Realism, Egalitarianism, and Internationalism

These are my comments, presented on October 9, 2021, at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse conference, on the panel “The Responsibility to Protect in the Twenty-First Century.” My co-panelist was Bill Weinberg.

Welcome to our round-table. We will focus on ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ethiopia and Syria, and present anti-authoritarian views on the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” (or R2P). Just as the genocides perpetrated in the 1990’s in Bosnia and Rwanda did, so ongoing radical violations of international humanitarian law raise the controversial questions of R2P and humanitarian intervention today.

In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, since November 2020, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has overseen a genocidal counter-insurgent campaign against not only the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), whom his administration has designated a “terrorist organization,” but also against the civilian population of the region, provoking mass-famine and -displacement. In parallel, Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies have drowned the Syrian Revolution in blood: over the past decade, up to a million Syrians have been killed (Salahi). Undoubtedly, such crimes follow from the authoritarian illogic of State sovereignty and the “non-intervention principle” in international society, both of which form part of what the critical sociologist Max Weber described as the “Iron Cage” of capitalist modernity (Wheeler and Bellamy 563).

In this presentation, I will begin by analyzing the political and intellectual support provided by many of the Frankfurt School Critical Theorists to the Allied war effort against Nazism, and consider the “neither Washington-nor Moscow” approach taken by most of these thinkers during the subsequent Cold War. I will then compare these concepts to anarchist ideals of internationalism. In place of the conspiracism, denialism, and anti-humanism that animates so much of what passes for “left” commentary on global issues of war, exploitation, and domination in our time, I will propose egalitarianism, (literary) realism, and anti-authoritarianism as important value principles for left internationalism. Lastly, I will consider the implications of such a position for the responsibility to protect (R2P) in the face of gross human-rights violations today.

The Frankfurt School, World War II, and the Cold War

As we know, most (but not all) of the Frankfurt-School theorists were German Jews who had to flee their homes in the early 1930’s, as the Weimar Republic collapsed and Adolf Hitler seized power. Most resettled in New York, where director Max Horkheimer had arranged for the Institute for Social Research to be relocated to Columbia University. Theodor W. Adorno and Franz Neumann initially moved to England, where the Fabian socialists Sidney Webb, R. H. Tawney, and Harold Laski had arranged for a London office to be opened for the Institute. Uniquely among the critical theorists, Walter Benjamin did not survive his bid to cross the Pyrenees Mountains in September 1940 and pass through Francoist Spain to reach Lisbon, where he was to take a steamer to New York and reunite with his comrades.

Once the relationship between Horkheimer and Marcuse soured in the early 1940’s, when Max suddenly announced he would partner with Adorno on Dialectic of Enlightenment, after having indicated to Herbert that he would be his co-writer—and encouraging him to move with his family across country to join Horkheimer in Los Angeles—Marcuse began working on philosophical studies of social change with Neumann, as well as his own investigations into Nazism. These included “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology” (1941), “State and Individual under National Socialism” (1941), and “The New German Mentality” (1942). When Neumann joined the U.S. wartime intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), in 1942, Marcuse was not far behind. Together with fellow exile Otto Kirchheimer, the trio proposed a radical de-Nazification program for the post-war U.S. administration to implement, but it was duly ignored. After the OSS demobilized at the end of the war, Marcuse went on to work at the State Department until 1951, at which time he entered academia. Two decades later, when the equivalent of today’s ‘anti-imperialist’ critics used Marcuse’s tenure at the OSS to question his radical credentials, the critical theorist proudly defended his work there, noting that “the war then was a war against fascism and […] consequently, I haven’t the slightest reason for being ashamed of having assisted in it” (Marcuse and Popper 59). After all, we must not forget that World War II, besides being an inter-imperialist war with global dimensions, was also a people’s war against foreign occupation, totalitarian dictatorship, and genocidal oppression, both in Europe and Asia (Price).

