John Laughland

Full Marx for George Bush

The President of the United States is not a communist, says John Laughland, but his belief in a global democratic revolution is inspired by Marxist thinking

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Ever since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there has been a seemingly endless flow of self-congratulatory comment in the West about how former communist countries — and even some which have remained communist — are gradually westernising and learning the ropes in the capitalist jungle. Very often, these countries’ so-called progress is in fact cultural decline: the advent of bars for transsexuals in Havana, for instance, has been adduced as evidence of Cuba’s ‘liberalisation’. But the equal and opposite movement nearly always goes unnoticed — the way in which the West has itself adopted many of the old nostrums of communism, and especially the twin doctrines of revolution and internationalism.

Revolution has now become a completely positive word in the Western political lexicon. Fifteen years ago it still carried — at least for conservatives — the negative connotations of ‘Bolshevik’, ‘sexual’ and ‘French’. Not any more. The myth of revolution now wields such a strong hold over our collective consciousness that, with the compulsiveness of children who beg to be retold the same story, we regularly accept at face value fairy tales about revolutions in a faraway country of which we know nothing. Being tabula rasa for us, these countries are the perfect backdrop on which to project our own fantasies: these tales invariably follow the same formulaic sequence, in which a dishonest or authoritarian or brutal regime is overthrown by ‘people power’, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Recent years have seen a spate of such ‘revolutions’. The overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic on 5 October 2000 in Belgrade; the overthrow of the Georgian president, Eduard Shevardnadze, in the ‘rose revolution’ of November 2003; the ‘orange revolution’ in Ukraine last Christmas; the violent overthrow of the president of Kyrgyzstan in March; the uprising in the Uzbek city of Andijan in May — all these are presented as spontaneous outbursts of righteous popular indignation. Perhaps authoritarian regimes, rather like the walls of Jericho, really are brought tumbling down by the chanting of a John Lennon song. But before the fall of communism, ‘revolution’ and ‘people power’ were considered just leftish propaganda. We dismissed the Soviet regime’s appeal to its own founding event as grotesque political kitsch, masking the sinister reality of power machinations behind the scenes. Now we seem to have become more naive, and have started to take these same two-dimensional archetypes seriously.

It often happens that, after the event, reports reveal that things were not as spontaneous as was believed at the time. In the case of Ukraine, for instance, it is now a matter of public record that the Americans poured huge sums into the campaign of Viktor Yushchenko, and that the Ukrainian KGB was also heavily involved on the Americans’ side, playing a key role in stagemanaging the whole charade. To be sure, the fact that secret services may be involved does not mean that the people on the streets themselves do not believe in the rightness of their cause, or that the events are the result of manipulation alone. But the simplistic terms in which these ‘revolutions’ are presented by our media, and believed by us at the time, are so strong that they reveal more about our own inner fantasies and desires, and about the true nature of our own political culture, than they do about the countries themselves.

In particular, they reveal that the West has fallen in love with the myth of revolution. If Chairman Mao once said that ‘Marxism consists of a thousand truths but they all boil down to one sentence: “It is right to rebel”’, that sentiment now forms a central tenet of Western political orthodoxy. One of the key catchphrases of George Bush’s presidency has been the eminently Trotskyite concept of world revolution: on 6 November 2003 the American President specifically said, ‘The establishment of a free Iraq in the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.’ In his second inaugural speech, on 20 January, Bush announced nothing less than a programme of political emancipation for the whole planet — he said that America was pursuing ‘the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world’.

George Bush is not, of course, a closet Marxist. But many of his closest advisers, especially the neoconservatives, come from what can only be described as a post-Trostkyite background. The original Marxist plan was for the socialist revolution to engulf the whole planet, and this plan was embraced by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. It famously came up against the buffers of Stalin’s alternative proposal to build socialism in one country first. In exile, Trotsky kept the idea of world revolution going by setting up the Fourth International in 1938. Within two years, Irving Kristol — the man who was later to be the founding father of the neoconservative movement which so dominates the Bush administration — joined it. Kristol’s own influence has been immense and his son, William, is now one of America’s most influential neocons. But Irving Kristol never renounced or condemned his Trotskyite past: in 1983 he wrote that he was still proud of it.

