Surely it isn’t modesty that makes the neocons shy away from the spotlight. Yet how else can we explain Joshua Muravchik‘s shock at the sudden discovery that entering the term “neoconservative” into Lexis-Nexis will cause an aborted search because “the number of entries exceeds the program’s capacity”?
That’s what’s so unique about the neocons: any other political movement would welcome all that publicity. But not them. Oh no: quite the contrary. Until very recently, most neocons denied their very existence as a coherent faction. Irving Kristol, author of Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, is the only self-admitted member of the species, and, as such, to him has fallen the task of issuing pronouncements in its name, such as this recent manifesto. But the neocons have been outed, so to speak, by their own success: not in building a mass movement, but in penetrating the top echelons of the U.S. government. As our great “victory” in Iraq turns out to have been purely Pyrrhic, people are casting about for some explanation. How did we fall into this quagmire quickly becomes: who dragged us in?
A surprising number of ideologically diverse writers have come up with a similar answer: the neocons. Spanning the spectrum, from left to right, they include Michael Lind, Elizabeth Drew, Pat Buchanan, Joshua Micah Marshall, Jim Lobe, Paul Craig Roberts, to mention just a few. But Muravchik, writing in Commentary [September 2003], protests that neocons are just liberals who developed “misgivings” about the Great Society and a Democratic party gone soft on the cold war. The “conspiracy theorists” have conjured up a bogeyman, according to Muravchik, a “sinister” and
“Strange, veiled group, almost a cabal, whose purpose is to manipulate U.S. policy for ulterior purposes.”
Muravchik scoffs at the idea that the neocons owe much of anything either to the cult of Leo Strauss, the philosopher of the “noble lie,” or to Leon Trotsky, whose legacy informed such proto-neocons as Max Shachtman, Philip Selznick, and Irving Kristol.
I will pass, for the moment, on the subject of the Straussian connection, since I have never been able to read a single one of Strauss’s books all the way through. I am told that he is boring on purpose, because, you see, only the dogged few will get the true esoteric meaning. This seems fitting for a philosophy that, from what I can tell, is founded on the primacy of deception. Clearly this methodology is tailor-made for the gang that lied us into war.
On the subject of the neocons’ leftist roots, however, I feel more qualified to comment. Muravchik disdains “ancestor-hunting” as “typical of the way most recent analysis of neoconservative ideas has been conducted,” but surely one way to understand an idea is to describe its history. He earlier complains that “few of those writing critically about neoconservatism today have bothered to stipulate what they take [its] tenets to be.” He then turns around and declares that any attempt to understand how these ideas evolved over time is somehow not valid. His argument, in effect, amounts to “Move along, nothing to see here.”
But there is plenty to see, first and foremost the Trotskyist DNA embedded in the neocon foreign policy prescription. Even if Muravchik was right and he isn’t to say that “I can think of only one major neocon figure who did have a significant dalliance with Trotskyism” the parallels between Trotskyism and neoconservatism would still be striking.
The Trotskyists argued that the Communist Revolution of 1917 could not and should not be contained within the borders of the Soviet Union. Today’s neocons make the same argument about the need to spread the American system until the U.S. becomes a “global hegemon,” as Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol puts it. Trotsky argued that socialism in one country was impossible, and doomed to failure: encircled by capitalism, surrounded by enemies constantly plotting its downfall, the “workers state” would not survive if it didn’t expand. The neocons are making a similar argument when it comes to liberal democracy. Confronted by an Islamic world wholly opposed to modernity, Western liberal democracy must implant itself in the Middle East by force or else face defeat in the “war on terrorism.” Expand or die is the operative principle, and the neocons brought this Trotskyist mindset with them from the left.
The idea that Irving Kristol is the lone ex-Trotskyist in the ranks of the neocons has got to be some sort of joke. If so, it is a weak one. Albert Wohlstetter, the grand-daddy of what Lind calls the “defense intellectuals” and who has a conference center named after him over at Neocon Central, the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington, D.C. was a member of the League for a Revolutionary Party (LRP), a Trotskyist grouplet founded in the 1930s by B. J. Field, a labor leader who led the New York hotel strike of 1934. (A close associate of his at the Rand Corporation has confirmed this to me.) Gertrude Himmelfarb, Seymour Martin Lipset, Martin Diamond, all were members of Max Shachtman’s Workers Party, and then split into their own faction, the “Shermanites,” who upheld an ostensibly revolutionary socialist doctrine that was, nonetheless, avowedly “anti-Bolshevik.” And what about Sidney Hook, who never renounced socialism and yet was awarded the Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan: what is he, chopped liver?
