May 30, 2008
It is odd, to say the least, to read a colleague of mine at this site complaining of someone else’s idiosyncratic positions, as if we prized conformity and predictability here, or attacking his skepticism of mass hysteria directed towards a supposedly pervasive foreign enemy. It is especially strange to find such derision of anti-anticommunism in Richard’s post, since I very much doubt that that most of us would have taken a very different line on popular anticommunism at its origins than we have taken on the sort of crude jingoism that dresses itself up in appeals to combating jihadism. The similarities between the popular anticommunist response and the overreaching anti-jihadist response are noticeable, and I have noted them before. Before anyone gets too carried away in anti-anti-anticommunist fervor, I suggest we consider the very real problems that mass anticommunism has posed for the conservative movement over its history.
Anticommunism served as the common ground, the chief organizing principle of diverse groups on the right, which compelled traditional conservatives into a dubious alliance with the cheerleaders of corporate capitalism not necessarily that much less antithetical to the stability and integrity of their communities and their way of life, drove the right to embrace a series of questionable foreign wars, deployments and foreign commitments that continue to burden our country with their costs and to reconcile itself to an expansive security state whose unchecked power makes invocations of constitutional constraints quaint and amusing and, of course, opened the door to the neoconservatives who gained entry and found common cause mostly thanks to their even more intense anticommunism that was the fruit of old quarrels from the left. At the end of the Cold War, some anticommunists who had embraced a relatively more hawkish line in the Cold War now saw the conflict as over and all of the things just mentioned as no longer necessary, yet it is almost unavoidable that “emergency” and “temporary” powers that they are never temporary and will continue long after the emergency has ended (especially when the “emergency” lasts for five decades). The anti-anticommunists protested against the ideology that justified all of this, while most conservatives insisted on the necessity of all these things. In retrospect and on balance, who looks to have been more in the right?
It is not just that we are today in the position comparable to the anti-anticommunists of old, but the anti-anticommunists made a good deal of sense and we should at the very least give them a serious hearing rather than dismiss them as idiosyncratic and their position as “highly dubious.” There is, of course, nothing dubious about defending a strategy of containment and refusing to embrace apocalyptic policies of confrontation, just as today those who counsel containment and deterrence against such lesser powers as Iran and the like are not promoting anything that could be confused with appeasement.
Here is George Kennan, not exactly an appeaser in dealing with the Soviets, on the problem with a certain kind of anticommunism:
They [anti-communists] distort and exaggerate the dimensions of the problem with which they profess to deal. They confuse internal and external aspects of the communist threat. They insist on portraying as contemporary things that had their actuality years ago. They insist on ascribing to the workings of domestic communism evils and frustrations which, in so far as they were not part of the normal and unavoidable burden of complexity in our life, were the product of our behaviour generally as a nation, and should today be the subject of humble and contrite soul-searching on the part of all of us, in a spirit of brotherhood and community, rather than of frantic and bitter recrimination. And having thus incorrectly stated the problem, it is no wonder that these people consistently find the wrong answers.
Kennan had just finished saying that he believed that many of those whom he was criticizing were sincere, “many of them are good people,” but he said that he had “the deepest misgivings about the direction and effects of their efforts.” This was not only a humane and reasonable response to popular anticommunism, but I think it will be judged as the right one as we come to appreciate with the passing of time the remarkable weakness of Soviet communism as a system and as a strategic threat. To say that the threat was weak is not to say that there was no threat or that nothing should have been done, but that one of the problems with an exaggerated view of the threat that anticommunists advanced is that the response tends towards excess, overkill and focusing on the wrong targets.
Richard says elsewhere in his post:
And for an historian who prides himself in grasping that “ideas have consequences” and who stresses that “material conditions, almost always, matter less than mental conditions and inclinations” (Democracy and Populism, p. viii), he’s taken pains to deemphasize the importance of Marxism-Leninism.
I am not sure what point Richard thinks he is making, since it is quite possible to argue that Marxism-Leninism was not the driving force behind the foreign policy of the USSR and that Great Russian nationalist ambitions had a significant part to do with it while still believing that ideas have some primacy in understanding history. I think Lukacs is badly mistaken if he discounts the difference between the ideologically-driven mass murder of tens of millions of people and the small-scale cruelties and injustices of the tsarist system, and one wonders if he would respond favorably to a similar conflation of the Habsburgs and the Nazis (I think not), but his critics would likewise be badly mistaken if they misunderstood his (and Kennan’s) argument about the secondary importance of communist ideology to Soviet foreign policy to be a claim that ideas are somehow unimportant or secondary. Plainly, Lukacs’ point here is that ideas are driving human action, but it is not the official, communist ideas that the Soviets professed as their state doctrine, but rather the Russian nationalism that defined the scope of their ambitions and the limitations of their power. A universalist ideology such as Marxism-Leninism lacks the same kind of mobilizing power that nationalism does because it cannot appeal to natural and tribal affinities, but is instead often seen to be at war with them, and this has been a consistent theme in Lukacs’ works: socialism is less powerful for mobilizing masses than nationalism. It is for this reason that nationalism is both more powerful and thus also potentially more dangerous. Perhaps this is yet another of the “banal” and obvious claims that Lukacs makes, but if so then why it is also being contested so fiercely?
The postwar history of communism bears this out: it thrived when it attaches itself to nationalist and anti-colonial revolutionary movements, failed when it did not and otherwise broke apart along lines of nationality. Splitting the Sino-Soviet alliance was made possible by the greater power of nationalism over communism. The imagined global communist threat was divided against itself according to nation, much as jihadis today are divided by sect and to some extent by ethnicity, and it was ultimately the inability of the Russians to “digest” eastern European nations and the unwillingness of the latter to be under the whip of the Russians forever that brought down their empire in Europe. Nationalism was the main political force in the 20th century, and this seems obvious when you consider his claim, which seems quite solid, that the defining year of the century (indeed, the dawn of the “short” 20th century and the end of the “long” 19th) was 1914, not 1917. Anticommunists are fixated on 1917 with more intensity than White Russian emigres, but the Revolution was but an after-effect of 1914, which was a year in which the nationalisms of several European peoples ushered in one of the greatest conflagrations in the history of the world that set the course of the rest of 20th century history.
Richard thinks he has caught Lukacs up in a contradiction when Lukacs says that Churchill was a defender of an older world against Hitler’s revisionism, but of course the history of the two world wars can also be understood as the story of second-tier revisionist powers trying to raise themselves up and trying to knock off the first-tier world powers of their time. Churchill’s older world was not terribly old, and he was in many ways a thoroughly modern man, but he was defending the established order—the order in which Britain was on top—against those powers that sought to catapult themselves into the first tier. Yes, Churchill was a nationalist in his way, but he was a nationalist defending a British imperial regime that at least still paid a certain lip service to older ideals of station, service and rank. Clearly the world of Churchill’s British establishment was deeply at odds with the “New Order” and the New Man, whether or not you want to dub him with the honorary title of reactionary.
Richard also has a number of problems with Lukacs’ Democracy and Populism, which I discussed here in a very old post. Rather than rehash all of that here, I will let my previous review address what I find persuasive and lacking in that Lukacs work. Meanwhile, for those tempted to believe that Lukacs’ recent works offer “diminishing returns,” I offer my review of his biography of George Kennan, which should lay to rest this particular complaint against Lukacs.