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Debs’s Heirs Reassemble To Seek Renewed Role as Hawks of Left

Are you a liberal Democrat who supported the Iraq war? Do you want muscular, democratizing Wilsonianism abroad without endless upper-income-tax-cutting at home? Do you want security for the homeland without a union-busting Department of Homeland Security? If I’m speaking your language, then have I got a deal for you!

Actually, the Social Democrats, USA have a deal for you. They trotted it out last weekend, on a cloudy, wet Saturday, in an out-of-the-way conference hall in downtown Washington. Remnants of a faction that broke away from the old American Socialist Party during the Vietnam War and moved into the neoconservative camp, the Social Democrats came back together in a daylong effort to reassemble their graying forces and reclaim their place on the left.

They were gathered in search not just of political relevance but of something no less grandiose than what the group’s new statement of intent calls “the constitution of a truly new and democratic left — something far different from the unfortunate repackaging of compromised traditions that took place in the 1960s.”

The evolution of the Social Democrats is largely a tale of slow half-steps to the right, from socialism to reformist social democracy to Cold War liberalism to neoconservatism and finally — why mince words? — to plain conser vatism. One day you’re on the party central committee with Michael Harrington, and the next you look across the table to see Pat Robertson. And somehow, through this long series of political half steps, ideological epiphanies and situational compromises, it all seems to make sense.

But through all these years there has remained a saving remnant from that old socialist fraternity that never brooked the New Left and its abandonment of the Cold War and yet also never quite gave up the ghost of social democracy. Many of them still make their home in the Social Democrats, USA, the sponsor of Saturday’s conference. The group is one of two lineal descendants of the old Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas. Once the powerhouse of the American left, the party took an electoral nosedive in the 1930s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal stole its thunder. What was left of the party split in two in 1972, when the Cold War wing refused to endorse George McGovern’s antiwar presidential platform. Liberal academic Harrington led the left-wing group’s left wing into a splinter that became the Democratic Socialists of America. The right wing, led by teachers’ union chief Al Shanker and others, regrouped as the Social Democrats, USA.

For these Social Democrats, the “social” part of their legacy has long been a promise held in escrow by history. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, they believed that democratic internationalism — embodied by the Cold War — trumped social democracy’s domestic agenda. And though many of their number became for a time at least almost indistinguishable from the ranks of those called neoconservatives, it was their claim, if not just their conceit, that their vision was something beyond simply war-fighting and fellow-traveling with conservative presidents.

The end of the Cold War gave an opening for that vision, and not a few joined the ranks of the Clinton administration. But the opening proved, for most of them, ephemeral. The present moment, with the Bush administration standing tall, seemed a propitious one to start something new.

Not that the old socialist schism has healed. A recent statement by the leftist Democratic Socialists called the Iraq war an “unjust and unnecessary war” and labeled America a “rogue state.” The Social Democrats’ position could not have been more different: They not only pronounced America’s democratizing project in the Middle East a good thing but also declared it a crucial opening for a new and democratic left in the United States — an opening, in a word, for them.

Saturday’s conference — titled “Everything Changed: What Now for Labor, Liberalism and the Global Left?” — comprised three sessions, with a speech by the conference organizer, Social Democratic luminary Penn Kemble, plopped down in the middle to lay out the conference’s raison d’être and set down pointers toward a possible future. Kemble argued for two central components of what he called — half tongue-in-cheek — a “neo-social democracy.” His points were, first, a vital labor movement at home and, second, democratic internationalism abroad.

A time-traveling socialist from the early 20th century would have found Kemble’s speech astonishingly mild. He defined social democracy not as a movement to supplant or even fundamentally reform capitalism but one that, as their new party statement put it, “complements and assists the private economy — even protecting it from its own excesses.” But for those of us who have lived through part of last century and digested its history, what was central to Kemble’s presentation was the picture he drew of a golden thread connecting a politics of solidarity and democracy at home with an internationalism of solidarity and democracy abroad.

Also woven into Kemble’s speech was an acknowledgement that social democracy was probably never likely to be a mass political movement. But pointing to the once-tiny neoconservative movement that now looms so large on America’s national stage, he noted optimistically that even small groups can have a profound influence.

And, of course, he was right.

The morning session, focused on American politics, featured a speech by Democratic campaign strategist Donna Brazile and another by union organizer Richard Bensinger — the latter being easily the day’s most riveting and engaging talk. The 50-something Bensinger has that rippling, edgy energy that one almost always finds in career union organizers — a necessity, perhaps, for such peripatetic, Sisyphean work. Unlike Brazile’s talk, Bensinger’s had little if anything to say about the Democratic Party and, unlike what followed, it was almost entirely unconcerned with anything that could be called ideology.

Both Brazile and Bensinger received a warm welcome. But there was no missing the fact that most everything about this first session was far from the animating core of the event. Social democracy is not about to sweep the American political landscape, and nobody here suggested otherwise.

