Common Sense About the Recent Past

[There’s an independent quarterly journal at the University of Notre Dame called “Common Sense,” which was founded twenty years ago by faculty, students, and alumnae/i. I taught history there briefly almost forty years ago; I enjoyed it and didn’t intend to leave. The following piece was written for the anniversary issue of “Common Sense.” –CGE]

“…what an Aristotelian would recognize as education still does go on in homes, churches, political groups, charitable organizations, and even to some extent in universities. Such a tradition can be the starting-point for establishing some understanding of the good life, in terms of which we can reappraise and criticize the whole tradition that we have received.”

–Herbert McCabe, OP

Someone gave me a copy of *The Three Musketeers* when I was a boy, and I was captivated by Dumas’ tale, and by the historical setting, although I knew nothing about 17th century France. I read that there were sequels, and was shocked to find that the first was called *Twenty Years After* — and that the next, *The Vicomte de Bragelonne* was set another ten years on! An impossibly long period of time, I thought. How could the characters still be interesting, once they’d become so old?

It was a revelation to my youthful insouciance that the characters in the sequels were even more interesting as the vicissitudes of their lives accumulated — and the history, in the sense of past politics, became even more important, to them and to me. A detailed knowledge of the politics of the Fronde (1648-53) may not have been much use to me, then or now, but the picture of the interaction of the personal and the political never left me.

Graham Greene remarks somewhere about the definitive intellectual influence of youthful reading, even if not always of the best sort. Just as Dumas’ romances led on to an interest in early modern ecclesiastical and political history, so Isaac Asimov’s use of Arnold Toynbee in his science fiction led to my finding Toynbee’s study (in the abridged two volumes), and that led to the Master of Those Who Know historical changes, Karl Marx.

Marx and Engels attempted to descry the determinants on politics and the person in the modern economic order, and so of course had very little to say about socialism. The collapse of official Marxism-Leninism in the last twenty years means that we can attempt to understand those determinants again. As Perry Anderson wrote more than thirty years ago, “The immense intellectual and political respect we owe to Marx and Engels is incompatible with any piety towards them.” He noted for example that “Engels’s historical judgments are nearly always superior to those of Marx. He possessed a deeper knowledge of European history, and had a surer grasp of its successive and salient structures.”

An important change in the past twenty years is that there is now no danger that Marx and Engels be taken as religious texts, and so the questions that they raised may be considered again. Noam Chomsky pointed out that “the disappearance of the Soviet Union is a small victory for socialism, much as the defeat of the fascist powers was.”

But the soi-disant Left in the US instead gave way to the fissiparous tendencies of “identity politics”; worse, instead of taking up anew questions of politics and society, the academy forswore “grand narratives” and — claiming to be “radical” but not wishing to risk anything — backed into the the blind alley of Postmodernism.

Critic Terry Eagleton writes that academic cultural theory “has been shamefaced about morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil, reticent about death and suffering, dogmatic about essences, universals and foundations, and superficial about truth, objectivity and disinterestedness. This, on any estimate, is rather a large slice of human existence to fall down on. It is also … rather an awkward moment in history to find oneself with little or nothing to say about such fundamental questions.”

The universities’ choice of the quiet life in the last generation made the existence of Common Sense and similar publications necessary. Most of them appeared on the internet, once that became possible, as a concomitant to political activism in America. It is simply a myth that activism died with the Sixties, important as the decade from the death of Kennedy to the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam was for the destruction of the post-WWII ideological rectification campaign. That’s why the Sixties are so reviled in the similar campaign of the last thirty years.

It is also a myth that the ending of the draft in 1973 — part of the Pentagon’s response to the revolt of its expeditionary force in Vietnam, a matter still largely ignored by the histories of the era — led to the end of the antiwar movement. On the contrary, the US government ended the draft because of the strength of the movement. It found what the French had found earlier in Vietnam — that a colonial war cannot be fought with a conscript army. That’s why it’s unlikely that the Pentagon today will press for the revival of the draft.

The movement of the 1970’s — broader and more inclusive in terms of issues than that of the Sixties — produced what was paradoxically in effect the most progressive administration since WWII, despite its stated views: Nixon-Ford. That’s part of the reason why *CounterPunch* has argued that “it has always been our position that Gerald Ford was America’s greatest President,” in spite of the major crimes of those administrations, from COINTELPRO to the invasion of Timor — against which Watergate was a bagatelle.