The same goes for numerous leading lights in the neoconservative movement. In 1996 Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, one of the leading ideologues of the war on terror, coined the phrase ‘global democratic revolution’ — in the subtitle of a book in which he attacked Bill Clinton for being a ‘counter-revolutionary’. The book’s title, Freedom Betrayed, is an obvious allusion to Trostky’s own 1937 account of his break with Stalin, The Revolution Betrayed. Another leading neocon, David Horowitz, himself a former communist, published The Art of Political War and Other Radical Pursuits in 2000: the book was given a warm write-up by Karl Rove, George Bush’s chief of staff, as ‘a perfect pocket guide to winning on the political battlefield from an experienced warrior’ even though Horowitz quotes Lenin approvingly in it: ‘You cannot cripple an opponent by outwitting him in a political debate. You can only do it by following Lenin’s injunction: “In political conflicts, the goal is not to refute your opponent’s argument, but to wipe him from the face of the earth.”’ In the same vein Eric Hobsbawm, the veteran Marxist historian, wrote at the end of June that ‘At least one passionate ex-Marxist supporter of Bush has told me, only half in jest: “After all, this is the only chance of supporting world revolution that looks like coming my way.”’

If such comparisons seem outlandish, it is precisely because we in the West have failed to grasp the true nature of Marxism-Leninism. We think of communism as being all about state ownership of the means of production and central planning: in fact, Karl Marx advocated neither. Instead, according to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the ‘soul of Marxism’ lies in something called dialectical materialism. Derived from Hegel and ultimately Heraclitus, this doctrine holds that the world is in a constant state of flux, that nothing is absolutely true or false, and that everything is connected to everything else. Permanent revolution is consequently the natural state of reality, and hence of politics. Because flux is the natural state, Marx, Engels and Lenin all reasoned that all fixed forms of political association, i.e., the state, were oppressive, and that men would not be free until the state itself had ‘withered away’.

How was this withering away of the stat e to occur? For Marx and Engels the answer was clear: world capitalism would do the trick. The two authors of The Communist Manifesto eulogised the unstoppable revolutionary force of world capitalism — what we now call ‘globalisation’. They were convinced that capitalism was an unstoppable revolutionary force; that it would overthrow all the existing structures of nation, state and family; and that it would usher in a politically and economically united world. ‘The bourgeoisie,’ they enthused, ‘cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into the air, all that is holy is profaned.’

For Marx and Engels, indeed, the key to the revolutionary power of the bourgeoisie lay precisely in its international and cosmopolitan nature. ‘To the great chagrin of Reactionists,’ they wrote, ‘the bourgeoisie has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. In place of the old local and national self-seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.’ Globalisation, in other words. Engels argued explicitly that the atomisation and deracination caused by international capitalism was the necessary precursor to worldwide emancipation. ‘The disintegration of mankind into a mass of isolated, mutually repelling atoms,’ he wrote, ‘means the destruction of all corporate, national and indeed of any particular interests and is the last necessary step towards the free and spontaneous association of men.’

It is well known that Marxists believe political arrangements to be a mere ‘superstructure’ determined by the underlying economic reality. ‘The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord,’ Marx wrote, ‘the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.’ After the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the division between East and West was overcome, Western ideologues of globalisation used this same Marxist argument to claim that things like the internet and the fax machine meant that the sovereign state belonged in the dustbin of history. They then used this alleged withering away of the state to argue in favour of a one-world political regime, in which statehood would have to give way to the superior claims of universal human rights. Tony Blair justified Nato’s attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 by saying that the right to bomb a country for alleged human rights abuses derived from globalisation. ‘People are recognising that if there is a serious problem with the Brazilian economy, it develops into a serious problem for the British economy,’ he said. ‘It is similar with security problems.’

The neocons hated Bill Clinton for his pragmatic refusal to follow Tony Blair’s logic through to its conclusion — for instance, when he withdrew from chaotic Somalia rather than carry the burden of nation-building. George Bush has done the opposite. He seldom allows reason of state, or any other practical consideration, to befog his own ideological clarity. In his second inauguration speech, Bush pronounced the word ‘freedom’ 28 times, the word ‘free’ seven times and the word ‘liberty’ 15 times: he sounded as if he was singing the Internationale. Bush makes a highly moralistic appeal to universal values, which he says America embodies and which he insists ‘are right and true for all people everywhere’. ‘Freedom,’ he has said, ‘is the non-negotiable demand of human dignity; the birthright of every person — in every civilisation.’ Laced as it is with religious (often esoteric and even apocalyptic) vocabulary — the American President frequently says that freedom is God’s plan for mankind — Bush’s messianic political discourse recalls the Marxist movement which swept through Latin America in the 1970s, conjugating God and politics, and which was known as ‘liberation theology’.

