[Marxism] Re: Trotsky mentioned in SFC opinion column
zachary.levenson at gmail.com
Fri Mar 10 23:02:51 MST 2006
The historical roots of neoconservatism: a reply to a slanderous
attack on Trotskyism
By Bill Vann
23 May 2003
The May 20 edition of the Spanish-language daily El Diario/La Prensa
in New York City published a column by the newspaper's political
editor Vicky Pelaez entitled "From permanent revolution to permanent
conquest." The thrust of the piece is an attempt to trace the current
policies of the extreme right-wing clique that dominates the Bush
White House and the Pentagon to the American Trotskyist movement of
the 1930s and 1940s.
This article is by no means unique. A number of print and on-line
publications ranging from the Sunday Times in Britain and El País in
Spain to the web site antiwar.com and that of the John Birch Society
have featured similar material. In some cases, these articles are
motivated by internecine disputes within the American right. In other
cases they represent a confused attempt to explain the eruption of US
militarism that has developed under the Bush administration, and the
role played in it by a tight-knit group of hard-right ideologues
centered in the Pentagon.
Ms. Pelaez's column is distinguished only by the crudeness of the
fabricated details that she employs to further her arguments. After
tracing the undoubted influence of the right-wing German-born
political scientist Leo Strauss (See:
http://www.wsws.org/articles/2003/mar2003/stra-m26.shtml) upon many of
those dubbed neoconservatives in the Bush administration, she proceeds
to the alleged Trotskyist connection.
Pelaez writes: "But strangest of all is the political position of all
those [Bush administration officials] cited above. The investigation
reveals that the parents of all of them were Trotskyist militants,
anti-Stalinists and belonged to the movement of the 1930s to the 40s
that arose when Leon Trotsky abandoned the Soviet Union and denounced
Stalin as a revisionist and a dictator. Of course, the United States
supported with all its might the Trotskyist movement, which was spread
worldwide; this included here in New York the CIA's organizing their
congress at the Waldorf Astoria in 1949 (The CIA and the Cultural Cold
War, Frances Stonor Saunders.)"
She continues: "The children of the made-in-the-USA Trotskyists, their
names are Wolfowitz, Perle, Kristol, Feith, David Wurmser, etc.,
became part of the liberal anticommunist movements between the 1950s
and 70s. Later they converted themselves into neoconservatives and
transformed Trotsky's theory of Permanent Revolution into Permanent
Conquest based on Strauss. Then they put it into action after taking
power, calling it Permanent Expansion, justifying it by saying that
'everything that is good for America is good for the world' and that
'the United States has the right to attack any country if it perceives
the existence of any danger.'"
In responding to the above collection of historical distortions and
outright falsehoods, one is reminded of Leon Trotsky's remark, "Even
slander should make some sense." Trotsky was speaking of the absurd
amalgams constructed by the Kremlin to cast him as an agent—depending
upon the foreign policy requirements of the day—of German, British,
US, or Japanese imperialism.
Pelaez's piece employs similar amalgams, portraying Trotskyism as an
instrument of imperialism and drawing a straight line from Trotsky's
founding of the Fourth International 65 years ago to the Bush
administration's policy of aggression today.
When the article refers to the "investigation" that uncovered the
supposed Trotskyist connection, it is not clear whether she is
referring to the work of the Sunday Times, which she cites in the
previous paragraph, her own probe, or the analysis made in the book
she subsequently refers to. She fails to include a closing quotation
mark in the passage containing the supposed meat of this
investigation, making the source for her assertions even more obscure.
Where is the evidence that the US "supported with all of its might"
the worldwide spread of the Trotskyist movement? Washington's
ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph Davies, endorsed the Moscow
Trials in which the leaders of the October Revolution—including
Trotsky, tried in absentia—were convicted in monstrous frame-ups and
sentenced to death. Under conditions in which he was being pursued by
assassins of the Stalinist secret police, the GPU, Trotsky was denied
asylum not only in the US, but in every other country of the world,
save Mexico. The nationalist government of President Lazaro Cardenas
admitted him as an act of defiance against Washington, with which it
was in conflict over the nationalization of Mexico's oil. When Trotsky
was assassinated in 1940, Washington refused even to allow his corpse
to be brought across the border for a memorial meeting.
