IS THE NEW LEFT HISTORY? The Past, Present, and Future of the Left

Thursday, July 15, 2004

In 1960, John F. Kennedy ran to the right of Richard Nixon, arguing that under Republicans, the United States had become too weak in the cold war. A dozen years later, the Democratic presidential candidate was George McGovern. How did the Democratics go from hawks to doves in just twelve years? And what does the history of the Left imply for John Kerry, the Democratic Party, and the war on terror today? Peter Robinson speaks with Anne Applebaum and Christopher Hitchens.

Recorded on Thursday, July 15, 2004

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: Is the Left being left behind?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: has the American Left lost its way? In 1960, Democratic Presidential candidate, John Kennedy, ran to the right of Republican Presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, arguing that under Republicans the United States had become too weak in the Cold War. Just a dozen years later, the Democratic Party had been captured by the forces supporting presidential nominee George McGovern. Hawkish in 1960, dovish by 1972. How did that happen to the Democratic Party? What forces were at work among intellectuals and activists on the Left? And what does the history of the American Left over these last several decades imply for John Kerry, the Democratic Party, and the war on terror today?

Joining us, two guests. Christopher Hitchens is a correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine. Anne Applebaum is a columnist for the Washington Post and the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book, Gulag: A History.

Title: Left Behind?

Peter Robinson: In 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy ran to the right of Richard Nixon, citing among other things a missile gap that he argued the Republicans, under Eisenhower, had permitted to develop. But a mere dozen years later, in 1972, the Democratic Party is captured by George McGovern. Journalist Norman Podhoretz, "Never will I get over my amazement at the speed with which the New Left point of view spread from the margin to the mainstream and the Democratic Party caved in to the radical insurgency." What happened?

Christopher Hitchens: By the way, Bill Clinton ran against George Bush from the right in '92, also on Cuba, saying, accusing him of not bringing down the hammer hard enough with the Helms-Burton Bill. And you might say he ran against him from the right on Israel too because Clinton was for Shamir and George Bush was for the Israeli Labor Party. So, these are unlikely to leave us anytime soon. There is a one-word answer to the question, which is Vietnam. I don't see why Podhoretz has any right to be astonished at the speed with which people became convinced that that was an evil war as well as a very misjudged one, a badly formulated one. And it seemed to have tremendous implications for the idea of America not as the Arsenal of Democracy in Europe, was the guarantor of what used to be called the captive nations, the Stalinized nations in Eastern Europe, but as a colonial power, a bully. And also, which was not without significance, a racist power. I mean pounding brown people if you like or yellow people at the same time as having a civil rights revolution. The coincidence of those two, the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement in tandem, of course, remade the American landscape as they should have done.

Peter Robinson: Let me give you a little bit more of Norman Podhoretz.

Christopher Hitchens: Must you?

Peter Robinson: I must. In this case, I must. Those who captured the Democratic Party abandoned "support for the policy of containing Soviet expansion, which the Democrats had followed pretty consistently since the promulgation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947, and this abandonment takes place and just at the moment when the Soviets were launching the greatest military buildup in peace time history." Now that's also the result of Vietnam? And does it follow naturally or logically from Vietnam?

Anne Applebaum: It's not only a result of Vietnam. I think several things were happening simultaneously. I mean, Christopher is absolutely right. Vietnam changed Americans' view of themselves and the world. You know, are we a good moral power? Are we an Imperialist negative power? And many people shifted from the first category to the second category. It was also at a time, though, when people began to criticize the United States domestically on civil rights, women's issues, so on. And thirdly, it was actually a moment when, you know, for whatever reason because of these things or because of other things, there was a revival of interest in Marxism as an idea that is worth following and that there might be something to it.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Now let me quote you to yourself. How's that? Anne Applebaum: "Why did so many Western liberals fail to absorb the full horror of Stalinism? Why does Stalinism still not inspire anywhere near the same kind of horror as Nazism today? I long to hear," you write, "Hitchens answer these points." Do you have an answer for that one?

Christopher Hitchens: I can't believe I missed this when it was in print. I would have written to you by now.

Peter Robinson: I give you the opportunity to respond.

