Down with the demos! Long live democracy!

A review of Daniel Bessner’s Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual (Cornell University Press, 2018).

By Jasmine Chorley

In his December 1939 essay “The Jews and Europe,” German critical philosopher Max Horkheimer pilloried a certain group of his fellow refugee intellectuals:

“No one can demand that, in the very countries that have granted them asylum, the émigrés put a mirror to world that has created fascism. But whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism … No matter if the hymn the intellectuals intone to liberalism often comes too late, because the countries turn totalitarian faster than the books can find publishers; the intellectuals have not abandoned hope that somewhere the reformation of Western capitalism will proceed more mildly than in Germany and that well-recommended foreigners will have a future after all. But the totalitarian order differs from its bourgeois predecessor only in that it has lost its inhibitions … Fascism solidifies the extreme class differences which the law of surplus value ultimately produced.

Hans Speier  exemplified such an émigré-turned American patriot, playing foundational roles at the RAND Corporation, MIT’s Center for International Studies, and the Ford Foundation’s Center for Behavioral Studies. Born in Berlin to conservative, middle-class, Lutheran parents, Speier forged an independent path, declining to accept his confirmation blessing, aligning himself with the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), and leaving Berlin in 1926 for Heidelberg to pursue doctoral studies. His years as a young sociologist in the Weimar Republic (1919–1933) were formative, not only for Speier’s own intellectual development, but for the American defense intellectualism and foreign policy that he would go on to embed himself in: this relationship is the subject of historian Daniel Bessner’s book Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual.

Bessner argues that the 1930s shaped modern US foreign policy by producing a generation of intellectuals deeply distrustful of democracy, exemplified by the little-known but hugely influential Speier. Weimar had demonstrated to Speier and his colleagues that democracy was too precious to be left to the public, lest they foolishly destroy it. When the US emerged as a hegemonic manager of the international order after WWII, it centralized power in the executive and established an expanding foreign policy bureaucracy, creating a professional home for Speier and his cohort. This defense establishment, faced with the threat of a nuclear-armed Soviet Union and staffed by elites convinced that democracy was a weak political form, allowed a logic of crisis that justified long-term emergency governance to become institutionalized. Educating the public to make correct foreign policy decisions in an era where one false move spelled nuclear destruction was deemed an impossible, and even undesirable, task.

In the 1940s, Speier “dedicated himself to using knowledge in power’s service,” becoming part of the first generation of defense intellectuals. A defense intellectual, Bessner writes, was “a novel social figure who during the Cold War researched, analyzed, and advised decision makers on national security issues” within the military-intellectual complex; importantly, their authority was based on academic training and expertise rather than political or democratic appointment. Speier is an intriguing character, not least of all because his intellectual and professional trajectory chafes at insecurities common to many left-wing practitioners of foreign policy. How does a Weimar socialist become an American Cold Warrior? Will I too come to betray my values?

Perhaps it is small consolation that Speier’s ideological journey ultimately did not cover a great distance. He was a Social Democrat and always harboured a hatred for communism, viewing it as anti-democratic “political extremism” akin to the nationalist right. After 1933, Speier no longer believed the major battle of the twentieth century to be capitalism versus socialism, but “terror and persecution versus liberty and democracy.”

Early on, Speier believed that intellectuals had a responsibility to enlighten the public, educating workers so that they may affect policy; after 1933, with the public having proven themselves incapable of enlightenment, the talents of the “pro-democratic” intellectual were of greater use in service of advising statesmen. This is partly what distinguishes this generation of defense intellectuals from what we today might call “defense experts, the public-facing, self-professed “wonks” who populate the 24-hour news cycle.

In the 1930s, a suspension of democratic norms could be just that—a suspension. But after 1949, the prospect of nuclear war changed everything, ushering in an era of crisis, effectively permanently justified. One of the great contributions of Democracy in Exile is how Bessner demonstrates both the grand and quotidian life of one of the most important ideological formulations of US foreign policy, the expertise-requiring crisis as a “conceptual resource” that political leaders and their advisors reach for again and again.

Speier learned his intellectual chauvinism at the knee of Karl Mannheim. Not only did Mannheim argue that intellectuals necessarily made better political choices than did other groups, he argued that intellectuals were “socially unattached”—they were not clearly situated within a social class and so were not inclined to advancing one particular class interest over another. This outsider position, he believed, afforded them a unique vantage to advocate for the interests of the whole country. Young Speier differed with his mentor, accepting this class-less position but believing that intellectuals ought to use it to advance the project of social democracy with and for the working class; after 1933 he would lose hope in intellectuals’ ability to enlighten the masses at all.

