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A Response to Justin Raimondo "Bewilderment and Confusion on the Left?"

"Bewilderment and Confusion on the Left?"

by GARY LEUPP

I log on to antiwar.com first thing every morning because it gives me the easiest access to news that matters to me. I recommend the libertarian-led site to everyone and donate regularly. So I feel honored that its editorial director Justin Raimondo has devoted a column to critiquing a recent piece of mine that appeared on CounterPunch.
Raimondo’s column was subtitled, “Why the Left’s Analysis of Imperialism is Inadequate.

My article was actually not intended to constitute a full “analysis of imperialism” but to raise questions. I pointed to the anomaly of “the government of an imperialist country taking action that, in the judgment of its more rational agents and former officials like Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski wouldn’t serve the interests of the state and its ruling class.” It expressed my feeling, as a Marxist historian, that Marxist analysis of imperialism at this point in fact gropes in the dark, confronted by the historical factor of personality—personalities who have acquired extraordinary power and may deploy it against the interests of their class itself. I noted the extreme Zionist ideology of the neocons around Cheney. I concluded that, while those downplaying the possibility of a U.S. and/or Israeli attack on Iran do so based on an assessment of how it would deeply damage U.S. imperialism in general, it may be that the Bush administration will do just that.

My piece questioned the applicability of logical standards to the U.S.-Iran confrontation. It may be that Bush/Cheney feel, like the Joker in the “Dark Knight” gleefully torching a mountain of $100 bills, that “It’s not about the money!” Or perhaps they’re willing to sacrifice short-term interests for what they perceive to be ultimately fabulous gains. Maybe Cheney is prepared to hurl the world into depression and world war thinking that the long-term investment will only pay off after his next heart attack, and the U.S. emerge the feared imperial ruler of the whole zone from the Mediterranean to Pakistan some years from now. He’s positioned his lackeys in places that allow him to sideline his “realist” or other opponents. It’s not clear to me at this point who’s likely to win out in the inter-administration debate about an attack on Iran, and to what extent the “internal logic” of the capitalist system will assert itself.

Oddly, Raimondo depicts my rather nuanced piece as an expression of the  “bewilderment and confusion on much of the left” (as though clarity reigns anywhere else). In fact I don’t speak for “the left” (particularly in Raimondo’s broad application of that term), and think my piece was one of careful argument and clarity as opposed to some of the dogmatic and simplistic analyses of the U.S.-Iran confrontation produced by some left and progressive commentators who think warmongers think only of oil profits.

Raimondo says that Leupp “expresses confusion” and is “baffled”  by the Iran attack question. Well, yes. I’m puzzled about the political mechanics involved. How can a National Intelligence Estimate come out late last year, expressing the entire U.S. intelligence community’s high confidence that Iran has no nuclear weapons program, and the Bush/Cheney administration simply ignore it, ratcheting up the rhetoric about the immanent danger of that non-existent program? That IS baffling. I imagine it’s so for many of those involved in what Raimondo calls the “continuing libertarian-leftist dialogue.”

I don’t apologize for my puzzlement, or my questioning of dogmatic explanations of what is happening between the U.S. and Iran. I’m puzzled, though, by Raimondo’s effort to depict my open questioning as a “neo-Marxist analysis of attributing our aggressive foreign policy to a plot by top-hatted capitalists. . .a caricature out of some crude cartoon in the old Daily Worker of the 1930s…”

My piece was actually the precise opposite. I questioned the notion that mainstream Wall Street is driving Iran policy, or that a conventional Marxist class analysis including government accountability to the oil industry can predict developments from this point. Raimondo has used his response to mine as a forum to reiterate liberarian anti-Marxist views, which is fine, but I would like to comment on this statement:

“I would remind Leupp and my readers of a leftist bent that neoconservatism came out of their side of the political spectrum: the first neocons were renegade Trotskyists, such as Max Shachtman, and the ‘far left’ has contributed more than its fair share of warmongers to the current congerie.”

Actually, to point out the obvious: those on the “left side of the political spectrum” (a hopelessly vague category) don’t usually or necessarily embrace Leon Trotsky and his famous doctrine of “permanent revolution” via export. I’m certainly not a Trotskyist. As I understand Soviet history, Trotsky advocated that the new Bolshevik state as of the 1920s
strive to stimulate a “permanent revolution” by supporting communist forces in Europe. He and his allies thought that without revolution in Germany or another advanced state socialism in Russia would be doomed. Stalin opposed this line, convinced that the revolutionary wave in Europe had receded, and advocated instead the construction of “socialism in one country.”  (The five year plans that that ensued produced the post-World War II USSR, a country that having born the brunt of the Nazi onslaught, losing 20 million of its citizens, still emerged the second largest economy in the world, with extraordinary attainments in many fields. But it’s beyond the scope of this column to assess the mix of good an evil that was the Soviet Union in its revolutionary phase.)

I don’t know whom Raimondo targets as “far left” warmongers in “the current congeries.” Some Democratic Party legislators? I’m sure I wouldn’t count them as “far left” myself. Anyway it doesn’t make sense to associate neoconservative regime-change advocacy with the “leftist bent,” collectively implicating those of that “bent” with the neocons. That’s somewhat like associating paleoconservatives like Raimondo with the pro-Nazi Fr. Charles Coughlin, reminding them that Coughlin was, after all, on “their side of the political spectrum.” I think it best to be careful in assigning one another positions on that spectrum, implying guilt by association.

But on this matter of the supposed neocon-“leftist” link: it is true that key neocons emerged from a Trotskyist subculture in New York. Perhaps they retain childhood memories of propaganda emphasizing regime change by forceful “democratic” and “socialist” intervention. But the fact that Richard Perle came from a “renegade” Trotskyist background—which he now, with all the other neocons, repudiates—tells us nothing about the applicability of Lenin’s analysis of imperialism.

Marxist-Leninists see imperialism as a logical outgrowth of capitalism, it’s “highest stage” whereas Raimondo, other libertarian and some other critics see it merely  as a policy adopted by governments. They see it, in fact, as at odds with capitalism as an idealized system. We can leave that debate aside as we jointly try to build an antiwar movement in this particular capitalist, imperialist country, and as we try to understand the complex mix of factors (not by any means confined to the machinations of “top-hatted capitalists” caricaturized in crude Marxist literature of the past), that drive the current trend towards more war.

We need more subtle analysis, not dogmatism and simplistic formulae. And when such analysis appears, it ought to be recognized as such, rather than dismissed as something akin to Trotskyism—according to an anti-communist understanding of that trend. (I have to note that Trotskyists have been very active in the antiwar movement since 9/11, and obviously have little in common with the neocons Raimondo views as quasi- or unreconstructed Trotskyists.)

Raimondo is welcome to reject the Leninist theory of imperialism, of course, or any aspect of Marxism and its critique of imperialist war. But to depict my piece as “an expression of bewilderment and confusion” sells the whole project of critical analysis short. Raimondo treats rational puzzlement in the face of a genuine puzzle as a specifically leftist problem, but it is much more than that, and its resolution might well gain from the “continuing libertarian-leftist dialogue”—presumably the rational, respectful dialogue—Raimondo wants to promote.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu