Monday, February 05, 2007

Cold war memories

Since September 11 we have seen the emergence of a strand of literature debating what position 'the left' should take on political Islam. I find much of this literature obsessed with questions of what people should think or so rather than what people should do. It is also prone to a political dishonesty identified by Max Weber long ago in his Politics as a vocation, in which people hold their opponents to absolute ethical standards whilst being pragmatic on their own. One side evokes political Islam as a vast powerful movement whose power, scope and danger is chronically underestimated by 'the left', either out of naivety or muddled sympathy with its anti-imperialist rhetoric. Here we retread much older debates, beginning perhaps with pre-1914 socialist debates over imperialism and national defence. The arguments of the minority of the British left that supported the Boer war, or perhaps more accurately loudly distanced itself from the explicitly 'pro-Boers' anticipate arguments about the Iraq war, then as now some found a humanitarian justification pointing to Boer racism. Pro-Boers rejected these arguments, and many of the comments in J. A. Hobson's Imperialism seem applicable to the Iraq war. After 1914 many socialists supported their respective governments. Then we had the debate between 'cold war liberals' and 'progressives' during the Cold War. My own view on this debate is that progressives were prone to give the Soviet Union the benefit of the doubt and to fail to confront the appalling human rights record of the Soviet Union, although it is interesting that most mainstream conservative critics of the Soviet Union although they denounced Communism in general terms, actually gave little specific attention to human rights violations. However cold war liberals, outraged by Communist political duplicity were so keen to prove themselves tough-minded anti-communists that they demonstrated a conscious blindness to the sins of their 'own' side. The foreign policy implications of this are well-known, see Shattered Hope on the fate of the Guatemalan Revolution for example, but this accommodation was notable in domestic policy: Bensel's Sectionalism and American Political Development shows how mainstream liberal organisation de-emphaised race in their definition of liberalism in the interests of keeping the South in the Democratic fold. Overall a good judgment by Joanne Barkan:
Judging cold war liberalism by its laudable goals set in the late 1940s, one has to conclude that it failed in the 1950s. Those were not the glory days of “the fighting faith”: the warriors were neither valiant nor victorious. Long before the Vietnam War, their actions betrayed their principles so often that one would not expect them to be resurrected as heroes.
Yet more recent debates are also relevant. In the context of a resurgent cold war in the 1980s, the question of left-wing attitudes to the Soviet Union was again debated. John Keane accused sections of the left of a failure to face the oppressive nature of the Soviet bloc, in his essay 'In the Heart of Europe". Influential here was the Budapest school of dissident Marxists who ended up at La Trobe university in the 1980s, Frances Feher, Georgy Markus and Ferenc Feher and their Australian disciple Peter Beilharz. Feher's et. al. Dictatorship over Needs was a seminal work here.; it is a brilliant account of how the hyper rationalist promise of communism meant collective irrationality on the grand scale. But their emphasis on the malign nature of Communism, and its immense distance from their vision of socialism, perhaps led them to overstate the stability and threat of Communism. In Thesis Eleven Beilharz was dismissive of Deustcherian enthusiasts for Gorbachev and insisted on the persistent malign essence of the Soviet regime. Heller’s political writing such as Doomsday or Deterrence (1986) (for a critique see here) evoked the spectre of a Finlandization of Europe and suggested that the peace movement played into Soviet hands. But all this overstated the power of Communism which was in an advanced stage of decay. Andzrej Walicki's liberalism meant that he was distant from the concerns of revisionist Marxists. His Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom is more accurate on the thinking of European Communist elites in the 1980s, and how in the case of Gorbachev, the Poles and the Hungarians the Leninist mission was rejected. Political Islam will be even more a house of cards, even if with sharp edges.


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