Not So Huddled Masses: Multiculturalism and Foreign Policy

Posted in Politics and Capitalism by distpatches on June 9, 2009

Not So Huddled Masses: Multiculturalism and Foreign Policy

Scott McConnell


The modest contemporary literature on the connection between America’s immigration and foreign policies contains this assertion by Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan, from the introduction to their 1974 volume Ethnicity: Theory and Experience: “The immigration process is the single most important determinant of American foreign policy . . . This process regulates the ethnic composition of the American electorate. Foreign policy responds to that ethnic composition. It responds to other things as well, but probably first of all to the primary fact of ethnicity.”

Yet, the authors noted a nearly complete absence of discussion of the issue, and they pursued it little themselves. Rather, they tossed it in as a supplement to their general argument: ethnicity was not going to wither away, leaving only colorful residues for annoyance or celebration. It would remain a primary form of social life in the United States.

Nonetheless, ethnicity played little role in the foreign policy battles of the 1960s and 1970s. One could discuss the cultural divide between hippies and hardhats, between war protesters and the “silent majority” without reference to race, creed, or national origin. Some scholars would note a dominant ethnic component in the New Left, as well as in the less visible New Right, but such considerations were hardly part of the national conversation.

They certainly had been in the past, in the battles over American entry into World Wars I and II. Glazer and Moynihan implied they would be in the future as well. For the two were writing in the wake of the historic 1965 Immigration Act, which had overturned the restrictionist regime of the 1920s. That post–World War I legislation, which brought to a halt the Great Wave of immigration that had begun forty years earlier, was designed explicitly to freeze the American ethnic balance. By the 1960s, in the warm glow of the civil rights revolution, this was no longer plausible.

In any case, the backers of the 1965 act did not imagine huge demographic changes: there would be, they claimed, some modest increase in the number of Greek and Italian immigrants but not much else. The sheer inaccuracy of this prediction was already apparent by the early 1970s. The 1965 Act allowed entry of immigrants from any country, so long as they possessed certain job skills or family members living here or had been granted refugee status themselves.

The family reunification provision soon became the vital engine of immigrant selection. By the 1980s, it had greatly increased numbers of Asians and of Hispanics—the latter mostly from Mexico. The European population of the country was now in relative decline—from 87 percent in 1970 to 66 percent in 2008. If immigration continues at present rates (and barring a long-term economic collapse, it is likely to), by 2040, Hispanics will make up a quarter of the American population. If that does not guarantee a somewhat different foreign policy, there is also the prospect of a substantial expansion of America’s once miniscule Muslim and Arab populations.

To those attuned to the historic battles over twentieth-century American foreign policy, ethnicity was an obvious subject. It played a major role in the debate over American entry into World War I, which was vigorously opposed by most German-Americans, anti-tsarist Scandinavians, and many Irish-Americans. Leading pro-war politicians railed against “hyphenated-Americans” with a ferocity nearly unimaginable today. And while opposition to America’s entry into the war cut across all regions and groups, the non-interventionist position always maintained a strong core of support in the upper Midwest, where Americans of German descent dominated. In the 1950s, the widely read political analyst Samuel Lubell concluded that isolationism was always more ethnic than geographical, and owed its durability to the exploitation of pro-German and anti-British ethnic prejudices by the Republican Party. Lubell claimed that isolationists, far from being indifferent to Europe’s wars, were in fact oversensitive to them.

This is surely too reductionist an argument. But the volatile ethnic mix at home did inhibit Woodrow Wilson from taking sides in Europe. “We definitely have to be neutral since otherwise our mixed populations would wage war on each other,” Wilson was reported to say in 1914. The “hyphenates,” bullied into silence by 1917, had their day after the Armistice when their opposition helped to lay low Woodrow Wilson’s dreams for the League of Nations. Walter Lippmann interpreted post-war isolation through this ethnic prism: any policy that put America in alliance with some European countries against others risked exacerbating America’s own ethnic divisions. Near the end of his career, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. described the arguments that took place between the outbreak of war in 1939 and Pearl Harbor as “the most savage national debate” of his lifetime, one that “unleashed an inner fury that tore apart families, friends, churches, universities and political parties.”

In any event, America’s intra-European divisions began to melt away quickly after Pearl Harbor, as military service became the defining generational event for American men born between 1914 and 1924. The mixed army squad of WASP, Italian, German, Jew, and Irish became a standard plot device for the popular World War II novel and film. The Cold War generated a further compatibility between ethnicity and foreign policy. East European immigrants and refugees emerged to speak for the silenced populations of a newly Stalinized Eastern Europe. Suddenly, all the major European-American groups were in sync. Italian-Americans mobilized for mass letter-writing campaigns to their parents and grandparents warning of the dangers of voting Communist. Greek-Americans naturally supported the Marshall Plan.

Bipartisanship now meant that both parties had to woo ethnic Americans. (And not always so tactfully: the 1948 GOP platform promised to work for the restoration of Italy’s African colonies). Eastern Europeans lobbied for the rollback of Soviet rule, enshrining it as a GOP platform plank if not a practical commitment. Americans of East European background remained staunchly anti-Communist long after anti-Communism surrendered its luster in the aftermath of Vietnam, allying with neoconservative Jews and hamstringing Nixon and Kissinger’s détente policy. As anti-Communism became an engine of Americanization, the Cold War showcased the hyphenated American.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, America has entered a new era of ethnicity and foreign policy, whose contours are only just now emerging. During the 1990s, when multiculturalism was in vogue, leaders of old and new minority groups steered American foreign policy toward the cause of their ancestral homelands. African-American and Hispanic leaders touted the success of American Jews in lobbying for Israel as an example to be emulated. At one major Latino conference, participants nominated themselves the vanguard of a “bridge community” between the United States and Latin America.

