Searching for isolated, but incredibly powerful voices of authentic experience with utopian progressivism, who can speak about its excesses with an authority that scholars and activists don’t possess.
My colleague Mike Hartmann has introduced the notion of “other-side giving” to The Giving Review, a practice that we both learned during our time at the Bradley Foundation, though we never developed a theory to explain it. That’s something Mike, Dan Schmidt, and I will undertake together on the new site.
As Mike notes, “other-side” giving was an essential element in America’s success in the Cold War. After overrunning Eastern Europe in the wake of World War II, Soviet communism threatened to spread even farther, especially through the infiltration of Western European labor movements. The West faced a serious problem: there was no network of free-market nonprofits, associations, or think tanks to provide a countervailing defense of economic freedom.
But there were a number of vigorous socialist labor groups. They were hardly friendly to capitalism, but critically, they were far more bitterly hostile to Stalinist communism. Often working with and through agents of the AFL-CIO like Jay Lovestone, Western-government and private funding found its way to the anticommunist left in Europe. (See Ted Morgan’s Jay Lovestone: A Covert Life for a superb account of this activity.)
The effort to shore up a left-oriented, but staunchly anticommunist labor movement in France, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere slowed and finally halted Soviet ideological momentum. It was our first experience with funding groups that were well on the other side of the ideological spectrum, but that shared certain critical core beliefs—above all, in this case, the abhorrence of Stalinist totalitarianism.
The most to learn
Although it’s certainly possible for both left and right philanthropy in America to draw lessons from this era, I would suggest that conservatism has the most to learn. At the heart of “other-side” giving is the realization that the most-authoritative and -persuasive critics of a political movement or regime are those who have experienced it first-hand or seen it up close, and who have then become disillusioned with it. It’s no accident that Whittaker Chambers’ autobiography Witness and Richard Crossman’s essay collection The God that Failed—classics of modern conservatism—both approach communist tyranny from the points of view of former true believers who had caught a glimpse into the communist future, and, unlike Upton Sinclair, had concluded that it did not, in fact, work.
As it turns out, of course, the left is peculiarly the breeding ground for grand, utopian schemes of social change, forever promising dramatic reform of our political and economic systems, and even bold transformations of human character. Conservatism, by contrast, is based on a deep skepticism about such efforts, however well-intentioned they may be. Human nature will resist, giving rise to oppressive efforts to compel change where persuasion has failed. Conservatism certainly has its own views about the best political order, but they’re typically rooted in a realistic, sober understanding of human nature’s strengths and weaknesses. They don’t demand the complete remaking of the human being according to some unprecedented vision of human capacity. And so it’s on the left that we’re most likely to find disillusioned utopian reformers determined to warn others not to follow where they’ve been.
It would be nice if people listened to rational arguments against projects for utopian transformation before they’re pursued—arguments which may be confirmed by the most-cursory examination of human history. It would spare us all a lot of suffering. But alas, the glitter of utopian promises is too compelling. We fall again and again, generation after generation, for the progressive promise over the painful reality. And that’s finally why disillusioned true believers are the most-effective critics of utopia.
Abstract theoretical arguments written by conservative intellectuals seldom dissuade the young and vulnerable from utopian beliefs. But eyewitness reports from former leftists—themselves once young and vulnerable—who have actually experienced the unintended, inhumane consequences of the most-humanely inspired utopian projects carry a different weight altogether.
Grand visions, critical moments
“Other-side” giving by conservatives takes its orientation from these fundamental truths. For example, the work of the neoconservative intellectuals in the 1970s and ’80s was amply funded by the Scaife, John M. Olin, Bradley, Earhart, and Smith Richardson Foundations. The source of neocon disaffection from the left was the utopian overreach of both the Great Society, with its grand vision of reordering public policy through social-science expertise, and the New Left, with its own grand vision of radical egalitarianism.
As the scholars writing for Irving Kristol’s Public Interest argued, such hubristic ventures beyond a solid, New Deal-type liberalism would not work out well. The same sort of liberal reaction against utopian excess characterized many of the scholars gathered at the American Enterprise Institute and supported by conservative funders in those years—Michael Novak, Robert Woodson, Richard John Neuhaus, Ben Wattenberg, and others. Later, David Horowitz and Peter Collier would similarly have “second thoughts” about the New Left and find conservative support for their expression. Without discounting the work of long-time, faithful conservative economists and social scientists during those years, it must be said that the attack on left utopianism by former advocates, fully acquainted with its appeal and its reality, was a critical moment for the building of contemporary conservatism.
The tricky part of “other-side” giving for conservative funders—the dilemma that also faced capitalist funders of socialist trade unions after World War II—is that the grants aren’t going to compliant ideological allies who share the full range of conservative political beliefs. They’re going to groups that may in fact disagree on most issues—but that nonetheless agree on one issue that is judged to be so decisive as to at least momentarily override differences otherwise.
Clearly, halting Soviet imperial expansion was just such an issue, justifying support for anti-communist, but socialist labor movements. Backing Peter Collier and David Horowitz’s critique of the New Left—based initially on not much more than personal recoil against the brutal reality of radical activism in the Bay Area—was adjudged to be another such issue, even though they didn’t subscribe to every last conservative article of faith.
Sometimes, conversion over time to a broader conservative conviction may come about, as it did with many neoconservatives; sometimes not. But the decisive moment for funding comes at the beginning of the alienated former progressive’s journey, when political differences with conservatives are still far more apparent than areas of agreement, but when new, typically lonely dissidents are most exposed to the crushing weight of orthodox progressive reaction.
An authority unpossessed
As Mike suggests, though, in today’s bitterly divided ideological climate, it’s difficult to undertake “other-side” giving. Ideological purity—the pledge to wage unremitting warfare on behalf of the entire agenda in its most pristine form—is likely to be more appealing, especially to funders focused on the results of the next election, rather than on drawing in new, unlikely recruits over the long haul. One last big push, say potential grantees with unblemished conservative credentials, and we’ll deliver the decisive blow to the opposition.
In this hyper-charged environment, who dares suggest that there’s a groupon the other side of the linesthat’s worthy of support—who is still an opponent in most respects, but who agrees with us on some major point based on invaluable, up-close experience, and who can bring to the cause first-hand testimony? The charge of political naivety, or worse, treachery, is too easily brought in such circumstances.
Mike has, however, provided a list of issue areas where “other-side” giving might be possible. Conservative funders—today, as always, out-resourced many times over by progressive funders—need to find creative ways to deliver outsized results with what we do have. We can confine ourselves to funding our arsenal of think tanks, activist nonprofits, and university programs, developing ever more-elaborate and -intricate theoretical defenses of conservative principles. Or we can, in addition, search for the isolated, but incredibly powerful voices of authentic experience with utopian progressivism, well behind the lines of battle, who can speak about its excesses with an authority that our own scholars and activists don’t possess.
We once knew how to do that kind of giving. Our survival as a movement may depend on rediscovering it.