Political Philosophy Politics

The Decline and Fall of the Internationalist Left

Edward Gibbon, in his masterful The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, rhetorically retorted that “Instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.”  Should one approach the rise, influence, and fall of the Anti-Stalinist Left (or after the Cold War, the pro-interventionist Left) with the same witticism?  After all, it was from the political left that had the most poignant attacks on the hypocrisy of the Soviet Union, and defense of international human rights with the backing of state action while claiming leftwing inheritances came from.  So where has the movement that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called the “vital center,” and that advocated for a human rights approach to Iraq, gone?

Leftism and Liberalism

For too long, especially within the confines of the American media, has leftism and liberalism been misappropriated for one another—and this degradation of language has created a confusion in public consciousness as to what liberalism and leftism are, and represent.  Liberalism is a philosophy born of the Enlightenment, an age when epistemological rationalism and individualism grew prominent.  Through reason, the liberal philosophers embraced individualism.  Through the combination of the two, the liberal philosophers deduced concepts like natural rights—foremost among them being property rights.

In politics, liberalism is far from the libertarian revisionism that promotes “classical” liberal ideology wanted to minimize state action and was, in some reflection, anti-statist.  From Hobbes’ Leviathan and Locke’s Two Treatises, to Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws and Smith’s Wealth of Nations, all of these “classical liberals” forcefully came down on the side of state action and power.  While it is true that these liberals, Hobbes excluded, wanted to limit the power of monarchial absolutism, none of them held the state in the same vision that contemporary libertarians do (in part, this is because libertarians do not come from the liberal tradition even if they claim otherwise—libertarianism comes from the Anarchistic tradition, which is anti-statist).

Hobbes promoted the view that one should surrender liberty to the state, and be happy with whatever liberty was left after order had been brought to the chaotic “State of Nature.”  Locke too, argued that rationalistic competition in the state of nature drove the necessity for a state to act as an arbiter between individual disputes, and that the state should reflect and promote liberal values.  Montesquieu’s separation of powers is often misunderstood for limiting state power—it limited the power of absolutism, but shifted state power into the halls of the different branches of government rather than having judicial, legislative, and executive power being contained in the scepter of a single person.  Smith also advocated that governments do all that was necessary in preventing multiple business persons from colluding together to disrupt market equilibrium.

This pro-statist liberalism is liberalism.  The state subsequently would promote liberal values: individualism, separation of powers (as written in the new political constitutions), the market economy, and meritocratic competition between individuals.  Modern versions of liberalism, arising in the aftermath of the Gilded Age, endorsed the welfare state as a promotion of positive individual liberty—social liberals, starting with John Stuart Mill, began to see social problems like poverty, gender inequality, and racism as constraints to the maximization of individual liberty.  Far from abandoning classical liberal precepts, modern liberals expanded them.  For liberty to truly flourish, one must also be relatively free of social ills.

Understanding the statist impulse of liberalism also necessitates that one recall the other factors that preceded the Enlightenment.  Liberalism not only emerged in the early stages of the Enlightenment, it emerged at the end of a century and half of sectarian conflict and political civil war.  The religious wars in France, the Eighty Years’ War between Catholic Spain and the largely Protestant United Provinces of the Netherlands, the Thirty Years’ War, the English Civil Wars, and the Glorious Revolution had throne the stability of the Ancien Régime of the feudal medieval order out of balance.  Liberals desperately sought to restore the modus vivendi, and concluded that religious intolerance and absolutist overreach were causes for the disorder of the last 150 years.

In contrast to liberal theory is leftist theory, rooted in the philosophical writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract takes a radically different view of the state, reason, and private property than the Enlightenment philosophes.  He articulated the view that became the bedrock for leftist thought, especially after the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and various other leftist intellectuals of the nineteenth century.  Rousseau maintained that the state, reason, and private property were the origins of class conflict, division, and inequality.

Unlike the chaotic state of nature of the liberal philosophers, Rousseau’s state of nature was one of peaceful serenity, noble primitiveness, and material egalitarianism.  The inversion of this state through the rise of reason (“eating of the tree of knowledge”), the creation of the state, and the promotion of private property eroded and corrupted humanity from its communitarian egalitarianism.  Rousseau was not only a Romantic, but an anti-statist philosopher.  State action and power in his philosophy, was a terrible reflection of an inverted human nature that promoted imperialism, conflict, and division.  And as all good students of philosophy know, Rousseau influenced Marx.