It is this promise to emancipate the whole of mankind which so endears George Bush to a phalanx of former Marxist ideologues like Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen, John Lloyd, Julie Burchill and David Aaronovitch. People who in their youth idolised the worker ‘who has no country’ have little difficulty identifying with today’s cosmopolitan ideology of globalisation, or with George Bush’s internationalism. Hitchens has defended his own surprising work with the neoconservatives by saying, ‘I feel much more like I used to in the 1960s, working with revolutionaries’, and he understands that George Bush’s policy of regime change is by definition going to be supported by revolutionaries. As he pointed out, with his customary clarity, in a recent debate on the Today programme with his brother, Peter, ‘It is right, I think, that conservatives oppose regime change: that is what conservatives do.’

Support for the programme of world revolution also explains the support given by ten Eastern European heads of government, nearly all of them former communist apparatchiks who, almost alone in the world, lined up obediently to sign an open letter of support for the impending Iraq war in February 2003. ‘Dissidents’ in Eastern Europe — broadly speaking, the people who are now in power — were not anti-communists at all, but instead ‘critical’ Marxists who worked within the communist system to reform it, not destroy it. Bush’s announced fight ‘against tyranny’ is of obvious appeal to those who used to rally around the old communist cry of ‘anti-fascism’, which in turn was largely a slogan expressing leftist hostility to the nation and the state, both of which are now deeply unpopular concepts in the West.

Indeed, it is a striking indication of the dominance of left-wing modes of thought in the West that the supreme political insult in the new world order is ‘authoritarian’. Authority is, by definition, a conservative notion — and that is why it is universally reviled in the West today. Without exception, every single political leader whom the West has removed, or tried to remove, in the last decade and a half has been labelled ‘authoritarian’ or ‘nationalist’, as if these right-wing vices were the only political sin. This malediction is bandied about even when the leaders so attacked are in fact old lefties like Slobodan Milosevic, Alexander Lukashenko or Saddam Hussein.

In short, any state which pursues a policy of national independence will soon find itself in the West’s cross-hairs. The Clintonite doctrine that there are such things as ‘rogue states’, which has been effortlessly adopted by George W. Bush, means precisely this. There is an international and a domestic aspect to this hostility to the state: internationally, George Bush’s ‘forward strategy of freedom’ — predicated as it is on the assumption that states have a right to enjoy their national sovereignty only under certain conditions — entails support for the anti-sovereignist dictates of punitive supranational law. In internal politics, the anti-state Marxist-Hegelian doctrine of ‘civil society’ has become a central plank of Western thinking, at least for states it wishes to control. In Eastern Europe, for instance, supposed ‘non-governmental organisations’ are invariably presented as being more authentic and objective representatives of popular opinion than the established, public, law-based structures of the state. This applies even when the so-called NGOs are in fact front organisations funded by Western governments, as is often the case. Indeed, the mere activity of ‘opposition’ ; is, by itself, often elevated to a sort of political sainthood, as if the exercise of authority and power were intrinsically sinful. In one egregious case, in Georgia, the task of counting the votes in the January 2004 presidential election was given to just such a private NGO, with the established state authorities simply sidelined.

Like Marxists, indeed, and like many of his European friends, George Bush appears to believe both that freedom is an ineluctable ‘force of history’ and also that it requires constant struggle to achieve it. He argues, like Hegel, Marx’s precursor, that humanity is one, and that a free state like the USA is not really free if other states live under tyranny. In his mind, old-fashioned American Puritan millenarianism marries easily with the missionary mentality of world revolutionists. ‘The survival of liberty in our land,’ he said in January, ‘increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.’ A true conservative, by contrast, would say that there is much evil in the outside world — and that the duty of a statesman is to hold it at bay.

George Orwell is rightly credited with predicting a great deal, yet it is an indication of how far leftwards the West has travelled that his key prediction is often overlooked. Orwell saw that the Cold War would end on the basis of a convergence between communism and capitalism — the very predicament in which we now find ourselves. At the end of Animal Farm the farmer, who symbolises the capitalist West, returns to the farm and plays cards with the pigs, who symbolise communism. The shivering creatures outside ‘looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which’.