As for the American Trotskyist movement, 18 of its leaders were jailed
under the Smith Act, becoming the first to be persecuted under that
infamous anti-communist law. They were imprisoned for opposing war and
refusing to renounce the struggle for socialism. Individual
leaders—including Carl Skoglund, the organizer of the 1934 Minneapolis
general strike—were threatened with deportation.
The Stalinist Communist Party USA, it should be noted,
enthusiastically backed these repressive measures, which would later
be turned against it as well. There is ample evidence that FBI and CIA
spying on American Trotskyists has continued right up to the present.
To substantiate her claim of US government support for the
Trotskyists, Pelaez cites Stonor Saunders' book to the effect that the
CIA organized a Trotskyist congress in 1949 at the Waldorf Astoria. It
is certainly a novel idea that the Trotskyists, a party of workers
with limited resources, would have chosen the Waldorf for its
congress. In any event, it is pure fantasy. No such meeting ever took
It is doubtful that the El Diario columnist ever read Stonor Saunders'
book. The 1949 conference at the Waldorf that the book refers to was
organized not by the Trotskyists, but by a group of prominent American
intellectuals—Aaron Copland, Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Lillian
Hellman—with the support of the Soviet government. Its purpose was to
oppose the onset of the cold war and plead for a continuation of the
wartime Washington-Moscow alliance.
A group of liberals and "independent socialists" led by philosophy
professor Sidney Hook attended the congress and challenged its
organizers over the repression in the Soviet Union, including the
murder and jailing of hundreds of thousands of socialists.
The CIA followed this event with some interest and forged relations
with some of those who attended. None of the figures involved were
connected to the Trotskyist movement, though some had expressed
intellectual sympathy with Trotsky before his assassination nine years
To cobble together the Waldorf Astoria conference, Trotskyism and the
CIA as Pelaez does is neither factual nor serious. An understanding of
history and the evolution of different political tendencies requires
an element of political precision that is sadly lacking in her
Likewise, the claim that all those occupying senior posts in the Bush
Pentagon are the "children of Trotskyists" is patently false. There
are, however, connecting links between the political struggles within
the Trotskyist movement more than six decades ago and the
neoconservatives of today. They are to be found in particular in the
careers of two individuals: the late Max Shachtman and Irving Kristol.
The latter is a prominent figure in the right-wing think tank, the
American Enterprise Institute (AEI). When, on the eve of the invasion
of Iraq, George W. Bush appeared before the AEI to deliver a speech
outlining his vision for global military aggression, he began with a
verbal tip of the hat to Kristol, who is widely regarded as the
"godfather of neoconservatism."
In 1939, as a student at the City College of New York, Kristol joined
the Young People's Socialist League, as the American Trotskyist youth
movement was then called. The YPSL was affiliated to the Trotskyist
party, then organized as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). He quickly
gravitated to an emerging petty-bourgeois tendency within the party
led by James Burnham and Max Shachtman, and in a very short time had
followed them in breaking with the SWP.
Just before his death, Trotsky led an intense political struggle
against these very elements, thereby laying the essential foundations
not only for the development of a Marxist party of the working class
in the United States, but for the development of the Fourth
Both the Fourth International and the Socialist Workers Party had been
founded in 1938. By the autumn of 1939, a bitter faction fight had
erupted within the SWP precipitated by the outbreak of the Second
World War and, in particular, the signing of the non-aggression pact
between Hitler's Germany and the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union.
The faction that emerged in the SWP under the leadership of Burnham
and Shachtman took the position that as a consequence of the pact
between Hitler and Stalin it was no longer possible to consider the
USSR a workers' state in any sense of the word, and the Fourth
International was compelled to repudiate its program of defense of the
USSR against imperialist attack.