Ethnic lobbies, the old as much as the new, quickly filled the empty space left behind by the Cold War. Traditional realists like former defense secretary James Schlesinger and Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington bemoaned the diminished sense of national cohesion and purpose. Ethnic lobbies, they feared, would inhibit the United States from exercising global leadership. Indeed, if one were to examine some of the major policy milestones of the Clinton era—active participation in the Northern Ireland peace process, the military occupation of Haiti, expanded trade embargoes on Cuba and Iran, the revelation of the Swiss banking scandals—it could be argued that ethnic lobbies were, as much as any coherent grand strategy, the era’s prime movers.

After a brief spasm of patriotic and military display following the attacks of 9/11, we have picked up where we left off the day before. Which is to say that the preliminary indications point toward a future that will bear some semblance to the politics of the 1990s and the World War I era, when ethnic constituencies operated as a brake on executive power and military intervention. There is no evidence that the rallying cries put forth by America’s neoconservatives and liberal hawks—democratization of tyrannies, the global war on terror, the fight against radical Islam—have gained significant traction among first- and second-generation immigrant communities. Certainly they do not resonate with anything like the intensity that anti-Communism did after World War II. On the basis of what is visible thus far, today’s and tomorrow’s Mexican-, Asian-, and Arab-Americans will more resemble the Swedes, Germans, and Irish of a century ago than the Poles, Balts, and Cubans of the Cold War era.

The plainest indicator is voting behavior. The obvious point to make is that most of the new immigrant groups tend to vote Democratic—a trend that has intensified since the Republican Party twinned itself with the war in Iraq and, more generally, with the “war on terror,” even as the Democratic Party has reverted to a traditional skepticism regarding foreign entanglements.

Consider first Hispanics, a group that has always leaned Democratic. George W. Bush received 35 percent of the Latino vote in 2000 and 40 percent in 2004. John McCain’s share dropped to 30 percent. The GOP’s harsher tone on immigration surely played a role in this. But it bears noting that in one recent survey of Hispanic voter attitudes, the same percentage cited Iraq as an important issue as cited immigration.

Though Latinos constitute the largest new immigrant group (and Mexican-Americans count as the only national group whose relative size rivals that of German-Americans in the early twentieth century), their foreign affairs activism remains modest. Apart from highly-mobilized Cubans, it is not clear Latinos have either the resources or will to influence foreign policy in a singular way. By virtue of history and geography, they are as much the unwilling subjects of American expansion as they are immigrants—a circumstance captured by Jorge Dominguez’s pithy remark that “the boundary migrated, not the Latinos.”

There is little evidence that Mexicans have much loyalty to the Mexican state, which most, with good reason, view as corrupt. In fact, before immigration became a harshly contested issue in the 1990s, a majority of Mexican-Americans tended to think there was too much of it. Moreover, it seems unlikely that this increasingly Democratic constituency will become a pillar of support for globalism of any sort, much less military interventionism. Obviously one can’t draw broad conclusions from a single political figure. But Colorado’s former senator Ken Salazar, named by President Obama to head the Interior Department, gave an address at last summer’s Democratic convention that, for all its rooted-in-the-soil rhetoric, might, with slight shifts of emphasis, have been delivered by an editor of the paleoconservative journal Chronicles.

The Asian-American shift from aggressive red to pacifistic blue has been far more dramatic. This group, once heavily weighted with refugees from Chinese and Vietnamese Communism, voted Republican in 1992 and 1996. But by 2004 the Asian vote began to trend heavily Democratic, an estimated 60 percent for Kerry over Bush, and 63 percent for Obama over McCain. Like most voters, Asians ranked the economy first, but according to one recent survey, the war in Iraq rated second. Seventy percent wanted the U.S. to leave as soon as possible.

Beyond their turn to the Democrats, there is little hard evidence upon which to gauge the future influence of Asian immigrants on U.S. foreign policy. While there are surely Chinese-Americans who yearn for greater freedom in Beijing, they evince little of the refugee-from-Communism zeal displayed by East Europeans or Cubans of the Cold War period. Generally, Chinese-Americans seem proud of China’s progress and emergence as a great power. It follows that, as their political participation grows, it may become a constituency that encourages American accommodation to a powerful China, or at least one that does not weigh in on the side of confronting it.

The Iraq War is likely to be seen a great clarifier in the partisan identification of the expanding Latino and Asian electorates. In the Gender and Multicultural Leadership Project’s 2006–2007 survey of minority state and local elected officials, only 24 percent of Latino respondents and 19 percent of Asians believed the United States had made the correct decision to invade Iraq.