Anne Applebaum: It was in the context of Martin Amis attacking you. It was also...

Peter Robinson: You also wrote. Let me give you a little bit more of yourself to set it up fairly. "The masses, the struggle, the proletariat, the exploiters and exploited, the ownership of the means of production. These were all terms close to the hearts of the Western Left." Sort this all out.

Christopher Hitchens: We know that Anne's question was addressed to the American intellectuals, and not to the conservatives or the policy makers. There are several answers to it. One is that if you took, say the magazine Partisan Review, which was founded in the 1930s and became the main organ of the anti-Stalinist Left, fully, the most anti-Stalinist magazine in the country. And was the launching pad or introduction of the theory into American letters and life, public intellectual life, of George Orwell, and Arthur Koestler, and Ignazio Silone and a number of other people. This, of course, is not by any means a mainstream tradition, but it did have a big fall-out effect on the world of American magazines and to some extent the academy. It didn't prevent the Stalinization of a lot of American intellectuals and if you ask the question why so many of them were much less horrified by Stalinism, not that they ought to be, but in the formulation that Anne came up with, in comparison to Nazism, there's a fairly again simple one-word answer, a profusion of them were Jewish. No Jewish person is going to look--especially if their family is originally from Czarist Russia. They're never going to look on anything of Russian Communism with the same pure horror and fear and revulsion that they are going to bring to a reaction to Nazism.

Peter Robinson: But why didn't the Left have a more accurate and therefore more critical picture of Stalinism?

Title: No Ordinary Joe

Peter Robinson: If they have any notion of what's taking place in the Gulag, they ought to hate...

Anne Applebaum: Well, there are a number of things that happened, you know, during the war and after the war.

Peter Robinson: The Second World War is what we're talking about, right?

Anne Applebaum: The Second World War. I'm talking about the Second World War now, that affected the perception, not only the Left's perception of the Gulag, but the Right's perception of the Gulag, the center's perception of the Gulag, the liberal's perception of the Gulag. One is that Stalin was our ally. And, you know, we fought this good war and this was the war that we, you know, this was a moral war. This was a right war. We were right to fight it. We fought it alongside a dictator and it was unacceptable at the time and it remains amazingly difficult now for people to say, right, we defeated one genocidal dictator with the help of another genocidal dictator. People are uncomfortable saying that. It undermines their vision of the war. It disturbs their understanding of what happened in history. And to this day people are uncomfortable when you hear that.

Peter Robinson: So, there's a kind of gauze through which we will view Stalin to the end of American history.

Anne Applebaum: I mean, there's another thing that happens earlier. And this is maybe returning to your original point. And one of the oddities of the Left's perception of the Soviet Union is that in the very beginning, right after the Bolshevik Revolution, the great opponents of Lenin and the people who were at first the biggest critics were the Left. The Western Left in the 1920s wrote endlessly about what a tragedy the Bolshevik Revolution was. How many of its victims--because of course...

Peter Robinson: Because the wrong man came out on top?

Anne Applebaum: No, because its first victims were other Socialist parties.

Peter Robinson: I see.

Anne Applebaum: So, the first people who went to jail and the first people who went to prisons were the Mensheviks.

Christopher Hitchens: Bertrand Russell's book on the theory and practice of Bolshevism is undoubtedly the earliest, most prescient.

Anne Applebaum: Right.

Christopher Hitchens: It was written by someone who considered himself a Left Socialist.

Anne Applebaum: And then what happens in the '30s is, particularly in this country, is that people from the United States begin going to Russia to find that this is at the moment--there's a kind of crisis here, it's 1929, there's a depression and people begin to go to Russia to look at why it's succeeding or what lessons we might learn there that we can bring back here. This is the era of Walter Duranty and this is the era of, you know, the New York Times correspondent who described the Five Year Plan and he actually won his Pulitzer Prize for explaining in his articles why the Five Year Plan was working and what was so great about it.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Anne Applebaum: And this was something people wanted to hear...

Christopher Hitchens: Which makes Anne's Pulitzer Prize for Gulag a nice actual journalist's revenge. It all cancels it out.

Anne Applebaum: Just so you know, you get through the '30s this idea that we can learn something from that.

