Right-Wing Dreams of Demented Utopias
It used to be liberals who wanted to remake society according to a theory. Now that’s the looney dream of the right
By Michael Lind
Two decades have passed since I began my gradual and reluctant break with the conservative movement, in which I had been a protégé of the late William F. Buckley Jr. and an employee of the late Irving Kristol, as executive editor of The National Interest. Since then, I have been followed by, among others, Andrew Sullivan, Fareed Zakaria, Francis Fukuyama, David Frum and Bruce Bartlett, all of whom, for different reasons and at different times, have become estranged from the American right. Of the British Labour politician Tony Benn, a young conservative who moved leftward over time, Harold Wilson sneered, ‘He immatures with age.’ Others may judge whether I have immatured with age. In thinking about my career, first on the right and then (to quote FDR) ‘slightly left of center,’ I think I have been consistent in opposing utopianism in politics, something once characteristic of part of the left and now the defining quality of the contemporary American right.
In the age of Barack Obama, who would have been considered a moderate conservative a generation ago, it is easily forgotten that there was a radical left that was really radical — and not in a good way. As late as the 1980s, a classmate of mine at Yale insisted that Lenin was a noble fellow who was betrayed by Stalin (we now know that Lenin invented the Soviet system of secret police, torture and judicial murder). Another classmate told me that a Yale professor had denounced Poland’s General Jaruzelski, who imposed martial law on communist Poland in 1981, as a bourgeois deviationist who was insufficiently Stalinist. In those days Marxists were not limited to friendly, decent ‘democratic socialists’ who were indistinguishable from welfare-state liberals; there was a dwindling minority of hardcore leftists who saw the Soviet Union or Castro’s Cuba as a flawed model of the future socialist order that would soon emerge from the breakdown of Western capitalism. As it happened, Western capitalism did break down partly in 2008, but by that time nobody any longer thought that models could be found in communism, which had finally been discredited two decades earlier.
Today we think of anti-government militants in terms of white supremacist conservatives. It is worth recalling that the 1960s and the 1970s witnessed the Black Panthers, the Symbionese Liberation Army that kidnapped and brainwashed Patty Hearst, and Europe’s murderous Baader-Meinhof gang. Before the cult of gun ownership became identified with the far right, there was a far left that idolized communist revolutionaries like Che and was fond of quoting the mass murderer Mao: ‘Power grows from the barrel of a gun.’
Needless to say, such radicals made up a tiny minority compared to the overwhelming numbers of moderate liberals in the U.S. a couple of decades ago. The problem was that the New Deal liberals of the 1970s and 1980s were as intellectually bankrupt and demoralized as the dwindling remnant of moderate Republicans today. There were aging political warhorses like House Speakers Tip O’Neill and Jim Wright, but no younger intellectuals in the New Deal tradition had acquired the influence of those of the older generation, like John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. The radical left tended to pull left-of-center discourse in its direction a generation ago, in the same way that Tea Party militants define today’s right, even though they are outnumbered by less radical Republican voters.