Saturday, August 15, 2015

Strange Paths of Trotskyism (1 of 2): Trotskyism and American neocons

I came across a current article on an Argentine website about Troskyism in relation to present-day electoral politics there, which I will discuss in the second post.

I recently referenced a brief and unsympathetic definition of Trotskyists as the people who support revolution everywhere except where there's one going on.

They're purists, in other words. No popular movement, no militant union, no reform, no actual revolution is ever pure enough for them. Trotskyism often finds itself in agreement with rightwingers in attacking left-leaning movements and governments.

I wrote here about Trotskyism and one of its many offshoots, American neoconservatism, in Transformations of Trotskyism: Irving Kristol (1920-2009) and the neoconservtives 09/19/2009. (My description of Trotskyism here is partially adapted from that post.)

Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) lost out in the internal power struggles inside the Soviet leadership in the 1920s and Trotsky himself emigrated from the USSR. Josef Stalin, the main winner of the power struggle, had first met Trotsky in Vienna in 1913 in a residence at Kolschitzkygasse 30. They disliked each other from the start. Trotsky was an on-again, off-again ally of Lenin for years. When the October Revolution came, Trotsky was the most visible Bolshevik leader next to Lenin. He became head of the Red Army. Stalin was a longtime Bolshevik activist and leader. Exactly how important his role was in 1917 was a matter hotly disputed in the later glorification of Stalin and the polemcis with Trotsky and his followers.

Trotsky had supporters in many countries including the United States, which he had visited before the October Revolution. Although Trotskyists were radical left critics of capitalism and considered themselves to be the true custodians of Lenin-style Communism, they were also known for their bitter polemics against "Stalinism" and anything they associated with it. Trotskyists set up leftwing parties to compete for support on the left with the Soviet-line Communist parties.

In what may have been originally a case of Freud's "narcissism of small differences", the Trotskyists tended to be more upset by what they saw as the betrayal of the Revolution by Stalin and the Communist parties than they were about the capitalists in their own countries. Trotskyist intellectuals were exceptionally fond of ideological arguments. Part of guarding their purity was to be sure to denounce ideological deviations in any revolutionary process in any part of the world as early as possible. Political principles that are too pure to be realized in practice are conveniently free from being discredited by actually being put into effect.

This kind of criticism is also useful for conservative or liberal critics of left governments and movements. When the Soviet Union was still around, Trotskyist criticisms of the Soviets had the value for the USSR's opponents of being a way of accusing the Soviet leadership of being big old hypocrites. Not that politicians of any kind are ever lacking when it comes to accusing opponents of hypocrisy. But the Trotskyist narrative played a particularly useful role in that regard when it came to the Soviet Union.

Sidney Blumenthal in The Rise of The Counter-Establishment (1986), Sidney Blumenthal talks about the Trotskyist background of American neoconservatives. He talked about a dinner in 1985 honoring the memory of Whittaker Chambers, whose "pumpking papers" decisively helped Richard Nixon become a national figure:

At the 1985 dinner the featured speaker was Richard Nixon, who was presented with a scroll making him an honorary member. By these rituals the Irregulars commune with the spirit of Whittaker Chambers, who progressed from Bolshevik to conservative, from true believer to true believer, and whose act of hiding stolen government documents in a pumpkin patch inspired the group's name. The neoconservatives, too, are witnesses, and the conversion from left to right is the central political experience in their lives. These are people for whom card-carrying membership still has meaning. [my emphasis](p. 122)
The neoconservatives he discusses there were the "first generation" of that particular trend, including people like Irving Kristol, who actually had been Trotskyists in their younger days. Blumenthal frames their ideological positioning this way:

Neoconservatism is the final stage of the Old Left, the only element in American politics whose identity is principally derived from its view of Communism. Like the conservatives, the neoconservatives depend upon their enemy for their own definition. ... The conservatives believe that the Liberal Establishment has been running the country. Neoconservatives add to this general notion the belief that liberals are either a species of Stalinist fellow traveler or operate "objectively," whether they know it or not, in the broad interest of the Soviet Union. Conservatives would like to believe this, too. But the neoconservatives, many with the benefit of the Trotskyist background, offer an unmatchable authenticity and intensity on the subject. (p. 130) [my emphasis]
And he describes Irving Kristol (the father of William "Butcher's Bill" Kristol) this way:

In his attempted unification of the higher and lower realms of politics, it was apparent that Kristol still believed that while philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it. "We studied radicalism in the 1930s," he said. "It was great training in polemics and sustained political analysis. Being a Trotskyist was highly intellectual. I learned a lot. The neoconservatives are the political intellectuals, and that's what the Trotskyists were. Not the Communists. The Trotskyist movement produced political intellectuals, which is why so many went into sociology and achieved distinction. It was much more rigorous intellectual training than you could get in college. If someone came up with some matter on which you were not well read, my God, you were humiliated. It was jesuitical. The Republican Party, meanwhile, produced antipolitical intellectuals. Those people are not in my tradition."

The neoconservatives are the Trotskyists of Reaganism, and Kristol is a Trotskyist transmuted into a man of the right. He remains a free-floating, intense political intellectual in the vanguard. (p. 154) [my emphasis]
The "paleo-conservatives" who draw their inspiration more from the isolationist Old Right of the immediate post-Second World War period, still like to insult neocons by calling them Trotskyists.

Emir Sader made this useful summary of an essay by a well-known Troskyist named Isaac Deutscher (From Ex-Leftists to Anti-Leftists Monthly Review 13.06.2012:

Isaac Deutscher has an article entitled "Heretics and Renegades," delineating the path of people who begin by breaking with left-wing theories and positions and end up becoming fanatical anti-leftists. They are characters who have, over time, populated the Right all over the world.

Some of them took advantage of Stalinism in order to condemn Lenin and, eventually, Marx and Marxism. It's no accident that a non-negligible proportion of them have Trotskyist origin. Proceeding to equate Stalinism with Nazism in order to absolutize "Stalinist totalitarianism" was already a step toward liberalism and anti-communism.

Here's a standard type: those who are on the Left, even militantly so, suddenly "repent," drop everything, deny and denounce their pasts and their comrades, the idols whom they worshipped blindly, in order to surrender themselves -- together with their arms, history, and, frequently, work -- to the Right.

Some of them remain on the Left, in its most moderate corner, denouncing, in a strongly anti-left tone, what's not "democratic" in the currents of the Left itself. They are loud advocates of alliances with centrist and even right-wing currents, and they tend to dilute the distinction between Left and Right. [my emphasis]

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