On Democratic Internationalism

On Democratic Internationalism

Struggles for democratization are always local struggles: the first thing their protagonists want is a state governed by the people who live in it. We must relearn how to support them.

Protesters surrounding a destroyed Soviet tank in Móricz Zsigmond square, Budapest, 1956 (Wikimedia Commons)

My aim in this lecture is to celebrate internationalism, which was central to Irving Howe’s politics and to the politics of Dissent magazine from its earliest days. It was so central that the first Dissentniks never thought to defend it, they simply lived it. They thought it obvious that democrats and socialists around the world were their comrades, who required their support. I am going to look at one example of that support. The year 2016 is the sixtieth anniversary of the Hungarian revolution against Soviet imperialism and communist rule, brutally repressed by Russian tanks. In the fall of 1956, Howe, with Lew Coser, published a Dissent pamphlet in support of the Hungarian rebels. But before I consider the argument of that pamphlet, I want to describe an earlier group of American internationalists who responded in a similar way to an earlier Hungarian revolution. That story will enable me to raise some worries about internationalist politics.



I will begin with a group of radical intellectuals and writers in New York City who published a magazine in the 1840s and ’50s: it was called the Democratic Review. DR was more like Partisan Review than Dissent: it was committed to radical democracy but also to the creation of a native American literature—against the imitation of English letters. Its contributors were cultural nationalists: the group included Nathaniel Hawthorne and a young Brooklyn journalist named Walter Whitman; Melville wrote occasionally; so did Poe, Bryant, Whittier, the historian George Bancroft, and a small number of women, Margaret Fuller the best known. What first prompted my engagement with the DR was its enthusiastic support for the 1848 revolutions in Europe. Margaret Fuller actually fought in the Italian revolution alongside her lover, Giovanni Ossoli, who was a friend of Mazzini, who was a friend of the editors of the DR. The magazine was the organ of Young America (on the model of Young Italy and Young Ireland). Some of the earliest American debates about democratic internationalism and intervention in foreign countries took place in the DR.

President Franklin Pierce was a friend of the magazine; Hawthorne wrote Pierce’s 1852 campaign biography, enthusiastically reviewed in the DR. After his election, Pierce appointed a number of DR people, including Hawthorne and two former editors, to diplomatic posts in Europe, where they made contact with the (now defeated) revolutionaries. Some of them tried a little too hard to get things started again and had to be called back for undiplomatic behavior. On February 21, 1854, George Nicholas Sanders, who edited DR in 1852 and ’53 and was the newly appointed, not yet confirmed, American consul in London, hosted a memorable Washington’s Birthday dinner party. His guests included the Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth, the Italians Garibaldi and Mazzini, the French radical Ledru-Rollin, the German Young Hegelian Arnold Ruge, the Russian exile Alexander Herzen—and the American ambassador to Great Britain James Buchanan, who wrote about the evening to a friend: “Sitting next to Mrs. Sanders . . . , I asked her if she was not afraid that the combustible materials about her would explode and blow us all up.” George Sanders gave the toast: “To do away with the Crowned Heads of Europe.” The British government objected, and Sanders was not confirmed by the U.S. Senate (though ten senators voted for his confirmation). He had also published a letter in the London Times hoping for the assassination of Napoleon III, stuffed the diplomatic pouch with revolutionary literature, and given U.S. passports to European revolutionaries. You can’t help liking the guy—though he did not turn out well, as we will see.

It is a little unclear whether the DR intellectuals actually favored military intervention in what they expected to be a renewal of revolutionary activity across Europe—“the movement of the people of the old world since 1848, now suspended, but soon to be re-commenced . . . for the vindication of the eternal right of self-government.” Whitman published a poem “Resurgemus” in the New York Daily Tribune in June 1850, which reflects the same “soon to be recommenced” idea. First he celebrated the revolutions of 1848:

God, twas delicious!

That brief tight, glorious grip

Upon the throats of kings.

