions of Germany and Japan and the democratization of Eastern Europe by proponents of the invasion of Iraq, should have taught us that, if nothing else). Yet it is important to understand the past, to do so in as accurate and nuanced and sophisticated and faithful way as we can, both so that we can learn the lessons that past experience -- experiences alike of success and failure, of virtue and weakness -- does indeed teach us, and also so that we don't misunderstand, and thus misuse, the past. So, I would argue (and not just because it happens to enhance the stature of my own little plot of scholarly turf) that getting the nature and lessons -- whatever we may decide those to be -- of Cold War liberalism right is important today -- particularly if pundits, strategists, scholars and intellectuals are going to toss talk of Cold War liberalism around.
The One and the Many
One thing that the clash between Beinart and Alterman (to use them, for the moment, as emblematic figures) suggests about the movement to which they both appeal is that it didn't exist as they portray it -- that is, as a single movement. There is a tendency, both among the critics (on both the left and the right) who have for decades been attacking it, and among its recent liberal champions, to talk of a single Cold War liberalism, represented by intellectuals such as Schlesinger, Galbraith, and Niebuhr (and also Sidney Hook, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol at one point in his pilgrim's progress, Orwell and latterly Isaiah Berlin and Stephen Spender in England, Raymond Aron in France, Arthur Koestler here and there, to name but a few), by politicians such as Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson and JFK, by journalists such as Weschler, Max Lerner, and Joe Alsop, and by diplomats and other public servants, such as George Kennan, Dean Acheson, Chip Bohlen, Averel Harriman, and so on. All of these figures were alike in opposing both Communism and far-right anti-Communism, in advocating democracy, critquing totalitarianism and fanaticism, combining idealism and realism in an ironic vision of liberal politics, and seeing a combination of liberal and social-democratic reform at home and judicious, multilateral (to varying extents) action abroad as the best way to fight Communism. But there were also profound divisions among them, as well as subtle but significant differences.
Take the political standard-bearers of liberalism. At one point, liberals in America (who centred around Americans for Democratic Action [ADA], of which Schlesinger, Niebuhr, and Weschler were guiding spirits) considered dumping Truman, and many were critical of his embrace of such repressive anti-Communist measures as loyalty oaths (though others welcomed such oaths. Indeed, the matter of political tolerance was a sticking point which divided these liberals, as it divides liberals today. Schlesinger and others in ADA were anxious to free the Democrats from the influence of fellow-traveling progressives such as Henry Wallace and his supporters; most of them however opposed loyalty oaths and the purging of Communists from universities -- measures which more hardline anti-Communist intellectuals such as Hook and Kristol either embraced, or protested very lightly.). There was no love lost between Stevenson, the beau ideal and hope for many of these liberals at one point, and Kennedy, to whom many of them decisively defected in 1960. In fact, the Kennedys had contempt for Stevenson (who was sent by JFK as ambassador to the UN, where, despite the poor treatment of him by the administration, he had some brilliant successes, as during the Cuban Missile Crisis). Indeed, one can take the Kennedy/Stevenson divide as emblematic. The Kennedy boys were tough anti-Communists (JFK authorised the Bay of Pigs folly, against the advice of Schlesinger and other cooler heads, and stepped up involvement in Vietnam, while Robert Kennedy briefly worked for Joe McCarthy [before working against him]). They regarded Stevenson as a bit of a wimp. Stevenson, in turn, while an anti-Communist, was an extremely temperate one, who advocated caution and modesty (this was characteristic: one political humorist remarked of Stevenson that he didn't believe in the Ten Commandments, but in the Ten Suggestions). He advocated 'neutralism', warning against making anti-Communism the essence or center of the Democratic Party's programme or America's sense of mission. Stevenson warned against impatience and arrogance, and the tendency to believe in "absolutes of right or wrong, black or white." He represented a temperate and modest approach to foreign policy; the Kennedys represented a tough, internationalist idealism (JFK was also regarded, as I was reminded by Mattson's account, as something of a technocrat).
There were many divisions within Cold War liberalism. Cold War liberals were comrades in a battle for freedom and humanity at home and abroad; but this didn't prevent them from disagreeing sharply among themselves on many issues. Liberal anti-Communists can be divided into relative moderates, adopting a more conciliatory and 'realist' perspective, and relative die-hards, whose anti-Communism was more ideological and whose approach to foreign policy was more aggressive and idealistic (though, as Mattson again rightly suggests, the use of terms like idealism and realism as antitheses here is overly simplistic and misleading. Nevertheless, some Cold War liberals -- such as Niebuhr and Kennan, to pick perhaps the best exemplars -- enunciated a decisively 'realist' position, while others were more idealistic in outlook and language). Some liberal anti-Communists (such as Joe Alsop) were in favour of the Vietnam War, and stuck to their support of it; others were initially disposed to support it, but came to have doubts (Schlesinger was one of many in this group); others (among them Niebuhr) opposed it from the start.
