Let’s Not Change the World After All

Let’s Not Change the World After All

On the broad American left, internationalism used to be as common—and as essential—as breathing. What happened?

Jane Addams (left) and Malcolm X (right) both saw internationalism as central to their causes (Library of Congress)

On the broad American left, internationalism used to be as common—and as essential—as breathing. Abolitionists, black and white, sailed back and forth across the Atlantic, speaking to large and sympathetic audiences. Feminists met regularly with their European sisters to forge common strategies to win the vote and urge male leaders to stop making war. Followers of Henry George promoted his Single Tax from the streets of San Francisco to the lecture halls of Dublin to Leo Tolstoy’s estate, 120 miles south of Moscow. Pan-Africanists from Martin Delany to Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X sought to fuse the black diaspora into a mighty, anticolonial force. Despite their ferocious differences, every species of socialist, anarchist, communist, and syndicalist believed they belonged to a movement of class-conscious proletarians that spanned the globe and was destined, some sunny day, to govern it.

Internationalism was hardly just a passion of radicals. William Gladstone, the eloquent and long-serving British prime minister, inspired a generation of such nineteenth-century liberals as E.L. Godkin, founder of the Nation, and the young Woodrow Wilson. William Jennings Bryan was only the most famous of the U.S. reformers who made a grand tour of Glasgow’s municipal streetcars, Helsinki’s neighborhood parks, and Berlin’s working-class housing. There was a strong and natural bond between policy intellectuals on both sides of the ocean who imagined a welfare state and then struggled, in similar ways, to create one. During the 1930s and ’40s, New Dealers made common cause with British Laborites and Swedish Social Democrats. Liberal presidents from Wilson to FDR to LBJ envisioned a world protected by the armed might of the United States and like-minded allies in which democratic altruism, a mixed capitalist economy, and human rights would reign supreme.

A more multinational vision gripped preachers during the Second World War. In 1942 and 1945, hundreds of liberal Protestant leaders gathered in conferences where they condemned “the imperialism of the white man” and demanded what the historian David Hollinger calls “a species-wide solidarity—supervised by a benevolent United States and enacted in concert with the varieties of humankind.” The fellowship, while short-lived, was so ecumenical that it included both the radical pacifist A.J. Muste and John Foster Dulles, the devout Presbyterian and future Republican Secretary of State.

Of course, there were limits and drawbacks to all this global self-confidence. Leading Marxists were suspected, quite accurately, of longing to emulate the Social Democrats in Germany and then adjusting their line whenever Comrade Stalin changed his. Anyone who seriously questioned the gospel of American exceptionalism was inviting political marginality, if not condemnation. Liberals naively imagined that a bond with their elite counterparts in other nations could weaken or break down barriers of geography, history, and culture. The dream of a world “made safe for democracy” ignored the irony that men in charge of a powerful nation were alternately commanding and instructing people in long exploited lands on how to govern themselves.

But from the early nineteenth century until the 1970s, American liberals and radicals in the United States nurtured durable sympathies with their counterparts elsewhere in the world. These associations gave them confidence they could transform their own nation and play a big part in changing the world. In 1915, Jane Addams led a delegation of labor leaders and social workers to an international conference of woman pacifists at The Hague. During the Great Depression, black Communists in Alabama described Stalin as “the new Lincoln” and the USSR as a “‘new Ethiopia’ stretching forth her arms in defense of black folk.” In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from Birmingham Jail: “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”

Ironically, the war in Vietnam threw both species of optimistic internationalists on the defensive. Since then, neither liberals nor radicals have been able to regain confidence in their old visions or to formulate persuasive new ones.

In the mid-1960s, such a failure seemed quite unlikely. Liberal anti-Communists who rallied behind Lyndon Johnson when he sent combat troops to Indochina assumed their NATO allies, who included both the governing Labour Party in Britain and the Social Democrat Willy Brandt, who was the Foreign Minister of West Germany, would stand by them. In justifying the intervention against an enemy force led by Communists, LBJ echoed the internationalism of Woodrow Wilson from half a century before. Our aim, Johnson declared in 1965, is a “peace without conquest.” “We fight because we must fight,” he explained, “if we are to live in a world where every country can shape its own destiny. And only in such a world will our own freedom be finally secure.”