Then he looked ahead:

Not a grave of those slaughtered ones

But is growing its seed of freedom,

In its turn to bear seed

Which the winds shall carry afar and resow

And the rain nourish.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Liberty, let others despair of thee,

But I will never despair of thee:

Is the house shut? Is the master away?

Nevertheless be ready, be not weary of watching,

He will surely return, his messengers come anon.

Sanders was even more sure of the return of liberty and revolution. Edward Widmer, whose book Young America is one of my sources, thinks President Pierce’s appointments abroad produced “the least effective diplomatic corps ever marshaled by the United States.” They “cavorted,” he writes, “with republicans working to subvert the established governments” of Europe. And, he says, they favored military intervention in the coming struggles. The DR, under Sanders’s editorship, certainly flirted with the idea of intervention. An article published in June 1852 described the assistance the French had provided to the American revolutionaries in the 1780s and argued that “It follows from the history of French intervention in our revolution, that whenever the same occasion arises, we are bound to act a similar part. . . .” In the next issue, the DR called for the United States to build up its navy.

But I think this argument was largely rhetorical. What the DR called for explicitly was a fourfold engagement of American citizens: first, to defend the principle of self-government (“All Americans . . . are, or should be republican propagandists”); second, to collect money to support the propaganda of European revolutionaries (“to so prepare the public mind that there will be a popular revolution, and the final overthrow of the system of monarchy”); third—though this, unlike the first two, was called a right, not an obligation—“to volunteer on the side of liberty” (despite the Neutrality Act of 1818, the DR assured its readers that “any citizen may expatriate himself at pleasure, and take the chances of a foreign war”); and fourth, to give or sell weapons to revolutionaries abroad. One DR writer thought that this last would be enough. That the sale of guns to democrats abroad should be as free as the sale of guns to foreign kings is “all that can be asked of us as a nation. . . . Private enterprise, and the free people will do the rest.” Clearly, these were interesting people, sympathetic people, but now I have to introduce some qualifications.

Note, first, that Abraham Lincoln, a supporter of the Whig Party’s cautious foreign policy, thought that the DR intellectuals were warmongers. At a meeting in Springfield, Illinois, in January 1852, he spoke against any intervention on behalf of the Hungarians—Kossuth was then touring America, looking for support to “recommence” revolution in Hungary. The opposition to DR internationalism was most clearly stated by Thomas Whitney, a New York politician: “Although our sympathies must, and will ever, be with those who struggle against oppression, it is neither our policy nor our duty to involve ourselves in their affairs, to jeopardize our peace, or embroil our nation.” Whitney ended up with the Know-Nothing Party, but his position here is close to Lincoln’s.

The founder of the DR and its editor from 1837 to 1846 was John O’Sullivan, a forgotten figure today but once an important journalist and public intellectual in the Jackson/Van Buren wing of the Democratic Party—a defender of radical democracy, immigration, and worker rights, and an early opponent of capital punishment. O’Sullivan was also the author of the phrase “manifest destiny” and a fervent advocate of American expansion across the continent. He thought that the United States would one day include Mexico and Canada—“by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government.” It doesn’t seemed to have occurred to O’Sullivan that Mexicans and Canadians might want to experiment with liberty in a state of their own.

O’Sullivan worked closely with anti-Spanish Cubans fighting for Cuban independence, which he thought would lead, as Texas’s independence had, to annexation by the United States (it would have come in as a slave state). In 1849 and ’50, O’Sullivan and Sanders organized filibusters to Cuba. This was before the word “filibuster” had come to name a parliamentary maneuver. As defined in Harper’s in January 1853, “filibuster” meant “the right and practice of private war or the claim of individuals to engage in foreign hostilities aside from . . . [their] government.” Think of the Bay of Pigs as private enterprise, without any state involvement; the filibusters of ’49 and ’50 were similar disasters. O’Sullivan was, like many of his colleagues on the DR, a nationalist internationalist. This is not an uncommon combination—not in the case of democratic, and also not in the case of socialist, internationalism. If your country is a democracy, then the expansion of your country is also the expansion of democracy. If your country is socialist—you know the argument.

