Seymour traces the detailed history of liberal and socialist support for war, colonialism, and imperialism, from the mid 19th century to the present day. I suspect that for most of us this history is too detailed. Many, if not most, of the liberals and socialists whose political trajectories are documented in this book were familiar to me in name only, if that. Nonetheless, I give high marks to Seymour for having researched and written such a specific and focused history.
The general theme of the book is that liberals can always be counted on to act as propagandists for colonialism, imperialism, and war, and this propensity is not something that has been left in the dustbin of history, but continues to the present. The justifications given are generally elitist, paternalistic, or racist in nature: some version of “the white man’s burden.” Seymour focuses entirely on the (previously) colonial powers in Europe, Great Britain, and the US, for obvious reasons. The similarities between liberal / progressive defense of war in the various countries are far more striking than their differences. In general, colonizing a third world country, or waging war on it, is done because the population there is too “barbaric” or “primitive” to be able to assimilate the many benefits of democracy and capitalism without the “assistance” of the colonizer or invader. It is our moral duty to aid and instruct the benighted populations so that they may advance politically, economically, and morally. If this instruction requires force, then that is merely an unfortunate side effect, and should not deter us from our laudable aims.
Though Seymour doesn’t mention it, I think an excellent example of this was the attack on Libya initiated by Obama (without Congressional approval) in 2011. Libya was in the midst of a civil war - a purely internal affair - but US “interests” were at stake. Given that the US was already engaged in war on multiple other middle eastern countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia) one would naturally expect that there would be substantial liberal opposition to yet another “engagement”. But in fact there was substantial support for Obama’s Libya adventure among liberals. Some of that support was, no doubt, merely an expression of the unprincipled partisan loyalty that we have come to expect since 2009. But the reasons given for supporting the invasion were identically those that Seymour describes in his book: the imposition of “stability”; ensuring the rise of “democracy”; “humanitarian intervention”; “protection” of civilians.
These justifications for war are always advanced with a kind of ahistorical naivete, as though liberals have forgotten, or never knew, that even the most barbarous of wars (and they are all barbarous) are “justified” on the very same grounds. Whether it was the suppression of the Phillipine rebellion at the turn of the 20th century, or the annexation of Austria in the 1930s, or the invasion of Iraq in 2003: always the aggressor claims the high moral ground, asserting a moral obligation to wage war. Always.
Seymour really comes into his own when he describes, in excruciating detail, the evolution of the Left from the early 1930s to the late 70s. The general pattern was the disillusionment of leftists with the USSR because of its transformation into a brutal and bureaucratic “totalitarian” regime. This disillusionment resulted in a further fragmentation of an already fragmented Left, with disastrous consequences. Adherents of the anti-totalitarian Left soon enough joined forces with the anti-Communist right, going so far as to support the loyalty oaths and witch hunts that characterized the postwar period. The focus on anti-Communism provided a wedge by which radical labor action was suppressed, and the possibility of a genuine Left coalition was destroyed. The political situation in the US and Europe has never really recovered from this. Seymour traces these developments at a level of detail that I found difficult to follow; but the level of detail is important to an understanding of the many routes by which the general left-to-right transformation can take place.
If there is a single takeaway from this book, it is that principled opposition to imperialism and imperialist war is the single step that we can take to avoid being on the wrong side of history. Sadly, though, we know that the next time the US war machine swings into action, there will be a phalanx of liberals there to cheer it on.