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Neoconservatives and Trotskyism

By Bill King
web posted March 22, 2004

In one of the first in-depth studies written about neoconservatism in the 1970s, The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America's Politics (1978), Peter Steinfels observed that it is impossible to understand the neoconservatives without understanding their history. Yet it is precisely the history of "the neocons" that is today being systematically distorted by paleoconservatives through the polemical campaign they are waging against leading neoconservative intellectuals and the foreign policy of the Bush administration.


As part of the two-decade old civil war within intellectual conservatism, paleoconservatives have forcefully asserted that neoconservatism is a descendant of American Trotskyism, and that neoconservatives continue to be influenced by the ideas of the exiled Soviet revolutionary in their view of foreign policy. In fact, in the period since the attacks of 9/11 the isolationist paleocons have made the "Trotskyist neocon" assertion one of their main weapons in the ongoing feud. Web sites such as The Center for Libertarian Studies' LewRockwell.com and Antiwar.com, and magazines such as Pat Buchanan's American Conservative and the Rockford Institute's Chronicles, have all featured articles focusing on the supposed link between the neocons and Leon Trotsky. The most extreme paleocons, who flirt dangerously with outright anti-Semitism, claim not only that neoconservatism is derivative of Trotskyism but that a "cabal of Jewish neocons" is manipulating US foreign policy and actually implementing Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution from the White House.

While paleoconservatives usually have little impact outside of intellectual circles, their "Trotskyist neocon" assertion has rapidly entered mainstream political discussion. To a large degree this is due to the efforts of anti-neocon liberal pundits, such as Michael Lind and William Pfaff, who popularized the neoconservative-as-Trotskyist theme both before and during the initial ground war in Iraq. The assertion is now so widely accepted that a writer as far removed from paleoconservatism (or anti-neocon liberalism) as Vanity Fair's Sam Tanenhaus can claim that, "…a belated species of Trotskyism has at last established itself in the White House." [1] Ostensibly serious discussions of neoconservative "Trotskyism" have also appeared in mainstream newspapers throughout the world, from Canada's National Post to Hong Kong's Asia Times Online. [2] And even as respected a foreign policy commentator as Dimitri K. Simes, co-publisher of The National Interest, has joined the "Trotskyist neocon" chorus, writing recently in Foreign Affairs that the neoconservatives' belief in "permanent worldwide revolution" owes more to the founder of the Bolshevik Red Army than to "America's forefathers". [3]

But despite its current popularity, the "Trotskyist neocon" assertion contributes nothing to our understanding of the origins, or nature, of neoconservatism. In fact quite the opposite. While it is based on elements of truth, the assertion for the most part consists of exaggerations, misrepresentations, and even outright falsifications whose end result is a thoroughly distorted view of the history of neoconservatism.

The "Trotskyist roots" of neoconservatism

As far back as the mid 1980s, paleoconservatives were caustically commenting on the supposed "Trotskyist roots" of the neoconservatives. At an infamously raucous debate between conservatives held at the Philadelphia Society in 1986, the paleoconservative historian Stephen J. Tonsor expressed dismay that former Marxists had come to play such a dominant role within conservatism, and quipped that had Trotsky not been assassinated he would no doubt be working for the Hoover Institute and writing articles for Commentary. [4] But it was not until the Gulf War of 1991 that the tale about neoconservatism's "Trotskyist roots" took the form in which we know it today. Within weeks of the war ending, Leon Hadar of the Cato Institute laid out the now widely accepted view in an article in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs:

Among the major figures in the [neoconservative] movement were former Trotskyites who studied in the '30s and '40s at the then "poor man's Harvard," the City College of New York, a center for socialist activism. They included Irving Kristol, who in the 1950s launched an anti-Soviet CIA front, the International Congress for Cultural Freedom; Norman Podhoretz, the editor of the American Jewish Committee's monthly magazine Commentary, which he turned into a major neoconservative outlet; Podhoretz's wife, Midge Decter, the chairperson of the now-defunct Committee on the Free World; sociologists Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell; and Democratic Party pamphleteer Ben Wattenberg. [5]

The only problem with Hadar's account of neoconservatism's origins is that it is almost completely false. A simple check of biographical facts is enough to show that neither Norman Podhoretz nor Midge Decter attended CCNY in the 1930s or 40s, nor were they ever Marxists, let alone Trotskyists. Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell did attend CCNY in the late 1930s, but again neither was ever a Trotskyist. Glazer was a Left Socialist-Zionist, while Bell joined first the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL) in the early 1930s, and then the ardently anti-communist Social Democratic Federation towards the end of the decade. For his part, Ben Wattenberg could hardly have attended CCNY in the 1930s or 40s since he was only born in 1933. He in fact did not attend CCNY at all, and was also never a Trotskyist. That leaves Irving Kristol as the only neoconservative among those mentioned by Hadar who was actually ever associated with Trotskyism -- and even that statement requires some qualification, as we will see below.

