the national interest

Leftists and Liberals Are Still Fighting Over the Cold War

Photo: Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images

“Communism,” noted President Biden last week, “is a failed system — a universally failed system.” And while more than a century of experience seems to have settled this question, there are precincts on the left in which it remains a live controversy. Amid mass protests in Cuba, socialist magazine Jacobin is defending the regime with anti-anti-communist polemics, as is whoever is running the Black Lives Matter messaging on the issue. Democratic Socialists of America is posting messages backing the regime. When the official DSA account stated that the group’s ideology “leaves behind authoritarian visions of socialism in the dustbin of history,” the tweet generated internal backlash and subsequently got deleted — even though it didn’t even mention Cuba, the mere abstract condemnation of authoritarian socialism was apparently unacceptable.

As a straightforward foreign-policy question, this hardly matters. Cuba is a tiny country, and the United States has few practical tools to help dissidents topple its dictatorship. But there is a much deeper ideological schism lurking beneath the surface here. The Cuba debate is really about communism. Communism has split the American left for generations, and since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the schism has evolved into a broader schism over left-wing authoritarianism and the centrality of liberal democracy. 

The important rift is not really between non-communists and communists; the latter, even at their peak in the 1930s, have never accounted for more than a small minority of progressive activists. It instead pits those on the left who frontally oppose communism against those who don’t. The share of the left that is anti-anti-communist has always been larger and more potent than the tiny number of actual communists. Anti-anti-communists do not support communism, but they do regard communists as valuable allies who should be criticized only in the gentlest terms, if at all.

This divide between anti-communists and anti-anti-communists is sufficiently profound that, even 30 years after the end of the Cold War, it continues to animate bitter debates among progressive intellectuals. “Cold War liberalism is now a zombie ideology,” Michael Brenes and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins argued in a Dissent essay earlier this year. “It offers preparedness as politics: a desire to inculcate a wartime urgency in the body politic, demanding sacrifice without solidarity and individual introspection as a path to freedom.”

The ancient fault lines over anti-communism are especially visible in the left’s schism over what caused Trump’s ascension — and how to oppose him. “The sky is not falling and no lights are flashing red, but Americans have nonetheless embraced a highly charged, counterproductive way of thinking about politics as a ‘new Cold War’ between democracy and totalitarianism,” argued historians Samuel Moyn and David Priestland in a 2017 New York Times op-ed. “The anti-communist politics in the United States of the early 1950s were rooted in assumptions that had much in common with those of anti-Trumpism today.” Last year, The Nation’s John Nichols published a book contending that the Democratic Party lost its way when it split off from its communist allies and suggesting that a revived “popular front” alliance with the far left offered its only hope to defeat Trumpism.

There is a tendency on the center-left to dismiss these sorts of critiques from the left as simply unserious — to mock them as idealists with politically unrealistic demands, or perhaps they haven’t gotten over the 2016 Democratic primary.

But the belief system undergirding these critiques is completely serious. The left is making a profound accusation: that liberalism remains deformed by anti-communism, and only by expurgating this fear of left-wing authoritarianism can it become worthy of progressive ideals. That charge needs to be answered on its own terms.

Communism reached its peak influence in the West during the 1930s, when the Great Depression made it seem possible that capitalism might never recover. American communists gained influence within some labor unions, Hollywood, and by mobilizing an activist core that could make itself felt in New York and some other cities.

During intermittent periods — specifically when it advanced Joseph Stalin’s foreign goals — communists would work with mainstream left-of-center parties to form a “popular front” against Fascism in western democracies. The political logic of the popular front was summarized by a line originally attributed to Alexander Kerensky, the moderate socialist leader of the first Russian revolution: “No enemies to the left.” Kerensky’s rivals to the left took advantage of this policy by overthrowing his government and establishing a Bolshevik dictatorship. Despite this failure, the “no enemies to the left” strategy retained its romantic appeal.

After World War II, when it was no longer obvious that an alliance with the anti-democratic left was needed to save democracy from Fascism, many liberals split with their former allies. Communists argued that they were merely “liberals in a hurry,” pursuing the same goals as other progressive Americans, just faster and more aggressively. Many leftists and some liberals believed that the left should treat communists as partners, just as they did before and during the war, and that any attacks on communism would simply redound to the benefit of the right.

Henry Wallace, once FDR’s vice-president and the progressive hero of Nichols’s book, was the prototypical anti-anti-communist. When the Soviet Union overthrew the democratic government in Czechoslovakia and installed a puppet regime, Wallace blamed Harry Truman for provoking Moscow and compared the coup to allegedly similar American behavior in France. After the Soviet blockade of Berlin, he attacked Truman for airlifting in supplies. Wallace did not need to articulate a positive defense of Stalin’s regime. He simply attacked any anti-Soviet action or statement — even peaceful measures like the Marshall Plan — as warlike and aggressive, changing the subject from Soviet abuses to the danger of the anti-communists.

Even though it went into remission at the end of the Cold War, the anti-anti-communist political style has never disappeared completely. It has enjoyed a mini-revival with the recent upsurge in far-left activism around the DSA and magazines such as Jacobin. The recent protests against Cuba’s regime have vividly displayed the anti-anti-communist left’s unwillingness to condemn a socialist regime, however authoritarian and brutal.

A piece on the Cuba protests by Jacobin staff writer Branko Marcetic expresses the party line. The protests, he argues, are “overwhelmingly motivated” by economic shortages, the entire responsibility for which rests with the United States due to its embargo. And “just because Cubans may be unhappy with their government doesn’t mean they want the capitalist feeding frenzy that inevitably follows.”

