Review: Stoessinger’s Why Nations Go To War

This, and many other reviews posted recently originally appeared on a now long defunct livejournal account. I am posting it here as part of a project to bring all my related writing (whether worthwhile or not) under one roof.

Why Nations Go to War
Richard Stoessinger

This classic of the undergraduate international relations course (where I read it) is actually a pretty neat little book. Of course the underlying theory (that war reason for war is largely related to the personality and personal issues of the country’s leaders at the time of the war) is deeply, deeply flawed* but its brief historical breakdowns make a for a good introduction or refresher on the major conflicts of the 20th century.

Stoessinger takes most of the major conflicts of the 20th century and dispatches them in thirty pages or so of tightly written history (for which this book is good) and oversimplified political analysis (for which this book isn’t as good). Reading about the start of WWI in a book written by someone who thinks it is all a misunderstanding is interesting, and in some way illuminating, but it is still a poor substitute for a more nuanced analysis.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
*Hitler was a sociopath, yes, but that isn’t the prevailing reason we got WWII. And Nasser may have been an egomaniac, but that isn’t the primary explanation for the Suez Canal business.

Review: Norton’s Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire

Ed note: Like the many, many other reviews I’ve been posting here lately, this one was written for a now defunct live journal account.

Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire
Anne Norton

Though the neocon movement seems more and more like a thing of history, this is a nice quick and easy read that is wonderfully catty about Straussian’s in the academy and includes an excellent line about how Norton doesn’t want to hear about the glories of war from slope shouldered men with soft hands sitting in the academic lounge at the University of Chicago.


Norton has far more time for Strauss himself than she does for his followers. She does an excellent job of pointing out the absurdity of many of the Straussian’s work, citing for one example, Allan Bloom, the author of The Closing of the American Mind.

In Closing of the American Mind, Bloom argues with the growing inclusion of those less gifted (or rich, or, by extension, not white) into the colleges of the nation, America was losing its intellectual rigor. Basically, its been down hill since the G.I. Bill and a liberal education is not what it once was. As Norton points out, in making this argument, Bloom counted on those liberal in power to behave like, well, liberals, and not mention that as a Jew and a gay man, he really had no place in the academy that he was championing. There is a genius here in knowing your enemy will not make use of your personal life to point out the contradictions in your thinking, but there is also an obvious self-hatred that is both sad and disturbing.

Norton’s bit on the more overtly political Straussian’s (i.e. Wolfowitz) isn’t nearly as interesting. The book to read for that side of the story is the Rise of the Vulcans by Jim Mann.

Review: Piven and Cloward’s Poor People’s Movements

Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail
Frances Fox Piven, Richard Cloward

The classic Marxist tract every undergraduate leftist must read. Basically, by looking at specific case studies, including labor struggles and the civil rights movement, Piven and Cloward argue that poor people’s movements grow and flourish when they are amorphous and lead from below. They whither and die when top down leadership tries to stifle the movements natural radical democracy. What is important for a successful movement is therefore not that it has access to money and elite circles, but rather that it gathers widespread public support and disrupts the social order in a way that creates new, exciting opportunity.

My political theory education is spotty at best, but I think there’s a lot of truth in here, even if it is presented in, perhaps, a reductionist way.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Fromm’s Escape from Freedom

This review, and the scores of others I’ve been posting, was written in 2007 for a now long defunct livejournal account. 

Escape from Freedom

Erich Fromm

I blew through this in a week for a political theory class at my undergrad. The class was horrible, and frankly, I remember next to nothing about Fromm. What I do remember is that this was written to in some way try to explain the appeal of totalitarianism, and Nazism in particular, because of its claim to remove some of the burdens of freedom. By freedom, I think Fromm means both a freedom to do, and a freedom from having to do. This can, of course, create both positive and negative situations (i.e. a freedom from caring for your ailing grandmother, but also a freedom from the close connections to your family). And these “freedoms” and the choices associated with them can be terrifying and in some cases, even debilitating. There is, then, great appeal in being to give over power for security. For Fromm, this explains much of the appeal of totalitarianism.


I don’t know. I mean, of course there is something here. But totalitarianism is more than just a reaction to social isolation and newly discovered freedoms. Fromm seems like he may offer a piece to the puzzle, but not really a very big one.


If I am misrepresenting the guy, I’d appreciate hearing so from any of you theory nerds out there. Remember I read this thing in a week for a class that wasn’t even any good.

Recommended for the enthusiast.