A Tale of Two Lefts: Radicals and Revolutionaries

If the Left is properly understood as coming from the Rousseauian and—by necessary extension—Marxian traditions, and has always been skeptical of bourgeois liberalism and state action, then how does one make of the twentieth century divisions between leftist thought.  That division is between the forces of the liberal left, or “revisionists,” and the orthodox left, or “anti-revisionists.”  While these epithets are often thrown around to demean one side—almost ubiquitously a negative epithet if one is called a revisionist, it is necessary to understand the division between the two sides of leftism.

In their work Radicals in America: The U.S. Left since the Second World War, Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps not only highlight the uneasy tension between liberals and leftists as strange bedfellows who shared an impulse for reform but for different reasons (going back to the differences between leftism and liberalism), but also the dividing tensions between the pro-Stalinist Left and anti-Stalinist Left.  When Vladimir Lenin criticized Eduard Bernstein and the European social democrats and Fabian socialists, the heart of Lenin’s criticism rested in what can be ascertained as the difference between “radicals” and “revolutionaries.”  From this difference, the revisionists were insufficiently revolutionary because they were radicals, while the anti-revisionists remained sufficiently revolutionary because they were, by definition, revolutionaries.

These two terms are, like leftism and liberalism, often misappropriated for one another and used interchangeably.  The difference lies within how one understands Marxist philosophy and sociology, particularly between the relationship of the superstructure and substructure of society.  In orthodox Marxism, the superstructure comprises of society’s state, institutions, ideologies, and laws.  It is reinforced by the economic production of society’s substructure.  Together, the superstructure and substructure of society constitute the inversion of the origin state of nature as theorized by Rousseau.

When Bernstein and the social democrats, and other socialists, decided to work within the bourgeois superstructure of society, they had become revisionists because they were no longer working to abolish the oppressive superstructure of society.  Whereas revolutionaries work tirelessly against the powers that be, aiming irretrievably to destroy the bourgeois superstructure produced by Enlightenment liberalism, radicals seek to bring about substantial change to the superstructure itself.  However, since radicals do not seek to abolish the superstructure, in a very paradoxical way, radicals can be viewed as conservatives insofar that—even with substantial reform—some aspects of the oppressive superstructure will be conserved even after radical reforms are implemented.  Here lies the origins of the division between the anti-Stalinist and pro-Stalinist Left.

Coming out of the Second World War, the left was largely united in its affinity towards the Soviet Union.  The feudal and authoritarian Tsardom had been destroyed.  The serfs and proletariats had been liberated.  The Soviet Union had rapidly developed economically (although many leftists forget that the fuel of the Soviet economic engine came at the expense of the native peoples of Siberia and the Siberian environment).  Homelessness had been eradicated.  Everyone had food in an age of depression sweeping across the liberal capitalist West (except the Ukrainians).  Moreover, the Soviet steamroller had played the most decisive role in bringing forth the down of Nazi Germany.  Leftists had many reasons to be supportive of the Soviet Union after victory in Europe and the Pacific by the end of 1945.

However, by 1945, there were already emerging divisions among leftists.  The killing of Leon Trotsky was one.  The collaboration of French socialists (like Paul Faure), and former French socialists turned fascists counter-revolutionaries (like Jacques Doriot) with Germany was another.  The longstanding dispute between the social democrats and democratic socialists who were working as political parties within the liberal superstructure against the anti-statist revolutionary impetus of the “orthodox” left was another.  And the final coup de grâce was the decade of the 1950s, a decade that saw Soviet tanks suppress a socialist uprising in Budapest and Nikita Khrushchev began the process of de-Stalinization that shattered the traditional pro-Stalin defenses that Stalinist criticism was capitalist propaganda.

By the end of the 1950s, the split that had been fracturing for half a century erupted.  The Trotskyite-leaning leftists, social democrats, and democratic socialists firmly entrenched themselves as anti-Stalinist leftists.  Others remained resolved that the Soviet system was the only alternative model to the contemporary bourgeois superstructure dominating Western civilization.  Thus, the Soviet Union demanded the loyalty from leftists outside of the Eastern Bloc because only the thrust of the Kremlin could liberate the slumbering proletariat from the sleep in France, the United Kingdom, Canada, United States, and other NATO countries.