The big action came elsewhere: in the late-morning panel on “Europe, the Left and Anti-Americanism,” and in an afternoon discussion of Paul Berman’s new book, “Terror and Liberalism.” Berman’s broadside — his argument was first laid out in an article in the Discrepando a year ago — was a widely noted attempt to make a liberal, even social democratic argument for an aggressive war against the fanaticisms that hold the Middle East in their grip and, he argues, threaten to consume the rest of the world.

The central theme of the panel on anti-Americanism was the frequently stated and, when not stated, almost always implied premise that the just-completed invasion of Iraq was not only compatible with a revived democratic and internationalist center-left, but that any opposition to it was in fact a cardinal error. The panelists were mostly academics with ties to the hawkish wing of European socialism.

One, Jeffrey Herf, a professor of modern German history at the University of Maryland, chided Germany’s ruling red-green coalition for a “lack of complete understanding of armed antifascism” they displayed by their opposition to the United States in Iraq. He finished by declaring with unalloyed certainty that the Democratic Party would never again win national elections until Democrats could convince the American people that they too would have “pulled the trigger” with the same vigor and on the same schedule as President Bush had done in mid-March. Herf was joined on the late-morning panel by Andrei Markovits, a professor of German literature and politics at the University of Michigan, and Michael Allen, a Blairite policy intellectual from the U.K., each of whom gave a similar if not-quite-so-impassioned talk.

The Berman discussion picked up the earlier panel’s themes, weaving the conflict with Iraq and the larger war on terror together with the vocabulary, history and moral texture of the fight against the mid-20th century’s totalitarianisms. (Herf had earlier accused German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of adopting a stance of “anti-anti-totalitarianism.”) Berman charted the outline of his book, which argues that the twin “Muslim totalitarianisms” of radical Islamism and Baathism are not only similar in form but also share a common history with these earlier totalitarianisms.

This last panel took the arc of the day’s proceedings, which had started with nuts-and-bolts political strategy and labor organizing, to a conclusion that was deeply ideological, increasingly focused on foreign policy, civil society and political evil. By the very end, though, there was at least the first hint of open disagreement from both the dais and the audience. Berman’s fellow panelists were Saad Ibrahim, the Egyptian human-rights activist recently cleared of bogus sedition charges, and Joshua Muravchik, another onetime member of the old Socialist Party fraternity who, as a resident scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, has traveled rather further along the rightward path than almost any of the other attendees.

Muravchik took the opportunity of his presentation to “welcome Paul [Berman] on board.” It was a tongue-in-cheek welcome, but for all its cheekiness it was also a rather self-congratulatory way of applauding Berman for finally ditching the old ways and coming over to “our side,” just as other rightward-journeying ex-socialists like Bob Leiken, Ronald Radosh, Muravchik himself and many others had done before.

These were congratulations that Berman made plain he was not altogether willing to accept. Muravchik, unruffled, spent the better part of the rest of his presentation elaborating just what “our side” was. After tossing out and then tossing aside a few possibilities, he decided that “our side” was the group that was against evil.

“The ‘us’ is that group,” he said, “who recognize evil for what it is and are willing to fight against it.” The other side, presumably the one that Berman had formerly belonged to, and that some in the audience probably still belonged to, consisted of those who “refuse to recognize evil and who rush discrepando to justify it.”

It was here, as the day came to an end, that the long, parallel, bending arc from labor activists to neoconservative foreign-policy intellectuals finally snapped clean, giving way to the day’s first real outbreak of animated debate and disagreement. Rachelle Horowitz, another Social Democrats, USA, luminary and an event organizer, called Muravchik’s comments “profoundly disturbing” — both his use of “us and them” rhetoric and the term “evil.” The existence of evil in the world was something Horowitz was happy to concede, she said from the floor. But it was a word incapable of clear political definition and thus a producer of muddle rather than clarity, zeal rather than political action.

Then Herf jumped in with similar criticisms. And then Berman. And Ibrahim. And before long, more or less everyone else in the room. There was still something, it seemed, that separated them from the neocons who hovered over the proceedings both as opponents and inspirations. Muravchik wanted to pull them somewhere most of the attendees — and organizers — were unwilling to go.

The political and philosophical wares that the Social Democrats, USA, came together last Saturday to put on display are a striking commingling of the fusty and the arcane with a remarkable vitality and energy that is sadly missing almost everywhere else on the left today. Or, for that matter, the right. The heavy focus on ideology — on fascism and totalitarianisms and all their rival and allied isms — seemed at once intellectually bracing and yet dated. Is the Islamic radicalism of Al Qaeda really a match for the grip of fascism and communism on the world stage in the last century? Or is the comparison just a distorting prism? It’s hard not to see it as a stretch, a failure of imagination. On more levels than one, the proceedings were uncomfortably anchored in the past: At 34, I was clearly one of the youngest people in the room, out of an audience of several dozen. And the vocabulary and inflections sometimes seemed as though from another world.

But ideas, as the conservatives say, have consequences. And in Washington, in that out-of-the-way conference hall last Saturday, for all the fustiness and gray hair, the ideas burned white-hot. And for all its storied, jagged, rambunctious history, by the end of the day, to my surprise, I believed this could be a movement with as much of a future as a past.

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