Friday, March 16, 2012

Interview with the Social Democrats, USA - Part 2

This is the second part of an interview conducted between myself and the newly reformed Social Democrats, USA and their spokesperson Glenn King. The first portion of this interview can be found here.  

Roland Dodds: The organization Penn Kemble ran had a significant influence within foreign policy circles. Joshua Muravchik wrote a glowing obituary to Penn in 2005 in Commentary magazine, and many of the organization’s members ended up in significant government positions. Does this new SDUSA feel they are following in Kemble’s footsteps?  

Glenn King: No. The simple fact is that the current SDUSA does not have the same level of strength that the organization had in the '80s and 90s. Therefore we can not continue that policy. However if we did have those resources that strategy would certainly be considered.  

Roland Dodds: “Neoconservative” is a dirty word in some political circles. Do you feel there is anything worth defending regarding the aforementioned persuasion, or does the new SDUSA reject the framework in its entirety?  

Glenn King: Neoconservatism developed in the '70s as an ideology of Cold War liberals who strongly resisted the rapprochement with Communism that became dominant within the Democratic party during the Vietnam era. Early Neoconservatives were liberal and progressive on domestic issues and strictly anti-communist in foreign policy. Those are the same values that have always motivated the SDUSA. Thus during the '70s and '80s many leaders of the SD moved into political positions that were very similar to that of the Neoconservative movement. The commitments of leaders such as Penn Kemble and others were to broadly social democratic goals in domestic policies and to a defense of democracy and free labor union movements on the international level. Kemble and company believed that the movement of international communism was inherently totalitarian in nature and thus was the primary enemy of both American liberal democracy and democracy around the world. Therefore the interests of the SDUSA and early forms of Neoconservatism tended to converge.

Unfortunately Neoconservativism has moved from the more realist positions of persons such as Jeanne Kirkpatrick in the '80s who argued that you can't build democracy in societies not prepared by their histories for it toward being an ideology that had the hubris to believe that the United States could export democracy by military means to nations such as Iraq which had little concrete experience of it. Unfortunately these neoconservatives dominated the thinking President George Bush after 9/11. It was also unfortunate that Penn Kemble who led a fossilized SD from the '90s to his death in 2005 also bought into the hubris of latter neoconservatism.

 I would say therefore that the modern SDUSA relates to the aspects of its Neocon-like past ambiguously. While some within the SD seem ready to reject that past entirely, many do not. We believe that people such as Carl Gershman and Penn Kemble were sincerely motivated by the ideal of supporting liberal democracy in a world which seemed to be moving toward a totalitarianism guised as communism. These people genuinely supported the cause of free labor movements and liberal democratic institutions. Thus they were willing cold warriors. Many of us do not believe that they were wrong in their general outlook this even if we believe that some of the details of their specific positions may have been flawed in the past.

We furthermore feel that the same passion for the defense of human rights and democracy in the world of the old SDUSA is still relevant in a world such as ours where genocide or extreme crimes against humanity are regularly practiced by regimes such as Assad's Syria and Bashir's Sudan. The SDUSA while recognizing that America does not have the financial means to engage in countless military interventions around the world, does believe in a vigorous American foreign policy that to a great degree is centered on opposing these kinds of brutality in the world. In this I think we honor that which was best in the old SD.  

Roland Dodds: Social Currents has published pieces spanning the Occupy Wall Street movement, as well as Israeli foreign policy. What can this new organization add to debate on the left in America? Is there a specific voice that is not being aired that requires a new organization?  

Glenn King: Now regarding the Occupy Wall Street movement in particular, I do not think that we have anything unique to contribute to that movement beyond that of some other groups. One of the problems with the Occupy Movement was its early adaptation of anarchist and consensus forms of decision making. This has contributed to its failure to develop more specific and concrete positions beyond those attitudes that it expounds. The head of the Young Social Democrats the youth organization of the SDUSA, Michael Mottern has been deeply involved in a highly successful Occupy Buffalo Movement. However given the general situation of the SDUSA vis a vis the Occupy movement we do not see ourselves as being a major player in determining the future of that movement. But then of course I may be surprised.

Now regarding what role the "new" SDUSA might play within the left and what voice it might have? Part of the answer to that might be related to the question of what voice any specifically left ideological parties and organizations might have in 21st century America. The fact is that even the most numerous of significant socialist organizations such as the Democratic Socialist of America are terribly weak and play only very limited roles in realist American politics. Many other organizations such as the small Marxist Leninist sects certainly will have no long term political influence.

So what of the SD? Well historically the SD has been the most pragmatic and least counter cultural organization of the Left. It has been the party that has been least affected by the cynicism about American society and policies that has infected the American left for decades. Furthermore, the SDUSA has historically been the one organization which continually has said No! to the totalitarianism and antisemitism that has often expressed itself in the Left through out the world. So in many ways the Social Democrats USA has been the organization that one would think would have had the best chance of appealing to constituencies such as the Reagan democrats and more realo / centrist forces within the Democratic Party and the American labor movement.

Unfortunately these potentials were not realized during past decades. In fact the SD's potential strengths helped isolate it from the mainstream of the Left. However in spite of its past problems I believe that there can still be a dynamic role for the SDUSA within American politics. The current organization is certainly more vital than the fossilized organization of the "90s and the early years of this century. We still have all the advantages that we have always had, what we need to do is to learn how to develop them to their full potential.

2 comments:

TNC said...

I enjoyed the Interview, Roland. But I need to take issue with some of the comments made regarding neoconservatism and SDUSA’s analysis of communism.

Re: neoconservatism. Nothing terribly important politically speaking, but some historical clarification. To be specific, King writes:

“Neoconservatism developed in the '70s as an ideology of Cold War liberals who strongly resisted the rapprochement with Communism that became dominant within the Democratic party during the Vietnam era. Early Neoconservatives were liberal and progressive on domestic issues and strictly anti-communist in foreign policy.”

This is part of the story, but it is not complete. If the original neocons were Cold War liberals who refused to follow the leftward foreign political trajectory of the Democratic Party but who remained liberal or progressive on domestic issues that would not explain their *conservatism*. They would be Blue Dog Democrats or something similar. In fact, at least two major figures associated with the neoconservative movement (wrongly, in my estimation)—Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, remained Democrats.

The area where those who would later be pejoratively labeled as the neocons made their first mark was actually domestic policy. They were liberals who believed in the goals of the New Deal and the War on Poverty, but when they analyzed it with the tools at their disposal (the social sciences) they came to the conclusion the policies were not working and in some cases they were actually harming the populations they purported to help. “The Public Interest” was active in this regard and it began publication in 1965. This was barely one year into the war in Vietnam and well before the mainstream of the Democratic Party swung left.

My issue with communism is more important. Here is King:

“We believe that people such as Carl Gershman and Penn Kemble were sincerely motivated by the ideal of supporting liberal democracy in a world which seemed to be moving toward a totalitarianism guised as communism.”

Really? I thought SDUSA came to conclusion that communism was a form of totalitarianism. This is not merely a semantic matter. The way I read King is he is saying communism per se is not bad (it might even be good) but it was warped or manipulated by the Bolsheviks in the USSR, the Communist Party of China under Mao, etc. It’s the old “but real communism has never been implemented” argument. Do you know what I mean? Please tell me I am reading him wrong...

Big Mike said...

Great interview. It is a shame left wing groups like this are not more powerful on the national stage.