And what of America’s Arab and Muslim populations, hailing from regions where the United States is presently engaged in two wars? Their numbers tend to be smaller, and hard to tally precisely. But according to Daniel Pipes, the most prominent of those alarmed about the prospect of “Islamism” gaining a foothold in America, there were 3 million Muslims in the United States in 2002. The U.S. census estimates a current U.S. population of 1.25 million Arab-Americans, the majority Christian. (The Arab American Institute estimates that over 3 million U.S. citizens have some Arab ancestry.) But this population, comparably tiny, grows steadily through immigration. According to statistics compiled by the Arab American Institute, the Arab-American population doubled in size between 1980 and 2000, with about 26,000 new Arab immigrants entering the United States every year.

Once a swing group, which split evenly in the 2000 election between Bush and Gore, Arab-Americans have essentially abandoned the GOP. Republican identification had dropped to 20 percent according to one 2008 estimate. Not surprisingly, the Israel-Palestine conflict is the main area of contention, where Arab-American views part most dramatically from those now predominant in Congress. Past generations of Arab-Americans have assimilated seamlessly enough, usually by declining to call attention to their background. Those who rose into the public eye typically adopted a low profile on anything related to the Middle East. But that is changing. One can see early harbingers: Congressman Michael McMahon, recently elected to represent Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, promised some of his Arab constituents that they could chaperone him on a tour of the occupied West Bank. Of course, members of Congress who have toured Israel with Israeli guides number in the hundreds at least. But this kind of politicized sightseeing may soon become a competitive enterprise.

Indeed, political competition over the Middle East now riles most elite American colleges, where it did not twenty years ago: almost every campus boasts an active Arab-American student organization, often cooperating with left-liberal Jewish students—and presenting a narrative of the Israel-Palestine issue far more critical than what was recently a commonplace. The parents of these students were immigrants, unsteady in their English, uncertain of their place in America. Their children have no similar restraints.

It may be decades before we talk seriously about a revived and very different kind of “China lobby” or a new “Palestine lobby.” But the demographic landscape has changed already, and the political coloration of the change does not seem in dispute.  Those sections of the country—the South, lower Midwest, and the regions touching the Appalachian mountains—that have received the fewest immigrants from the waves of immigration of the past 130 years not only count as the most Republican; they are the regions least likely to send white antiwar politicians to Congress. They provide a disproportionate share of the nation’s soldiers. (If one were to subtract the very poor and very white state of Maine, one would need to go through a list of twenty states ranked in order of per capita Army recruitment to reach a state that John Kerry carried in 2004.) One political conclusion is obvious: current rates of immigration will not only diminish the “white” proportion of the American population; they will also diminish the political weight of those regions with the most hawkish and pro-military political cultures.

These observations about immigration and foreign policy complicate present debates among Republicans and conservatives. Consider first the more influential neoconservatives, whose viewpoints were neatly summarized during the campaign by Rudy Giuliani and GOP nominee John McCain. Both boasted hawkish views on Iraq and other war-on-terror-related issues; both sought out neoconservative foreign policy advisers.

Both men were entirely out of sync with the Republican base on immigration. As mayor, Giuliani liked to tout New York as a “Capital of the World.” During the presidential campaign he was accused by rivals, with some justification, of running New York as a “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants. Similarly, John McCain’s campaign was nearly derailed by grassroots hostility to his proposal for normalizing the status of illegal immigrants (derided as “amnesty”).

The Giuliani and McCain positions corresponded to the neoconservative perspective on immigration. True, the 9/11 attacks made neoconservatives, and everyone else, more conscious of border security, and nudged some neoconservatives in the direction of restrictionist positions. But at bottom neoconservatism is a movement that originated among urban Jewish intellectuals, often the children or grandchildren of immigrants themselves, and it retains a good deal of that sensibility. Yet the demographic and political base for a neoconservative foreign policy may be found, to an overwhelming extent, in Protestant red state America, the areas least settled by new immigrants.

And what of the immigration restrictionists? They have contradictions of their own to sort out. They include Democratic environmentalists and liberals worried about immigration’s impact on wages. But most of the restrictionist momentum comes from the traditionalist or paleoconservative camp. Paleoconservatives tout their attachment to old communities, to “the permanent things.” They tend to be more opposed to change, more skeptical about the universal appeal, or relevance, of American ideals to the wider world. In some notable cases, they view themselves as the heirs of the Old Right isolationism that opposed American entry into World Wars I and II.

Paleoconservatives compose too small a faction to have much of a say in the Republican Party. (Pat Buchanan, the most prominent paleo, has been effectively banished from GOP policy debates since 1996.) But there remains a broader category of Republicans, including some prominent intellectuals, with considerable paleo tendencies, sentiments shared by a substantial portion of the American public. Consider two men with long and highly influential careers, the late George F. Kennan and Samuel Huntington.

As a State Department official in the 1940s, Kennan was the primary architect of the Cold War containment strategy. But he spent much of his career arguing that the United States had placed too much emphasis on the military aspects of containment. He was frustrated by what he perceived as an uninformed and moralistic streak running through American foreign policy. In particular, he despaired over the power of ethnic lobbies to influence American policy. These lobbies, he once wrote, “seem more often than not to be on the militaristic or chauvinistic side.” He urged the United States to exhibit more humility and less hubris in its approach to the international scene.

As much as Kennan the diplomat had immersed himself in foreign cultures, he was an ardent immigration restrictionist. In Around the Cragged Hill, published when he was nearly ninety, Kennan lamented the cultural changes brought about by poor immigrants. If they came to America in sufficient numbers, they would create “conditions in this country no better than those of the places the immigrants have left . . . turning America into part of the Third World . . .  [and] thus depriving the planet of one of the few great regions” able to maintain a “relatively high standard of civilization.” Kennan also touted the virtues of small republics, and proposed that the United States might better manage its own civilizational problems if it divided itself into smaller self-governing segments, some of which would become culturally part of Latin America.

Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington was the other leading WASP intellectual to take on the immigration question. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 1997, Huntington worried that the end of the Cold War had left the country without a defining mission. He cited John Updike: “Without the cold war, what’s the point of being an American?” During the mid-1990s, he noted grimly, the void of national purpose was being filled by the special pleading of ethnic subgroups, with little trouble finding receptive ears in Congress. In his final book, Who Are We? published in 2004, Huntington probed deeper. What would become of America’s national identity in an age of mass and especially Hispanic immigration?

“National interests,” he wrote, “derive from national identity. We need to know who we are before we can know what our interests are.” Throughout much of the past century, that identity was clear enough. America was a Western democracy, and both terms were significant. But a changing country would assume new identities and frame its vital interests differently. If American identity were to be defined by commitment to the universal principles of liberty and democracy, then “promotion of those principles in other countries” would guide our foreign policy. Yet if the country was a “collection” of various ethnic and cultural identities, it would promote the interests of those entities, via a “multicultural foreign policy.” If we were to become more Hispanic, we would reorient ourselves accordingly toward Latin America. What we do abroad depends on who we are at home.

To Huntington, America, the historical nation that had existed from the Jamestown and Plymouth Rock settlements until well into the last century, was Anglo-Protestant to the core, as Protestant as Israel is Jewish or Pakistan is Muslim. Huntington was referring to an Anglo-Protestantism of culture, not race or religion—but his ideal culture was definitely the product of the early settlers. The English Puritan Revolution was “the single most important formative event in American political history.” Out of the culture of dissenting Protestantism emerged a secular “American Creed” open to all. The Creed placed emphasis on individual conscience, on work over idleness, and on personal responsibility to overcome obstacles to achieve success. It forged a populace ready to engage in moral reform movements at home and abroad. Americans became accustomed to an image of their nation as one with a divine mission.

Previously, the nation’s elite had been able to “stamp” Protestant values on waves of immigrants. But because of Mexico’s geographic proximity and the sheer number of immigrants, the old assimilation methods would no longer suffice. The major political battles of the 1990s over bilingualism and multiculturalism foreshadowed a larger renegotiation concerning whether the new immigrants would subscribe to the American Creed at all. Huntington favored lower immigration rates and hoped for a reinvigoration of America’s Protestant culture and a renewed commitment to assimilation. But he was not optimistic, and other national possibilities presented themselves. One was a bilingual, bicultural America, half Latin-Americanized; another a racially intolerant, highly conflicted country; still another was a multicultural country subscribing loosely to a common American Creed, but without the glue of a common culture to bind it. Huntington considered the American Creed without its cultural underpinning no more durable than Marxist-Leninism eventually proved in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Protective of the uniqueness of America’s Anglo-Protestant culture, Huntington was a nationalist who hoped to maintain the American “difference” from the rest of the world. But he was acutely aware that one of the distinguishing aspects of Anglo-Protestantism was its messianism, the sense of America as a chosen nation—and one not inclined to leave a corrupt world to its own devices. Anglo-Protestantism had transformed the United States, in Walter McDougall’s words, from “promised land to crusader state.”

Thus, while many have laid the blame for the war in Iraq with the Bush administration or the neoconservatives, that may cast the net too narrowly. Andrew Bacevich is one author who describes a much longer fuse to the impulse that led America to miscalculate how receptive the world would be toward a military campaign to end tyranny. In The New American Militarism, Bacevich noted that evangelical Protestantism, which had evolved from political quietism in the first half of the century, to respectful deference to the Cold War establishment during the Billy Graham era, had, by the 1980s, evolved into a passionate embrace of military culture. The American officer corps made a transition from being mostly Episcopalian to heavily evangelical. And evangelicals embraced not just the soldiers and their values, but militarism as a chosen foreign policy. As Bacevich starkly put it: “In the developed world’s most devoutly Christian country, Christian witness against war and the danger of militarism became less effective than in countries thoroughly and probably irreversibly secularized.” Conservative Christians have fostered among the faithful “a predisposition to see U.S. military power as inherently good, perhaps even a necessary adjunct to the accomplishment of Christ’s saving mission.”

Bacevich’s analysis illuminated a principal weakness of Huntington’s prescription. For if solidifying the American nation required a re-invigorated Anglo-Protestant culture, the initiative would have to come to a considerable degree from Anglo-Protestants themselves. Reading Huntington (and Kennan as well), one cannot but sense that what they really seek is a revival of something resembling the American national elite of the 1940s and 1950s, exemplified by the foreign policy “wise men” of the Truman era (of whom Kennan was one). But that particular Protestant elite, whose cousins held the commanding positions of America’s industries and universities, was more or less banished from the national stage in the 1960s. Not only is its return impossible; it barely exists. What has replaced it as the dynamic core of American Protestantism is the evangelical culture Bacevich describes, rooted in the South and West, whose attitudes were epitomized by the Bush-Cheney administration.