Despite his vehement opposition to the existing Soviet bureaucracy,
Trotsky rejected the attempt to equate the USSR, which had emerged as
a product of a workers' revolution, with imperialism in general and
the Nazi regime in particular. He stressed that, notwithstanding the
abominable crimes of the Stalinist bureaucracy, the social foundations
of nationalized industry established by the October 1917 revolution
remained. The Soviet Union, he insisted, was a society in transition
between capitalism and socialism, its historical fate yet to be
His political prognosis was of an alternative character: either the
working class would overthrow the bureaucracy through a political
revolution and return the Soviet Union to the socialist
internationalist principles upon which the 1917 revolution was based,
or the bureaucracy would destroy the foundations of the workers' state
and preside over the restoration of capitalism. Tragically, the second
variant has been borne out by events.
In the 1939-40 fight within the SWP, Trotsky took great pains not only
to refute the immediate arguments of the Burnham-Shachtman faction
regarding the concrete issues of the Stalin-Hitler pact, the Soviet
invasion of Finland, the events in Poland, etc., but also to draw out
their deeply reactionary political and theoretical implications. As is
so often the case in political struggles within the Marxist movement,
lurking behind these programmatic differences were profound historical
and class questions. Trotsky showed that those backing Shachtman and
Burnham would be propelled far to the right by the logic of both their
arguments and their philosophical method, which was rooted in a
rejection of dialectical materialism. He warned prophetically that
those who begin by rejecting dialectical materialism end up not
infrequently in the camp of reaction.
The battle waged by Trotsky against the petty-bourgeois opposition in
the SWP represented an imperishable contribution to the development of
Marxism. The documents of this struggle are available in a volume
entitled In Defense of Marxism.
The political turn by these elements took place in the context of a
series of catastrophic defeats for the international working class,
the apparent strengthening of the Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy, and
the onset of another world war. Their rejection of the defense of the
Soviet Union was bound up with the rejection of a revolutionary and
internationalist perspective. Disillusioned with the prospects of the
working class extending the October 1917 revolution and putting an end
to capitalism on a world scale, they adopted the grim perspective of a
new totalitarianism, which they saw extending for an entire epoch.
Trotsky's prediction of the political trajectory of this opposition
within the SWP was quickly borne out. Burnham moved very rapidly to
the right, rejecting socialism, soon voicing support for atomic war
against the Soviet Union and then becoming a leading ideologist on
William F. Buckley's National Review magazine.
Shachtman's turn to the right was somewhat less abrupt. He continued
to claim adherence to socialism and even the Fourth International for
nearly another decade. At the time of his split with the SWP, he
remained personally devoted to Trotsky. For his part, Trotsky rejected
Shachtman's path unconditionally. In April 1940, just four months
before his death, he declared: "If this be Trotskyism then I at least
am no Trotskyist...Had conscious agents of the class enemy operated
through Shachtman, they could not have advised him to do anything
different from what he himself has perpetrated."
By 1950 and the outbreak of the Korean war, Trotsky's warnings about
the trajectory of Shachtman and his followers were fully confirmed
when they supported the US military intervention. The SWP, in the
teeth of the McCarthyite witch-hunt, opposed the US aggression and
demanded the withdrawal of all US troops from Korea.
Moving steadily to the right, Shachtman became a key advisor of the
anti-communist AFL-CIO bureaucracy and the US State Department. He
cemented political alliances with Cold War Democratic Party liberals
such as Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the hawkish Democrat from the state of
Washington who was known as the "Senator from Boeing" for his
championing of the military industrial complex. Jackson was an
intransigent opponent of every arms treaty with the USSR and a
persistent advocate of trade sanctions against Moscow. He spearheaded
the campaign to use the issue of Soviet Jews as a weapon in the Cold
War and was an unconditional supporter of the Israeli state.