For their part, most radicals identified strongly with the underdog heroes of the National Liberation Front (NLF) or Viet Cong as a resourceful collective David fighting for its life and freedom against the brutal but clumsy Yankee Goliath. Che Guevara’s 1967 call for “Two, Three, Many Vietnams” seemed both an imperative and a prophecy quite likely to be fulfilled. Mao’s China also attracted thousands of young followers in the United States. In Oakland, the Black Panthers sold copies of the Little Red Book and used the profits to buy shotguns; all members were required to study Mao’s quotations as if they were holy writ. Young New Leftists from the United States, Europe, urban Latin America, and Japan borrowed one another’s slogans and dress styles, read each other’s books and pamphlets, and when possible, traveled overseas to meet with their comrades. It seemed a new kind of International—following the moral lead of men and women from what was then called the “Third World”—liberated from the illusions of Euro-American paternalism was being born.

It is easy to explain why liberal globalists lost their faith. By 1968, as 540,000 U.S. troops and millions of tons of bombs failed to vanquish a peasant army fighting on its own soil, the messianic phrases voiced by Democratic chief executives since Woodrow Wilson sounded hollow, if not ludicrously obscene. George McGovern’s 1972 call to “Come home, America” could not win him the presidency. But it did express how most party activists felt. Liberals fell prey to the “Vietnam syndrome” and came to doubt not only the beneficence of military force but the idea that Americans either could or should take the lead in creating a better world. Some progressives (and every center-left party in Western Europe) did endorse NATO’s armed aid to the rebels in Kosovo in 1999. But that involvement was limited to bombing and did not significantly alter the adherence of both liberals and radicals to what Michael Walzer has called the “default position of the left” on military interventions abroad: “the best foreign policy is a good domestic policy.”

The prime exception came in 2003, when a cohort of liberal intellectuals like Peter Beinart and George Packer endorsed George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. But they soon realized their error, and wrote mea culpas reminiscent of that uttered by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and other Kennedy advisors who turned against Johnson’s Vietnam policy in the late 1960s. As the late Yogi Berra would say, it was “déjà vu all over again.”

The flag of messianic internationalism was soon taken up and waved vigorously by intellectuals on the right—neoconservative supporters of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, including a few former leftists like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Irving Kristol. They did so, first, to humble and defeat the Soviet Union and its allies and then to attack violent Islamists after the attacks of 9/11. But the Cold War essentially ended when the Berlin Wall came down, and the crusading intent of the second effort never really caught the imagination of most conservative activists whose xenophobia made them leery of a new “coalition of the willing” that included any other nation besides an Israel run by Benjamin Netanyahu. During the four decades since the end of the Vietnam War, it has proved impossible for either the Republican right or what remains of the Democratic center to rebuild a structure of idealized global order on a triumphalist notion of American exceptionalism.

For radicals after Vietnam, solidarity with the “Third World” also proved a fragile species of internationalism, as well as a more marginal kind. It had little resonance beyond the ranks of leftists committed to the defense of a particular nation beset by the U.S. government or one of its allies. The Sandinistas, the FMLN of El Salvador, the Palestinian liberation movement, the Zapatistas, and the South Africans who battled apartheid all attracted numbers of Americans who mobilized, with occasional success, to advance their causes. In the case of South Africa, the campaign, aided by the iconic status of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, won over a majority in Congress.

Activists in the United States were publicizing the ends of and gathering material resources for people across the seas who needed their help; they were motivated less by solidarity, at least as the left had traditionally defined it, than by sympathy for the oppressed. These were thus partnerships of unequals, destined to wither or die when the Third World group in question either won or got smashed. The rhetoric still evoked grand and common struggles against racism, capitalism, and imperialism. But the reality was far more modest and ephemeral.

Of course, the universal fading of the socialist dream did much to dilute the content and sap the vigor of left-wing internationalism. The Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 destroyed whatever lingering affection still remained for the legatees of the Great October Revolution. A decade or so later, the horrific events of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, followed by the rapid transition to “market Leninism” led by Deng Xiaoping, demolished the romance of Maoism for all but the most sectarian of radicals. The social democrats of DSA and writers for Dissent issued earnest reminders that the nations of Scandinavia remained the closest thing to promised lands of equality and individual liberty that existed on earth. But they had no illusions that the United States was prepared to follow their lead. Anyway, not many people were listening. Thus, even before the Berlin Wall came down, “international socialism” had become little more than a curious anachronism.

By the twenty-first century, many, if not most, American radicals had gradually retreated to the comfort of what the historian Daniel Immerwahr calls “the small, the local, and the particular.” “Communities” of all kinds replaced such older identities and aspirations as “the working class,” “the Third World,” and “the wretched of the earth.” Across the Atlantic, their counterparts in left parties also began to sour on the vision of a Europe united by social-democratic or socialist policies.

