Daniel Bessner’s recent appearance on TGS has generated a lot of response in the comments section and in my inbox. Many commenters took issue with Daniel’s positions, and they singled out his interpretation of the Cold War for special critique. As you can see from watching the episode, I diverge pretty significantly from Daniel on many of these issues. But one of the reasons I like having him on the show is that he offers an informed, historically grounded perspective that’s different from my own and that of many of my readers. He’s worth arguing with. So when we clash over questions of human nature, the relative merits of socialism and capitalism, and the geopolitical legacy of the Cold War, it’s a feature not a bug!
That said, I think it’s also worth highlighting some reader critiques of Daniel’s arguments. I received an email from Alex McKeon that captures the general spirit of those critiques, so I passed it along to Daniel to get his response. I present Alex’s email and Daniel’s response below. And as always, I want to know what you think. Let’s keep the conversation going.
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Email from Alex McKeon
I am a great fan of your show and have been for years. But Professor Bessner is not worthy of your show. I wanted to transcribe a minute or so of your recent podcast with him to point out what he is and isn't saying, as his evasiveness makes understanding his actual argument somewhat difficult. I've emailed you before about Bessner, but this time I'll mostly use his own words.
GLENN LOURY: I'm confused now. If the US had employed that power advantage on behalf of its global agenda—I'm taking it that you think that's not a good thing. I'm trying to get you to come to grips with the fact that there were ideas behind these different powers that seemed to have had different consequences for the prosperity and the security and the liberty of people in the places where the US and Soviet Union were coming into conflict. Forgive me again for my naiveté, it's just hard for me to imagine that the Soviet Union prevailing, or its allies and clients, that that would have fostered economic development to a greater extent or it would have led to a greater degree of human freedom than is currently being enjoyed by people in these places where the US has had influence.
DANIEL BESSNER: I guess it depends now [laughs]—I did a volume on Cold War liberalism. It depends on what you mean by freedom [laughs]. If you know, positive liberty— If the choice is between having freedom of speech or freedom from homelessness, what would someone take? I mean these are different definitions. How you come down on that question ultimately comes down to your ideological predilections. Do you think positive liberty is more important, do you think negative liberty is more important? Do you think development is innately good?
He goes on to describe the US's development as being bad for the environment and asserts that the Soviet Union didn't have the ability to extend its power like the US did (which is probably true, but misses the fact that the reason the Soviets couldn't extend power is largely because the US used its global hegemony to stand in its way). But that wasn't the question.
What does Bessner answer with? “Well, it depends on if you'd rather have free speech or housing.” If you'd rather have housing (which I'm assuming he believes is the correct answer), then the answer is that the Soviet Union was the good guy during the Cold War.
I can imagine why someone would be pro-Soviet prior to the mass revelation of Stalin's crimes. I can imagine being pro-Soviet with caveats—“Well, sure Lenin, Dzerzhinsky, Stalin, Beria, and so on were evil totalitarians. But communism could work because conservative views on human nature are mistaken, etc., etc.” But what does Bessner answer with?
Well, the answer to your question depends on if you'd rather have free speech or housing, he asserts. If you'd rather have housing, then the answer is that the Soviet Union and NOT the US would have fostered “a greater degree of human freedom than is currently being enjoyed by people in places where the US has had influence.” I find this to be the meaning behind his words. If you have a different interpretation, I'd love to hear it. I'd even more like to hear Bessner say it himself, and without laughing about it, but I won't hold my breath.
I ask, is there a reading of Bessner's answer that doesn't make him pro-Soviet, or at least more pro-Soviet than pro-US in the context of the Cold War? If not, what are we doing here?
This is maddening. I'm not claiming to be more knowledgeable about the Cold War than Bessner. But your fans are not the idiots Bessner courts, and that's all he's doing. He courts those with extreme, unguided hatred towards the US and gives them the verbiage and condescension necessary to hold such inane opinions, the kind only popular in the circles Bessner frequents—leftists in academia, Chapo Trap House shit-slingers, and Chomskyites. I don't see why he of all people should be the one you elect to talk with about these deep and important topics.
