UK Politics

Kamm on Anti-Totalitarianism

Oliver Kamm has a book out: Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy

His central thesis is neatly put on his website, and and is reproduced below:

Throughout the past century the Left has fractured over the issue of national security. My book tries to plot a course for progressive politics by drawing on four pivotal historical debates on the British Left. These episodes comprise: collective security in the 1930s; opposition to Communist expansionism after World War II; the Labour Party’s rejection in the 1980s of its earlier anti-Communism; and President Bush’s ‘war on terror’. Running through these debates is an authentic left-wing tradition of militant anti-totalitarianism. Against it, though, there has been a recurring temptation for progressives, critical of their own societies’ failings, to excuse or even romanticise the ideological opponents of Western liberal democracies.

Left-wingers who instinctively oppose the use of force by the Western democracies are not just wrong but also heterodox. Rather than advancing libertarian ends, they have a startling affinity with the conservative ‘realism’ that characterised the foreign policy of the unlamented government of John Major, and that fails even in its own terms as a strategy of preserving vital interests. (Britain’s betrayal of Bosnia in the early 90s caused the most serious breach in transatlantic relations since Suez.) My book maintains that these issues are not new to British political debate, and that the Left is reprising familiar errors. The sole distinctive feature of left-wing opposition to the Blair-Bush strategy since 9/11 is that an alliance has emerged between different and previously hostile forms of totalitarianism: theocratic reaction and the Trotskyite Left. But even so, there is a precedent for the adoption by the far Left of fascist and antisemitic doctrines. Respect/SWP/Stop the War (one organisation, not three) has its counterpart in the pre-war British People’s Party, a pro-Nazi group styled on the Parti Populaire Français established by the French Communist leader and Nazi sympathiser Jacques Doriot in the 1930s.

Against self-styled realists, my book defends regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of an anti-totalitarian struggle with recognisable antecedents in twentieth-century Europe. It argues that the promotion of global democracy accords with the Left’s internationalist ideals of opposition to fascism and clerical reaction. Indeed, the much-maligned term neoconservatism should be seen as a modern variant of traditional liberal internationalism.

Invoking the term ‘neoconservative’ is intended to be provocative, because it is treated in the UK mainly as a synonym for ‘sinister’, and I am not myself a neoconservative. But just as the term was originally coined as an insult (by the American Socialist leader Michael Harrington in the 1970s) and was adopted ironically by those on the receiving end of it, so there are reasons now for acquiescing in its use against us on the ‘regime-change’ Left. The main one is that the founding fathers of neoconservatism in the US these days place little store by the term. Irving Kristol is sceptical of the notion of exporting democracy: his support for an assertive foreign policy is couched in the language of realism rather than traditional liberal-democratic internationalism. Norman Podhoretz maintains there is no longer any need to distinguish his position from traditional conservatism. If neoconservatives such as Podhoretz are abandoning the term, this is as good a time as any to adopt it, in foreign affairs at least. No longer would neoconservatism then denote rage at the cultural changes of the 1960s. It would encompass those of us who believe the cultural changes of the 1960s have had a civilising effect and ought to go further.

My book argues finally that, while interventionism has proved a political liability for Tony Blair, it ought to be a bipartisan cause supported by the Left – in the same way that post-war liberalism led the opposition to Communism in the 1940s. The Left has a historic responsibility in this task, to be true to its legacy whatever the position of parties of the Right. Otherwise it will betray the cause of internationalism and anti-totalitarianism, and will risk the resurgence of a conservative realpolitik in informal alliance with an isolationist and reactionary Left.

Buy the book at Amazon.