Despite their enthusiasm for radical democracy, many of the DR intellectuals were hostile to the abolitionists—and only partly because the Democratic Party was, then and for years after, dependent on the South. Some of them were simple racists—Sanders certainly believed that the coming republican revolutions would be by and for white people only—but most of them just wanted the abolitionists to go away; they threatened to divide the Union, and so they made difficulties for our “manifest destiny.” As the 1850s progressed, the DR community was torn apart by the slavery issue; some of its members joined the Free Soil Party and then the Republicans to oppose slavery; others moved towards support for the Confederacy. O’Sullivan and Sanders and all those involved in the Cuban filibusters ended up defending and even working for the Confederacy.

One further complication: a good number of Whig supporters of abolition in the 1840s and ’50s were also nativists—or much too ready to cooperate with nativists like the Know-Nothings. Many opponents of slavery were evangelical Protestants who feared the Irish Catholic immigrants; they were eager to emancipate the distant slaves, for which we honor them, but they opposed giving citizenship to the nearby papists—who were strongly defended in the DR. Of course, there were Free Soilers and Radical Republicans who got both these issues right, but there is ample evidence here for the proposition that the good guys rarely line up in neat rows.

Even more than Franklin Pierce, the DR intellectuals loved Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, whom we have all been taught not to love, for good reasons. But Douglas was an engaged member of Young America, a passionate defender of the European revolutions, and an opponent of Whig passivity. In December 1851, Douglas gave a speech in the U.S. Senate, excerpted in the DR, welcoming Kossuth to the United States and describing what was coming in Europe: “It will be a struggle between liberal and absolute principles—between Republicanism and Despotism. Are we to remain cold and indifferent spectators when the time of action shall arrive . . . ? Will it not become our duty to do whatever the interests, honor, and glory of our country may require . . . to give encouragement to that great movement? Should we not recognize the independence of each Republic as soon as it shall be established; open diplomatic intercourse, and form commercial treaties . . . ? I think that the bearing of this country should be such as to demonstrate to all mankind that America sympathizes with the popular movement against despotism, whenever and wherever made.”

This is heady stuff, but we need to worry about Douglas’s domestic politics: “no man,” the abolitionist Theodore Parker wrote, “has done us such harm.” I don’t need to say much about our greatest worry, the racism of some of the DR editors and writers, since this is so obviously inconsistent with their commitment to radical democracy—and since other DR writers ended up with Lincoln, as Whitman famously did, and George Bancroft also. But the expansionist politics, the jingoism, the filibustering—this is more closely linked to, maybe it’s even intrinsic to, their nationalist internationalism. The earlier nationalism of Young America was democratic, literary, peaceful: America’s “manifest destiny” was supposed to unfold without war, through mass immigration, westward movement, and the sheer attractiveness of republican culture. But the Mexican War, the controversy with England over Oregon (remember “54-40 or fight!”), the desire to annex Cuba, and the exhilarating prospect of revolutions abroad promoted and supported by Americans—all this produced a kind of chauvinist militancy, often more gestural than serious, which is not attractive. Horace Greeley mocked the DR, whose idea of “manifest destiny” would not be satisfied, he wrote, “until all Europe is one great and splendid Republic . . . and we shall all be citizens of the world.” But this is to stress the naive universalism of the DR intellectuals whose own stress was too often on America alone. And maybe the chauvinist belief, as Judith Shklar describes the doctrine of the DR, that America was “an inherently and incomparably superior nation,” connects somehow, consciously or unconsciously, with the idea of white superiority and helps to explain why radical journalists like O’Sullivan and Sanders ended up with Southern conservatives and slave owners.



I am now going to skip a hundred years and ask what democratic internationalism should mean in our own time. So, consider the second Hungarian revolution, also repressed by Russia, which, as Howe and Coser say in their pamphlet, “bears many of the characteristics of the classic 19th century revolutions.” And their excited response bears many of the characteristics of Young America’s radicalism—without the racism, obviously: Dissent published, with equal excitement, some of the earliest accounts of the Montgomery bus boycott and the civil rights movement.