Outright fabrications aside, part of the reason behind the recurrent exaggeration of the "Trotskyist roots" of the neoconservatives lies in their frequent conflation with their parent grouping, the New York Intellectuals. As Alan Wald detailed in the most authoritative work on the impact of Trotskyism on the New York Intellectuals, The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930's to the 1980's (1987), many of the latter group did indeed pass through the different shades of Trotskyism available in the 1930s and 40s. From its different generations, one can list: Elliot Cohen, Sidney Hook (a brief and rather hesitant fellow traveler), Herbert Solow, Meyer Schapiro, Irving Howe, Saul Bellow, Harold Rosenberg, Dwight McDonald, and Clement Greenberg. There was also the infamous and fractious relationship between Trotsky and the founding editors of Partisan Review, William Phillips and Philip Rhav.

But the original neoconservative "brain trust" of the 1970s, as Alexander Bloom referred to it in his Prodigal Sons (1986), did not consist of any of the above New York intellectuals associated with Trotskyism. [6] Instead, it consisted of Kristol, Glazer, Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Norman Podhoretz -- and of this group, only two were briefly involved with Trotskyism: Kristol and Lipset. We can even add here the names of two less influential neoconservatives, although eminent scholars in their own rite: the historian and wife of Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and the late political scientist Martin Diamond. The result is a grand total of four founding neoconservatives who passed through the ranks of Trotskyism. If one considers the list of first generation neoconservatives mentioned so far, which includes Bell, Glazer, Podhoretz and Decter, none of whom were Trotskyists, and then one adds such prominent early neoconservatives as Daniel Patrick Moynahan, James Q. Wilson, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Michael Novak, Robert Nisbet, Peter Berger, Hilton Kramer, and Walter Laqueur (and indeed one could go on); in other words if one looks at the first generation of neoconservatives as a whole, its so-called "Trotskyist roots" are shown to be much smaller and weaker than paleoconservatives have so insistently claimed.

More recently, as the "Trotskyist neocon" assertion has taken an increasingly prominent place in paleoconservative polemics, the trend has been away from inventing fictitious Trotskyist pasts for first generation neoconservatives, and towards using insinuations that leave the question of who was a Trotskyist deliberately unanswered. And understandably so, as there is more mileage to be had in implying that all of the original neoconservatives were former Trotskyists than by continuously recycling the names of the four that actually were.

A good example of this vagueness is provided by the prominent paleocon historian Paul Gottfried. In 1988, Gottfried co-authored The Conservative Movement, a serious and measured historical study of post-war intellectual conservatism that focused on the neo/paleo divide, and in which he made no mention of the supposed "Trotskyist roots" of neoconservatism. Yet subsequent to the Gulf War, Gottfried added an awkward and unsubstantiated claim about neoconservatism's "Trotskyist residues" to a revised 1993 edition of the book. [7] Today he polemically decries on the LewRockwell.com web site a conspicuously unnamed "…Trotskyist ascendancy over the conservative movement that began in the seventies and eighties" in which neoconservatives, themselves a "leftist revolutionary movement", have "…dragged Trotskyist themes, along with other baggage, into the conservative movement". [8] No names are provided by Gottfried for the simple reason that it would be impossible to "expose" the Trotskyist pasts of any original neoconservatives other than the four mentioned above -- whose numbers hardly merit the claim of a "Trotskyist ascendancy".

The "Trotskyism" of Irving Kristol

If the "Trotskyist roots" of neoconservatism have been greatly exaggerated, what about those of the first generation who were involved with Trotskyism? How much of an influence did Trotskyism have on their thinking? Presumably on this level a more credible case could be made for a real Trotskyist influence on neoconservatism. But it is precisely here that the complete lack of substance of the "Trotskyist neocon" assertion emerges, for there is nothing in any of the neoconservatives' vast political, sociological, or cultural writings that points to the remotest influence of Trotskyism. Instead, those propagating the assertion have been forced to rely only on whatever anecdotal evidence is available to make their case. Thus Irving Kristol, who wrote an autobiographical essay entitled "Memoirs of a Trotskyist" and has sprinkled mentions of his youthful political dalliances throughout his writings, is more often accused of still being influenced by Trotskyism than Seymour Martin Lipset, who was also a Trotskyist but who has not made similar use of his own brief radical past.

