Intellectual History of the Present: Ira Katznelson and Marxist State Theory

A student of 1970s and 1980s U.S. intellectual life frequently encounters today’s liberals in their youthful Marxist guises. I recently came across something that connects two such figures, Ira Katznelson and Alan Wolfe, and suggests a likely submerged source of one of Katznelson’s more recent arguments.

In 1979, Katznelson and Kenneth Prewitt contributed an essay entitled “Constitutionalism, Class, and the Limits of Choice in US Foreign Policy” to an edited volume on Capitalism and the State in U.S.–Latin American Relations. The book as a whole is fairly hard left, including inter alia a Cuban economist’s critique of Alan Wolfe and Jerry Sanders for understating the importance of monopoly capitalism in the emergence of the Second Cold War. Katznelson and Prewitt’s article is steeped in the renovation of Marxist state theory that had been convened globally by Nicos Poulantzas, Claus Offe, and Ralph Miliband and domestically by Studies on the Left, Socialist Revolution, and Kapitalistate (the latter was home to Alan Wolfe as well as Erik Olin Wright, James O’Connor, and Ann Markusen). Katznelson and Prewitt write:

More strikingly, how can it be said that constitutional principles guide a foreign policy that makes extensive use of covert operations, repression of dissident opinions, bribery, secrecy, and the like? Alan Wolfe has suggested that the United States has been governed by a “Dual State”: “In domestic politics, there existed a state that was popular, democratic, constitutional. . . .Centered in the legislative branches of government, it was based on rules that were reassuring: executives executed, legislators legislated, and judges judged. Certain standards of conduct—like due process of law, democratic representations, and appeals to history and tradition—were expected to receive homage.” Wolfe argues that these constitutional principles were impotent in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, at least in foreign policy, as they increasingly were replaced by authoritarian and secret government. “At some point during the 1960s, then, a fully developed Dual State had come into existence. Because it was a secret very few were aware of its creation. … Because it had no public accountability, it was arrogant and ruthless. … Because it considered itself omniscient it developed its own language, its own code words, its own rules of proper reality.” Wolfe is arguing that in an effort to protect its commercial empire and to extend its means of accumulating capital, the United States suspended the rules of the Constitution in order to pursue a repressive foreign policy.

At this point, readers familiar with Katznelson’s more recent work should be reminded of his Bancroft-winning Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Times (2013). There, Katznelson concludes his history of 20 years of Democratic hegemony with a theoretical claim about “the two faces of America’s post-New Deal state.” In this rendition of the dual state thesis, Janus’s two visages are “the crusading state” and “the procedural state,” categories which at least superficially recall Wolfe’s distinction between the domestic (public, “constitutional”) and foreign (“authoritarian,” “secret”) instantiations of American state power. But Katznelson’s specific understanding of his terms should be made more precise in order to point up the differences. According to Fear Itself:

procedural state: “loose and messy political marketplace,” “incorporated or balanced interests”
crusading state: “zealous global politics [which] confronted the era’s antiliberal dictatorships,” “a campaigner for liberalism [which] defeated or contained those who wish liberal democracy ill,” a “forceful defense and promotion” of the “procedural model of freedom,” “shedding illusions and embracing a hardheaded assessment of its global adversary [viz. the USSR],” “would campaign—virtually without limit—on behalf of liberal democracy”

Two contrasts are obvious. First, instead of the paradoxical formulation of Wolfe’s dual state (where domestic legality was contradicted, indeed undermined, by global lawlessness), Katznelson offers a complementary vision (the warfare “crusades” on behalf of liberal democracy, the two are—he goes on to say— “inextricably fused…each side proved integral to the other.”) Second, the entire formulation is more apologetic and, frankly, euphemistic about the nature of American empire. This was noted by reviewers on the left. Dylan Riley, writing in New Left Review, objected that:

Katznelson’s portrayal of the Second World War as a struggle to ‘advance the well-being of liberal democracy across the globe’, and his description of the national security state that emerged in the 1940s as ‘a crusading state that would campaign—virtually without limits—on behalf of liberal democracy’ also sit oddly with the facts. Constitutional niceties, as the historical record clearly shows, were always subordinated to economic considerations where the two conflicted. Whenever democracy threatened to issue in a serious challenge to private ownership—as in Spain in 1936, Greece in 1945 or Italy in 1948—the US actively undermined it.

A third, less immediately political difference, is periodization: Katznelson and Prewitt cited Wolfe to the effect that the dual state had origins “at some point during the 1960s,” perhaps bespeaking a younger scholar’s focus on Vietnam, while Fear Itself locates the birth of Janus in the 1940s.

Perhaps needless to say, Fear Itself contains no reference to Wolfe (1977) or Katznelson and Prewitt (1979). One footnote does bring up the “dual state,” but with a new referent and a displaced political valence:

So doing, these dictatorships [fascist Japan, Italy, Germany, and the USSR] assertively combined two types of modern states, what the refugee political scientist Ernst Fraenkel labeled a “dual state”—a “normative state” marked by regard for law, rules, and procedures; and an extralegal “prerogative state” that was charged with unfettered and relentless violence, intimidation, terror, and secret police. They thereby made emergency permanent and expanded the scope of moral and political possibility.

In a 2015 discussion, however, Katznelson did bring the two together by stating: “By the early 1950s, we had what might be called a dual state: a procedural state and a crusading state.”


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