An American Dilemma: Michael Kazin and the Recycling of Cold War Liberalism
“We must release the human imagination, in order to open up a new exploration of the alternatives now possible for the human community; we must set forth general and detailed plans, ideas, visions; in brief, programs. We must transcend the mere exhortation of general principle and opportunist reactions. What are needed are commanding views of the future, and it is our opportunity and task to provide them. We must develop and debate among ourselves—and then among larger publics—genuine programs; we must make of these programs divisive and partisan political issues within the U.S.A.”
C. Wright Mills, The Causes of World War III, New York: Ballantine Books, 1960, page 159.
The U.S. Left’s Leveraging Russian Militarism to Support a Domestic Equivalent
Michael Kazin has written critically acclaimed books about left history. Yet, an unfortunate problem for us is that being an expert in left history does not turn one into an expert in anti-militarism. Militarism can be defined as the surplus projection of violence for power accumulation purposes, a surplus seen in the displacement of diplomacy and more peaceful resolution of conflicts. This surplus is defined by self-fulfilling prophecies like the “security dilemma” in which one state’s arming itself provokes another, which sets an arms spiral into motion. Parts of the left itself have been very weak in opposing militarism, extending to both the Bolshevik left (as Simone Weil noted) and anti-Communist opponents who sided with forces championing the arms race, CIA coups, nuclear overkill and military adventurism in Vietnam, Latin America and the Middle East. Kazin’s essay in Dissent Magazine (March 23, 2023), “Reject the Left-Right Alliance Against Ukraine,” falls into this larger pattern.
During the Cold War, the left faced an apparent dilemma. On the one hand, some wanted to oppose McCarthyism and the excesses of anti-Communism associated with military expansionism and domestic repression. On the other hand, some actively opposed the Communist Party or the Soviet Union. How could one oppose Soviet expansionism without strengthening domestic militarism? A test case can be seen in the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) which opposed both the Soviet Union and U.S. Communists. In April 1948, the New York State convention of ADA opposed Henry Wallace for President and instead backed Dwight D. Eisenhower for President as a Democrat. Wallace decried militarism in both the Democratic and Republican parties and backed diplomacy, disarmament and even conversion of the defense industry. In its resolution, ADA “assailed” Wallace’s candidacy partially because of “his demands for appeasement of the Soviet Union despite the lessons to be learned from the fall of Czechoslovakia” and because of “his dependence on a hard core of Communist support.” While many saw Wallace’s alliance with Communists as mistake, others might see opposition to Wallace’s anti-militarism as the bigger mistake.
The ADA’s embrace of Eisenhower was an endorsement of militarism. In his January 17, 1961 farewell address Eisenhower spoke out against the military industrial complex, he had earlier authored what Seymour Melman in Pentagon Capitalism called “the birth certificate” of the military industrial complex. This certificate was issued by then General Eisenhower in 1946 is his capacity as Chief of Staff of the United States Army. It was formally called the “Memorandum for Directors and Chiefs of War Department General and Special Staff Divisions and Bureaus and the Commanding Generals of the Major Commands.” Melman explains that this document formulated “the idea of a close, continuing relationship between the Army and civilian scientists, industry, technologists and the universities.” The ADA’s support for Eisenhower two years after the Memorandum illustrates how part of the left engaged in the Faustian bargain of embracing U.S. militarism in the attempt to oppose the Russian (Soviet) variant.
Kazin, a former editor of Dissent, reprises the ADA’s position which is somewhat ironic for an historian of the U.S. left. Like the ADA he combines opposition to Russian expansionism by allying himself with U.S. militarism. One interesting curiosity in this regard is how the publication with which he is most associated provided a platform for various writings by Seymour Melman and C. Wright Mills, authors who like Wallace tried to expose U.S. militarism. Dissent did this, but sometimes had misgivings. In Winter 1963, Dissent published a retrospective by Harvey Swados, “C. Wright Mills: A Personal Memoir.” There Swados wrote: “I do not think I am overstating when I say that Mills was never deeply affected by what totalitarianism did to great masses of people. To particular intellectuals, yes; but not to masses.” He argued that for Mills “Stalinism…was contemptible not for what it was doing to national minorities, to workers and peasants, to millions languishing in Siberia, but for its political vulgarity and intellectual emptiness.” In this fashion, Mills in Dissent met the same fate as Wallace, i.e. anti-militarism de-legitimated by an association with being soft on the Russians.
In Taking It Big: C. Wright Mills and the Making of Political Intellectuals, Stanley Aronowitz tells another story. Mills criticized Irving Howe, one of Dissent’s key figures, as being “stuck in the camp for which the ‘Russian question’ blinded them to the realities of a world in which democrats and socialists had no place to go but stand against both countries’ hurtling toward a war from which there was no return.” Mills believed that adherence to this path, “inevitably drove the anticommunist Left into the power elite’s orbit, just as the communists were ensconced in Stalinist assumptions.” Mills “supported a putative third camp,” which became one of his “guiding principles” for “his hoped-for new Left.” Nevertheless, Mills’s “call for a realistic approach to world politics and away from the drift to militarism in both major powers ran against the grain of mainstream liberal opinion.”