Peter Robinson: When did the Guardian send Malcolm Muggeridge?

Christopher Hitchens: About that time.

Peter Robinson: And Muggeridge sees through it?

Christopher Hitchens: Muggeridge, no Muggeridge was determined to go over to praise and maybe because of that, or because of the diminished expectation, what he would have analyzed I think would have been...

Peter Robinson: Malcolm Muggeridge, a British journalist who came back and said this is a nightmare taking place in the Soviet Union.

Christopher Hitchens: He was one of the many reporters who were beginning to do that. Andre Gide in France was doing the same thing. Having gone to praise they came back quite stunned by what they'd seen.

Anne Applebaum: Emma Goldman actually...

Christopher Hitchens: Emma Goldman. What Orwell would have called all of this would have been power worship. People begin to think here's this huge country that's beginning to industrialize itself. Maybe the cost is high, the human cost will be high always in accumulating capital but they began to think they were on the winning side of history. Now people like Alger Hiss for example, join up, in my view, at that point quite clearly for that reason--they have no politics, have no principles of any sort. Whittaker Chambers joined the Communist Party at a time when it was a very dangerous thing to do. One of the reasons he fell out with Hiss was he realized Hiss was joining because he thought he was onto a winner.

Peter Robinson: The glamour of sheer power.

Christopher Hitchens: Power worship among the intellectuals is something you simply cannot underestimate. Or is it overestimate?

Anne Applebaum: But it's not only the far Left.

Peter Robinson: Misunderestimate.

Christopher Hitchens: There's a lot of it around is what I'm saying.

Anne Applebaum: It's not only the far Left. I mean FDR gets interested in this. And there are some New Dealers begin to go to Russia and see...

Peter Robinson: FDR's ambassador to Russia, Joseph Davies was it?

Christopher Hitchens: Joseph Davies.

Peter Robinson: He's a fool isn't he?

Anne Applebaum: Initially, yes.

Peter Robinson: Totally gullible or is it power worship there as well? He sends back glowing reports.

Anne Applebaum: Yes, a bit of both.

Christopher Hitchens: Mission to Moscow.

Anne Applebaum: Mission to Moscow.

Christopher Hitchens: Is an exercise in power worship.

Peter Robinson: Let's fast forward from the Second World War to the 1970s.

Title: On Your Marx

Peter Robinson: One way or another, this power worship, this admiration, this gullibility, all these things combined in the '20s and '30s among the intellectual Left is bleeding into the mainstream of the Democratic Party in some way or other informing the New Left in the '70s. Is that simply wrong? Is there something to it? How would you state the case?

Anne Applebaum: I think there is something to it. I think what happens is you get in the '60s, you get a kind of rediscovery of Marxism. You know, when there's this moment, there's this great criticism of our country. There's a crisis, much as there was in 1929, you know, it's not working. You know, we were wrong about how we thought things were supposed to go. And there's a revival of Marxism. There's an interest in Marxism and that happens simultaneously with the reluctance to criticize the Soviet Union because the language used, as you were quoting before, by Soviet Communism is close to things that we would like to--some of the same words.

Peter Robinson: All right, what's your viewpoint?

Christopher Hitchens: Well, but the New Left by definition, there's only one actually definitive term that can be used to describe it is, post-1956, its origins are revulsion from Stalinism, revulsion against it. And…

Peter Robinson: In this country?

Christopher Hitchens: Yes, everywhere. That's what New Left means. It just means that. It means people who broke with Communism in 1956. It doesn't mean anything else. I can promise you. Allow me to know that.

Anne Applebaum: That's what the...

Christopher Hitchens: And many of these people classically say David Horowitz, who would have considered himself one of the founders of the New Left would be considered by me to be, are people who come from Communist Party families.

Anne Applebaum: That's a very sophisticated, intellectual understanding of what the New Left is.

Christopher Hitchens: Well, it's nice of you to put it like that, but it's also the only definition of the New Left. That's what it means.

Anne Applebaum: No, but if you talk about...

Peter Robinson: Go ahead, finish that point...