Irving Kristol

For paleocon polemicists, it matters little that Kristol has spent almost his entire adult life as one of America's most prolific and high-profile intellectual proponents of democracy and capitalism. It matters little because as diligently reported by paleocon journalist Daniel McCarthy, Kristol had the temerity to write, and supposedly did so "with relish", that "I regard myself as lucky to have been a young Trostkyite and I have not a single bitter memory". [9] Just as incriminating is Kristol's claim to have learned how to construct an argument by reading Trotskyist theoretical journals! But if the lack of seriousness in the paleocon accusations is evident, it does raise the question of exactly how much of a Trotskyist Irving Kristol was in his youth. And if one takes a close look at his actual Trotskyist past, a very different picture emerges from the one that has been conjured up by the polemicists and to a certain extent by Kristol himself.

Kristol was involved in the late 1930s, still in his teens, in the milieux of the young Jewish intellectuals that frequented the now-infamous Alcove No.1 at CCNY. While there he became a fellow traveler of the small group of Trotskyist students who belonged to the youth wing of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), known as the Young People's Socialist League-Fourth International (YPSL-FI). While steeped in the world of hyper-intellectual debating at CCNY, Kristol was not an SWP or YPSL-FI member -- and much less a full blown Trotskyist ideologue, as is often implied by those seeking to exaggerate his Trotskyist credentials. Infamously, James P. Cannon, Irish-American leader of the Trotskyists, once admonished Kristol and his friend and fellow CCNYer Earl Raab for not joining the SWP. From Mexico, Trotsky himself cast a wary eye on the YPSL's and fellow travelers such as Kristol and Raab because of their "lack of experience" and, more damningly, for their "petty bourgeois" backgrounds. [10]

Despite Cannon's scoldings, Kristol never did join the "official" Trotskyists of the SWP, but rather the heretical offshoot led by Max Shachtman, the Workers' Party (WP), in 1940. More importantly, Kristol belonged to a small intra-party faction inside the WP known as the "Shermanites" which was led by future Sociologist Philip Selznick, and also included Lipset, Himmelfarb, and Diamond, i.e. the only other neoconservatives to have been associated with Trotskyism. What is key here, and what for the most part has been overlooked, is that the Shermanites considered not only Stalinism but Bolshevism, which in their context meant Trotskyism, to be "… bureaucratic, totalitarian, and undemocratic". [11] Decisive to Kristol and the others' rejection of Marxism and Trotskyism was Robert Michels' Political Parties, which was introduced to the group by Selznick. [12] This "premature" anti-communism was so anathema to Shachtman that after Kristol and the tiny band of Shermanites resigned from the Workers' Party in 1941, a mere one year after they had joined, they were then retroactively expelled. The journal that Kristol and the Shermanites briefly published after their expulsion from the Workers Party, Enquiry, far from providing "conventional Marxist fare" as has been claimed by one scholar, in fact consisted mainly of substantive critiques of Marxism, Leninism, and Trotskyism, all the more noteworthy for the youthfulness of those making them. [13]

A more sober appraisal of the historical evidence shows that, contrary to the claims of the paleocons, and even some of his own writings, Irving Kristol's Trotskyism was far too peripheral and brief for him to be considered a representative Trotskyist of that era, or even much of a Trotskyist at all -- something which applies just as much if not more to the only other "Trotskyist neocons": Lipset, Himmelfarb, and Diamond.

The question of "Shachtmanism"

While first generation neoconservatives are accused of having been Trotskyists, second generation neocons are usually charged with Trotskyism indirectly, by virtue of supposedly having been "Shachtmanites". Those meriting this accusation are the small minority of today's neconservatives who were members of the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation/Young People's Socialist League (SP-SDF/YPSL), and later the Social Democrats USA, in the late 1960s and early 70s. The supposed link with Trotskyism comes in the form of Max Shachtman, the leader of the 1940 split from official Trotskyism who would later go on to call the Socialist Party home and play a key role in that party's right-wing from the late 1950s to his death in 1972.

Max Shachtman

Shachtman occupies a fascinating place in the history of Marxism in the US for having moved, over the span of 20 years, all the way from Trotskyism to a fervently anti-communist version of social democracy. What makes this move particularly intriguing is that Shachtman carried it out while doggedly maintaining an orthodox Marxist phraseology that had increasingly little relevance to his actual politics. Since a small number of today's neoconservatives, such as Joshua Muravchik and Carl Gershman, played key roles in the Socialist Party, YPSL, and Social Democrats USA during the 1960's and 70's, there is a degree of truth to a connection between Max Shachtman and a handful of the current generation of neocons.