If the emergence of an American elite able to cement a strong national identity and coherent national interest is unlikely, what options remain for a country now irreversibly multicultural? Huntington saw the choice as either imperialism or liberal cosmopolitanism, both of which would erode what is unique about America. Imperialism seems an unlikely choice since the Iraq War, an experience few Americans in or out of the military will want to repeat anytime soon.

What seems more likely is the entrenchment and expansion of a worldly, cosmopolitan elite, increasingly multicultural and transnational, that bears little connection to the WASP establishments of the twentieth century, the cold warriors, or even the Bush administration. American foreign policy will necessarily become less ambitious, more a product of horse-trading between ethnic groups. Messianism, in either its Protestant or neoconservative variants, will be part of America’s past, not its future. Americans will not conceive of themselves as orchestrators of a benevolent global hegemony, or as agents of an indispensable nation. Schlesinger, for one, exaggerated the extent of the fall when he averred that a foreign policy based on “careful balancing of ethnic constituencies” was suitable only for secondary powers, like the late Austrian-Hungarian Empire. But he exaggerated only slightly.

As I have noted, George F. Kennan, patron saint of both foreign policy realists and many paleoconservatives, spent the long second half of his career urging a greater sense of humility abroad. The rethinking of global commitments, the readiness to modify the go-go economy that seems to require them—these have become a refrain of some of Kennan’s heirs. So here is a second paradox, which parallels the irony that neoconservatives support an immigration policy that undermines their own political base. The realists and America-Firsters will find their foreign policy aspirations at least partially satisfied via the unlikely avenues of immigration and multiculturalism. The paleoconservatives, losers in the immigration wars, will end up winners of an important consolation prize: the foreign policy of what remains of their cherished republic.

Scott McConnell is co-founder and editor-at-large of The American Conservative.

Unheralded Battle: Capitalism, the Left, Social Democracy, and Democratic Socialism

Posted in Politics and Capitalism by distpatches on June 3, 2009

By Sheri Berman
The current financial and economic crisis has once again placed the dangers of capitalism at the forefront of our collective consciousness. The left, which until relatively recently had seemed adrift across much of the Western world, lacking in coherent and convincing responses to globalization and neoliberalism, appears once again poised for a comeback, as citizens yearn for stability and security in difficult times. That the left’s fortunes should ebb and flow with capitalism’s is nothing new. Indeed, capitalism is both the reason for and the bane of the modern left; the left’s origins and fate have always been inextricably intertwined with capitalism’s. There is much, therefore, that the left can learn from its past about how to approach the problems of the present.

The Backstory
The emergence of capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to unprecedented economic growth and personal freedom, but it also brought dramatic inequality, social dislocation, and atomization. Accordingly, a backlash against the new order soon began. During the early to mid nineteenth century, a motley crew of anarchists, Lassalleans, Proudhonians, Saint Simonians, and others gave voice to the growing discontent. Only with the rise of Marxism, however, did the emerging capitalist system meet an enemy worthy of its revolutionary power. By the late nineteenth century an orthodox version of Marxism had displaced most other critiques of capitalism on the left and established itself as the dominant ideology of the international socialist movement.

Part of Marxism’s appeal came from the embedding of its scathing critique of capitalism in an optimistic historical framework that promised the emergence of an even newer and better system down the road. Crudely stated, Marxism had three core points: that capitalism was a great transforming force in history, destroying the old feudal order and generating untold wealth and productivity; that it was based on terrible inequality, exploitation, and conflict; and that it would ultimately and naturally be transcended by the arrival of communism.

We don’t always remember that Marx thought capitalism had amazing qualities. “[It] has accomplished wonders,” he wrote, “far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.” But its extraordinary accomplishments, he argued, came at a fearsome human cost. Capital was like a vampire that “lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” And in the end, having fulfilled its historically “progressive” function of destroying the old order and releasing humanity’s productive potential, it would collapse. Marx was convinced that just as the internal contradictions of feudalism had paved the way for capitalism, so the internal contradictions of capitalism would pave the way for its successor. It was, as he once put it, “a question of . . . laws . . . tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results.”

Everyone on the left agreed with Marx on the first two points. By the late nineteenth century, however, some of its sharpest minds began to disagree on the third. For instead of collapsing, capitalism was showing great resilience. It emerged stronger than ever from a long depression in the 1870s and 1880s, and then revolutions in transportation and communication led to a wave of globalization sweeping over not just Europe but the world at large. Several advanced bourgeois states, meanwhile, had started to enact important economic, social, and political reforms, and, for most of the public, life was actually getting not worse but better (however slowly and fitfully).

In response to these conditions, the left effectively splintered into three camps. The first, best symbolized by Lenin, argued that if the new social order was not going to come about on its own, then it could and should be imposed by force—and promptly set out to spur history along through the politico-military efforts of a revolutionary vanguard. Many other leftists were unwilling to accept the violence and elitism of such a course and chose to stick to a democratic path. Standard narratives of this era often leave the analysis here, focusing on the split between those who embraced and those who rejected violence. In fact, however, an additional split within the democratic camp was crucial as well, centering on the future of capitalism and the left’s proper response to it.

