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Are Trotskyites Running the Pentagon?

As a scholar researching for several decades the migration of United States intellectuals from Left to Right, I have been startled by the large number of journalistic articles making exaggerated claims about ex-Trotskyist influence on the Bush administration that have been circulating on the internet and appearing in a range of publications. I first noticed these in March 2003, around the time that the collapse of Partsian Review magazine was announced, although some may have appeared earlier.

One of the most dismaying examples can be found in the caricatures presented in Michael Lind's"The Weird Men Behind George W. Bush's War" that appeared in the April 7, 2003 issue of the New Statesman. Lind states that U.S. foreign policy is now being formulated by a circle of"neoconservative defence intellectuals," and that"most" are"products of the largely Jewish-American Trotskyist movement of the 1930s and 1940s...." Moreover, Lind claims that their current ideology of"Wilsonianism" is really Trotsky's theory of the permanent revolution mingled with the far-right Likud strain of Zionism."

However, I am not aware that anyone in the group of"neoconservative defence intellectuals" cited by Mr. Lind has ever had an organizational or ideological association with Trotskyism, or with any other wing of the Far Left. Nor do I understand the implications of emphasizing the"Jewish" side of the formula, although many of these individuals may have diverse relations to the Jewish tradition--as do many leading U.S. critics of the recent war in Iraq.

Mr. Lind's misleading representation of political biographies and theories of the group he calls the defense intellectuals stems from his eclectic use of the term"neoconservatism." Today the label appears as a catch-all phrase applied to diverse right-wing intellectuals, many with little palpable connection to the famous neoconservative movement that coalesced in the 1970s. The latter were one-time liberal intellectuals who shifted sharply to the Right in response to perceived excesses of 1960s radical movements.

True enough, after World War II, a number of one time Trotskyists, like others of their generation, moved in a conservative direction. The most notable, National Review supporters Max Eastman and James Burnham, were neither Jewish nor neoconservative, although they advocated a Bush-like foreign policy. In the Cold War era, Sidney Hook, a sympathizer of Trotskyism in the mid-1930s, and Irving Kristol, a member of a Trotskyist faction ("Shermanites") in the late 1930s and early 1940s, became militant Cold Warriors. Although both were deradicalized before the 1960s, these two are much identified with the original neoconservatism of the 1970s. However, Kristol's son, William, now editor of the influential Weekly Standard, was never on the Far Left, let alone associated with Trotskyism. Likewise, Elliot Cohen, who founded Commentary in 1946, had been a Trotskyist sympathizer in the early 1930s. But neither his eventual successor, one-time liberal Norman Podhoretz, nor Podhoretz's son, John, had any such Marxist proclivities.

Equally misleading is the glib equation of the defense intellectuals'"Wilsonianism" with Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution. Whatever the relevance of Trotsky's theory might be today, the original idea addressed the relationship of class forces in the economically underdeveloped world. It was Trotsky's strategy for escaping from Western domination, not expanding it, and the argument was that poor countries could only become genuinely independent by breaking radically with the"free market," not by embracing it. Any association with current"Wilsonianism" is far-fetched.

I certainly agree with Mr. Lind that we need to find out"Who is making foreign policy?" and"what are they trying to achieve?" But his amalgamation of the defense intellectuals with the traditions and theories of"the largely Jewish-American Trotskyist movement" is singularly unhelpful.

Editor's Note

Several individuals have asked about the relation of"Shermanites" to"Shachtmanites" in Alan Wald's piece about alleged Trotskyists among the"Defense Intellectuals." Wald replies:

"Sherman" was the Party name of of PHILIP SELZNICK (born Philip Shachter in 1919). He became a young Trotskyist around 1937 and joined Max Shachtman's Workers Party (WP) when it split from the Socialist Workers party in 1940. Opposed to Shachtman, Selznick immediately organized a faction within the WP known as the"Shermanites." Supporters of the Shermanites included Selznick, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Seymour Martin Lipset, Marvin Meyers, Peter Rossi, Martin Diamond, Herbert Garfinkel, Jeremiah Kaplan, and Irving Kristol--all of whom became well known as historians, social scientists, and publishers. Both the young Irving Howe and Max Shachtman himself vigorously opposed the Shermanites in various debates. Among other things, the Shermanite group considered itself revolutionary but"anti-Bolshevik," which complicates a simple view of them as"Trotskyists."

The Shermanite grouping quickly left the WP and published the magazine ENQUIRY from 1942 to 1945. A full set of the journal has been reprinted, and abundant documentation about the faction exists. Selznick himself became a Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley and was a supporter of the Free Speech Movement.