[Marxism] Walzer and Zinn

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Oct 28 09:03:53 MDT 2005


Michael Walzer on Howard Zinn
Posted to www.marxmail.org on May 31, 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: 
http://www.sevenoaksmag.com/commentary/06_zinn.html.

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 writes:

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.<<

Amen.

--

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