One democratic faction believed that Marx may have been wrong about the imminence of capitalism’s collapse, but was basically right in arguing that capitalism could not persist indefinitely. Its internal contradictions and human costs, they felt, were so great that it would ultimately give way to something fundamentally different and better—hence the purpose of the left was to hasten this transition. Another faction rejected the view that capitalism was bound to collapse in the foreseeable future and believed that in the meantime it was both possible and desirable to take advantage of its upsides while addressing its downsides. Rather than working to transcend capitalism, therefore, they favored a strategy built on encouraging its immense productive capacities, reaping the benefits, and deploying them for progressive ends.

The real story of the democratic left over the last century has been the story of the battle between these two factions, which can be thought of as the battle between democratic socialism and social democracy. It is this battle, and in particular the incomplete victory of the latter in it, that has constrained the left’s ability to respond to political challenges up through the present day.

Heirs or Doctors?
The most important and influential of the fin-de-siècle proto-social democrats was Eduard Bernstein. Bernstein was an important figure in both the international socialist movement and its most powerful party, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). He argued that capitalism was not leading to the immiseration of the proletariat, a drop in the number of property owners, and ever-deepening crises, as orthodox Marxists had predicted. Instead, he saw a capitalist system that was growing ever more complex and adaptable. This led him to oppose “the view that we stand at the threshold of an imminent collapse of bourgeois society, and that Social Democracy should allow its tactics to be determined by, or made dependent upon, the prospect of any forthcoming major catastrophe.” Since catastrophe was both unlikely and undesirable, he argued, the left should focus on reform instead. The prospects for socialism depended “not on the decrease but on the increase of social wealth,” together with socialists’ ability to generate “positive suggestions for reform” that would improve the living conditions of the great masses of society: “With regard to reforms, we ask, not whether they will hasten the catastrophe which could bring us to power, but whether they further the development of the working class, whether they contribute to general progress.” Perhaps Bernstein’s most (in)famous comment was, “What is usually termed the final goal of socialism is nothing to me, the movement is everything.” By this he simply meant that talking constantly about some abstract future was of little value; instead socialists needed to focus their attention on the long-term struggle to create a better world.

Because the issues raised by Bernstein and other revisionists touched upon both theory and praxis, it is not surprising that the international socialist movement was consumed by debates over them during the fin-de-siècle. Karl Kautsky, the standard-bearer of orthodox Marxism, attacked Bernstein, commenting, “He tells us that the number of property-owners, of capitalists, is growing and that the groundwork on which we have based our views is therefore wrong. If that were so, then the time of our victory would not only be long delayed, we would never reach our goal at all.” Similarly, Wilhelm Liebknecht, one of the leaders of the powerful German SPD, noted, “If Bernstein’s arguments [are] correct, we might as well bury our program, our entire history, and the whole of [socialism].” And Rosa Luxemburg, perhaps Bernstein’s most perceptive critic, urged socialists to recognize that if his heretical views were accepted, the whole edifice of orthodox Marxism would be swept away: “Up until now,” she argued, “socialist theory declared that the point of departure for a transformation to socialism would be a general and catastrophic crisis.” Bernstein, however, “does not merely reject a certain form of the collapse. He rejects the very possibility of collapse . . . . But then the question arises: Why and how . . . shall we attain the final goal?” As Luxemburg recognized, Bernstein was presenting socialists with a simple question: Either “socialist transformation is, as before, the result of the objective contradictions of the capitalist order . . . and at some stage some form of collapse will occur,” or capitalism could actually be altered by the efforts of inspired majorities—in which case “the objective necessity of socialism . . . falls to the ground.”

These debates simmered for more than a generation, until events reached a critical juncture during the 1920s and early 1930s. Now in power in several major European countries, the democratic left found itself responsible for actual political and economic governance, not simply for agitation and theorizing. The onset of the Great Depression in particular forced socialists to confront their relationship to capitalism head-on. In the hour of what seemed to be capitalism’s great crisis, what should socialists do? Should they sit back and cheer, seeing the troubles as simply the start of the transition that orthodox Marxism had long promised? Or should they try to stanch the bleeding and improve the system so that such disasters could never happen again? Fritz Tarnow, a leading German socialist and unionist of the day, summed up the dilemma in 1931:

Are we standing at the sickbed of capitalism not only as doctors who want to heal the patient, but also as prospective heirs who can’t wait for the end and would gladly help the process along with a little poison? . . . We are damned, I think, to be doctors who seriously want to cure, and yet we have to maintain the feeling that we are heirs who wish to receive the entire legacy of the capitalist system today rather than tomorrow. This double role, doctor and heir, is a damned difficult task.

In fact, it was not just difficult, it was impossible. And recognizing this, more and more socialists understood that the time had come to choose. One result was that during the early 1930s, reformers across the continent developed policies that, while differing in their specifics, were joined by one key belief: the need to use state power to tame and ultimately reform capitalism. In Belgium, Holland, and France, Hendrik de Man and his Plan du Travail found energetic champions; in Germany and Austria, reformers advocated government intervention in the economy and proto-Keynesian stimulation programs; and in Sweden, the Social Democratic Party initiated the single most ambitious attempt to reshape capitalism from within.

By the end of the 1930s, therefore, the longstanding debate on the democratic left had come to a head. On the one side stood social democrats, who believed in using the power of the democratic state to reform capitalism. And on the other side stood democratic socialists, who believed that leftists should not do anything about capitalism’s crises because ultimately it was only through the system’s collapse that a better world would emerge.

