The Left’s Embrace of Empire

The Left’s Embrace of Empire

The history of the left in the United States is a history of betrayal.


Bret Stephens, arguably the most hawkish voice at The Wall Street Journal throughout the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies, now occupies an even more prominent perch at The New York Times. Bari Weiss, also formerly of the Journal, has also moved to the Times, despite a history of smearing Muslim and Arab professors. And Max Boot, yet another Journal veteran, has been rewarded with columnist status at The Washington Post for his intrepid defense of America’s wars. A similar pattern can be discerned across network television and public radio, where proponents of American hegemony—ranging from former Bush speechwriter David Frum to founder of The Weekly Standard Bill Kristol to editor in chief of The Atlantic Jeffrey Goldberg to former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and a daunting litany of national-security-state officials—are presented as wise sages.

Since Trump was elected, both parties have backed massive increases to the military budget; the extension of Bush-era surveillance powers; sanctions on Russia, North Korea, and Iran; US strikes against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria; and provocations on Russia’s periphery, specifically in Ukraine, where weapons and other forms of military assistance continue to flow to a coalition government riddled with fascist sympathizers. Some of these policies, like sanctions on Russia and North Korea, are debatable. But debate has been absent, even in most marquee left outlets. The presumptions of empire are conceded at the outset. Either by unashamed affirmation or complicit silence, the mainstream, institutional American left has endorsed the latest restoration of the empire and the accompanying resurgence of militarism.  

Unfortunately, none of this is an aberration. The history of the left in the United States is in large part a history of betrayal: of the repeated embrace of imperial ventures for the sake of shortsighted aims, always coming back to haunt the left and the empire’s victims. It is a history blighted by the self-serving conceit that the domestic and the foreign, or what was once the interior and the frontier, can be understood apart from each other. And until very recently, it was a history forged by white elites too sheltered from the racial consequences of their choices to anticipate the havoc they would unleash.

American schoolchildren still learn about Manifest Destiny, but few encounter the man who coined the term in 1845, the magazine editor John O’Sullivan. A Jacksonian associated with the Locofocos, the radical caucus within the Democratic Party, he was a friend of the trade unionists, anti-monopolists, and anti-capitalists of the era. O’Sullivan hailed from the democratic-republican tradition of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. He loathed the top-down arrangement of wage labor, despised the feudal inequalities of the money system, and welcomed westward expansion as an escape from the depredations of the factory and the city.

But the agrarian idyll of independent yeomanry, or what Jefferson called an Empire of Liberty, turned out more nightmare than dream. In practice, indigenous communities were exterminated or displaced. The slaveocracy gained ground territorially and ideologically, as the linkage between white freedom and nonwhite unfreedom tightened with the growing dependence of global profits on state-sanctioned bondage. And the brutalities of the capitalist machine, instead of being circumvented, intensified with the help of greater land and more labor to extract or exploit.

O’Sullivan’s journey from New York reformer to Mexican War booster to pro-Confederacy propagandist was not entirely unrepresentative. Many of the leaders of the workingmen’s movement in the 1830s and ’40s became apologists for slavery. Many others promoted the war with Mexico and the Indian Wars in general. And their ideological descendants can be spotted in future expansionist iterations, specifically among the anti-communist left, a sizable number of whom were driven to condone parallel cruelties, such as a strategic alliance with fascists in Latin America and an apartheid government in South Africa.

The Populists, who, in 1892, demanded such egalitarian reforms as an eight-hour workday and the end of private banking, backed the Spanish-American War six years later. They did so on anti-imperialist grounds, hoping to free Cuba from the grip of Spanish rule. But their presumption of goodwill on the part of the US government authorized, in the eyes of most Americans, the subsequent annexation of Hawaii, permanent control over Puerto Rico, a merciless slaughter in the Philippines, and a protectorate over Cuba with devastating long-term ramifications. Realizing their error, Populists became vociferous opponents of the latter developments, especially the bloodletting in the Philippines. But the damage had already been done, and many would take the same accommodationist path as onetime Populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who once again made peace with imperial enterprises in Central America and the Caribbean.

As President Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state, Bryan was also—in 1913, well before Pearl Harbor—among the first to recommend the encouraged removal of Japanese immigrants to the inland. He saw it as an answer to the “Oriental” problem—the fear of Japanese supremacy in the Pacific and a Japanese invasion of California. This style of thinking foreshadowed not only the internment scheme in the 1930s but the anti-Japanese Immigration Act of 1924 and the establishment of heavily equipped patrols on the Mexican border that same year. But Wilson adorned his segregationist impulse in a liberal humanitarian vernacular, one that emphasized regulating uncivilized zones within and across national borders. The historian Nikhil Singh, in his new book Race and America’s Long War (2017), calls this scaled-up form of racialized discipline “inner and outer wars.” It was during the early 20th century, just as war became an uninterrupted series of police actions, that cops became openly militarized.