At the level of individual engagement, the editors of Dissent were close to the editors of the DR. They too embraced the “soon to recommence” idea, insisting that, despite the savage repression, “this is not the end; it is only the beginning.” For the sake of what Howe and Coser were sure would be an ongoing struggle, American socialists and democrats should do “whatever we can do” to help: “be it through the holding of protest meetings and demonstrations or the collection of funds.” They did not call for arms trafficking or volunteering in revolutionary wars abroad. There haven’t been many opportunities in 1956 or after for the formation of an International Brigade. Individual engagement is still possible—I will come back to some of its contemporary versions. But first I need to consider collective engagement.

What does a democratic state owe to revolutionaries abroad fighting for democracy? In Douglas’s words, what do “the interests, honor, and glory of our country require”? Here Howe and Coser were, as I suspect many of us are today, a little uncertain. They were not jingoists; they did not want a “war of liberation,” though there were American intellectuals, internationalists of a sort, who wanted exactly that, who thought that only American power could bring democracy to Eastern Europe. But their politics was, like that of some DR intellectuals, largely rhetorical, not entirely serious. What democratic internationalism actually requires is not the expanding power of a single democratic state, but the support of local struggles. These will often be, as in Hungary in 1848 and again in 1956, struggles for national liberation, which internationalists should nonetheless endorse. Our goal is not “one great and splendid republic” for the whole world, but many democratic states in the hands of their own people. What should the American state have done to further that goal?

The Dissent editors were decidedly unhappy with the passivity of the U.S. government, which mimicked the Whigs of the 1850s. The State Department, they wrote, “would have preferred that events move more slowly in eastern Europe,” a position that reflected an instinctive dislike for revolutions “arising spontaneously from the depths of social life.” The socialist government in France, headed by Guy Mollet, didn’t want to bring charges in the UN, as Howe and Coser thought the Western democracies should have done, “since it feared, understandably, that it might be subjected to similar charges in regard to Algeria.” How then to demonstrate to all mankind that American sympathies and French socialist sympathies were with the popular movement against despotism?

This is a recurrent problem, by no means limited to Eastern Europe in 1956. Should states encourage rebellions in other states, when they are not prepared or not able to give effective assistance to the rebels? Think of President Bush, the elder, who encouraged uprisings in Iraq in 1991, and then did nothing but watch as they were brutally repressed. President Obama was urged by people who were surely democratic internationalists to speak out in support of the Green demonstrators in the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities in 2009, but he refused to do so, or did so very gingerly, thinking perhaps of Bush in ’91 (or of the CIA’s role in the fall of Mossadegh in 1953, though his would have been a very different intervention). He was accused of failing to demonstrate to mankind where American sympathies lay. But wasn’t this failure mandated by the justifiable disinclination to embolden, when we weren’t ready actually to assist, the Iranian rebels? Again, we need to worry about internationalist jingoism.

I do think that there are times when military intervention is justified; many of us have supported calls for intervention to stop a massacre—as in Rwanda and Darfur in recent decades. That wasn’t an issue in 1848 or 1956; there were killings enough in both those years, though of a kind that we associate with political repression, not genocide. Still, the prospect of repression might sometimes warrant intervention. The role of the French navy at Yorktown is worth thinking about, as the DR argued in 1852—and it is especially interesting that this was France before the revolution. What credentials did Louis XVI have to support national liberation in America? No doubt, he was moved by reasons of state, but maybe it is the action that counts, not the actor or the actor’s motives. The editors of Dissent in 1956 opposed an American war of liberation in Eastern Europe because of the threat of nuclear annihilation—a position so obviously sensible that even the U.S. government adopted it. But some of them also doubted that imperial America could ever be a force for liberation, and there they were surely wrong, as East European dissidents have argued—or, better, they were right only with regard to military force, not with regard to political, diplomatic, and economic pressure.