Reply from Daniel Bessner
I'd like to thank Alex McKeon for taking the time to write in to express his disagreements with me. One of the things I've long appreciated about The Glenn Show is that it has brought people of differing political perspectives together and allowed them to debate some of the most fundamental issues of our time. I'm glad to see that my own appearances have spurred engagement, so much so that McKeon has felt compelled to write Glenn about my appearances on more than one occasion.
Though I could write pages in response to McKeon's letter, I'll keep my remarks brief.
McKeon accuses me of claiming that “the Soviet Union was the good guy during the Cold War” and also avows that I'm “pro-Soviet.”
To my mind, this accusation has two problems. First, the simplistic framing of international relations (IR) as a realm of “good” vs. “evil” is not an effective way to understand IR, and thus I reject it. I have written more about this issue here.
History is complex and does not lend itself to simple, Manichean distinctions like “good” vs. “evil,” and in fact, distinctions like these have led to multiple disastrous outcomes in the history of U.S. foreign policy.
Second, I find it difficult to imagine how one could be “pro-Soviet” given that the Soviet Union no longer exists (and only existed for the first seven years of my own life).
To me, it is fundamentally misguided to ask if I am “more pro-Soviet than pro-US in the context of the Cold War.” Geopolitics is not a sporting event, and this sort of thinking obscures rather than encourages sophisticated and empathetic analysis of the complex choices states and leaders made in history and make today.
I also don't believe I ever addressed the feasibility, or lack thereof, of communism. Suffice to say, I don't think it's on the horizon.
But, as it seems it needs saying: I am an American intellectual. I value freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press. I think these are vital to the functioning of a healthy and democratic society. My point was that this is not necessarily the only possible view one could take, and that, in certain conditions, people might value other forms and types of freedom. I would point readers to recent scholarship on the 1970s-era “New International Information Order,” which explores how humans might conceive of “freedom” in different ways in different times and places.
Thank you to Glenn for providing me with the opportunity to respond; thank you to everyone for reading; and thank you to McKeon for starting the exchange.
(Hope I'm not repeating, but my comment didn't appear.)
I think Alex McKeon’s recommendation to drop Prof. Bessner is misguided. A heterodox outlook requires consideration of competing views, and engaging with Prof. Bessner’s arguments helps reveal their deficiencies.
It’s no great concession to acknowledge that capitalism has many flaws, and Prof. Bessner is good at cherry-picking them. As he says, however, he is led to that by the conditions and goals of what he considers a desirable polity: one that gives primacy to goals of economic equality and a more modest role in world affairs, turning away from the competitive sorting through markets that gives capitalism its dynamism, but that is also somewhat responsible for certain flaws.
The question in political economy, however, is always “Compared to what?” Bessner’s apparent advantage is due to his evasion of two issues. First, he does not answer questions about historical circumstances—he replied to Glenn’s point about the USSR’s malignant designs by claiming that it never had the ability to carry them out. As Mr. McKeon observes, however, those designs were obvious and they were frustrated largely due to the US’s primacy in outcompeting the USSR in the cold war. But that evasion allows Prof. Bessner to glide through statements that call into question the value of “development,” without facing e.g., the incredible accomplishment of a 50 percent reduction in extreme poverty worldwide between 1980 and 2015.
Second, he rationalizes away the historic failures of Marxist political economy, including the relative conditions in western Europe and the Soviet bloc as of 1989. His response to Glenn’s query about where in the world his proposed polity is succeeding is an embarrassed laugh.
Prof. Bessner is an amiable foil, and not everyone is familiar with the Marxist perspective Prof. Bessner provides. I don’t doubt, however, that Glenn’s listeners are more than able to pick it apart for themselves. As was said by John Stuart Mill, “If you know only your own side of an argument, you don’t even know that.”
I found Bessner shallow, he offered a lot of hand waving and little meat. I agree that he is not the best fit for the heady conversations happening in the Glenn show