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Progressive Realism

March 10, 2011

The phrase ‘progressive realism’ was (to the best of my knowledge) first proposed by journalist Robert Wright in 2006 as an antidote to the Bush administration’s alleged evangelical drive to spread democracy through force of arms.  When it was pointed out that the Bush administration’s actual commitment to democratic principles was questionable, and that the content of this ‘realism’ – the familiar litany of free trade, international law and institutions, and multilateralism, all bedizened with tough-sounding rhetoric – was largely indistinguishable from Wilsonian internationalism, the phrase was quietly abandoned.

Nonetheless, an argument might be made for a progressive realism of a different sort, distinct from both its conservative counterpart and from liberal internationalism.  Its origins are diverse, drawing on a number of thinkers from across the left spectrum throughout modern history.  The first source is Rosa Luxemburg, a preeminent theorist of early-twentieth century Marxism.  While the doctrinaire Marxism of the Second International seems a bit fusty today, Prof. Luxemburg’s original thinking still has things to teach us.

As she wrote in her article Peace Utopias, the existence of international conflict is something deeply rooted in economic conditions.  “For the international antagonisms of the capitalist states are but the complement of class antagonisms, and the world political anarchy but the reverse side of the anarchic system of production of capitalism. Both can grow only together and be overcome only together.”  She was thus deeply critical of reformist internationalism, even describing early proposals for a European Union as “an imperialist abortion.”

While Rosa Luxemburg’s diagnosis is compelling, her prognosis, an international social revolution, is simply not available to us today, nor likely to become so in the near future.  Judging by the experience of twentieth century Communism, it would likely encounter many serious problems if it did – not least, the carnival of bloodshed that its implementation would doubtless entail.

For a more practical orientation, we can mine Karl Polanyi’s notion of the “countermovement,”  an organically arising political or social movement that grows alongside capitalist development, but in opposition to it.  While Polanyi was thinking specifically of nineteenth- and twentieth-century movements of economic reform and social revolution, he would doubtless have warmly welcomed things like the anti-war and nuclear freeze movements into his concept.

Thus, such traditional liberal nostrums as, for instance, international law, should neither be completely deprecated nor seen as an ultimate solution or a final goal.  They are a treatment, not a cure.  Moreover, they work, to the extent that they do work, mostly because of the political parties and organizations who support them.

Conservative realists often scoff at international law as being ‘toothless’, that is, not backed up by sovereign force; but they, and many of international law’s liberal defenders as well, simply miss the point.  It is not the law itself, but the lawyers, that really matter. It is the professionals who work in international law, who staff its organizations and institutions, as well as the political parties and interest groups which back them up, that really constitute a force for peace.

That there are limitations to the success these organizations and movements can reasonably expect goes without saying.  They will not always win, and most of their victories will be partial and contingent in nature.  Yet to know this going in, to have ready-to-hand a theory that allows an intelligent appraisal of the possibilities and limitations of political action, will allow progressives to maximize the good they can accomplish with the opportunities and resources at their disposal.

Further, peace advocates must keep in mind the existence of this concrete framework of historical possibilities when suggesting policy alternatives to imperialism.  For example, rather than complaining about the ‘illegal’ nature of such misadventures as the invasion of Iraq and demanding UN involvement (the UN being, of course, just another “imperialist abortion” that leaves the fox in charge of the hen house), progressives should resurrect the notion of “strongpoint defense” advanced by Walter Lippmann and George Kennan, early liberal critics of the Cold War

Lippmann and Kennan criticized the Truman administration’s policy of containment on the grounds that it overstretched America’s resources while allowing the USSR to choose the time and place of any confrontation.  It further wedded US interests to despotic Third World regimes that were often major economic and political liabilities.  Instead, they proposed concentrating on the defense of key allies like Britain, Germany, and Japan, and strategically vital areas like the Middle East.  This would hopefully enable a peace settlement to be negotiated with the Russians entailing bilateral arms reduction and the withdrawal of forces from central Europe.

With regard to current Middle East policy, such a strategy would consist of reducing consumption of fossil fuels (something Kennan aggressively promoted), forswearing support of unpopular dictatorships and monarchies, and most importantly, seeking political agreements to ensure the sharing of oil profits with the populations of Middle Eastern countries.  Of course, this kind of sparse realpolitik is unsatisfying to the Left even as a step in the right direction.  It must be embellished with demands for fair trade agreements, international power sharing arrangements, and so forth.

As previously discussed, there are problems with and limitations to all these things.  The truth is that there simply is no good or simple solution to the problems of war and peace available in the immediate future.  The essence of any political realism, the “real” in realism, consists of an acknowledgment of this fact.  None of this requires progressives to abandon the struggle for a better world.  On the contrary, it merely makes our tactics more effective.

Maxwell Ross is a freelance journalist from Long Island, NY.


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