The idea of the intellectual existing in a position removed from production ignores the political economy of knowledge production. Speier carried that ignorance along into his time as a creator and participant in the military-industrial-intellectual complex, the many, networked think tanks (private and semi-private) that constitute the US foreign policy establishment. This non-public role was deeply appealing to Speier and others for reasons that will likely resonate with readers: it granted them the opportunity to affect foreign policy and access policymakers and released them from the drudgery of universities. In short, this was the perfect institutional home for a Mannheimian intellectual like Speier.

Bessner treats the reader to a detailed, thorough tale of how the intellectual institutions of the military-industrial complex were built, the accompanying academic debates and bureaucratic politics, and Speier’s role therein. This is an intellectual history rather than a political-economic one, but the shape of the latter is left out in plain view. The military-industrial-intellectual complex allowed US foreign policy to be further distanced from democracy, placing it in the hands of social scientists not subject to democratic appointment or the social-productive object of the academy but on the payroll of philanthropic endowment. The system was anti-democratic in its structure: it siphoned capital away from general taxation and toward private and quasi-private “charitable” think tanks whose role was to then serve policymakers on issues prioritized by the institutions themselves. Furthermore, the object of the research was not critical. Far from the déclassé position Mannheim envisioned for the intelligentsia, the objective of work at RAND was explicitly patriotic, tying personal advancement of researchers to American success in and continuation of the Cold War (to paraphrase Jeremi Suri as quoted by Bessner). These benefits of personal enrichment, Bessner writes, “encouraged intellectuals like Speier to be less questioning of [US] hegemony and its practices than they otherwise might have been” and provided “the critical economic support” to make such a career path possible.

When Karl Liebknecht defined a patriot as an “international blackleg,”* he was talking about the SPD, but it would have been just as comfortably directed at the émigré defense intellectual generation to come.

As Bessner himself argues in a 2016 Jacobin article, it is a mistake to use the end of Weimar as an analogy for the Trump era. But if there are cautionary lessons to be drawn from Democracy in Exile for our time, let me nominate two: first, Speier’s extreme reading of Nazi victory as evidence of ordinary people’s incapacity to self-govern compelled him to work towards exiling democracy itself; second, Speier’s elitist, chauvinist hostility to workers preceded 1933 and shaped his interpretation of it.

Throughout Democracy in Exile, Bessner’s approach to Speier is a lesson in the empathic analysis that makes historical work a productive force for understanding society. It is all the more interesting for its contrast with Speier’s approach to his own subject: the demos. Speier’s elitism emerged early-on as a middle class aversion to the vulgar. Observing workers whose support swung between the communists and the Nazis, Speier explained this as depending partly on chance, and partly on “where there was more beer or where there was more noise.” “Speier’s embrace of the SPD revealed not only his youthful progressivism and rebelliousness but a concomitant desire for order,” Bessner writes, and Speier’s pursuit for order continued apace after 1933. Speier was a liberal concerned with redistribution and order; he was never a radical.

Told as it is through the life of Hans Speier, Democracy in Exile encourages the reader to travel along with his intellectual journey, likely having similarly weighed political, moral, and strategic questions about democracy, pragmatism, and coercion. The question we must ask, though Speier did not, is how to not be an international blackleg?

* “Blackleg” is a derogatory term for a strike-breaker.

Jasmine Chorley is a political science PhD student at the University of Toronto. She can be found on Twitter @jasminechorley.

2 thoughts on “Down with the demos! Long live democracy!

  1. Pingback: Book review: Democracy in Exile – Jasmine Chorley

  2. Joshua Shepherd

    Great review. Currently reading Paul Koistenin’s ‘Planning War, Pursuing Peace: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1920-1939’ as well as the War Industry Board’s report on WWI mobilization. This book sounds like a great follow-on after learning how the machinery of war mobilization works, to begin to wrap my head around the insular world of the martial intelligentsia.

    Especially striking was your question, “How does a Weimar socialist become an American cold warrior?” I inhabit a perhaps similarly unlikely transition: a formerly republican-voting Navy weapons system technician turned anti-militarist peasant scholar. I find the transition to elitism to be a triumph of cynicism combined with self-interest. Reminds me of something Lily Tomlin said, “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.”


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