[Marxism] Michael Walzer on Howard Zinn

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon May 31 18:19:15 MDT 2004

Speaking of Howard Zinn, I should mention that Dissent Magazine has an 
attack on him by the Editor Michael Walzer. This was something that 
first appeared on the web a month or so ago and was answered here and 
there at the time. For example, 7 Oaks has a good retort at: 

I do think there are some additional points that can be made, especially 
in light of Gitlin's attack on Nader in the same issue. The two articles 
fall within the purview of "policing the left", something that Dissent 
Magazine has been doing for decades now.

A word or two might be in order about Walzer. He is a member in good 
standing of the cruise-missile left who has developed an extremely 
tortured defense of intervention in Iraq, as opposed to the more 
outright bellicosity of his collaborators at Dissent, Paul Berman and 
Kenan Makiya. As a theoretician of "just wars", Walzer takes an almost 
Talmudic approach to killing the dirty Baathist enemy:

"But now that we are fighting it, I hope that we win it and that the 
Iraqi regime collapses quickly. I will not march to stop the war while 
Saddam is still standing, for that would strengthen his tyranny at home 
and make him, once again, a threat to all his neighbors."

I am quite sure that when he was penning these words, a John Philip 
Sousa march was playing in the background. This combination of 
Pecksniffian moral posturing and imperialist bombast has been honed to 
perfection at Dissent Magazine. I am sure that scholars of future 
generations will study it just as some scholars study William Henry 
Seward today. This is imperialist apologetics at its gory best.

Turning to Walzer's attack on Zinn, the first thing you will notice by 
reading between the lines is its affinity with Gitlin's piece. Walzer 

 >>Zinn omits the real choices our left ancestors faced and the true 
pathos, and drama, of their decisions. In fact, most Populists cheered 
Bryan and voted for him because he shared their enemies and their vision 
of a producers' republic. Unlike Zinn, they grasped the dilemma of third 
parties in the American electoral system, which Richard Hofstadter 
likened to honeybees, "once they have stung, they die." And to bewail 
the fact that liberal Democrats saw an advantage to supporting rights 
for unions and minorities is a stunning feat of historical naiveté. 
Short of revolution, a strategic alliance with one element of "the 
Establishment" is the only way social movements ever make lasting 
changes in law and public policy.<<

In other words, American society is a kind of Platonic ideal in which 
nothing strays from the perfection of the two-party system, which was 
with us yesterday and will be with us tomorrow and forever. Or as they 
say in the Book of Ecclesiastes: "To every thing there is a season, and 
a time to every purpose under the heaven."

The message really is that it is futile to run against the Democratic 
Party, which is not as bad as the Republicans but can achieve electoral 
victory. About ten years ago a term was coined to describe this sense of 
limited options. It was "TINA", or "There is no alternative" (to 
capitalism.) For people like Gitlin and Walzer, it is really TINACP: 
"there is no alternative to capitalist politics."

The interesting thing, of course, is that despite Zinn's support for 
Kerry this year, he still gets mud flung at him because his history of 
the USA is replete with examples of Democratic Party treachery, 
including that which occured during FDR's presidency, a kind of Golden 
Age for social democrats like Walzer.

Walzer seems particularly miffed that FDR would be depicted as a 
warmonger in Zinn's book:

 >>Of course, as an imperial bully, the United States had no right, in 
World War II, "to step forward as a defender of helpless countries." 
Zinn thins the meaning of the biggest war in history down to its meanest 
components: profits for military industries, racism toward the Japanese, 
and the senseless destruction of enemy cities-from Dresden to Hiroshima. 
His chapter on that conflict does ring with a special passion; Zinn 
served as a bombardier in the European theater and the experience made 
him a lifelong pacifist. But the idea that Franklin Roosevelt and his 
aides were motivated both by realpolitik and by an abhorrence of fascism 
seems not to occur to him.<<

One can certainly understand why WWII would loom large in the 
calculations of somebody like Walzer. Along with the European Social 
Democracy, they cheered on the bombing of Yugoslavia under the rubric of 
"stopping fascism". Milosevic was the latest Hitler, who was necessary 
to stop in his tracks unless we would risk another Chamberlain 
appeasement. It is most odd that the USA, which has had military bases 
all over the world backing up ruthless dictators since WWII, would be 
seen in this light today. Most reasonable people that observed 
consistent US support for the Pinochet, Thieu, Suharto and Rhees of the 
world might conclude that an "abhorrence of fascism" is the last thing 
on the minds of American presidents. But, of course, people like Walzer 
are not reasonable. They are hysterical opponents of the barbarian enemy 
who threaten US interests everywhere in the world.

It is particularly galling to see Walzer conclude his hatchet-job with a 
recommendation of CLR James (among others)as a positive alternative to 
Zinn. Supposedly, "their work makes one wiser about the obstacles to 
change as well as encouraged about the capacity of ordinary men and 
women to achieve a degree of independence and happiness, even within 
unjust societies."

If CLR James knew that somebody as oily as Walzer was praising his work, 
I am sure that he would begin to spin in his grave at such a high rate 
that a dynamo attached to his corpse could satisfy the electrical needs 
of a medium sized American city for the next 5 years. For, in fact, this 
was how CLR James viewed the New Deal:

"In 1932 the Negroes, like the rest of the labor movement, followed the 
New Deal program with its vast promises of a new order in America. But 
the Roosevelt government, while of necessity including the Negroes in 
its social service program for the unemployed, did nothing to implement 
its vague promises for the amelioration of the national oppression of 
Negroes in the country."

Finally, it is of some interest to consider that James was a passionate 
supporter of Ethiopian anti-colonialism. If you apply the same kind of 
yardstick to Ethiopia in the 1930s that Walzer applies to the Iraqi 
resistance today, you would soon come to the conclusion that the two 
have nothing in common. Even though slavery was practiced in Ethiopia 
and even though that Haile Selassie ruled with a feudal iron fist, James 
understood that between a dependent African nation and world 
imperialism, justice was served by a victory of the Africans just as it 
would be served by a victory of the Iraqis today. Here are James's 
observations on the struggle from the conclusion to the 1936 article 
"Abyssinia and the Imperialists".

"But British imperialism does not govern only the colonies in its own 
interests. It governs the British people in its own interests also, and 
we shall see that imperialism will win. It will talk a lot but it will 
do nothing for Abyssinia [Ethiopia]. The only thing to save Abyssinia is 
the efforts of the Abyssinians themselves and action by the great masses 
of Negroes and sympathetic whites and Indians all over the world, by 
demonstrations, public meetings, resolutions, financial assistance to 
Abyssinia, strikes against the export of all materials to Italy, refusal 
to unload Italian ships etc.

"Mussolini, the British government and the French have shown the Negro 
only too plainly that he has got nothing to expect from them but 
exploitation, either naked or wrapped in bluff. In that important 
respect this conflict, though unfortunate for Abyssinia, has been of 
immense benefit to the race as a whole."


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