Don’t laugh—but maybe Joe McCarthy was on to something. And the problem might be even more serious than he realized. Stepping back from contemporary policy debates reveals that Marx’s materialist view of history and Lenin’s voluntarism have been the ideological basis for many of our imperial misadventures from the Balkans to the Mideast to Central Asia.
Actual commies are probably not crawling Washington’s hallowed halls. But a very Marxist-Leninist understanding of human nature and historical change has nevertheless had a significant impact on U.S. foreign-policy making in recent decades. Some forty years ago, Walker Connor, one of the deans of the study of ethnic nationalism, had already observed (and decried) the ”propensity on the part of American statesmen and scholars of the post-World War II era to assume that economic considerations represent the determining force in human affairs.” This “unwarranted exaggeration of the influence of material factors” on the world is of course a direct outgrowth of Marx’s belief that existence determines consciousness.
Lenin, in turn, supplemented Marx's materialism with a voluntaristic view of history, believing that his elite, enlightened Bolshevik vanguard could accelerate historical change to bring about the communist utopia.
The consequences of such worldviews are profound. In Marxist materialism and one of its latter-day intellectual heirs, liberal internationalism, things such as ethnicity, culture, and religion become mere epiphenomena of what are “really” economic problems, problems we can solve given enough money. Thus, centuries-old loyalties and identities can, according to this school of thought, be erased with IMF loans, increasing incomes and international donor conferences. And if the locals don't see the folly of their ways, a few cruise missiles or a quick military intervention should do the trick.
The functional contemporary equivalent of Lenin's Bolshevik elite is what Samuel Huntington and Peter Berger have variously described as “Davos Man” and “Davos Culture”—the multilingual, globe-trotting, advanced-degree holding, CNN-watching, Hilton Hotel-staying, international organization-employed cadres who go from trouble spot to trouble spot imposing the neoliberal state- and nation-building agenda on recalcitrant and often ungrateful natives.
In this latter-day version of proletarian internationalism, the missionaries of Davos Culture believe that with an adequate budget and within the short space of their secondments (or at least between American presidential cycles) they can impose on other countries and societies the political cultures, processes and institutions that took decades and centuries to develop in the West. As Michael Ignatieff once noted, “The activists, experts, and bureaucrats who do the work of promoting democracy talk sometimes as if democracy were just a piece of technology, like a water pump, that needs only the right installation to work in foreign climes.” The most extreme and tragic example of this mindset, of course, was the belief of many of the Trotskyites-turned-neocons that we could invade Iraq, turn it into a flourishing democracy, and then begin the democratic transformation of the entire Arab world.
Thus, over the past two decades our interventions have only grown bigger, costlier, and more tragic. They have put at risk tens of thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to test various social-science hypotheses about nation building and identity construction, all for relatively negligible results.