The Old New Left: Student Radicalism in the 1930s

Ho Chi Minh! Ho Chi Minh!

There has long prevailed a certain exceptionalism about the 1960s. It all went so well with the decade prior, with Father Knows Best on the air… and then, the Yippies are nominating a pig for President, “free love” reigns freely indeed, and the Jews sell America out in 1965. Except really big this time around.

It wasn’t that exceptional, not even the youthful vitality. For there was a student radical movement contemporaneous (sometimes collaborating with) the New Deal some 30 years before. It has been swept under the dust and much of it thrown into the memory hole, but it’s a fascinating little episode. It’s the link between Old and New Left, as these terms tend to be used. Grounded on class analysis, but with very strong concerns for racial equality and fighting fascism.

Common wisdom is that America could never swallow the social-democratic pill like Europe. Yet in an interview with former American Student Union (ASU) leader Joseph P. Lash, he confided that FDR was “accomplishing social reforms beyond the dreams of most of the Socialists of Europe.”

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Communalists and constitutionalists

Liberalism and democracy are not the same, as I’ve mentioned in the context of the doctrinaires and ancients v. moderns.

“Illiberal democracy” is used as an epithet to refer to various top-heavy presidential or parliamentary republics where elections serve a mostly symbolic role to give the dog (the public) a bone. And I don’t mean blow them like in the AC/DC song. Although, figuratively, this may indeed be it.

But that’s quite a limited way of grasping the distinction. Instead let’s use a dichotomy of “communalism” and “constitutionalism.” Such as between, say, the Swiss mountain cantons of the Grey League, and… Luxembourg. Luxembourg? Yes, not even the venerable Grand Duchy was spared from the Great European Chimpout of 1848. Grand Duke William II conceded a constitution.

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Old school cuckservatism

[A shorter and smoother piece this time around.]

The French historian Auguste de Gerando recounts an exchange between members of the Hungarian high and low nobility, in his Transylvanian travelogue published in 1845:

One day [one of these] gentlemen came to complain to a neighboring magnate. He took off his hat, which he held in his hand while the lord listened to him. The latter induced the gentleman to cover himself, for the weather was cold.

“I will not do it,” said the gentleman. “I know what respect I owe you.”

“What?,” replied the smiling man, who was a man of wit, “Are we not both equal, both nobles?”

“No doubt, but I am a simple gentleman, and you are a powerful lord.”

“I can not be more powerful than you, we have the same privileges. I am only rich.”

“This is true.”

“So you’re bowing to my purse?”

“In fact, you are right. You are rich, and I am not. There is no other difference.” And he proudly put on his hat.

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Rough edges of the New Deal revolution

You know, the post office in every community ought to be the people’s contact with the government. We ought to make more of it. The post office is a natural for co-operation between the people and the Federal Government.

— FDR as quoted by Frances Perkins in The Roosevelt I Knew (1947) [source]

Selig Perlman was one of the great labor historians in the institutionalist tradition of Richard T. Ely and John R. Commons. Unlike theorists focusing on class struggle, he viewed unionism as creating a “job and wage consciousness” instead, which intersected with a so-called “scarcity consciousness” on part of the psychology of the wage worker, in which his perception of limited economic opportunity precludes him both from entrepreneurialism and any grand scheme of socializing production, instead focusing on immediate pragmatic goals of raising wages, reducing hours, reducing workplace hazard, etc. Impressive, given that Perlman was a Russian-born Jew drunk on the Marxist theory of Plekhanov, until he got deconverted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison… deconverted into something no less peculiar.

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The Bifurcation Point of the Liberal Jurists

As I was reading a book on an episode in Bulgarian history known in Marxist historiography as the “White Terror” (1923-25) — in truth a rather restrained and ad hoc reaction to an attempted communist uprising in September 1923, I was struck by a reference to one of Johann Caspar Bluntschli’s tomes. The book was written by law students, so evidently the legacy of this Swiss transitional figure lives on in Slavic lands. Bluntschli was the premier moderate of his times. “I’m not one of these reactionaries like K.L. von Haller and F.J. Stahl! But I also ain’t no commie…” Woodrow Wilson liked him, too.

People associate the phrase “end of history” in reference to liberal democracy with Fukuyama, but Bluntschli said it much earlier in Theory of the State (in more conventional Whiggish fashion, he was talking about constitutional monarchy, though with the same implication): “[It is] the end of a history of more than a thousand years, the completion of the Romano-Germanic political life, the true political civilization of Europe.”

Bluntschli may have been liberal, but he sure as hell was no radical. Much in the same way that Hubert Humphrey was an anti-communist. After all, Sen. Humphrey was chairman of the Americans for Democratic Action… an organization growing out of then Socialist Party member Reinhold Niebuhr’s grand liberal front, the UDA, and in conjunction with advocates of the Lend-Lease acts like the CDAAA. “Appeasement is treason to democracy,” they spoke like loyal comrades. But still, Humphrey was an anti-communist. Who is an anti-communist, I decide! Bitch.

Still, Bluntschli’s anti-radical credentials are far less spotty than Sen. Humphrey’s, all things considered. His testimony on the early communist movement in Switzerland will be consulted later.

Bluntschli had a cordial relationship with a certain Francis Lieber. Yes, of Lieber Code fame — widely regarded as the precursor to the Geneva Conventions, although it was still characteristically (and from a purely military standpoint, understandably) harsh on the Confederates. Rights don’t belong to no goddamned racists.

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The Eighteenth Brumaire of Fritz Pendleton

[The original title was going to be “The Napoleonic Touch of Death,” but surely this is better.]

Fritz Pendleton has implored reactionaries to take note of a well-known Corsican, believing his significance to a hypothetical restoration to be unjustly downplayed. His essay “The Napoleonic Touch” (also linked from his blog) asks us to reconsider the Napoleonic legacy. I shall take up his challenge.

Interpretations of Napoleon still largely converge on one of two axes: Adolphe Thiers’ and Hippolyte Taine’s. A republican admiration for Napoleon the liberator juxtaposed to contempt for Napoleon the egoist, leveller and adventurist.

An interesting synthesis position is that of Frederic May Holland, a 19th century Unitarian minister, in his Liberty in the Nineteenth Century. Napoleon was an egoistic autocrat, but at least he wasn’t an Austrian Catholic conservative, and at least he blessed his German, Swiss and Italian subjects with equality before the law (although that was dialectically inevitable anyway). He concludes that “Napoleon’s despotism had the awful and baneful grandeur of an eruption of Vesuvius; but his despicable enemies merely kept up the oppression of his empire without its glory.” Glory, of carrying on the mantle of egalite, no doubt.

Pendleton, himself struggling with the distinction between patrimonial and despotic authority due to his Bodinian conception of sovereignty inherited from Moldbug, latches on to that word “autocrat” and shouts out: “Goyim, Napoleon was our guy!”

Pendleton’s essay is filled with constant reassurances that Napoleon’s actions were always primarily concerned with the maintenance of order, even when they seem egalitarian. To Pendleton order is something of an ill-defined fixation.

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