The Militarist Assault on Democracy in the West
After decrying Putin’s blatant militarism in Ukraine, Kazin claims that “a sizeable number of American leftists have embraced an alternate reality.” Kazin says that for these leftists “the culprit is NATO’s post–Cold War expansion, fueled by the drive of the U.S. state and capital to bend the world to their desires.” He continues, by saying that “the critics ignore or dismiss the fact that every nation that joined NATO did so willingly, knowing that Russia was capable of launching the kind of attack now underway in Ukraine.” While acknowledging that NATO’s expansion “may well have been too hasty,” none of “its newer members has done anything to threaten Putin’s regime” with all its members enjoying “a democratically elected government.” These are contrasted with other, non-democratic states backing Putin’s position on Ukraine. Kazin’s internationalism is opposed to isolationism, so anti-militarist alliances with the right are reduced to dumb reactionaries. He says leftists “are making common cause with some of the most atrocious and prominent stalwarts of the Trumpian right” like Tucker Carlson and Marjorie Taylor Greene. Greene argued that the war in Ukraine was being driven by the United States.
Kazin’s deconstruction of right-wingers and praise for NATO’s “democratic” allies is totally unappealing. His critique of Carlson and Greene involves knowledge resistance because Kazin is basically saying that if these two embraced a round earth theory, the world must be flat. Kazin himself has made common cause with anti-democratic forces. His understanding of the democracy of NATO allied states is superficial to misleading. Pro-NATO champions in “democratic” states like Sweden railroaded their position in a thoroughly undemocratic fashion in a government and military-led charade, propelled by the media’s showcasing of war academics and phony one-sided panel debates about the war. Voices against the war in the peace movement and universities were harassed by threats and hate speech or more subtle forms of intimidation. In Sweden, the war campaign has been associated with rightwing forces in the government (or its allies) who have championed significant military budget increases, derailed ecological targets, threatened public broadcasting, and supported anti-Semitic and Islamophobic hate speech. The Swedish government recently announced that a reduction in support for Swedish civil society opinion and public education work by 87% from 155 to 20 million Swedish crowns (according to Maja Landin in the Swedish peace newspaper Pax (No. 1, 2023). During one phase of the Swedish war campaign (June 2023), the then Social Democratic Prime Minister embraced a visit by a U.S. aircraft carrier in the heart of Stockholm—an advertisement for both defunding the U.S. welfare state and Swedish public panic over Russian aggressions. Military leaders also have made speeches circulated in the media suggesting a potential Russian invasion, without blinking an eye. And rarely—if ever—was anyone invited to debunk their self-serving nonsense and self-fulfilling paranoia. Under the guise of giving notice to the Russians, Swedish politicians have helped to de-democratize discourse. Kazin’s blank check for U.S. militarism is part of this transnational militarist euphoria.
Kazin versus The New York Times
By suggesting that opposition to war puts one in league with Putin, Kazin avoids the essence of the anti-militarist perspective, i.e. the idea that pressure on the U.S. government might speed a settlement. Instead, Kazin seems to believe in the myth of military power propelling a solution for Ukraine, where diplomacy is never considered. This position is dangerous. As war critic Dimitri Lascaris recently explained “much of the weaponry being sent to Ukraine will be diverted to criminal organizations, as the head of Interpol warned in June 2022.” Kerstin Bergeå, in a Swedish radio interview broadcast April 8th, warned about these weapons potentially ending up in the hands of Swedish criminal gangs. A review of a series of articles in The New York Times, reveals that Kazin’s position is far more militarist than this leading voice of the liberal establishment. These articles suggest that the U.S. position has been to combine arms transfers as a means of pressuring Russia rather than leveraging diplomatic solutions and speeding an end to the conflict.
On February 10, 2022, Andrew E. Kramer wrote an article for the Times entitled, “Armed Nationalists in Ukraine Pose a Threat Not Just to Russia.” The story noted that these nationalists “could…destabilize” the Ukrainian government if it were to agree “to a peace deal they reject.” In contrast, Kazin never considers that military shipments may be strengthening the hand of militarists in Ukraine and derailing forces supporting peace and diplomacy.
On April 25, 2022 (updated May 2, 2022), David E. Sanger wrote an article entitled, “Beyond Austin’s Call for a ‘Weakened’ Russia, Hints of a Shift.” There Sanger explained that the U.S. was moving towards “a dynamic that pits Washington more directly against Moscow, and one that U.S. officials see as likely to play out for years.” Kazin passes over the various risks associated with Sanger’s article, e.g. saying not one word about the dangers of nuclear war or even escalation.
On May 19, 2022, the editorial board raised points which Kazin also summarily ignored. The Times asked whether the United States was “trying to help bring an end to this conflict, through a settlement that would allow for a sovereign Ukraine and some kind of relationship between the United States and Russia” or if the United States was “now trying to weaken Russia permanently.” The Times went on to ask if “the administration’s goal shifted to destabilizing Vladimir Putin or having him removed.” They asked whether the goal was “to hold Mr. Putin accountable as a war criminal” or “to try to avoid a wider war.” The Times warned that “the White House not only risks losing Americans’ interest in supporting Ukrainians — who continue to suffer the loss of lives and livelihoods— but also jeopardizes long-term peace and security on the European continent.”
