The Cult of Power

With almost 900 Americans dead, thousands horribly wounded, and talk of canceling a national election that is taking place in the shadow of terrorism, one has to ask: how did we get here? Seymour Hersh, speaking at the American Civil Liberties Union conference on July 7, gave a pretty good answer:

“Rather than deal with the obvious stuff about Bush and this election and what it means, I think the real question we have to answer – and this is the question that I’m inchoate about: my friend Dan Ellsberg would say this is heuristic, ‘I have some heuristic thoughts about it’ – he’s a great expert on heurism…. The question we have to say to ourselves is, okay, so here’s what happens: a bunch of guys, eight or nine neoconservatives, cultists – not Charles Manson cultists, but cultists – get in.

“And it’s not, with all due respect to Michael Moore, (his movie’s fine) but it’s not about oil, it’s even not about Israel, it’s about a utopia they have. It’s about an idea they have. Not only about that democracy can be spread. In a sense I would say Paul Wolfowitz is the greatest Trotskyite of our times. He believes in permanent revolution. And in the Middle East, to begin with, needless to say.

“And so you have a bunch of people who have been, for ten or twelve years, fantasizing, since the 1991 Gulf war, on the way to resolve problems. And of course there’ll be beneficiaries, Israel would be a beneficiary, etc., etc., but the world in their eyes, this is a utopia.

“And so they got together this small group of cultists. And how did they do it? They did do it. They’ve taken the government over.

“And what’s amazing to me – and what really is troubling – is how fragile our democracy is. Look what happened to us… They took the edge off the press, they also muzzled the bureaucracy, they muzzled the military, they muzzled the Congress. And it’s an amazing feat. We’re supposed to be a democratic society. And all those areas of our democracy bowed and scraped to this group of neocons.”

It was a riveting talk, delivered in a tone of understated modesty, each interruption of applause visibly anticipated and borne by the speaker as if the audience were shooting arrows at him: as if to say there’s no time for self-congratulation, because we have to get at the truth and time is running out….

I’ve lost track of how many major stories Hersh has broken in the past few months: Abu Ghraib, the financial shenanigans of neocon guru Richard Perle, the lie factory called the “Office of Special Plans,” and the list goes on. In this age of journalistic servility to the State, he has no peers as an investigative reporter. The boys in the Pentagon shudder each time The New Yorker rolls off the presses.

Here is a topnotch journalist – an empiricist by profession, and necessity – trying to discern some pattern in the facts he’s assembled. With access to all sorts of Washington insiders – including Pentagon generals, whose disaffection, he said in his talk, “has never been so acute” – Hersh comes up with a story remarkably similar to that recounted by others, including General Anthony Zinni, intelligence expert James Bamford, retired Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, and a number of authors and journalists – including the present writer, who has been continually underscoring the threat posed by the neocons since the very first installment of this column.

“It’s not the Manson clan,” said Hersh to the assembled civil libertarians, “but we really have been taken over.”

By whom – or what?

Like other such sects, religious as well as political, the history and beliefs of the neoconservative cult come in two versions. As Murray N. Rothbard pointed out in a trenchant 1972 study of the Ayn Rand cult:

“Every religious cult has two sets of differing and distinctive creeds: the exoteric and the esoteric. The exoteric creed is the official, public doctrine, the creed which attracts the acolyte in the first place and brings him into the movement as a rank-and-file member. The esoteric creed is the unknown, hidden agenda, a creed which is only known to its full extent by the top leadership, the ‘high priests’ of the cult. The latter are the keepers of the mysteries of the cult.”

An ideological cult, Rothbard observed, has many of the salient features of a religious cult, and essentially the same belief structure: leader-worship, dogmatism, and a hatred of heresy, characteristics the neocons exhibit in abundance. Leader-worship fairly describes the neoconservative theory of the Presidency: the President, as Warrior-King, can order torture, and even suspend the Constitution. As for dogmatism: instead of acknowledging and analyzing the utter wrongness of their expectation that we would be greeted with cries of “Hail our liberators!” by the Iraqis, the neocons are now blaming the disaster on the allegedly flawed “execution” of their policies. Hatred of heretics is certainly an animating force among them, second only to blood-lust: just ask Michael Lind, or, indeed, anyone who has crossed their path.

The official exoteric story is that there is really no such creature as a neocon, it’s all an “anti-Semitic” conspiracy theory dreamed up by Pat Buchanan and myself. The Iraq war was driven, not by highly-placed individuals with a specific agenda, but by historical necessity: the necessity, that is, of responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The neoconservative vision, they innocently aver, is based on building “democracy” not only in the Middle East, but throughout the entire world, and establishing what they call the “benevolent global hegemony” of a rising American Imperium, an “empire of liberty.”

The real story, as Hersh clearly realizes, is quite different: Paul Wolfowitz is the greatest Trotskyist not only of our time but of all time. Certainly greater than Trotsky himself, the founder of the Red Army and prophet of world revolution who wound up in some rundown Mexican backwater with an icepick sticking out of his head. Trotsky’s “Fourth International,” stillborn, lived in Stalin’s shadow for all of its brief half-life, but in that time managed to generate a tendency that would eventually culminate in another sort of world revolution – and yet, on second thought, not all that different.

Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz, whom Hersh describes as the “genius” of the neocon operation, knows well his antecedents, as Jeet Heer has reported in the National Post, citing neocon writer and “ex”-Trotskyist Stephen Schwartz:

“To this day, Schwartz speaks of Trotsky affectionately as ‘the old man’ and ‘L.D.’ (initials from Trotsky’s birth name, Lev Davidovich Bronstein). ‘To a great extent, I still consider myself to be [one of the] disciples of L.D,’ he admits, and he observes that in certain Washington circles, the ghost of Trotsky still hovers around. At a party in February celebrating a new book about Iraq, Schwartz exchanged banter with Wolfowitz about Trotsky, the Moscow Trials and Max Shachtman.

“‘I’ve talked to Wolfowitz about all of this,’ Schwartz notes. ‘We had this discussion about Shachtman. He knows all that stuff, but was never part of it. He’s definitely aware.’ The yoking together of Paul Wolfowitz and Leon Trotsky sounds odd, but a long and tortuous history explains the link between the Bolshevik left and the Republican right.”

The Trotskyists believed that the Revolution had gone off the rails, due not to the inherent brutality and immorality of the Bolshevik program, but because the Party didn’t have the revolutionary zeal to carry the struggle forward into Europe and beyond. They sneered at the Stalinist concept of “socialism in one country,” and correctly pointed to the Marxist classics, including Lenin, as proof that the Kremlin had betrayed the cause of true Communism, which they identified with a militant internationalism. Instead of sitting around liquidating Russian kulaks, Stalin, the Trots averred, should have gone on to liquidate all kulaks, everywhere.

Trotsky, by this time, had been forced into exile, and, after wandering through Europe, finally wound up in Mexico just as Hitler and Stalin concluded their infamous Pact – and sent the small Trotskyist grouplet, as well as the rest of the international Communist movement, into a tailspin of confusion.

Trotsky, always sensitive to the charge by Stalinists and their fellow travelers that he was really a bourgeois traitor, had always insisted on defending the Soviet Union “against the Stalinists and in spite of the Stalinists.” But with the Nazis and the Commies now in alliance against the Western democratic powers – and poor little Finland in the Soviets’ sights! – how was it possible to any longer defend the “workers’ fatherland”? That’s what Max Shachtman and James Burnham, two of Trotsky’s top disciples in America, wanted to know. Trotsky, for his part, could give them no answer they found satisfactory, and so the Trotskyist movement split, with Shachtman and Burnham leaving the Fourth International’s American grouplet, known as the Socialist Workers Party, and founding the Workers Party. Burnham departed the newly-minted party almost as soon as it was set up, going on to translate his anti-Stalinism into a full-fledged and full-throated anti-Communism by joining the CIA and winding up as a top editor at National Review.

Shachtman took a much longer, tortuous path to basically the same position: what his leftist opponents and erstwhile comrades in the SWP called “State Department socialism.” Shachtman was a tremendously charismatic figure, a pyrotechnic speaker and learned (self-taught) scholar of the Marxist classics, whose ability to justify his latest “turn” in terms of Marxoid dogma might be fairly characterized as acrobatic. Each turn, when it came, took him farther away from his ideological origins – he had started out his political career as a Communist Party functionary in the 1920s.

When the Cold War began to press down on his isolated grouplet with such force that it was put on the list of “subversive” organizations, Shachtman regurgitated a brand new theory: the Soviet Union, in the Shachtmanite view, no longer represented socialism, but instead constituted a new and even more terrible danger than Western capitalism: bureaucratic collectivism. From that point on, Shachtman and his followers began to advocate a hard foreign policy line against the Soviet Union, a line that got progressively harder with the years. The Shachtmanites eventually disbanded their grouplet, at least in a formal sense, and merged with the remnants of the old Socialist Party, which they effectively took over, changing the name to the Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA).

Shachtman’s new strategy was to work within the Democratic party, and the unions: his followers in SDUSA held key positions in the AFL-CIO and the teachers unions. In 1968, he pushed through a Socialist Party resolution endorsing Hubert Humphrey for President, over the feeble protests of Norman Thomas, who lay dying in a hospital. Shachtman ended his days as a key supporter of Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, known affectionately as the Senator from Boeing, and fully supporting the Vietnam war. Key neoconservative cadre came directly out of the SDUSA: Jeanne Kirkpatrick, James Woolsey, Carl Gershman, Max Kampelman, Penn Kimble, and Elliott Abrams, to name just a few. Scoop Jackson’s aides, such as Richard Perle and Abrams, went on to become prominent neocons. Reinforced by successive waves of ex-leftists, such as the Commentary crowd and Irving Kristol (a former Trotskyist follower of Burnham’s), Shachtmanism, especially after Shachtman’s death, in 1971, essentially morphed into neoconservatism.