In 1972, Shachtman, as an open anti-communist and supporter of both
the Vietnam War and Zionism, backed Jackson in the Democratic
presidential primary. The Shachtmanites, who had changed their name
from the Workers Party to the Independent Socialist League in the
early 1950s, later entered the dwindling ranks of the American
Socialist Party, and eventually renamed themselves the Social
Paul Wolfowitz, who is today the number two official at the Pentagon,
and Doug Feith, an undersecretary of defense, as well as Richard
Perle, a key Pentagon adviser—all prominent advocates of the war
against Iraq—are former Democrats who worked for Jackson in the 1970s.
Another Jackson protégé, Elliot Abrams, has been placed in charge of
White House policy on the Middle East.
Whatever connection these elements may have had with Shachtman were
the result not of the latter's former connection to Trotskyism, but
rather their agreement with the politics of anti-communism, militarism
and Zionism that Shachtman had embraced over the course of some three
decades following his break with the Fourth International.
In Shachtman's political evolution—a descent into reaction by someone
who had played a leading role in the building of the socialist
movement and the defense of Trotsky against Stalinist
persecution—there is an element of tragedy. Irving Kristol, on the
other hand, began his turn to the right as a political cipher, having
spent an extremely brief period in association with the American
Kristol has nonetheless traded on that early and, from a political and
historical standpoint, accidental association with Trotskyism in his
climb up the ladder of right-wing think tanks. His son, William
Kristol, is the editor of the Weekly Standard, a mouthpiece of the
There is no doubt that both Shachtman and Kristol used political
skills that they had gained in the Marxist movement to further the
cause of reaction. Far from being responsible for the political
evolution of these individuals, however, the Trotskyist movement
fought out the political differences and rejected the opportunist
tendency they represented long before it had evolved into an open
supporter of US imperialism. The subsequent political path of
Shachtman and Kristol only vindicated the objective significance of
the struggle of Marxism against opportunism.
Throughout its history, the Trotskyist movement has been subjected to
a continuous barrage of dishonest denunciations and vilification from
both Stalinist and capitalist reaction. But to claim that somehow
Trotsky's theory of Permanent Revolution is the foundation for a
policy of "Permanent Conquest" advocated by Washington today is one of
the grossest fabrications yet.
Trotsky elaborated his theory of Permanent Revolution as a
world-historical conception of the relationship between the Russian
revolution and the world revolution; between the democratic and
socialist tasks posed in the backward countries and the role of the
working class as the sole consistently revolutionary class in modern
society. Embraced in practice by Lenin in 1917, this theory became the
guiding perspective of the Russian Revolution itself.
With the bureaucratic degeneration of the USSR, Trotsky defended his
thesis—that the problems of the Soviet Union, and all other
fundamental problems confronting humanity, could be resolved only on
the level of the world economy and through the development of the
international revolutionary struggle—against Stalin's retrograde
theory of "socialism in one country."
To draw some connection between these revolutionary conceptions and
the policy of plunder pursued by the Bush administration by means of a
journalistic turn of phrase is a travesty of historical or political
analysis, and only serves to obscure the ideological roots of the
neoconservative movement. Those who at one point had some connection
with socialist ideas and ultimately came to support Reaganism and now
Bush did so by repudiating Marxism, along with the ideal of social
equality and opposition to imperialist aggression. They could not be
more removed from and hostile to the revolutionary perspective of
Trotskyism remains the authentic contemporary representative of
international socialism. Anyone familiar with the work of the World
Socialist Web Site, which reflects the views of the International
Committee of the Fourth International, is well aware that it has taken
the most intransigent stand against US aggression abroad and the
policies of repression and social reaction within the US. The
foundation for the socialist and internationalist politics of the WSWS
lies in the Trotskyist movement's continuous struggle against
revisionist tendencies—including Shachtmanism—that ultimately reflect
the pressure of hostile class forces upon the revolutionary party of
the working class.
Radiation Effects Research Foundation
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levenson at rerf.or.jp
Zachary.Levenson at gmail.com
"If it looks like class struggle and acts like class war then we have
to name it unashamedly for what it is."
~David Harvey, "A Brief History of Neoliberalism"
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