Christopher Hitchens: I haven't started, I haven't gotten my trousers off yet. The areas of interest also shift. Everyone's bored with the gray tedium of the Warsaw Pact countries. What there does seem to be is a renewal of revolution in the Third World, particularly in Cuba and in Vietnam.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Christopher Hitchens: To some extent in China. There were some people who were Maoists at that point. It was a way of being anti-Soviet. A doomed way, but it was certainly a way. Well, this is all essential to know and to remember and to understand because that actually also was what a lot of the world looked like at the time, rebellions in Latin America and the Caribbean, a rebellion in South Africa where the CIA has helped to lock up Nelson Mandela, war and revolution in Indochina. None of these things were invented by the New Left; they seemed to answer something of...

Peter Robinson: From intellectuals to the mainstream. Let me repeat that question. The '70s occur and you've got a couple of reactions, excuse me, Vietnam occurs and you've got a couple of reactions in the late '60s and the early '70s within the Democratic Party and the broadly speaking, the Left--the left of center, let's put it that way to avoid the term New Left. And one is Scoop Jackson who says Vietnam was a terrible mistake. On the other hand, we must do what Harry Truman set out to do and what must be continued until it's no longer necessary and stand up to and contain the Soviet Union. Why is that not the dominant view in the Democratic Party? That Scoop Jackson is on the margins. So much on the margins as Norman Podhoretz is and as indeed that John Podhoretz is.

Christopher Hitchens: Well, why won't you take my answer? They had a bad conscience about Third World, as it used to be called. With some good reason. A lot of the mainstream liberal Democrats really felt bad about the United States' posture in what we used to call the Third World. For example, towards South Africa, to give you a salient example, or towards Chile, and they never got over what they did to Vietnam and nor should they. There is a perfectly...

Peter Robinson: And isolationism follows from that?

Christopher Hitchens: There's nothing mysterious about your question or I hope my answer.

Peter Robinson: Anne, do you accept that?

Anne Applebaum: I think that is true. I would also make the point though that there began to be a reluctance to condemn the Soviet Union simply because, you know, it was like letting down the side. You know, okay, if we condemn them too much that means that, you know, that's too positive about us. You know, they're part of the Left, we're part of the Left, we don't want to be too...

Christopher Hitchens: In my opinion, with the invasion of Czechoslovakia. By at least that date, any feeling of amity or fraternity is completely gone. That's the end. The main spring breaks.

Anne Applebaum: Okay, move forward to the '80s.

Christopher Hitchens: Right.

Anne Applebaum: Okay, you know, in the '80s you would have people who would say we don't to be too--we don't want to talk too harshly about the Soviet Union because then that would sound like we're being too pro-Reagan. I mean, you begin to get this...

Christopher Hitchens: I felt like I could sometimes hear people saying that, or guess that that's what they meant, but no one actually put it actually quite as clearly as that.

Anne Applebaum: People didn't put it quite that way. I mean...

Peter Robinson: Next topic, to what extent did William Jefferson Clinton move the Democrats in a new direction?

Title: Clinton's Big Stick

Peter Robinson: Norman Podhoretz for the last time, Christopher. All right. Norman makes the point that Clinton sends troops into Haiti. He engages in an air campaign against Serbia. He's as vigorous as a president could be under the rules of engagement and policing the no-fly zone in Iraq. So on. Sends cruise missiles into the Sudan, in an incident that Christopher's chronicled in detail. Norman Podhoretz, "Bill Clinton is a scoundrel, yet it is this scoundrel who has pushed and pulled his party into moving in a healthier direction than it had been heading in since its unconditional surrender to the Left nearly thirty years ago." In other words, Clinton, Democratic President, reengages the Democratic Party in the international scene and establishes that Democrats are once again willing to use force in the pursuit of American interests. Fair assessment of Bill Clinton?

Anne Applebaum: In a simple sense, yes.

Peter Robinson: Okay, take it to the next level of complexity. Where is it unfair?

Anne Applebaum: Clinton's international rhetoric was always lacking. I mean, he would often intervene in these places and it wasn't quite clear...

Peter Robinson: Why.

Anne Applebaum: ...why. That was partly a function of the era. I mean, this was not an era with a sort of central, you know, central organizing...