President Theodore Roosevelt’s agenda during this time should be unsurprising. He was, after all, a former New York City police commissioner. But his worldview converged with that of the Progressives, especially those at The New Republic. These writers, John Dewey foremost among them, cheered on the United States’ entry into World War I, seeing it as a revolutionary act that would usher in an age of mass mobilization, collective planning, and modern bureaucracy. The forgotten maverick and great essayist Randolph Bourne, just before his premature death, warned of a perpetual present where war would forever embody “the health of the state.” Eugene Debs, five-time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America, was thrown in prison for protesting the military draft. The anarchist Emma Goldman also faced incarceration and, by the time of Wilson’s First Red Scare in 1919, deportation. Yet Debs’s and Goldman’s troubles were attended by a wider crackdown of radicals, immigrants, and blacks at the hands of war parties unified across the ideological spectrum.

Dewey eventually learned his lesson, and, in 1923, went as far as calling for the American people to outlaw war. W.E.B. Du Bois, who had insisted that Negroes put their complaints aside and “close ranks” in support of the war effort, also reversed course. An otherwise astute critic of the nexus between empire and the production of racial hierarchy, Du Bois never again trusted the US government as the imperial exception. In Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil, published in 1920, Du Bois wrote:

It is curious to see America, the United States, looking on herself, first, as a sort of natural peacemaker, then as a moral protagonist in this terrible time. No nation is less fitted for this role. For two or more centuries America has marched proudly in the van of human hatred…. a great religion, a world war-cry: Up white, down black; to your tents, O white folk, and world war with black and parti-colored mongrel beasts!

But the same about-turn could not be said for most of the progressive-minded contemporaries of Dewey and Du Bois. American exceptionalism actually gained ground during the Popular Front 1930s and the left-liberal decades that followed, even though the New Deal president himself, Franklin Roosevelt, often mused about a postwar order freed of empire. Japanese internment, the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—these were, in the final analysis, symptoms of what the playwright Shailja Patel calls “imperial privilege,” an entitlement that had been in the making for centuries, and one that would continue to inflict violence on subaltern populations into the future.

Liberal nationalism became the sole option on the left following Franklin Roosevelt’s death. The Communists were crushed, and the surviving socialists or progressives caved, especially after Henry Wallace’s embarrassing showing in the 1948 presidential election following his refusal to disavow the endorsement of the Communist Party. Wallace’s trajectory told the tale. As early as 1950, Franklin Roosevelt’s former vice president had transformed into a strident anti-communist and advocate of war in Korea, a war that is estimated to have taken 3 million lives. By the middle of that decade, he was a Republican.  

The list of US interventions in the ensuing years is long, extending from Iran (1953) to Guatemala (1954) to the Republic of the Congo (1960). They were propelled by a combination of market imperatives and ideological zeal, were supported by nearly everyone of any importance, and all ended in disaster. Were an American opposition of any real presence compelled, it is possible they could have been averted. But no such opposition emerged, and the most catastrophic intervention of them all, the war in Indochina, was allowed to proceed. The horrors of that conflict need no recapitulation. What does require emphasis is that once the New Left and the black-freedom struggle coalesced into a full-blown opposition, the US government concluded the war in Indochina.

The damage that was done was nevertheless significant, and that damage followed itself back to the states. Law-enforcement officers served tours in Vietnam as advisers and returned to their beats with newly oppressive skill sets and equipment. Counterinsurgency trademarks such as psychological techniques, covert intelligence collection, the use of chemical munitions, and Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams were transferred from pacified rural regions like the Mekong Delta to metropolises like Los Angeles, just as black and brown neighborhoods across the United States were increasingly perceived as the enemy. Singh argues that the same states of exception or emergency carved out in America’s external wars became more institutionalized within, and the same states of exception or emergency carved out in the inner wars became more institutionalized without.

The bipartisan development of COINTELPRO, the FBI program that illegally tracked and neutralized dissidents of the security state (like Martin Luther King Jr. or members of the American Indian Movement), was a case in point. So was the ongoing extralegal meddling in places like Chile (under Nixon) and Afghanistan (under Carter). As Singh asserts in a separate but related context, the “formative histories of ‘enemy aliens,’ internment, surveillance, and deportation that have routinely come to the fore, especially in times of war, are largely disregarded as constitutive elements of the U.S. national security landscape that consistently worries and confuses whether the greatest ‘foreign’ threats come from the inside or from the outside.”  

Progressives in the 1970s, to their credit, did manage to force the convening of the Church Committee under Senator Frank Church, a comprehensive investigation of decades-old intelligence-agency abuses that led to surveillance reforms that have lasted to the present. And their resistance to Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy in the 1980s, particularly in Central America, was genuine if inadequate. But by the 1990s, the American left had returned to its standard form as empire’s good cop.