In no other place was this division more visible than in Great Britain, where British leftists were turn between the anti-Stalinist and pro-Stalinist lines.  E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, two of Britain’s finest twentieth century historians, went different routes—representing the shifting dialectics of the left.  Thompson became a critic of Stalinist socialism; Hobsbawm was, perhaps, its greatest defender in the Anglosphere Academy.

The division between the anti-Stalinist Left and those leftists who remained either pro-Stalinist, or at the very least, opposed to the liberal superstructure of contemporary Western society, had tremendous impact on the course of Western foreign for the rest of the Cold War and post-Cold War years.  In America, the “New York Intellectuals” became the most ardent defenders of the anti-Stalinist Left.  They were Radicals who supported the New Deal, Great Society, and Civil Rights movement, almost all were sympathetic to the use of American military power to contain Soviet communism and expand democracy and human rights abroad.  And they were radicals, who—unlike Emil Mazey who championed the death of the New Deal state as early as 1945—strongly defended the institutional New Deal and subsequently version of the New Deal, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

What becomes visibly clear is that the radical left, as opposed to the revolutionary left, had accommodated to accept the liberal superstructure of society.  And like the classical Enlightenment liberals, began to see the state as the bulwark of progress and enlightenment rather than in the tradition leftists vision as the bulwark of inequality, division, and oppression.  In their support for a strong and aggressive foreign policy with the twin goals of containing Soviet communism and expanding human rights and democracy abroad, the radical left became the internationalist left; a left that saw the active use of state intervention for the good that it could bring, rather than the negativities that often accompany military action (however noble it may be).

The revolutionary left remained true to its anti-Statist origins, and therefore necessarily saw state military intervention as an extension of state power, division, inequality, and imperialism.  This too posed a problem with the “anti-revisionist” revolutionary left, which also liked to extol the virtues of human rights, women’s rights, and minority rights, but never backed up their words with forceful action because forceful action is a violation of the Rousseauian and Marxian traditions.  (Here it can be noted that there was also a strand of contradiction within the revolutionary left, which saw no problem with forceful action in militant revolutionaries overthrowing their authoritarian or U.S.-backed puppet regimes as long as they were sufficiently socialist and revolutionary.)

The revolutionary left, because of its refusal (or inability) to gain political clout within liberal democracies, remained marginalized in political discourse and direction.  The radical left, on the other hand, constituted the new “vital center” in liberal democratic politics.  Firmly anti-totalitarian, whether it be fascism or Soviet-supported sympathetic communism, anti-free market capitalist, pro-socialist and trade unionist, but also strongly supportive of state action in foreign policy.  This new vital center occupied the medium between the horror of Gilded Age capitalism, and the horror of twentieth century totalitarianism that swept much of Europe and various other nations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.  For many, it represented a civilizing influence upon liberalism, ensuring that liberalism stay true to some form of commitment to the welfare state, providing basic workers’ rights, and ensuring that labor unions had a seat at negotiating tables without busted noses and broken ribs.

Postmodernism and the Crisis of the Revolutionary Left

The 1930s and 1940s pro-Stalinist Left was equally shaken from decade of the 1950s that finally fissured into the divorce between leftist radicals and leftists revolutionaries.  After Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian Revolution in Budapest, and the revelations of Stalin’s Purge and Holodomor was announced by Khrushchev hit home, the revolutionary left had serious soul searching.  While postmodernism is not solely a leftist movement politically, many have noted the close relationship between the main figures of postmodernism with their longstanding relationship with leftwing politics.

Although Michel Foucault grew disillusioned with the French Communist Party’s social conservatism, Foucault was a strong leftist in the same vein as Rousseau and Marx.  In his history of the Enlightenment, Madness and Civilization, he famously declared “the ultimate language of madness is that of reason.”  Harkening back to Rousseau’s attack on reason, Foucault was building upon two centuries of leftist thought.  Derrida and Lyotard too, were involved in leftwing politics.  Lyotard had joined the libertarian-socialist Socialisme ou Barbarie, and Derrida had a long record of involvement in anti-imperialist and left-liberation movements.