Cuba’s people may be a little upset, he allows, and in their confusion find themselves blaming their leaders for problems caused by Washington, but they’re very happy with a one-party state and most certainly don’t want anything like a free press or fair elections. (Credible polls of Cuba’s public find strong disapproval for the Communist Party and equally heavy approval of multiparty elections.)

Whether or not to condemn Cuba’s communist government is hardly a first-order question for the American left. But the persistence of anti-anti-communism, even on a smaller scale, shows the persistence of the “no enemies to the left” political style on the left that spawned it.

Today’s left-wing intellectuals have revived the Cold War–era critique of liberals, who stand accused of glorifying existing political and economic institutions in general and the security state in particular.

The modern Cold War liberals are organized against hostile overseas forces, such as Russia and China, along with “internal domestic enemies — postmodernism, identity politics, populists — [that] seek to undermine liberal democratic values,” argued Brenes and Steinmetz-Jenkins. “To ward off these dangers, today’s liberals prefer the security state over any commitment to institutions of economic redistribution, and the effective training of future elites at the nation’s most prestigious schools over a program of expansive public education.”

They do not quote anybody making these particular arguments, so it is difficult to understand exactly whom the authors have in mind. But it is simply not correct that “today’s liberals” oppose economic redistribution. Just look at Joe Biden’s campaign platform to massively ramp up taxation on the wealthy while increasing spending on health care, green energy, and child benefits or his attempt to pass a similar program through Congress. Biden’s plan to expand pre-K access and make community college free seems exactly like “a program of expansive public education.”

They further assert that these awful liberals “see not just Trump voters but massive demonstrations and movements against white supremacy and economic inequality as further signs of populism overtaking democracy.” They don’t name any actual liberals whom this is supposed to describe, and it’s difficult to believe any exist, given that the George Floyd protests brought along a coalition broad enough to include large swaths of corporate America, and even Mitt Romney (a figure well to the right of anybody’s definition of liberal) was marching for Black Lives Matter. The liberal who opposes Trump but also opposes marches against racism and inequality seems to be an ideological archetype they dreamed up and then convinced themselves must be real.

The glue holding together this vague indictment is a conviction that the liberal critique of anti-democratic extremism lies at the roots of liberalism’s alleged failures. The liberal emphasis on defending democracy and the Constitution, which has come to the fore in the Trump era, doubles as a cudgel against the far left.

It follows from this belief that liberal rhetoric decrying Trump’s threat to democracy is itself exaggerated. “The post-election narrative that Trump was both a fascist threat and a bumbling Manchurian candidate reflected the cultural legacy of Cold War liberalism,” wrote Brenes and Steinmetz-Jenkins shortly before Trump sent a mob to ransack the Capitol in a bid to overturn the election. Moyn and Priestland (writing four years ago) insisted, “There is no real evidence that Mr. Trump wants to seize power unconstitutionally, and there is no reason to think he could succeed.”

Liberals, according to their critics, have transposed their Cold War–era belief in defending liberal democracy onto the modern era and conjured imaginary enemies. Their fantasies about defending the republic from Trump are merely a holdover reflex from their misguided fear of communism.

But the fantasy seems to work the other way: The left-wing Cold War–era habit of refusing to acknowledge threats to democracy has left a residue of instinctive skepticism. They suspect liberals suffer congenitally from what Moyn and Priestland call “tyrannophobia, the belief that the overwhelmingly important political issue is the threat to our liberal freedoms and institutions, [which] has always been a powerful force in the United States.” That suspicion, held over from decades of downplaying the evils of communism, has rendered them so unable to recognize a threat to the republic that they don’t even see it until it comes marching down Pennsylvania Avenue.

While the critics of Cold War liberalism exaggerate its hostility to aggressive government action, and minimize the authoritarian danger against which it defines itself, they do correctly identify its definitional core. The Cold War liberals (or their heirs) place more value on democracy than on advancing the progressive agenda. Liberals respect their opponents’ political rights and are not willing to cast them aside in pursuit of power. As a result of this commitment, they consider it necessary to criticize political allies, especially on questions of democracy and liberal values.

Whether to denounce illiberalism on the left when it occurs or instead to aim all hostile fire rightward is, in my observation, the key divide within the progressive intelligentsia. The “no enemies to the left” posture makes it difficult to separate the democratic left from its undemocratic elements. If you meet any objection to abuses on your own side by changing the subject to the greater evil on the opposing side, then you never have to define what kinds of ideas or behaviors by your allies you won’t accept. If they are willing to justify authoritarian abuses abroad, they would be willing to justify them domestically if given the opportunity.

It is true, of course, that such opportunities are rare. The illiberal left is politically marginal and pales in influence next to the illiberal right, a weakness that is constantly held up to justify withholding criticism. But we don’t know what the future holds. The far left certainly hopes it is at the outset of a long march through the institutions (similar to the path taken by the far right to gain control of the Republican Party 60 years ago). Indeed, one reason for the Republican Party’s sordid state is that it lacked a moderate faction with the confidence to stand squarely against extremism.

Not long ago, progressives were celebrating the DSA’s emergence in national politics as a sign of their own growing strength. If the far left has enough influence to matter as a political force, it has enough influence to merit criticism when deserved.

In their Times op-ed scolding Cold War liberals, Moyn and Priestland warned, “Excessive focus on liberal fundamentals, like basic freedoms or the rule of law, could prove self-defeating.” This is an odd lesson to draw from history, which has many more examples of just the opposite: Insufficient focus on basic freedoms and the rule of law is self-defeating, and those who proudly defended those values are an example to emulate.

Leftists and Liberals Are Still Fighting Over the Cold War