The Postwar World
During the interwar years, social democrats generally lost these battles, except in Scandinavia and, particularly, in Sweden. But in the wake of a second world war brought on by tyrannies that had come to power thanks in part to the interwar era’s economic and social turmoil, the social democrats’ ideas and policies ultimately triumphed, both on the left and across much of the political spectrum. After 1945, Western European states explicitly committed themselves to managing capitalism and protecting society from its more destructive effects. The prewar liberal understanding of the relationship among capitalism, the state, and society was abandoned: no longer was the role of the state simply to ensure that markets could grow and flourish; no longer were economic interests to be given the greatest possible leeway. Instead, after the war the state was generally seen as the guardian of society rather than the economy, and economic imperatives were often forced to take a back seat to social ones.

These changes seemed so dramatic at the time that contemporary observers were unsure how to characterize them. Thus, C.A.R Crosland argued that the postwar political economy was “different in kind from classical capitalism . . . in almost every respect that one can think of.” And Andrew Shonfield similarly questioned whether “the economic order under which we now live and the social structure that goes with it are so different from what preceded them that it [has become] misleading . . . to use the word ‘capitalism’ to describe them.”

But of course capitalism did remain—even though it was a very different capitalism than before. After 1945, the market system was tempered by political power, and the state was explicitly committed to protecting society from its worst consequences. This was a far cry from what Marxists, communists, and democratic socialists had hoped for (namely, an end to capitalism), but it was equally far from what liberals had long advocated (namely, a free rein for markets). What it most closely embodied was the worldview long espoused by social democrats.

Putting into place this new understanding of politics and markets allowed the West to combine—for the first time in its history—economic growth, well-functioning democracy, and social stability. Despite the obvious success of the postwar order, however, the triumph of social democracy was not complete. Many on the right accepted the new system out of necessity alone; once their fear of economic and social chaos (and the radical left) faded, their commitment to the order also faded. But more interestingly, even many on the left failed to understand or wholeheartedly accept the new dispensation. Some forgot that the reforms, while important, were merely means to an end—an ongoing process of taming and domesticating the capitalist beast—and so contented themselves with the pedestrian management of the welfare state. Others never made their peace with the loss of a post-capitalist future.

A LEADING light in the second camp was Michael Harrington, putative heir to the mantle of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, one of the American left’s most inspiring and influential figures, and a long-time contributor to this journal. Harrington supported reforms that alleviated the suffering of America’s poor and marginalized (whom he famously termed “The Other America”), but he did not believe that such reforms or the welfare state more generally could ever eliminate suffering or injustice. These were ultimately inherent features of capitalism itself. He argued, for example, that the “class structure of capitalist society vitiates, or subverts almost every . . . effort towards social justice.”

Even the unprecedented economic growth of the postwar era did not fundamentally change Harrington’s views. He described such growth as “misshapen” and “counterproductive,” arguing that no matter how economically successful it was, capitalism was incapable of “meeting the needs of the people.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was also convinced that capitalism was on its way out. In 1968, he opened his book Toward a Democratic Left with the proclamation that the “American system [didn’t] seem to work any more.” In 1976, he wrote a book called Twilight of Capitalism. In 1978, he asserted that “capitalism was dying.” And in 1986—just three years before the collapse of communism and in the middle of a lengthy economic boom—he wrote that “the West is living through an economic and social crisis so unprecedented in its tempo, so complex in its effects, that there are many who do not even know it is taking place.”

The problem with such statements and the larger worldview that lay behind them is not merely that they were wrong, but also that they were counterproductive. Convinced that a better world had to await capitalism’s demise, Harrington devoted much of his intellectual and political energy to convincing his readers that capitalism’s apparent triumphs were fictional and that the system was really on its way out. And he sought to persuade the left that its chief task was not to reform and humanize capitalism but rather to press for its passing.

One result of the mismatch between Harrington’s worldview and reality was that his attempts at practical guidance were highly impractical. Indeed, reading Harrington today one is struck by two things: the sharp and amazingly empathetic eye he brought to his descriptions of the American poor and the utopian irrelevance of most of his policy proposals for improving their lot. Harrington knew what he disliked about the existing capitalist order, but had trouble describing concretely how a post-capitalist world would actually work or how to get to it. Like other democratic socialists, he placed a lot of faith in “democratic planning.” Yet aside from the emphasis on democracy and public participation (to differentiate it from the heavy-handed state planning of the Eastern bloc), there was little description about what such planning would involve or how it would achieve its goals. Other recommendations for building a socialist order included the socialization of investment, some form of “social” ownership, shorter working hours, and limits on the private setting of prices. But one looks in vain for details about how such measures could be implemented, what their likely results would be, and how they would relate to each other and to existing institutions so as to produce more efficient or just outcomes.

It is hard not to conclude, especially with hindsight, that the democratic socialist view was ultimately a dead end. Although Harrington and others in his corner were very often correct in their scathing criticisms of capitalism, they consistently played down not only its extraordinary accomplishments but also the changes it went through over time—changes that were, to a large degree, the achievement of the left itself. By insisting that true justice could come only with capitalism’s elimination, democratic socialists implicitly (and often explicitly) denigrated efforts at taming it—thus limiting the left’s cohesiveness and appeal and its ability to offer practical benefits to suffering populations in the short and mid term.