The first Gulf War, like the sanctions and occupation that followed, was a two-party affair. (A mass movement against the sequel would ultimately materialize, yet it expired the instant Barack Obama assumed office and its demands never came close to approaching the anti-imperialist ambition of Vietnam-era dissent.) President Bill Clinton’s liberal humanitarian interlude in the Balkans and Africa marked a step up from Reagan’s engineering of reactionary chaos in the Third World, but as disillusioned adherents like the writer David Rieff or the historian Samuel Moyn now argue, the moral balance sheet proves troubling. At the time, only a handful of far-left voices had anything to say about the president’s neocolonial machinations regarding Haiti, and the future Iraq War hawk Christopher Hitchens, of all people, appeared to be one of the only high-profile leftists (apart from his eventual bête noire, Noam Chomsky) enraged about Clinton’s bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, an impulsive act that may have caused, thanks to the consequent shortage of lifesaving drugs, thousands of deaths.

It may be that no one symbolizes the depressing arc of the imperialist left better than former US attorney general Eric Holder. Singh juxtaposes US Attorney Holder’s inauguration of stop-and-frisk in Washington, DC, in the mid-’90s with his defense, as US attorney general, of Obama’s drone program over a decade later, a program that had already been known to be killing countless civilians. Holder drew an approving parallel between drone warfare against US citizens and cops killing runaway suspects. Citing a court decision that deemed it “not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape [of assumed violent suspects] by using deadly force,” he contended that in the remote assassination of putative terrorists, even when those alleged terrorists are US citizens, “the use of lethal force would not violate the Fourth Amendment.”

The anecdote illustrates the connections between the War on Drugs, the War on Crime, and the War on Terror. But it also signifies something else—namely, the grotesque irony that is the much-vaunted black representation in the upper reaches of the imperial bureaucracy. Singh has noted in the past the ways the overdue elevation of black elites is now used to deny the persistence of structural racism or “America’s tortured racial dialectic,” and in his latest work, he also implies an analogous colorblind merchandising of what is in fact a highly racialized national-security state. Holder’s breaking of glass ceilings was accompanied not only by that of Obama, but also Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch. All have found themselves caught up in some combination of endless wars, extensions of the surveillance state, anti-whistle-blower prosecutions, indefinite detentions, unethical FBI entrapments, unprecedented mass deportations, historic growth in the US-led global arms trade, and a reckless enlargement of the nuclear arsenal. And all of these policies have redounded to the severe disfavor of people of color

As Singh maintained in his first book, Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (2005), as well as his edited volume, Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder: The Black Freedom Movement Writings of Jack O’Dell (2012), it is the black radical tradition that has always offered the most compelling voice against the cruel hand of empire. The great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, was a fierce detractor of America’s nationalist and colonial pretensions. This disposition was evident in his classic speech in 1852, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” as well as his stirring address a year later, “A Nation in the Midst of a Nation,” where he spoke from “the standpoint [of] the victims of American oppression.” In his oration on Mexico in 1849, Douglass demonstrated insight into the interconnectedness of that oppression when denouncing President James Polk’s war as a “murderous war—as a war against the free states—as a war against freedom, against the Negro, and against the interests of workingmen of this country.”   

Such a critique of the inner and outer wars has traveled generations, from Du Bois to the exiled Marxist Claudia Jones to the civil-rights militant Ella Baker to the literary giant James Baldwin to the Black Panther and communist Angela Davis (a close reader of Douglass in her own right). It has passed through many more, up to and including Martin Luther King. In his “Beyond Vietnam” cri de coeur at Riverside Church in New York City in 1967, King shocked his white liberal admirers when he said that he “could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.” He went on:

When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered…. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. 

Yet it was Jack O’Dell, one of King’s closest advisers, who might have proved the most eloquent of them all. In an interview with Singh not too long ago, he remarked, “It may be that we who stand in the lineage of people who were sold in the marketplace have something to say about the limits of market freedom, and a sensitivity to the rest of the world that is simply not an American tradition.”

Black radicals aren’t the only ones today calling attention to the all-encompassing repressiveness of the capitalist empire. There are a handful of relatively visible organizations that share these sentiments. And even Bernie Sanders, on occasion, gestures toward a more palatable yet like-minded politics. But it is probably not a coincidence that the most courageous and prescient opponent of America’s wars in Congress is California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a black woman who was the only legislator to vote against the authorization of the use of military force following 9/11. Nor is it a surprise that the most forceful contemporary statement on the “interlinked systems of white supremacy, imperialism, capitalism and patriarchy” comes from the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 50 black-liberation groups demanding everything from a drastic cut in military spending to the backing of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions struggle on behalf of a free Palestine. Perhaps it is high time the rest of the broad left takes a cue from them.

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