Euston in America

In March of this year a group of UK left and liberal political activists, prominent among them political blogger Norm Geras of the University of Manchester, launched the Euston Manifesto. I signed it happily, not because I agree uncritically with it, but because it represents the emergence of a neo-left in Western politics that makes anti totalitarianism, as opposed to anti imperialism, its first priority. Peter Beinart spoke about a similar movement within the Democratic party in the US. He called it Tough Liberalism in an article in Blueprint Magazine, the magazine of the Democratic Leadership Council, in 2005 .

The fundamental divide is whether you believe that jihadist totalitarianism is produced by a lack of freedom and opportunity, or whether you believe that jihadist totalitarianism is created by American and Western imperialism. The Democratic Party has not fundamentally, internally decided about which of those it believes. Much of the Kerry campaign’s inability to be totally coherent on these issues was, I believe, an attempt to straddle rifts in the party that had not yet come to an honest debate on this basic question.

In just six months an American version of the Euston Manifesto has been launched in the US. Both the original Manifesto and the US version specifically include those that support and oppose the war in Iraq, but strongly reject the anti-Americanism that commonly is a central feature of leftist discourse on both sides of the Atlantic. The new American version of the Manifesto contains a subtle distinction in it view of the nature of the problem presented by radical Islamism while maintaining its commitment to defend liberal values:

Now we confront the issue of how to respond to radical Islamism. Some of us view this ideology and its political results as the third major form of totalitarian ideology of the last century, after fascism and Nazism, on the one hand, and Communism, on the other. Others regard it as having a history in the Arab and Islamic world that eludes the label of totalitarianism. We all agree however that it fosters dictatorship, terror, anti-Semitism and sexism of a most retrograde kind. We reject its subordination of politics to the dictates of religious fundamentalists as well as its contempt for the role of individual autonomy and rationality in politics, a rejection not seen on this scale in world politics since the 1940s. We understand that the United States must continue to take the lead with our allies in confronting this danger.

My immediate reaction to seeing the Euston manifesto spread to the US via the Internet is to be encouraged by the strengthening of this segment of left liberal politics in the US. While I don’t know the history of the center left in the UK I am very aware of the history of this faction within the American Democratic party in the US. In the same article quoted above Peter Beinart recounts the history of the Democratic party in the 40s when it was as divided as it is today. I remember most of that history and grew up listening to my father recount what had happened in the 20s and 30s as well. There had been a titanic struggle between those who saw Communism as an ally to the left and those who felt that the totalitarianism in general and Stalinism in particular prevented making common cause with Communism. Beinart tells the story well:

Between 1946 and 1949, the Democratic Party engaged in a huge internal fight. It was not a fight against Republicans, but first and foremost a fight within the Democratic Party. In state after state, the state parties ripped themselves apart over the issue of anti-communism. The issue was fundamentally about whether liberal Democrats would define liberalism only in opposition to the right wing or whether anti-communism would be placed at the heart of what it meant to be a liberal.

In 1946, Henry Wallace was the most popular Democratic politician in America. His supporters saw the communists as valuable allies in the struggle for the New Deal, in the struggle against fascism, and in the struggle for civil rights — as they had been. The Wallace faction believed that liberalism’s sole enemy was conservatism at home — people who opposed the New Deal — and fascists and imperialists abroad.

In January 1947, at the Willard Hotel, Arthur Schlesinger, Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Reuther, and Eleanor Roosevelt created Americans for Democratic Action. Their argument was that, in fact, liberalism was something very different. They defined liberalism as a fight not only against the right but also against totalitarianism. In his 1949 book, The Vital Center, Arthur Schlesinger’s fundamental argument was that communism, like fascism, was totalitarian. And that liberalism’s enemy had to be not only the conservatives, but also totalitarianism — the notion of a single force that would use the state to take total control over society and the lives of the individual.

Growing up, all those founders were household names at out place – much loved, regularly quoted. When anti Communism was whipped into hysteria by Senator McCarthy I remember my father telling me that he felt very lucky that he hadn’t happen to join the wrong organization during his student days at Columbia in New York in the 30s. He also told me that at the time it seemed to him that the future would be either Communist or Fascist and felt grateful , as so many Americans at the time, that FDR’s reforms had worked well enough to prevent violent revolution from occurring in the US. Beinart continues:

That fight ended in 1948 when Harry Truman defeated Henry Wallace’s third-party run for the presidency. And it allowed two things to happen. The first was that it created a liberal anti-communism. And that enabled some of the most remarkable things in American history: Truman’s aid to Greece and Turkey that prevented those countries from falling to the communists; the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Western Europe at a time when France had four communists in its cabinet, including a communist minister of defense; the formation of NATO to bind America to Europe. It did great things in the world. And most of these things were opposed partially or wholly by the Republican Congress.

But beyond that, liberal anti-communism gave Democrats political credibility. By 1950, when Joseph McCarthy made his famous speech suggesting that the Truman administration was filled with communists in Wheeling, West Virginia, Democrats and liberals sustained an incredibly fierce attack from the right. What happened to John Kerry with the “Swift Boat” attacks pales compared to what Republicans were saying about Democrats during the Cold War — in the election of 1950, for instance. And yet, those kinds of attacks were less successful than they were in the elections of 2002 and 2004. The reason is that Democrats and liberals in the 1950s had already held a very fierce debate and clarified their principles about national security. So the country was never fundamentally sold on the McCarthy and Republican claim that liberals were soft on communism. That’s because liberals themselves had taken on those elements within their party that were soft on anti-communism. That was what allowed Democrats to keep the Congress in the 1950s, even as Eisenhower was president, and what allowed John F. Kennedy to defeat Richard Nixon, one of the great Red baiters of all time — and to do it in an election at the height of the Cold War. And this is what allowed the Democrats to then pass civil rights legislation and open the war on poverty.

Few would remember today that Henry Wallace was Roosevelt’s vice president until 1944 when FDR ousted him and installed anti Communist Harry Truman. FDR died a year later and there is no doubt that a Wallace led Democratic party would have put America on a very different path. From my father’s perspective the country dodged a bullet by rejecting Wallace just as my father personally had done by not joining one of the many Communist organizations operating in New York in the 30s. It is also important to point out that Wallace while accepting Communist support in 1948 was not himself a Communist and in fact is hard to characterize – he was very much an individual – even an eccentric. His Wikipedia entry is well worth reading.

So the reemergence of a Tough Liberalism within the American left and a more formal joining of a debate between these two broad points of view in the Democratic party are excellent signs of political progress and health that I hope and believe will become the basis for a reemergence of a strong Democratic party capable of gaining the support of the American people and providing a more effective opposition to the Republicans. I will try to follow this article up with a further discussion of how I see the Eustonian impulse playing out in American politics.


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