What about the use of force short of war—as in the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Kurdistan throughout the 1990s, which made possible the establishment of a close-to-democratic polity? I am not sympathetic to the kind of internationalism represented by the Red Army marching on Warsaw in 1919 to bring communism to Poland or by the American army marching on Baghdad in 2003 to bring democracy to Iraq. There were certainly reasons of state in both those cases, but also internationalist reasons, not entirely different, again, from those of the DR intellectuals. But what the no-fly zone did for the Kurds comes closer to what the French navy did for the Americans and provides a better model of democratic internationalism.

The state is not always the best, and never the only possible, agent for the promotion of democracy. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any established government enthusiastically supporting democratic revolutions that “arise spontaneously from the depths of social life.” Operating in other people’s countries, state officials and soldiers are often heavy-handed, ignorant of the depths, culturally insensitive, and politically counterproductive. Even when they overthrow tyrants, they have great difficulty producing a minimally decent, let alone democratic, successor government. What counts in my two examples of justified intervention, the French in America in the 1780s and the Americans in Kurdistan in the 1990s, is the existence in both places of a strong government-in-waiting, at least quasi-democratic, capable of ruling the country. Nothing like that existed in Iraq in 2003 (or in Libya or Syria later on).

Consider now the work of nongovernmental organizations where the worries I’ve just expressed are mostly unnecessary. Howe and Coser condemned “the somnolent Socialist International, which should have seized this magnificent opportunity for encouraging the democratic forces in Hungary, [but] took two weeks before it could even convene its European Secretariat.” “Somnolent” would be a flattering description of the Socialist International today, which seems closer to death than to sleep. Still, the old Internationals were models of what I think of as the leftist version of cross-border politics: they brought together parties with a strong popular base that could mobilize large numbers of people on behalf of comrades abroad—people ready, some of them, “to volunteer on the side of liberty.” The left Internationals have been replaced in our time by organizations of a different sort, which I think of as liberal rather than leftist in their operations. They lack a mass base, but they have very strong staffs, recruited from many countries. Consider organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International: we might say that the men and women working for these groups constitute the International Brigades of the twenty-first century. Of course, ISIS is also an international brigade, whose fighters the left today cannot match. But the work of liberal NGOs is enormously important even if it doesn’t produce infantry battalions; they mobilize global public opinion against repression, censorship, torture, and every form of authoritarianism—and so they oppose the enemies of democracy.

Those of us who help fund the liberal NGOs are democratic internationalists, doing our bit, but is that all we should be doing? Come back to a line from the DR, echoed in Howe and Coser’s pamphlet of 1956: We should all be propagandists for democracy. There is an ideological war against political opponents of democratic politics, and now against religious opponents, that should be the first engagement of magazine editors and writers. In 1956, when too many leftists refused to support the Hungarian revolutionaries but instead defended or apologized for the Russian repression, Dissent published a number of articles castigating intellectuals like G.D.H. Cole in England (once a brilliant advocate of decentralized socialism) who wrote in the New Statesman that “Sheer chaos threatened the country, and it is not possible to say what would have happened had not the Soviet Union . . . sent [in] its tanks and lent its backing to the attempt to construct a new Communist government. . . .” Slavery was the issue that destroyed the democratic radicalism of the 1840s and ’50s. Communism was the issue that almost destroyed the democratic radicalism of the 1950s and ’60s. Irving Howe and some of his fellow Dissentniks were among those who made possible that critical qualifier: “almost.”

The internationalism of magazine editors, intellectuals, academics, trade unionists, teachers, lawyers, and human rights activists is no less necessary today than in 1848 and 1956. I want to conclude by describing what people like us, you and me, should be doing right now. I won’t suggest that what we should be doing will be effective anytime soon; the times are not favorable to democratic government. Our internationalism is a way of saying, with Whitman, “Liberty, let others despair of thee . . . ” So let’s imagine some internationalist intellectuals, men and women of the left, engaged professors, say, or journalists, or teachers, or lawyers who are invited to visit countries with authoritarian regimes. They are committed democrats, definitely not apologists for authoritarianism, but they also don’t believe in intellectual or academic boycotts. When they are invited to lecture at a university, or consult with local NGOs, or hold hands with beleaguered dissidents, in China, or Uzbekistan, or Iran, or Venezuela, or Zimbabwe, they go. What should they do when they get there to promote democracy? What does their internationalism require?

