The left is at it again. In the New Republic of April 25, I learn that someone has invented a new word for an ordinary feature of life on earth which, so far as anyone knows, we have never been without — namely the tendency of human beings to come into conflict and to make war on each other. Here’s part of what John Lewis Gaddis writes about the late George F. Kennan’s doctrine of “containment”:
Nor is it clear that containment would have worked against states whose leaders believed in, as Sir Michael Howard has put it, “the inevitability of, and the social necessity for, armed conflict in the development of mankind.” Such views were common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a fact that helps to explain how so many great powers could have blundered so easily in 1914 into a Great War. But that global conflict, and the one that followed in 1939, profoundly shook “bellicist” assumptions; and the use of atomic bombs in 1945 shattered them.
Did it indeed? That must be why we haven’t had any more wars in the last 60 years, then. Surely, if anything were “shattered” by the A-bombs it ought to have been the utopian delusion, common on the left before the war, that it was only “capitalism” and “imperialism” that made nations go to war with each other. But “capitalism” and “imperialism” were once exactly the same kind of made-up words that “bellicism” now is and, like it, were the product of an intellectual con-trick that has been around for a long time.
About two centuries ago, that is, people who formerly went about the normal human business, familiar from time immemorial, of buying and selling things woke up one morning to find that they had been engaged in something called capitalism all along — and so they have been capitalists ever since. Another century on and those who had assumed that the stronger nations of the world would always dominate and impose their will upon the weaker suddenly discovered that they were imperialists, and imperialists they have remained. Neither buying and selling nor the domination of the weak by the strong have shown any signs of abating in the world, but it has become a kind of intellectual courtesy owed by those who wish not to be given the not-quite respectable labels of “capitalist” or “imperialist” themselves to pretend to take the left at its own valuation as offering measures that promise the real prospect of their doing so.
Now we find that that courtesy has to be extended even further, and that those who formerly supposed their membership in tribe or nation necessarily entailed the duty of striking back when the same was attacked must acknowledge that they are advocates of something with the ugly and obviously discreditable name of “bellicism.” Once again, too, the word has been invented or pressed into service by adherents of a utopian political tendency who, by attempting to make a universal human activity into an ideology like their own, have sought to imply the existence of the latter — socialism in the first case, pacifism in the second — as real alternatives to the former. As the new words are taken up both by those who wish to believe in such alternatives and by those who oppose them, what might otherwise have seemed merely a dream of perfection automatically takes on a spurious reality.
Don’t those of us who are on the right acknowledge as much when we identify ourselves as apologists for “capitalism”? There are even some brave souls who are now coming forward to make the case for “imperialism.” How much longer before we must take up the new challenge too and start trying to argue on behalf of “bellicism”? In all these cases, however, we have lost the battle before it begins. For who that is not rich himself, or does not expect to be rich, will vote for a system of economic organization favoring the rich if an alternative which promises to enrich the poor and make everybody equal really exists? In the same way, who but bloodthirsty killers and would-be tyrants will vote for war if, by merely voting for it, he can bring about universal peace? We may know that these alternatives are bogus, but by using the left’s terminology we imply that we ourselves believe, at least to some extent, in the dream worlds that the utopians have on offer.
I find that the word bellicist has not yet made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary, but there are many instances of its use available to Internet searchers. These seem to me to suggest that it must have come out of the relatively new academic subject of “peace studies,” but if so distinguished a scholar as John Lewis Gaddis can use the word — and use it approvingly to disapprove of ordinary folk who find no compelling reason to suppose that humanity will ever see the last of war and war-making — then they have broken through into the mainstream just as the opponents of “capitalism,” “imperialism,” and such latter-day imitators as “racism” and “sexism” once did. In all of these instances, the stubborn non-appearance of the utopian alternatives to these things has interfered with the strength of belief in them no more than the long-delayed advent of “true” socialism has fazed the anti-capitalists. Indeed, nowadays they don’t even need to name their own utopian alternatives — for who knows what a world without racism or sexism, even if it could exist, would look like? It is now enough for the theorists of the left to identify in such terms the hidden ideologies of ordinary political, economic or domestic life and leave their followers to take up what the failure of socialism has taught them to think of as their posture of eternal opposition.