The emergence of the postmodern left was revolutionary leftism’s response to de-Stalinization and the general lack of ability to vocally be supportive of Stalinist policies (although Hobsbawm remained firmly pro-Stalinist).  Rather than sing the praise of Stalinism and the hope for a Stalinist Cold War victory, the postmodern leftists embarked on a much more ambitious intellectual rebuttal to liberalism and the radicalism of the anti-Stalinist Left.  According to Stephen Hicks, the postmodernists aimed to show that the Whig view of history and progress was bankrupt and shallow.  They also aimed to re-engage anti-statism into leftist discourse that had gotten lost with the emergence of the Soviet Union and various communist revolutions that swept the post-Second World War world.

Postmodernism, far from creating ex nihilo the metaphysical view that the world is one of social constructionism, conflict, and relativism, harkened back to the deep imagination and movements of the anti-Enlightenment Romantics (of which Rousseau is widely considered the father of).  Cultural Pluralism and relativism emerged from a re-imaging of Johann von Herder’s volksgeist.  Herder’s conception articulated the belief that collective society constitutes a unique set of customs, traditions, and values that make up its culture.  And since there are multiple societies, there are multiple cultures—each with their own unique set of customs, traditions, values, and therefore culture.  And when Foucault stated that the “ultimate language of madness is that of reason,” he was anticipated by the Romantic poet Georg Forster 150 years earlier who wrote, “The world is facing the tyranny of reason…every kind of damage inflicted by fire and water, are nothing compared with the havoc that reason will wreak.”

In the field of state action, postmodern leftists remained true to the anti-statist impulse of revolutionary leftism.  The “progress” promoted by liberals, and the anti-Stalinist Left, which often rested upon state action and intervention, was deemed to be a farce.  It was a shallow and bankrupt ideology because progress came at the expense of nature, culture, and came with the backing of foreign guns and soldiers rather than a genuine reflection of the collective will of the people.  Capitalism, technology, and science were not leading to progress and salvation, but were the tools of the bourgeois superstructure that strengthened the oppressiveness of the bourgeois order.

Although radical leftists may have been well-intended, the fact that they only worked to bring transformation to the system, rather than abolishment, meant that their reforms still conserved the superstructure of liberal society.  And this break between the two sides, which already has a long history, led to the anti-war and anti-imperialist left that rose to prominence in opposing European action to retain their colonies in Africa, the Israeli movement into the Sinai, Gaza, Golan Heights, and West Bank after the Six Day War, and vehement opposition to America’s Vietnam War.  This strand of anti-war leftism, rooted in the belief that state action is a reflection of imperialism and the oppressive extension of the superstructure of Western society, carried forth into leftist opposition to the Gulf War, the NATO-led interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia, and the anti-war demonstrations leading up to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.  Leading, of course, to the “pro-human rights’” Left to marry with liberal internationalism and claim the mantle of human rights internationalism for itself.

Iraq, the Last and Only War for Human Rights

In the months leading up to the Iraq War, there was strong division among the left with how to proceed with the forthcoming invasion.  Liberals were firmly in favor of the war, as liberals always have been.  After all, liberal Democratic administrations in the United States inaugurated American involvement in all the great wars of the twentieth century: First World War (Wilson), Second World War (Roosevelt), Korean War (Truman), and Vietnam War (Johnson).

The demise of the Soviet Union left the anti-Stalinist Left without an opponent in foreign policy, and public content with the economic boom of the 1990s left them without a front to effectively promote domestic reformism.  During the 2004 Presidential Debates, then-President George W. Bush retorted to then-Senator John Kerry concerning American unilateralism that Kerry had “forgot Poland.”  The statement made rounds across the internet and media.  But the statement is very important to consider.

In 2000, Bush had promised a return to a non-interventionist and “humble” foreign policy, a break from eight years of the Clinton Administration’s defense of human rights and minority rights in global foreign policy.  Vice President Gore famously said he would promote the expansion American (liberal) values abroad.  (And this is why American liberals, when push comes to shove, always support military intervention.)  When the coalition invasion of Iraq began, the Americans were accompanied by Australian, British, and Polish troops.  The British Labour government under Tony Blair and the Polish Democratic Left Alliance were both left-leaning governments that could best be described as part of the anti-Stalinist Left tradition.