The trends were so frightening to the US elite that they said so publicly: in 1975 the Trilateral Commission — the American members of which were drawn from the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Ford Foundation, with President Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski at their head — published *The Crisis of Democracy*. The crisis was that there was *too much* democracy, that the public had got the dangerous idea that they could actually control the US government. That had to be quashed, and the Carter-Reagan years saw the counter-attack, at the high point of which, twenty years ago, the need for the discussion that *Common Sense* promoted became apparent.

The anti-war movement of the 1980’s — largely church based and outside the universities — was able to do what the Sixties movement had not been able to do. At the outset of the Reagan administration, the US government had wanted to put US troops into Central America, as the Kennedy administration had done in Vietnam. (In many ways the Reagan administration patterned itself on Kennedy’s.) But the threat of public opposition — the “Vietnam syndrome” — prevented them from doing so. US government foreign policy had to go underground, in the vicious Contra war against Nicaragua, and throughout Central America. It was only in the administration of Reagan’s successor, George Bush Sr., that the US was able to engineer a demonstration war in Central America (Panama, 1989) and then one in the Middle East in 1991, the principal success of which Bush claimed was to end the Vietnam syndrome.

Nevertheless George Bush Jr.’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 was preceded by the largest world-wide anti-war demonstrations in history, contrasting sharply with the absolute silence that greeted Kennedy’s invasion of Vietnam in 1962. One indication that comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq don’t work too well is that, in the obscene calculus of killers and killed, the Bush-Clinton-Bush reduction of Iraq is only about a quarter of what Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon were able to do in destroying peasant society in Southeast Asia, a region vastly less important than the Middle East to the political elite of the US.

Despite the present crimes of this most dangerous of American administrations — its policies have brought us as close or closer to the use of nuclear weapons than those of any Cold War administration — the US is a far more civilized place today than it was after the Second World War. What was possible for a Kennedy or a Reagan is not so easily done by a Bush Jr. — and therefore the administration has had to launch direct assaults on the Constitution, notably in the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, and Bush’s signing statements. It has had to make ever wider war with little popular support, in anxious expectation that emergencies will produce that support: the Bush administration, more than any other since Truman’s, needs alarums and excursions.

Of course twenty years ago there was no dearth of prophets calling America back to what the public thinks of as American principles, and exposing how these principles are lied about by our ideological institutions, such as the universities and the press. It is for example twenty years since Noam Chomsky and Edward Hermann wrote *Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Communication* (Pantheon, 1988), where they put forth a model of how elite propaganda works in the US — and why our rulers think it necessary.

The very first task of the American political class is to hide the fact that its interests are different from and opposed to those of the vast majority of Americans (to say nothing of the rest of the world). It must neutralize public opposition. As the sociologist Robert Putnam has argued, one of the effects of the modern American political system is to dissolve those bonds, from sports clubs to labor unions, that have been recognized as essential for democracy from Aristotle though Tocqueville.

American business wants you sitting in front of your TV or computer screen, watching your Ebay bid or a paradoxically named “reality” show. It certainly doesn’t want you doing anything more politically than pulling a lever (or touching a screen) to ratify the rule of essentially indistinguishable candidates — who will follow essentially the same policies (about which the public is often told only after the fact).

This, too, is not all that new. “Your people, sir, is nothing but a great beast!” said the founder of the US economic system, Alexander Hamilton. It remains true today that the only enemy the executive committee of the US business class — the US government — fears, is the American public. The foreign policy elite of the US, the Council of Foreign Affairs, has just issued a lengthy report, *After the Surge*, arguing for down-playing the war the Iraq (not of course for abandoning its goals, the control of Middle East energy resources) because it is “Better to withdraw as a coherent and somewhat volitional act than withdraw later in hectic response to public opposition to the war in the United States.”

As the US government pushes ahead with its absolutely mad (but not irrational) drive for world hegemony — and shows that it is entirely willing to risk even the survival of the race for control of the earth — a true account of the political situation must, like the gospel, be preached in season and out of season. I admired the late anarchist, Karl Hess, who began his political career as a speech-writer for Barry Goldwater in 1964: he once suggested that “the most revolutionary thing you can do is get to know your neighbors.”

*Common Sense* has been doing that for the Notre Dame neighborhood — and beyond — for twenty years. La lutte continue.

C. G. Estabrook recently retired as a visiting professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he hosts two local weekly radio programs, one on politics, “News from Neptune“, and the other on poetry, “From Bard to Verse: A Program of the Spoken Arts.” In 2002 he was the the Green party candidate for Congress for the 15th Illinois Congressional District. He can be reached at: galliher@uiuc.ed