After the Allied victory, at the birth of the Cold War, Horkheimer and Adorno returned to what by then had become West Germany, while Marcuse remained in the U.S. to research and teach at different universities. After serving the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal as researcher for the chief prosecutor, Neumann died tragically in a car accident in Switzerland in 1954. Generally speaking, over time and space, the critical theorists maintained their anti-authoritarian critique of both Western capitalism and Stalinist totalitarianism, in keeping with the third-campist, Trotskyist slogan, “Neither Washington nor Moscow.” Nonetheless, Horkheimer slipped up, as we will see.

Marcuse wrote Soviet Marxism (1958) as one of the first critical treatments of the USSR from within the Marxist tradition, and in One-Dimensional Man (1964), he condemns the mobilization of stifling conformity on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He was a fierce critic of U.S. government policy toward Castro’s Cuba, and of the Vietnam War, as well as a supporter of the May 1968 uprising in France, “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia (1968), and the Vietnamese and Chinese Revolutions (Sethness Castro). The same could not be said of Horkheimer, who took a turn for the worse toward life’s end by resisting calls for the Institute to condemn the Vietnam War, celebrating “German-American Friendship Week” in 1967, and going so far as to support the U.S. war on Vietnam as an ostensible means of checking the propagation of Maoist political movements (Jay 13-16, 352-353n30).

Internationalist Principles: Egalitarianism, (Literary) Realism, and Anti-Authoritarianism

Franz A. Rombaud, detail of Sevastopol Panorama (1904)

Along these lines, Rancière’s political theory emphasizes the equal capacity everyone has to intervene in politics, while the literary realist style featured by Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy in such art-works as “Sevastopol Sketches” (1855), The Cossacks (1863), and War and Peace (1869) condemns the militarism practiced by States in a highly tragic and humanist light. Especially in the protest novel War and Peace, Tolstoy conveys his critique of inter-imperialist war, toxic masculinity, heterosexism, autocratic domination, and class exploitation. Such realism is effectively humanism. Rather than function to rationalize State abuses (in keeping with the “realist” school of international-relations theory), it remains true to Adorno’s concern for the “unbearable physical agony to which individuals are exposed” through atrocities (Adorno 365).

Historically, anarchist internationalism has involved coordination of and support for self-organized, autonomous movements of peasants and workers. This strategy has been used by anarchists of collectivist, syndicalist, and communist persuasions in the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA), otherwise known as the First International; the Anarchist St. Imier International; the Anti-Authoritarian International; and the International Workers’ Association (IWA-AIT), which continues organizing to this day (Graham). Anarchist internationalists have also supported armed struggle against oppression across borders in many different contexts, such as the nineteenth-century Polish uprisings against Tsarist domination; the Paris Commune of 1871; the popular Cuban struggle against Spanish and U.S. imperialism; the Mexican, Russian, and Spanish Revolutions; the French Resistance to Nazi occupation; both the Algerian independence movement, as well as those French soldiers who deserted their posts during the Algerian War (1954-1962); the neo-Zapatista struggle for indigenous autonomy (1994-present); and the Syrian and Rojava Revolutions of the past decade (Cappelletti; Porter).

On the one hand, in stark contrast to Marxist-Leninists, anti-authoritarian internationalists have typically striven to remain distant from “anti-imperialist,” national-socialist, and/or state-capitalist regimes, such as the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or the People’s Republic of China. That being said, Noam Chomsky effectively supported the Khmer Rouge, who in the late 1970’s killed millions in just three and a half years, before hailing its ouster by the Vietnamese after the fact as a striking example of humanitarian intervention.1 However much Chomsky’s contrarian approach has harmed the left’s relationship to real-life atrocities, inspiring the denialism of today, it should be taken as anomalous among anti-authoritarians (Anthony; Chomsky). On the other hand, anarchists have also generally maintained our independence from liberal Western governments, although the track records of the German theorist Rudolf Rocker—who abandoned anarcho-syndicalism for what he called “libertarian revisionism” at life’s end—and of the French unionist Georges Sorel—who proposed a marriage of revolutionary syndicalism with ultra-nationalism as a strategy to destroy bourgeois society, but instead ended up inspiring Fascism—provide important lessons in this sense, for both reformists and revolutionaries (Bernardini 7; Sternhell).

Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Today

Solidarist international society theory proposes that, regardless of questions of legality, there is a moral duty to forcibly intervene in “situations of extreme humanitarian emergency,” whether owing to war crimes and/or crimes against humanity (Wheeler and Bellamy 559). Humanitarian intervention, in this sense, can be viewed as a delayed reaction on the part of global society to its guilt over the horrors of the Holocaust and WWII. At the 2005 UN World Summit, 170 States formally adopted the legal doctrine of R2P, which stipulates “collective action […] through the Security Council, […] should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” As such, R2P doctrine is a combination of solidarism and geopolitical (but not literary) realism: while a “incomplete and poorly defined concept,” it at least establishes a minimum standard against atrocious human-rights violations (Nahlawi). Non-compliance in this sense could then trigger a multi-lateral intervention designed to use proportional force to compel a halt to such crimes.

At the same time, the State actors that would be intervening are required to have humanitarian rather than strategic motivations for their effective violation of the otherwise overriding sovereignty principle—thus excluding the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq from being instances of “R2P.” In reality, R2P is understood as an exception to the fundamental principles of the UN charter, which ban the use of force between States. As a result, humanitarian intervention is reserved for “extraordinary oppression, not the day-to-day variety” (R. J. Vincent, cited in Wheeler and Bellamy 561). Even so, this begs the question of why poverty, patriarchy, and exploitation should be normalized as acceptable in this framing that claims to oppose ultra-violence. The confused answer would likely have to do with diplomacy and respect for value pluralism; after all, even in the rare instances on which it would be considered and operationalized, R2P is suppose to be based on “incrementalism and gradualism in the application of force,” rather than “defeat of a state.” Moreover, to limit the application of R2P to the whims of UN Security Council members hampers its potential, as these States are by definition often involved in the very atrocities that require redress. They rightly fear that any legal precedent for humanitarian intervention could be used against them (Wheeler and Bellamy 563, 570). For this reason, Yasmine Nahlawi champions the “Uniting for Peace” doctrine as an alternative, whereby the UN General Assembly can take up questions of R2P when the Security Council refuses or otherwise fails to do so (Nahlawi).

Humanitarian intervention can be forcible or consensual, violent or non-violent. Nicholas Wheeler and Alex Bellamy view “non-forcible humanitarian intervention,” like the work of Médecins Sans Frontières, as a “progressive manifestation of the globalization of world politics” (576). No doubt there. Yet, in the face of mass-atrocities being committed today in Syria and Tigray, pacific forms of intervention may serve more as band-aids than help to address the State oppression perpetuating human agony. For instance, “[t]he conflict in Syria has caused one of the largest humanitarian crises since World War 2” (Jabbour et al.). This is arguably due to global conformity with the principle of non-intervention, even and especially on the so-called “left,” particularly in the traumatic wake of the Iraq invasion. Paradoxically, then, the oppressive concept of sovereignty is being used by Assad, Putin, and their backers to shield accountability for the mass-atrocities they have carried out (Sibai). “Thus Hitler demands the right to practice mass murder in the name of the principle of sovereignty under international law, which tolerates any act of violence in another country,” write Horkheimer and Adorno (Adorno and Horkheimer 2003: 414). But perhaps, short of a global anarchist revolution, this dynamic should work the other way around: in other words, sovereignty could be canceled, in light of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity (Wheeler and Bellamy 561).

Applying principles of egalitarianism, literary realism, and anti-authoritarianism to left internationalism in the twenty-first century has a great creative potential. While we cannot entirely predict how this proposal might play out, support for R2P and humanitarian intervention could justifiably form part of the program. Of course, the idea that anarchists should compromise with the State, even on a question so pressing as international fascist atrocities, has a dire history: see the fate of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War.2 This risk of compromise and self-contradiction must, however, be balanced against the risk of violating one’s internationalism and even humanity, by ignoring and/or guarding silence about ultra-violence and other extreme forms of oppression happening elsewhere in the world.