It’s not like the neocons’ Trotskyist legacy is any big secret. Even Jonah Goldberg knows about this. Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s reminiscences of her education in the Young Peoples’ Socialist League (YPSL, known as Yipsels) were a matter of public record until the Social Democrats USA took it off their website.
Speaking of the YPSL, Muravchik is the past national chairman of that group. If he is saying that he knows of only one leading neocon with any roots in the Trotskyist movement, then perhaps he ought to be introduced to himself.
Muravchik disdains the term Shachmanite to describe his former political allegiances but it is hard to believe that the former national chairman of the Yipsels, (1968 73), the Social Democratic youth group, could have been anything other than a follower of Max Shachtman. According to the chronology in Peter Druckers’ 1994 book, Max Shachtman and His Left, in 1965 “YPSL [was] reconstituted under Shachtman’s control.”
Lest anyone think that I am merely red-baiting Muravchik, by the time he was national chairman the group had abandoned its revolutionary razzle-dazzle, as Drucker points out, and become a stepping stone for careerists on the make:
“Shachtman extended his AFL-CIO network by helping his young followers get union staff jobs. In 1965, following the 1964 collapse of the YPSL, he reconstituted it under his right-wing followers’ control. The new group had barely a shadow of the independent spirit of Shachtman’s earlier youth groups. Even Tom Kahn, who had joined Shachtman’s youth group in a livelier time, regretted that the group now had few vigorous debates. But debates were no longer the group’s main point. Its main point was to take young people whom the 1960s had begun to radicalize, immunize them against the New Left’s subversive appeal, and train them for AFL-CIO or other social democratic careers.”
The post-Trotskyist ideology developed by Max Shachtman, who broke with Trotsky over the nature of the Soviet Union, took on a life of its own during the cold war years. Evolving from an orthodox Trotskyist, he later upheld the “third camp” “Neither Washington, nor Moscow!" and wound up supporting the cold war wholeheartedly, including the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Vietnam war. Devoted to spreading “global democracy,” Shachtman’s former followers soon coalesced into a potent intellectual force that had no trouble taking over the intellectual institutions of the Right as they made their way from one end of the political spectrum to the other. The indelible imprint of their Trotskyist legacy is a principled bellicosity: combined with intellectual aggressiveness and a capacity for bureaucratic infighting, the neocons in power make formidable opponents.
The rest of Muravchik’s screed is an attempt to smear critics of the neocons with the brush of anti-Semitism. That so many of these critics are Jewish, according to Muravchik, merely proves that they have “ulterior motives.” Since he doesn’t name these motives, or try to describe them, the reader is left wondering. If Muravchik wishes to deny that the neocons pursue the Likud party line with as much alacrity as the old Communist party cadre once followed the Soviet line, then I challenge him to come up with a single instance in which a prominent neocon criticized the government of Israel. In any dispute between Israel and the U.S., when has any neoconservative taken the American side? The answer is: never.
Muravchik makes much of the Jewish heritage of many neocons, and tries to conflate anti-neocons with anti-Semities. But the ethnic factor is a historical accident: the really significant factor is the intellectual history of the neoconservative idea, especially as it relates to American foreign policy.
In tracing the intellectual ancestry of the neoconservative persuasion to its Trotskyist roots, its critics are pointing, with alarm, to its revolutionary utopianism, its dogmatism, its bloodthirstiness as characteristics inherited from the ruthless founder of the Red Army. The point of exposing the neocons’ far-leftist origins is to show that they are in no way a conservative force. There is nothing conservative about embarking on a campaign of conquest in the Middle East and uprooting most of the regimes in the region. The neocons are, as one critic put it [PDF file], really neo-Jacobins. Theirs is a revolutionary project, one that violates the precepts of the Founders and would have to mean the overthrow of the Republic.