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October 09, 2007

Whatever the likes of Paul Craig Roberts and Claes G. Ryn might believe, today's Neoconservatives are the heirs to Burke not Robespierre, argues Brendan Simms

Posted by Brendan Simms

US Paleoconservatives such as Paul Craig Roberts or Claes G. Ryn like to argue that George W. Bush and today's Neoconservatives are the heirs of Robespierre. In fact argues Dr Brendan Simms - Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society - the Neoconservatives are the heirs of Burke. It is the likes of Paul Craig Roberts or Claes G. Ryn, argues Brendan Simms, who are the real heirs of Robespierre.

What is left and what is right? This question is asked by every generation anew, and so it is not surprising that the "War on Terror" has led to a further bout of reflection and recrimination on both sides of the divide. It is a question which Nick Cohen recently explored to devastating effect in What's Left. How was it possible, he wondered, for left-liberals in Britain to become apologists not only for fundamentalist intolerance at home, but also for genocidal dictators abroad. Those attacked reply that the big picture is decisive: the "resistance" in Iraq is the first line of defence against the greater evil of total American domination.

An equally heated debate has roiled the "right". Here "realists" and "paleoconservatives" have turned on the neo-conservative advocates of democratic transformation in the Middle East, and accused them of being the "new Jacobins".

In the American Conservative, Claes G. Ryn even dubbed President George W. Bush the "Jacobin in Chief", and a "Jacobin nationalist". Or, as Paul Craig Roberts, a sometime assistant secretary of the US Treasury, puts it, "America has fallen to a Jacobin coup".

According to them, the neoconservatives have bamboozled the president into supporting a democratic crusade based on alien "universal principles" such as democracy and popular rule. They have betrayed the fundamental conservative virtues of humility and restraint; rather than accepting that "evil" will always be with us, they hubristically strive to "end" it. Rather than protecting American liberties, they seek to subvert them at home through unconstitutional laws. The neoconservatives, in short are not conservatives at all but dangerous radicals.

By contrast, they praise Edmund Burke's support for organically-developed institutions as the true heritage of conservatism. Ryn describes this "father of conservatism" as an "English [sic!] liberal" who inveighed against "an unhistorical, tyrannical spirit" of French Jacobinism. He was the champion of the organically developed society against the levelling utopias of the French Jacobins.

Picking up on this theme, the American-based British historian Jonathan Clark ended a review of a new Burke biography with the remark that though the author

does nothing explicitly to link his analysis with those commentators who have identified America's neoconservatives as "the new Jacobins"...one can see why this book will not be bedside reading in George W. Bush's White House.
There is something to this, but not much. It is well known that many of the first generation of neoconservatives had a Trotskyist past. It is therefore plausible to see echoes of Trotsky's "world revolution" to make the world safe for Soviet Russia, in the global democratic revolution they propose to make the world safe for the United States and the free world as a whole. Some neoconservatives, such as Michael Ledeen, do indeed celebrate the destruction of old orders - all of them ones we would be well without - in vivid terms. Moreover, at first sight, the American project in Iraq and the Middle East as a whole appears to be attempting a total transformation of existing institutions and societies, in a triumph of hope over experience.

But the comparison lacks traction. First, if there is one thing that unites the neoconservatives on domestic issues, it is their opposition to the kinds of socially and ideologically utopian projects with which the French Jacobins were associated. Secondly, the democratic project in Iraq seeks to work with, not against the grain of its historic communities. After a very slow start, the coalition may well be successful in its attempt to craft a viable form of Iraqi modernity, through collaboration with the Kurdish peshmerga, the Sunni tribes and the Shiite majority. It is the dystopic modernism of the Baath, and the radical fundamentalism of al-Qaeda which is out of tune with the organic development of Iraq.

Besides, the comparison is historically weak. The Jacobins themselves were far from united on the war with conservative Europe, and the export of the Revolution. True, many of them proclaimed "peace to the cabins and war on the palaces". But the statement "Nobody welcomes armed missionaries" might well have been made by a Claes Ryn or a Paul Craig Roberts did it not originate with Maximilien Robespierre, the arch-Jacobin and "sea-green incorruptible", when justifying his opposition to war with Prussia and Austria.

Indeed, as Ruth Scurr has shown in her stimulating and vivid new biography Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (2006), Robespierre warned that popular enthusiasm for war would lead to mass death. He also feared that a lost war would result in foreign occupation, while victory would corrupt Republican virtue from within. One may agree or disagree with this diagnosis, but it places the great Jacobin far closer to the Ryns and Roberts' of this world than the Bushes and the Ledeens.

The real analogy, in fact, is between the neoconservatives and the relatively small band of European writers who argued from the first that no compromise with Revolutionary France and Napoleon was possible. It was after all Edmund Burke who instantly came out against the Revolution in his Reflections. He later elaborated his critique into an interventionist manifesto in the four Letters on a Regicide Peace bitterly opposing any accommodation with the new France.

After Burke's death in 1797, the torch passed to Friedrich von Gentz. Both men were wearily dismissed by most contemporaries as fundamentalist ideologues, who failed to recognise legitimate French aspirations, and the military-political reality that the French Revolution would have to be accommodated.

On this reading, the embattled democratic project in Iraq resembles not so much a Jacobin folly, as the early unsuccessful attempts by the British to defeat it. The 1790s were littered with failed expeditions to the French coasts on the advice of exiles who had fallen out of touch with the situation at home, or worse still were seen as the agents of a foreign power. But as we know, the worm eventually turned over France - by 1813/14 it was European commonplace that coexistence with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France was impossible - and who is to say it will not do so over Iraq.

One can go further. It is not the neo-conservatives who resemble the zealots of the Committee of Public Safety and their thirst for the blood of "traitors". Who spoke of "conspiracies" against the Revolution, and for "punishing those who have betrayed us". Who called for "making a terrible example of Ďall the criminals who have outraged liberty"? The antiwar Jacobin firebrand Robespierre. Who speaks of "cabals", "a criminal conspiracy of high treason" at the heart of government, and their "co-conspirators" in the media today? Who calls for "impeaching Bush and Cheney" and the "arresting of the neoconservatives"? None other than the new Robespierre, Paul Craig Roberts. Who is the Jacobin now?

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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Sir, we have heard a great deal of this from you, including that Baathism and Islamicism are aberrations while, presumably, peace and democracy are the 'default positions' in Iraq and elsewhere. Your claim that revolutionary, so-called NeoCons are Burkean conservatives appears to hinge upon this assumption.

Let us take five years or so for a fair assessment: if you are (still) wrong by that time, will you resign your academic positions?

Posted by: s j masty at October 14, 2007 04:54 PM
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