The Fierce Urgency of Now
These arguments are anything but academic or merely historical. For the left today faces a globalized capitalism in the midst of a serious crisis. How the left thinks about capitalism and its own mission will affect its ability to deal with this crisis as well as its chances for electoral success. Although currently chastened, contemporary neoliberals of the right and center have long argued for leaving markets as free as possible and have long dismissed concerns about globalization’s individual and social costs. Large sectors of the left, meanwhile, downplay the adaptability of markets and dismiss the huge gains that the global spread of capitalism has brought, particularly to the poor in the developing world. Such debates resemble nothing so much as those taking place a century ago, out of which the social democratic worldview first emerged. Then as now, many liberals see only capitalism’s benefits, while many leftists see only its radical flaws, leaving it to social democrats to grapple with a full appreciation of both.

Participants at the two extremes of today’s economic debates need to be reminded that it was only through the postwar settlement that capitalism and democracy found a way to live together amicably. Without the amazing economic results generated by the operations of relatively free markets, the dramatic improvements of mass living standards throughout the West would not have been possible. Without the social protections and limits on markets imposed by states, in turn, the benefits of capitalism would never have been distributed so widely, and economic, political and social stability would have been infinitely more difficult to achieve. One of the great ironies of the twentieth century is that the very success of this social democratic compromise made it seem routine; we forget how new and controversial it actually was. As a result, by the end of the twentieth century the West had begun to gradually abandon this compromise, moving in a more neoliberal direction, freeing markets and economic activity from some of the oversight and restrictions that had characterized the postwar settlement. The challenge to the left today is to recover the principles underlying this settlement and to generate from them initiatives that address today’s new problems and opportunities. Many of the specific policies that worked during the postwar era have run out of steam, and the left should not be afraid to jettison them. The important thing is not the policies but the goals—encouraging growth while at the same time protecting citizens from capitalism’s negative consequences.

Building on its best traditions, the left must reiterate its commitment to managing change rather than fighting it, to embracing the future rather than running from it. This might seem straightforward, but in fact it isn’t generally accepted. Many European and American leftists are devoted to familiar policies and approaches regardless of their practical relevance or lack of success. And many peddle fear of the future, fear of change, and fear of the other. Increasing globalization and the dramatic rise of developing world giants such as China and India, for example, are seen as threats rather than opportunities.

At its root, such fears stem from the failure of many on the left to appreciate that capitalism is not a zero-sum game—over the long run the operations of relatively free markets can produce net wealth rather than simply shifting it from one pocket to another. Because social democrats understand that basic point, they want to do what they can to encourage trade and growth and cultivate as large a net surplus as possible—all the better to pay for measures that can equalize life chances and cushion publics from the blows that markets inflict.

Helping people adjust to capitalism, rather than engaging in a hopeless and ultimately counterproductive effort to hold it back, has been the historic accomplishment of the social democratic left, and it remains its primary goal today in those countries where the social democratic mindset is most deeply ensconced. Many analysts have remarked, for example, on the impressive success of countries like Denmark and Sweden in managing globalization—promoting economic growth and increased competitiveness even as they ensure high employment and social security. The Scandinavian cases demonstrate that social welfare and economic dynamism are not enemies but natural allies. Not surprisingly, it is precisely in these countries that optimism about globalization is highest. In the United States and other parts of Europe, on the other hand, fear of the future is pervasive and opinions of globalization astoundingly negative. American leftists must try to do what the Scandinavians have done: develop a program that promotes growth and social solidarity together, rather than forcing a choice between them. Concretely this means agitating for policies—like reliable, affordable, and portable health care; tax credits or other government support for labor-market retraining; investment in education; and unemployment programs that are both more generous and better incentivized—that will help workers adjust to change rather than make them fear it.

JUST AS important, however, is that the left regain its old optimism and historical vision. And here, interestingly, is where Harrington still has something to teach. In his writings, he insisted on the left’s need for some larger sense of where it wanted the world to be heading. Without this, he argued, the left would be directionless and uninspiring. Despite current disillusionment with capitalism, this is precisely the situation the left finds itself in today, given the loss of its vision of a postcapitalist society. Many of its parties win elections, but few inspire much hope or offer more than a kinder, gentler version of a generic centrist platform.

Given the left’s past, this is astonishing. The left has traditionally been driven by the conviction that a better world was possible and that its job was to bring this world into being. Somehow this conviction has been lost. As Michael Jacobs has noted, “Up through the 1980s politics on the left was enchanted—not by spirits, but by radical idealism; the belief that the world could be fundamentally different. But cold, hard political realism has now done for radical idealism what rationality did for pre-Enlightenment spirituality. Politics has been disenchanted.” Many welcome this shift, believing that transformative projects are passé or even dangerous. But this loss of faith in transformation “has been profoundly damaging, not just for the cause of progressive politics but for a wider sense of public engagement with the political process.”

As social democratic pioneers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century recognized, the most important thing that politics can provide is a sense of the possible. Against Marxist determinism and liberal laissez-faire, they developed a political ideology based on the idea that people working together could make the world a better place. And in contrast to their democratic socialist colleagues, they argued that it was both possible and desirable to take advantage of capitalism’s upsides while addressing its downsides. The result was the most successful political movement of the twentieth century, one that shaped the basic politico-economic framework under which we still live. The problems of the twenty-first century may be different in form, but they are not different in kind. There is no reason that the accomplishment cannot be developed and extended.

Sheri Berman is associate professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her latest book is The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2006).