One apparent exception to the waning spirit of internationalism was the sprouting of NGOs that focused on the often intertwined issues of advancing economic equity and preventing environmental hazards. Greenpeace, founded in 1971, made a name for itself with imaginative direct actions by citizens from a variety of countries to save whales and stop atmospheric nuclear tests. Quieter American support for campaigns to stop the Nestlé corporation from peddling infant formula to poor women in Africa and to prevent the building of a dam in India that would have destroyed thousands of small farms also enjoyed some success by working both at the grassroots and by pressuring the UN and other international bodies. The big protests in Seattle in 1999 against a meeting of the World Trade Organization seemed, at the time, to be a coming-out party for a cross-section of activists—from progressive churches, consumer lobbies, environmental groups, and industrial unions. But even before the attacks of 9/11 abruptly changed the subject, the new cause of “global justice” had dwindled into a niche concern. With only the haziest of “agents of change,” a welter of small organizations, and no unifying demands, this international network became far less than the sum of its parts.

In contrast, the cause of human rights has had a durable appeal for many radicals as well as for the liberals who gave it birth in the halycon days immediately following the end of the Second World War. With undeniable international legitimacy—and in some cases, funding from George Soros and other rich progressives—it can provide an effective way to challenge nations with rulers of different ideologies to adhere to the same norms of liberty, tolerance, and self-government. Human rights organizations also conduct mass campaigns and fight for policy changes. In these ways, they are welcome throwbacks to the movements that abolished slavery and regulated industrial capitalism.

However, the human rights movement has not and probably cannot become such a history-altering insurgency. Its legalistic paradigm tends to make professional activists, armed with case files, the central figures in groups like Amnesty International. And, as Samuel Moyn has written, it rose to prominence in the late 1970s only after the “collapse of other, prior utopias, both state-based and internationalist . . . belief systems that promised a free way of life, but led into bloody morass, or offered emancipation from empire and capital, but suddenly came to seem like dark tragedies rather than bright hopes.” Just before he was assassinated in 1965, Malcolm X vowed to bring the United States up on charges before the UN for violating the human rights of its black citizens. But he did so in the name of an anti-imperialist, anti-racist left that had begun to emerge during the First World War and inspired millions of ordinary people as well as rulers of newly independent nations from the shores of West Africa to the banks of the Mekong River.

In 2016, half a century from the point when left internationalism began to lose its power and luster, there are opportunities for a revival for those who desire one. Bernie Sanders recommends that the United States emulate the social policies of Scandinavian nations; this did nothing to limit the support he received in the presidential race and may even have bolstered it. In northern Syria, male and female militias belonging to the Kurdish PYD—or Democratic Union Party—have defeated both the armies of ISIS and the Assad regime in battle and set up autonomous cantons which some observers have compared to Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. They also have to contend with the armed might of a Turkish state run by “moderate” Islamists. “You’d think it would be big news,” wrote Meredith Tax in Dissent, “that there’s a liberated area in the Middle East led by kickass socialist-feminists, where people make decisions through local councils and women hold 40 percent of leadership positions at all levels.”

And if climate change does not awaken the drowsing, or reluctant, spirit of global solidarity, it’s hard to imagine what would. By their nature, both the mounting danger and the material forces that cause the mounting crisis transcend national and oceanic boundaries. In what Naomi Klein has called a “roving transnational conflict zone,” opponents of fracking have mobilized in large numbers and with some success from New York State to Poland to Algeria and beyond. Yet, as with human rights, it is easier for activists to condemn behavior that needs to stop than to find a common way to persuade citizens of different nations to either reform or replace the structures that keep generating the problem.

Fortunately, both radicals and liberals who want to chart a new internationalism should find a receptive audience among millions of young Americans. According to recent polls, and a wealth of anecdotal evidence from college students, members of the “millennial” generation are far less enamored of American exceptionalism than are their elders. A majority of Americans under thirty-five no longer believe the U.S. economic or political systems are the best in the world or that the United States should teach other peoples how to govern themselves.

The potential exists for a new internationalism. Neither a cause nor a new identity has yet emerged that can inspire its believers and bind them together for years of activism. Must it have the galvanic appeal of socialism, feminism, and anti-imperialism from decades ago? Can leftists talk in ways that speak to discontented women and men in various lands without sounding as if they are out of touch with the concerns of most Americans? Perhaps the main thing the left in the United States and around the world needs to discover and articulate is what Stanley Aronowitz, an old New Leftist, has called “a well thought-out vision of the good life. Without that vision, movements come and go.” Reflecting on climate change, one might also cite the verse from Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”


Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent. His next book, War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914–1918, will be published next January.


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