But what has conveniently been forgotten by the paleocons amidst their frantic references to Max Shachtman's "Trotskyism" is that Shachtman broke definitively with his unique version of that ideology in the mid 1950s, even before dissolving the International Socialist League (ISL, successor to the Workers' Party) and joining the Socialist Party in 1958. Even more, abandoning Trotskyism was a precondition set by the SP leadership for allowing Shachtman and his followers to join their party. Once inside the party, Shachtman and the former members of the ISL carried on squarely in the tradition of the right-wing socialist "Old Guard" of the party that had split away in the 1930s: staunchly anti-Communist, closely supportive of the established trade union leaderships, orthodox Marxist in official discourse, and crucially, oriented towards working within the Democratic party -- something even the Old Guard had not been willing to advocate. The historian Robert J. Alexander, who was himself active in the Socialist Party in those years, notes that after 1958 the ideological distinctions in the party between the ex-ISL cadre and the pre-1958 socialists basically disappeared. [14] While the former Shactmanites maintained close ties inside the SP, these ties were now based on a type of social democratic politics with deep roots in the right wing of American Socialism, rather than on a Trotskyism that had been consciously discarded.

None of this history matters to paleoconservative polemicists though. In modern Old Right folklore, not only does Shachtman remain a Trotskyist beyond the late 1950s, but the Socialist Party itself is somehow transformed into a "Trotskyite" organization. Only by means of such blatant fabrications can Srdja Trifkovic, writing in the on-line version of Chronicles, claim that second generation neoconservatives, "…including Joshua Muravchik, and Carl Gershman, came to neoconservatism through the Socialist Party at a time when it was Trotskyite in outlook and politics." [15] In reality, the Socialist Party itself was never "Trotskyite", nor did any Trotskyists play a role inside it after their expulsion from the party in 1937. For Socialists, Trotskyism was a political opponent by the time that Muravchik and Penn Kemble (together with Michael Harrington) led the party and its youth wing in the late 1960's. It was not even remotely an issue by the time Carl Gershman led the successor to the right-wing of the Socialist Party following the split in 1972, the Social Democrats-USA.

The very labeling of the few ex-socialist neoconservatives of today as "former Shachtmanites" is misleading, especially since the label is used to imply that they share Max Shachtman's historical connection to Trotskyism, which they do not. Justin Raimondo makes the motivation behind the label clear when he writes in Anti-War.com, that "…it was Shachtman's particular schismatic brand of Trotskyism, as advocated by the "Yipsels," as Comrade Muravchik and his fellow young commies called themselves, that over time was transmuted into a militant push for global "democracy." [16] Raimondo's polemics on the Anti-war.com website demonstrate that he is familiar -- if perhaps excessively preoccupied -- with the history of American Trotskyism. But the conspiratorial edge to much of his writing often results in presenting a skewed history. His attempt to link neoconservatives to Shachtmanism is a confused amalgam of eras and ideologies that is way off the mark, beginning with his curious labeling of the 1960s YPSL's as both "Shachtmanites" and "commies" when they in fact represented a uniquely American version of right-wing social democracy.

The main tenets of the actual "schismatic brand of Trotskyism" that Raimondo refers to, and that Shachtman adhered to in the 1940s and early 50s, were a revolutionary opposition to capitalism, a "third camp" orientation ("neither Washington nor Moscow"), the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, and support for an independent labor party in the US. It is this set of ideas that can most accurately be referred to as "Shachtmanism". [17] But not only was such Shachtmanite politics the furthest thing from the minds of Muravchik, Gershman, and the other young Socialists in the late 1960s and 70s -- none of whom was old enough to have belonged to the ISL, and for whom Shachtman was merely a charismatic anti-Communist elder statesman -- not even Shachtman himself still advocated those positions, having abandoned them more than a decade earlier.

Commenting on the all too common tendency of labeling those on the right wing of the Socialist Party as "Shachtmanites", Muravchik, who was National Chairman of the YPSL between 1968 and 1973, has put it succinctly: "I loved Shachtman's lectures, but what I learned from them had nothing to do with the Trotskyite arcana that had once been the substance of Shachtmanism. It had everything to do with the evil nature of communism." [18] It is the inability to distinguish between right wing social democracy and revolutionary Marxism that underlies the confused allegations hurled at today's neoconservatives -- a small number of whom were once socialists, but whose "former Shachtmanism" turns out to have even less basis in fact than the "former Trotskyism" of the first generation.

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