There were divisions even within the camps formed by divisions. Chip Bohlen and George Kennan were both trained to be Russia experts in the State Department, which they entered within a year of one another. Both served in Moscow; both were profoundly knowledgeable about Russian culture and Soviet politics, and were staunch anti-Communists who opposed the aggressive 'roll-back' policy of Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles (it surprises me that more people don't recognise Dulles as the spiritual forefather and analog of the hawks within the Bush administration -- an unscrupulous moralist whose Wilsonian idealism has curdled into something more sinister and dangerous, if equally naive.) Both can be identified as 'realists', who ultimately argued in favour of containing the Soviet Union, striving to prevent armed conflict wherever possible through diplomacy, and accepting as inevitable a Soviet 'sphere of influence' which would have to be accepted. But their realism was of different sorts. Kennan was -- and, after a century of service and thought, happily remains -- an intellectual; Bohlen was a political diplomat. Kennan's disposition has always been heavily theoretic; Bohlen's was practical. Thus, Kennan's realism was a matter of doctrine, his pessimism deeply ingrained in his character. Bohlen was more supple and optimistic in his outlook. Both men wound up counseling moderation in the conduct of foreign policy; but Bohlen's embrace of moderation was more moderate.
A final example is furnished by comparing Berlin and Schlesinger -- friends of Bohlen and Kennan, and of one another. Both supported, in turn, Stevenson and Kennedy, although Berlin's embrace of both of these figures (especially the latter) was, characteristically, cooler and more qualified than Schlesinger's. The two men were close to one another, personally, politically, and intellectually, as can be seen from Schlesinger's tribute to Berlin, and a comparison of his classic statement of Cold War liberalism, The Vital Center, to Berlin's work. Yet Schelsinger was more engage than Berlin. Each man's anti-Communism resembled the other's in being humane and moderate, but also firm; but Berlin's scepticism and ironic semi-detachment from all political positions and problems was stronger than Schlesinger's [a caveat: I myself am not entirely sure about this assertion; having studied both men's writings, the similarities do strike me as rather more numerous and significant than the differences, which indeed I barely notice. However, I've been presented by this picture of Berlin as the more moderate and ironic, Schlesinger as the more politically engaged and strongly anti-Communist, both by letters of and interviews with Berlin which I've read, and by Schlesinger in an interview; and I figure they should know]. Schlesinger famously called liberalism, in a phrase that is now being much taken-up, as a 'fighting faith'; Berlin didn't go in much for faiths, and had a strong aversion to fighting. He also had no craving or affinity for political power; he was a realist to accept the necessity of some wielding power, but he retained the intellectual's fastidious wariness towards it. Schlesinger was not moved by power-lust; but he was readier and more willing to personally take on the responsibilities and opportunities of wielding power, and associating closely with those who wielded it.
Does this lengthy disquisition have any significance, other than the self-indulgent cavilling of the pedantic enthusiast? Perhaps not. But it does seem to me that these differences and debates within Cold War liberalism, or liberal anti-Communism (I have no preference between the two labels, which I've used interchangeably here and elsewhere), are relevant to today's debates among liberals who recognise the importance of fighting Islamic fundamentalist terrorism and opposing Bush's ideological arrogance. Cold War liberals had to agonise and struggle to strike a balance between combatting different threats at home and abroad, to adopt the right tone and the right reasoning in doing so, to hone a philosophy of political action that achieved a decent compromise between the demands of idealism and the demands of realism. They were in the middle, between the extremists on the Left and the Right. But there's a lot of space in the middle, and they spread over a spectrum that allowed for considerable diversity and idiosyncrasy. Many of the debates they had about the war on Communism and how to fight it -- what priority should it assume in relation to domestic relations? Does it require us to compromise our civil liberties, or insist on them all the more? How shall we strike the balance between liberty and security? Does fighting a war require bipartisanship at home, or should we vigorously fight those who we believe will fight the war the wrong way? Should America act primarilly alone, or in tandem with others, through force, or through diplomacy? -- are questions that liberals must address now.
Does the experience of these liberal anti-Communists teach us any particular lesson that we can use as a guide to our own attempts at balancing? I'm not sure if it does, and I'm not sure what the lesson or lessons may be, if there are any. This is a topic I've been pondering, and will continue to ponder. From my own perspective, those who counseled and practiced moderation in moderation, who emphasised humility, who were aware of the inevitability of tragedy and the inescapability of moral compromise, yet still scrupulously adhered to moral values and avoided brutality -- Niebuhr, Schlesinger, and Berlin, more than either diehards like Hook or Alsop or Melvin Lasky or Diana Trilling, or thoroughgoing realists like Kennan and Hans Morgenthau -- seem like the best models.
But, we still don't agree about, and we're still not sure about, who was right in these debates. And so one of the lessons of Cold War liberalism is that we won't agree on what the right course of action is, and won't really know, or have any way of knowing, for quite some time -- or, very possibly, ever. The best of the liberal anti-Communists were sharply aware of the need for, and preached, humility; we should learn intellectual humility, and political prudence and determination, from both their beliefs, and the example of their actions and achievments.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?