Peter Robinson: Big thing.

Anne Applebaum: ...principle like the Cold War or like the war on werrorism.

Peter Robinson: Which brings us to the day before yesterday, the Democratic primaries. Voters face a choice of among others, Joseph Lieberman, Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Democrat who supports the war on terror unambiguously. And Howard Dean, former Governor of Vermont who denounces much of the effort, also unambiguously. We know that John Kerry wins the nomination, of course, but the interesting contest here is between those two who are so unambiguous in their position on the war. Joe Lieberman wins not a single primary, but Howard Dean finishes a close second. He has tremendous support. What does that say...

Christopher Hitchens: He doesn't win the primary, but I know what you mean. Well, that's why, now don't you wish you'd taken my point about the Third World? The mutation of what I was saying earlier.

Peter Robinson: Give us the mutation. That's what I'm after.

Christopher Hitchens: Is into exactly this feeling. That if there's another rebellion in the duskier part of the globe, a lot of people on the Left, in some odd way are preprogrammed to think there must be something, if not okay about it, not all that bad. They mistake the forces of Jihad for some sort of insurgency. Indeed, they very often call Jihad forces insurgents or rebels as if that's what they were, instead of reactionary medievalists. It's a very important mistake and it also means the Left has moved from being status quo, conservative, to being actually reactionary to supporting the cause of reaction.

Peter Robinson: And they furthermore mistake our activities as colonial in the old fashioned term.

Christopher Hitchens: Not so much a mutation, as a metastasis if you think about it like that. It means the Left has completely betrayed everything it used to stand for and done so in a manner that's practically treasonous. You see, just on the Clinton thing if I may?

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Christopher Hitchens: Clinton becomes President. He's the first man to take the oath of office after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. It's all over. He's got a wonderful opportunity to redo foreign policy of which he makes almost nothing. By the way, he said he would help the Bosnians during the election campaign. He let that run for two years. He had to intervene when it was nearly disaster. Nothing will ever efface the shame of what he refused to do, even given advice of what was going to happen in Rwanda.

Peter Robinson: Before I go onto the next question would you like to...

Anne Applebaum: No, well, I don't disagree with that at all. I mean, it's similar to what I was saying. I mean, he went into Haiti, you know, because he felt he had to. Circumstances made him. You know, in Bosnia he said he would intervene, then he didn't. Then he did. You know, each one of these changes of mind actually affected the war on the ground, changed the situation. And it was only, you know, he kept be reluctantly torn into these things. So, yes, it's true that he used force in a way that no Democratic President had in recent times, but it was with unclear aims. You know, there was a lot of talk about internationalism that wasn't backed up...

Christopher Hitchens: I might add here that most of the Senate and Congressional Republican Party was opposed to the rescue operation in Bosnia, as it was on Kosovo, that deserves to be said I think.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Christopher Hitchens: So, it was absolutely in favor of doing nothing about Rwanda. And a large chunk of the right wing still thinks that the war on terror is a war for Israel, or a war for liberalism or something that American should stay out of. So, this is not a Left-Right question.

Peter Robinson: Now, the war on terror. Are the Democrats up to the task?

Title: Rising to the Challenge?

Peter Robinson: All of this, taking through the Cold War, Bill Clinton's, in some sense the argument would be that he remakes the center of the Democratic Party into internationalists and willing to use force and so forth and now we are in the war on terror and the question is, is the Democratic Party and the American Left up to it?

Anne Applebaum: I think there are different parts of the Democratic Party and there are different parts of the Left, I mean, as you've said. So, I think...

Peter Robinson: Is there a battle...

Anne Applebaum: I think of them, as Christopher would put it, the pro-Jihad Left. I think of being not necessarily the center of the Democratic Party. I think of...

Christopher Hitchens: Certainly, not.

Anne Applebaum: No, certainly not. And I think there is a war within the Democratic Party clearly over this issue. But I don't think you can identify--this is actually, as Christopher again was right, you can't identify the pro-Communists, you know, with the Democratic Party throughout the post-war period either.