Leftist support for the war followed along the anti-Stalinist lines.  Rather than be fixated with the Bush Administration’s selling points of destroying Saddam Hussein’s WMD program, leftists were supporting the war as one that would bring women’s rights, minority rights, and a long overdue liberation to the oppressed people of Iraq.  It followed the anti-totalitarian arguments for the anti-Stalinist Left’s support for America’s Cold War foreign policy.  And it also reflected, deep down, the radical left’s commitment to contemporary superstructure of society and the emergent view that state action is a force for progress and civilization (a classically liberal view) against the traditional leftist view that state action is a reflection of oppression, division, conflict, and inequality.

The Iraq War seemed to have broken the back of the anti-Stalinist Left.  Postmodern leftism—the dominant form of leftism in the twenty-first century—far from showing the bankruptcy of liberalism, seemed to have shown the bankruptcy of the radical leftism of the internationalist left.  Indeed, the aftermath of the Iraq War has led to much soul-searching for leftists.  Although liberals in the Obama Administration rushed to military action in Libya, and nearly launched an attack against the Assad regime in Syria, the Obama Administration was at the fore in building the multinational coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and their affiliates elsewhere which saw a brief revival of liberal internationalism in the early 2010s.

When news emerged of British involvement in the campaign against ISIS in Syria, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn announced his opposition to British action in Syria.  The Labour Party is also deeply conflicted in how to proceed with foreign policy after Iraq and Afghanistan—the changing of the leadership guard from internationalist leftists like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to more classical leftists in Ed Miliband and (definitely) Jeremy Corbyn reflect the growing demise of the internationalist left.  Likewise, the Democratic Left Alliance in Poland has all but collapsed and no longer exists as a viable political party.  The New York Intellectuals in America are long gone, and no one has emerged to replace them, with the leftist voices in American media now being of the traditional anti-war, anti-imperialist classical left tradition.

The war that was so enthusiastically supported by left-leaning liberals and radical leftists under the grounds of expanding democracy, human rights, and women’s rights went up in the smoke of the sectarian conflict between Shi’a and Sunni.  It degraded when Nouri al-Maliki promoted a homogenous government of Shi’a that did not have much concern for the lofty intensions of the internationalist left.  Those original intentions of human rights and democracy have all but evaporated with the ongoing conflict with ISIS in Iraq.

The anti-war and anti-imperialist left has also benefited from the collapse of the internationalist left.  While the internationalist left was strongly supportive of Israeli policies in the Middle East, their demise has caused many to question the future of Jewish leftism.  The contemporary left, following its anti-imperialist and anti-statist lineage, has now vocally condemned Israeli actions in the West Bank, Gaza, and overreactions to militant Palestinian action.  Their criticism of Israel follows similar patterns—Israeli action is a reflection of imperialism, oppression, conflict, and division.

The decline and fall of the internationalist left, the left-radicals who wanted to bring substantial change to the current liberal superstructure but fell short of the leftist revolutionary thrust for the abolition of said superstructure, means the left is at a crossroads for its future.  These radical leftists did maintain a civilizing influence over the bourgeois ideology of liberalism.  It maintained the welfare state, workers’ rights, and power of the trade unions won after the Great Depression and Second World War.  It also played an important role in lending leftwing support in the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

Democracy is contingent upon effective public discussion; the Hegelian dialectic has an important role in democratic politics.  The debate between the radical and revolutionary left produced a wealth of academic scholarship and public debate from the 1950s to the early 1990s.  And while the radical left may have won the discourse and debate in the Cold War, it is the revolutionary left that still remains prominent today.

The aftermath of the Cold War, Iraq War, and 1980s-1990s welfare reforms have precipitated the collapse of the radical internationalist left.  But the fall of radical leftism seems to be answerable with Gibbon’s witty retort.  If the lineage of intellectual leftism is rooted in Rousseau and Marx, and when these leftists pivoted to radical reformism within the system, rather than revolution aiming at systematic abolition, their demise was cast in stone.  We too, can marvel at their longevity in the face of inevitable decline.  However, two questions remain: will the radical leftist tradition experience a revival in the coming years—especially now after the 2007-2008 Recession and rise and demise of ISIS, and the new global movement to deal with climate change (which may serve to unite international leftwing and liberal parties across the globe) or will it fade into the dustbin of history like the Mensheviks as leftist parties and their liberal bedfellows squabble among themselves and keep their sights internally focused on domestic politics.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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