“It’s not about oil, it’s even not about Israel, it’s about a utopia they have. It’s about an idea they have.”

It’s widely recognized that we were lied into war by a group of ideologues, but what is this “idea they have”? What kind of “utopia” is Iraq? The old Trotskyist idea of internationalism is here preserved, but for the red flags. Some of them even call themselves “Trotsky-cons.” But this “outing” of the neocons has caused them considerable embarrassment – since they are currently masquerading as “conservatives” – and they’ve struck back by seeking to label the outers “conspiracy theorists” and “anti-Semites.” Most deny their Trotskyist heritage – the more strenuous denials coming from the very people who embody it, such as Joshua Muravchik, once a youth leader of the SDUSA and now a rising neocon star over at the American Enterprise Institute.

Similarly vindictive protests at this dredging up of the true history of the neocons are coming, surprisingly, from the ostensible left. Although one might think that they would welcome the chance to excoriate their renegades, the orthodox Trotskyists that still exist on the far-left fringes are angry because they believe Trotsky’s good name is being maligned. The “World Socialist Website” goes into a particularly dreary recitation of Trotskyist history that essentially admits the neocons’ Shachtmanite lineage, but reduces its significance to a “journalistic turn of phrase” that “is a travesty of historical or political analysis, and only serves to obscure the ideological roots of the neoconservative movement.”

But it is the World Socialist Website that is doing the obscuring here: the “world-historical” grandiosity and Jacobinism that animated the Shachtmanites merely changed flags, without changing either its goals or its methods. SDUSA is just as committed to international socialism as it was in Shachtman’s day: that they are using the United States Army instead of the Red Army to impose it is only a detail that, in the end, matters little.

The Socialist Workers Party, which still exists, although it has long since given up Trotskyism for Castroism, is also pissed off at us for maligning their hero, and attacks in much the same terms as the neocons employ. The headline in their newspaper, The Militant, proclaims: “Jew-hatred, red-baiting: heart of claims of ‘neocon’ conspiracy.”, in their view, is part of a sinister anti-Semitic conspiracy, along with Seymour Hersh: together, we are trying to “set up” the neocons for getting us into the Iraq war. They go so far as to repeat specific charges made by former Coalition Provisional Authority official Michael Rubin, in National Review, and directed at Karen Kwiatkowski – who exposed the manipulation of intelligence by the “Office of Special Plans” – that somewhat fancifully attempt to link her to the LaRouche group because she once was interviewed by one of their number.

Shoot, what about the fact that LaRouche used to be a member of the Socialist Workers Party – would it be fair to identify the SWP as LaRouchite, on the grounds of mere contact with LaRouche? These people are such hypocrites, and, what gets me is that they’re so vulnerable to the very tactics they employ.

The SWP screed is a farrago of lies, evasions, and paranoid ravings. According to the Socialist Workers cult, not only Seymour Hersh and, but also Michael Lind, the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, “and numerous other publications and internet sites,” by identifying neoconservatives as the sparkplugs behind this war, are all engaged in a veritable orgy of “Jew-hatred” and “Trotsky-baiting.” The SWP, like the World Socialist Website crew, admits the origins of the Shachtman group in the Trotskyist movement, but then lamely avers that

“Smears about ‘Trotskycons’ to the contrary, the fact is that no prominent figure among the so-called neoconservatives has ever been a member of the Socialist Workers Party.”

But no one ever said that they were. The SWP never amounted to a hill of beans, except briefly in the 1960s and 70s, when they were a key element of the antiwar movement. Today they are an insignificant little sect devoted to selling books, and enriching the cult leaders, while the intellectual descendants of their renegade faction rule the roost in Washington.

Against this Popular Front of Norman Podhoretz and SWP leader Jack Barnes, which includes Joshua Muravchik and the World Socialist Website, opponents of the Iraq war can only marshal the empirical evidence, and the insight that individuals, not abstract “forces” or historical “necessity,” control events. And don’t imagine this is some obscure debate over historical arcana: the idea that specific individuals are responsible for formulating and implementing American policy in the Middle East is the key to understanding the present debate over the “intelligence failure” that lured us into Iraq. Far from being a “failure,” the perpetrators of this massive fraud were wildly successful, at least from their perspective– and the SWP, for some reason, is intent on helping them to get away scot-free.

The idea that animates the War Party is the same idea that has motivated Jacobins of the left and the right since time immemorial: a restless and malevolent energy that impels them to remake the world. Militant utopians inflicted millions of casualties in the twentieth century, and it looks like they intend to surpass their record in the twenty-first. The neocons may be temporarily discredited, and in eclipse: but it would be a mistake to count them out.

The cult of Power, with its roots in the Left and its present hegemony over the Right, is the eternal enemy of peace and liberty. Like any cult, it has an exoteric philosophy, which is presented in reams of essays and proclamations extolling the virtues of “democracy” – while its esoteric meaning is embodied in the photos of the Abu Ghraib house of horrors.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].