Christopher Hitchens: I think this is more than just instinct on my part, the reaction of a lot of Democrats and liberals to the September 11th events was obviously in common with everyone else, revulsion, disgust, hatred, and so forth. But when they consider politically I think a lot of them couldn't say this, but they thought that's the end of our agenda for a little while. We're not going to be talking very much about welfare and gay marriage. We're going to be living in law and order times. Now the instinct is to think well, that must favor the right wing. Surely, that creates a climate for the conservatives--law and order and warfare and mobilization and so forth. In fact, the Second World War probably was a tremendous asset to the Democratic Left and presumably when the Right was so opposed to going into it because they know there's a relationship between social mobilization and warfare. But the Left is too dumb to see this in this case. And then some of them are crackpotted enough to think that if it comes out like that, maybe it was all fixed to come out like this.

Peter Robinson: But that really is crack pot, isn't it?

Christopher Hitchens: You've got a cultural hero made out of someone like Michael Moore, who's willing to deal in that kind of talk, more than willing to deal with it, a man who, in my opinion, would have made a perfectly good brown shirt--actually does make a perfectly good brown shirt. Marxism takes its point of departure from the study of real forces of production, conflict between forces and relations of production, study of capitalism, this kind of thing. Other people like to look for hidden financial conspiracies and so forth. That's the opposite of Socialism.

Anne Applebaum: But just to return to this issue about Kerry. You know, he hasn't presented this as a choice, you know, the party can go this way or the party can go this way. He occasionally panders to one side. He occasionally panders to the other side.

Peter Robinson: So, it is a little unclear. There is...

Anne Applebaum: I think it's unclear. I think it's ambiguous. I think he doesn't want to alienate the far Left or the anti-war Left because he wants them to vote for him. And I think he, you know, wants to keep as much of the center on board as possible. So, I think part of the reason why he's sounding so vague and it's so easy to criticize him for flip-flopping and so on on this issue is that's he's still playing to both audiences.

Peter Robinson: Joe Lieberman and Howard Dean were both willing to engage although with different ends in mind for a battle for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party.

Anne Applebaum: Right. No, John Kerry does not want to do that. He does not want that. He certainly does not want it before the election. And this is why I say I don't know--after the election what he's going to be I can't say. He has a record in which he has been anti-military...

Peter Robinson: Supposing he wins.

Anne Applebaum: Supposing he wins for example, certainly. No, I'm not assuming he's going to win, but he has been anti-military. If you look at his votes--people who have done the tabulations--he's been consistently voting against the military when he can. He's been cautious about American engagement.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Anne Applebaum: On the other hand, he said several times that he, you know, supports the war on terrorism.

Peter Robinson: Stay the course in Iraq.

Anne Applebaum: Stay the course in Iraq and so on.

Peter Robinson: Final topic, what the American Left needs to do now.

Title: New Life for the Left?

Peter Robinson: Reform the Left for me. What do you do with the American Left ideologically or structurally, how do you tell the American Left to be creative and to make positive contributions to American politics for the next decade or so?

Anne Applebaum: In a brief way I would say not to see the use of American force abroad as always negative and not to identify with critics of the United States abroad simply because you want to criticize at home. In other words, you don't like the system so you make friends with Mullah Omar. I would cease that. Those are the two things I would say.

Peter Robinson: Christopher, reform the Left.

Christopher Hitchens: That's very well put, a very beautiful minimalism. But when I was on the Marxist Left the reasons why I would have been proud to say I was, was internationalism, solidarity, with taking the side of the oppressed, and being opposed to all forms of religious nonsense. The Left is now a position where it will not take the side of those in the Muslim world, the women who are enslaved, the minorities who are being physically destroyed, the gays who must be there somewhere, God knows what their lives are like, and others against something that is self-evidently, pornographically reactionary. And has therefore lost its character as a Left, even as a secular liberal force. Won't even defend what it would demand for anybody living in the United States, freedom from clerical tyranny.

Peter Robinson: Talking of reforming the American Left is nonsense because there is no longer an American Left, there's just a kind of crackpot Michael Moore fringe?

Christopher Hitchens: That's about the size of it now I'd have to say, yes.

Peter Robinson: Christopher Hitchens, Anne Applebaum thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thank you for joining us.