On May 31, 2022, Christopher Caldwell, wrote an editorial for the Times entitled “The War in Ukraine May Be Impossible to Stop. And the U.S. Deserves Much of the Blame.” There he wrote, “the United States is making no concessions” and to do so “would be to lose face.” With the upcoming election, the administration was “closing off avenues of negotiation and working to intensify the war.” While Caldwell has written for the neoconservative press, he freely quoted Noam Chomsky’s warning about the dangers of escalation and blank checks for militarism. Caldwell continued to warn of escalation’s dangers in an essay for the Times on February 7th of this year, “Russia and Ukraine Have Incentives to Negotiate. The U.S. Has Other Plans.” In contrast, Kazin sees the U.S. as aiding Ukraine’s defense and not its destruction.
The Pro-Militarism of Fools
Kazin does not apparently understand stated U.S. policy to expand its hegemony at Russia’s expense, to provoke Russia and its militarism, thereby creating economic and political markets for its own militarism. Instead he writes: “It may have the mightiest war machine, but Biden is not shipping arms to Ukraine in an attempt to subjugate Russia to his will.” He claims that leftists opposed to “helping Ukraine” represent “an anti-imperialism of fools.” Like many others, Kazin argues Ukraine war is simply triggered by Putin’s choices and has little to do with U.S. actions. The oft-repeated formula, the Timothy Snyder precept if you will, is simple. If we don’t arm Ukraine, they’ll be swallowed up by Russia and it’s the duty of the left to support Ukrainian independence. The assumption is that Putin won’t negotiate, which begs the question of why Russia would negotiate if the U.S. (which sustains Ukraine and organizes that state’s “autonomy”) won’t even support meaningful negotiations. Russia won’t quit (or won’t do so before even more of Ukraine is destroyed).
If the Republicans gain the power to cut off funds for Ukraine, the “Russia won’t negotiate” position will blow up in the faces of Biden, Kazin, and others believing in the “pro-militarism of fools.” This foolishness is based on the belief that an endless pool of money can be wasted on military solutions to conflicts. Kazan declares that the U.S. military commitment of $46.6 billion on lethal aid to Ukraine (by the end of January 2023), was “little more than a rounding error” when compared to “our bloated military” budget. In wars pulverizing Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan (collectively costing trillions) we learned that eventually, the U.S. pulls out and turns off the arms spending faucet. Kazin the historian, and would-be accountant, does not appreciate the precedents. The stupidity interval (before the faucet is turned off) is what liberal militarists thrive on, i.e. a time of superficially appearing realist propositions which later turn out to be voluntarist nonsense. The liberal militarists forever baiting anti-militarists as useful idiots for Putin, themselves are useful idiots for U.S. and NATO militarism.
Kazin, like other left militarists, does not understand the limits to military power. This brings us back to the third way, beyond embrace of Russia and militarism, which even Dissent provided space for at the height of the Cold War. In the Spring of 1961, Seymour Melman published an essay there, “Arms Control: The New Defeatism.” Here Melman explained the limits to military power as a vehicle for constraining Russian expansionism: “Lacking a competent political theory and a will to challenge the Soviet system by political and economic methods, many American strategists have fallen into a sense of political futility. Conservative political and military analysts have no coherent view on how to cope with the burgeoning Soviet political campaigns in Asia, Africa, and now in South America. If acceptable political methods are not available to these men, then the extension of the Soviet system must in their view be contained by military methods.” The Soviet expansion of power was “sustained” despite the United States having “nuclear military monopoly, superiority, and parallel capability.”
Melman’s observations extend now to the Russia-China alliance. For several decades, the U.S. policy in Asia, African and South America has been failing. An emphasis on the war on terror and other aid, allowed China to fill the void by investing in and rapidly expanding trade with these regions. The war in Iraq, accelerated both Iranian and Chinese power at the U.S.’s expense. The war in Ukraine, preceded by NATO’s eastward expansion, accelerates militarists’ power at the expense of the U.S. ecological/welfare state, left and Europe’s expense. A coherent U.S. policy would be based on a more cooperative posture towards the Russians, as Wallace and Mills argued after the war, not militarist expansionism which empowers both the militarists in both Russia and the U.S. While Putin’s militarism is quite dangerous, it is no more crazy than keeping a war going that kills thousands, risks nuclear accidents, and wastes precious resources.
Left cheerleading for militarism is a luxury we cannot afford. The left should use its energies to push the Biden administration (and NATO allies) towards a settlement for Ukraine. Some wonder about the precedent of letting Russian seize Ukrainian territory which makes Europe less secure. I’m far more worried about the precedent of NATO-baiting Russia which allows the U.S. to destabilize Europe, trade and democracy making the globe less secure.
Jonathan Michael Feldman specializes in research related to political economy, disarmament, green economics and studies related to democracy. He writes periodically for Counterpunch and Portside. He is an associate professor at The Department of Economic History and International Relations at Stockholm University.
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