Well, obviously, they should talk about the value of democratic politics, about free speech, free press, and the right of opposition—and about the history of democratic political struggles. They should not hesitate to name the enemies of democracy—I have a little list—and they should argue with fellow leftists who today, as in the past, can’t or won’t recognize their enemies. They also need to listen to what their hosts have to say about democratic politics, even if some of them are only able to talk in whispers. They should give the local democrats moral and, whenever possible, material assistance. Perhaps the locals need help from outside their country—expressions of political support (statements signed by global notables), or public criticism of their governments from human rights groups, or guidance from democratic trade unions, or financial aid for travel abroad or study at a foreign university or even R&R for burned-out militants.

More important, perhaps, they can put the local democrats in touch with democratic activists in other countries. Activists who have been successful, even if only partially successful, in their own country are often eager to carry their success to new places—as young Serbian democrats, after Milošević’s downfall, joined in the Rose and Orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. But these activists may need help paying their way; they may need funds for democratic agitation and propaganda, which outsiders can legitimately provide—as the DR told its readers long ago.

The revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine were not ideal examples of democratic regime change; they produced regimes still marred by authoritarian practices and extensive corruption. Democracy has social and cultural as well as political and legal prerequisites, and its creation is a longer term project than the American internationalists of 1848, and perhaps also of 1956, recognized. It requires a certain kind of public space for group interaction, where citizens can learn the value of compromise and the possibility of living with ongoing disagreement. Here too, outsiders can help, if they have commitment and patience. So my internationalist intellectuals should make a point of learning about the state of civil society in the countries they visit, and they should look for points of entry for lawyers, teachers, trade unionists, human rights and environmental activists—for anyone or any group that can help people join together in the nongovernmental, anti-authoritarian social practices that underpin democratic politics. If there is any space at all for oppositional activity, outsiders can join in whatever goes on there—as many Western intellectuals did by teaching in the underground universities of Eastern Europe in the 1970s. If there are demonstrations of democratic protest, they can join those, too. If they aren’t ready to “take the chances of a foreign war,” they should be ready to take the chances of a foreign political struggle. It is the locals who have to win the struggle, but foreign internationalists are allowed to help; in fact, we are required to help.

All this is democratic internationalism, and if it doesn’t sound like a quick way to change the world—well, there isn’t a quick way. State action, especially military action, often looks quicker, but it usually isn’t.

Struggles for democratization, whatever help they receive from outside, are always local struggles. Their protagonists don’t aim at the triumph of democratic principles around the world. The first thing they want is a democratic state of their own—a state governed by the people who live in it. They are nationalists before they are internationalists: this was true, as I’ve already said, of Hungary in 1848 and 1956. But we support them because democratic internationalism isn’t aimed at the transcendence of states and nations. I have argued that we shouldn’t think of the state as the chief or only agent of democratization, but state agency is the goal of democratization. We used to call this goal the “seizure of power,” but we don’t think of it anymore as a single, glorious revolutionary moment. Democratization is a long, difficult, uncertain process, but its purpose is what it always was: the people take control of their state and use it to provide physical security, defend civil liberties, regulate the market, redistribute wealth, protect the environment, and fund schools and welfare services. For these purposes, there is no other agency. So democratic internationalists are “statists” of a sort—our virtue is that we aren’t focused only on our own state. On the other hand, we also aren’t “citizens of the world”; we are friends, supporters, comrades of specific other people—sometimes there are a lot of them; sometimes not—who share our values, who are fighting for the liberation of their countries, for democracy and equality; and we are the opponents of anyone who defends tyranny—the despotism of the old dynasties or the new zealotries. So this is what “manifest destiny” should mean to democratic internationalists: it means a decent and democratic state for everyone.

Michael Walzer is editor emeritus at Dissent. This article was originally delivered as the 20th Annual Irving Howe Memorial Lecture in December 2015.

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