Naturally, these do not have to be the only two options. For instance, in Rojava, volunteers have joined the International Freedom Battalion, echoing the fighters in the International Brigades who participated in the Spanish Civil War. I personally agree with the Afghan-American professor Zaher Wahab that UN peacekeepers should have intervened as US-NATO forces left Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban from taking over, as it has. Moreover, though flawed, the UN humanitarian intervention in Bosnia in the 1990’s prevented the extermination of the Bosniak Muslims at the hands of Serbian ultra-nationalists, and a similar analysis could be made of the 2014 intervention by the U.S. and the PKK in Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains to rescue Yezidis from Islamic State forces.

Undoubtedly, these are all controversial questions. My perspective is that anti-authoritarian principles of egalitarianism, (literary) realism, and humanism represent much-needed “infusions” for left internationalism; that the responsibility to protect is direly needed to address political violence across the globe, whether in Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Kashmir, Ethiopia, Burma/Myanmar, China, or elsewhere; and that political radicals should reconsider their commitment, in many cases, to bourgeois principles of non-intervention. Let’s discuss.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. 1973. Negative Dialectics. Trans. E. B. Ashton. London: Routledge.

Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Redwood City: Stanford University Press.

Anthony, Andrew 2010. “Lost in Cambodia.” Guardian, 9 January.

Bernardini, David 2021. “A different antifascism. An analysis of the Rise of Nazism as seen by anarchists during the Weimar period.” History of European Ideas. DOI: 10.1080/01916599.2021.1963629.

Cappelletti, Ángel 2017. Anarchism in Latin America. Trans. Gabriel Palmer-Fernández. Chico, Calif.: AK Press.

Chomsky, Noam 1993-4. “Humanitarian Intervention.” Boston Review. Available online: Accessed 6 October 2021.

Graham, Robert 2015. We Do Not Fear Anarchy; We Invoke It. Oakland: AK Press.

Jabbour, Samer et al. 2021. “10 years of the Syrian conflict: a time to act and not merely to remember.” The Lancet, vol. 397, issue 10281. P1245-8.

Jay, Martin 1973. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.

Le Guin, Ursula K. 1985. Always Coming Home. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Marcuse, Herbert and Karl Popper 1976. Revolution or Reform? A Confrontation. Ed. A.T. Ferguson. Chicago: New University Press.

May, Todd 2008. The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière: Creating Equality. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press.

Nahlawi, Yasmine 2020. The Responsibility to Protect in Libya and Syria. London: Routledge.

Porter, David 2011. Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria. Oakland: AK Press.

Price, Wayne 2015. “The Meaning of World War II—An Anarchist View.” The Anarchist Library. Available online: Accessed 6 October 2021.

Salahi, Amr 2020. “Will we ever really know how many people have died in Syria since 2011?” The New Arab, 28 January. Available online: Accessed 28 January 2020.

Sethness Castro, Javier 2016. Eros and Revolution: The Critical Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse. Leiden: Brill.

Sibai, Leila 2018. “How international law helps Assad and Putin.” Al-Jumhuriya, 22 May. Available online: Accessed 6 October 2021.

Sternhell, Ze’ev 1994. The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution.. Trans. David Maisel. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wheeler, Nicholas J. and Alex J. Bellamy 2005. “Humanitarian intervention in world politics.” The Globalization of World Politics, 3rd Edition. Eds. John Baylis, Steve Smith, and Patricia Owens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 555-78.

Yalom, Irvin D. 1980. Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.


1As a side-note, China and the West condemned the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia as serving the aims of Soviet imperialism (Wheeler and Bellamy 563).

2Of course, we cannot blame the outcome of the Civil War on the CNT-FAI.

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