February 10, 2004

Is neoconservativism a Trotskyist plot?

This week's The Nation has a book review that is not to be missed: A Tragedy of Errors by Michael Lind, a former editor of The National Interest, reviewing David Frum and Richard Perle's manifesto of neoconservativism An End to Evil. I found it via Early Days of a Better Nation.

Good bits:

Nevertheless, the origins of their ideology on the left are still apparent. The fact that most of the younger neocons were never on the left is irrelevant; they are the intellectual (and, in the case of William Kristol and John Podhoretz, the literal) heirs of older ex-leftists. The idea that the United States and similar societies are dominated by a decadent, postbourgeois "new class" was developed by thinkers in the Trotskyist tradition like James Burnham and Max Schachtman, who influenced an older generation of neocons. The concept of the "global democratic revolution" has its origins in the Trotskyist Fourth International's vision of permanent revolution. The economic determinist idea that liberal democracy is an epiphenomenon of capitalism, promoted by neocons like Michael Novak, is simply Marxism with entrepreneurs substituted for proletarians as the heroic subjects of history.


The influence of Marxism is particularly evident in neoconservative conceptions of patriotism. In The Weekly Standard of last August 25, Kristol published an essay titled "The Neoconservative Persuasion" (evidently someone had neglected to inform Kristol, "the godfather of neoconservatism," about the new party line that neoconservatism does not exist). Among what Kristol calls "the following 'theses' (as a Marxist would say)" is his claim that "large nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns. Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces, external or internal." Therefore the United States should "defend Israel today...no complicated geopolitical calculations of national interest are necessary" (an odd sentiment from the former publisher of a magazine called The National Interest, of which I was executive editor from 1991 to 1994). Let us set the question of Israel aside for now, and note that very few Americans think of their country as a version of the USSR with liberal democracy instead of Marxism-Leninism as the official ideology--probably as few as think of American foreign policy in terms of "'theses' (as a Marxist would say)."
The redefinition of American patriotism as zealotry on behalf of a crusading, messianic ideology is compatible with a disrespect for actual American institutions, which, if it were expressed by leftists or liberals, would be denounced as un-American by neocon arbiters of American patriotism like Frum, a Canadian who bothered to become a US citizen only after he'd served in the Bush White House.
I've long dreamed of seeing someone ask David Frum just what his mother would say about his politics if she were still alive. Unfortunately, few Americans have ever heard of Barbara Frum, so no one does.
In theory, neoconservative ideology is more compatible with Israeli post-Zionism than with either the Labour Zionist or Revisionist Zionist forms of Israeli ethnic nationalism. The neocons are always denouncing American "paleoconservatives" for claiming that US nationality must be founded on race (Caucasian) or religion (Christianity)--and yet they defend Israeli politicians and thinkers whose blood-and-soil nationalism is even less liberal than the "Buchananism" the neocons denounce in the US context.
Policy towards Israel comes in for some more bashing:
Unlike Brooks, Douglas Feith does not lie about the nature of Israeli nationalism. In an address he delivered in Jerusalem in 1997 titled "Reflections on Liberalism, Democracy and Zionism," written before he became the third-most-powerful official in the Pentagon, Feith denounced "those Israelis" who "contend that Israel like America should not be an ethnic state--a Jewish state--but rather a 'state of its citizens.'" Feith argued that "there is a place in the world for non-ethnic nations and there is a place for ethnic nations." Feith's theory, unlike that of Brooks, permits pro-Likud neocons to preach postethnic universalism for the United States and blood-and-soil nationalism for Israel. While solving one problem for the neoconservative movement, Feith creates others. He legitimizes identity politics, which the neocons despise--how can one justify Israel-centered Jewish ethnoracial nationalism while denouncing Afrocentrism or the sinister neo-Nazi idea of an "Aryan-German" or "Nordic" diaspora in the United States? Even worse, Feith's theory seems to endorse the false claim of anti-Semites that Jews are essentially foreigners in the nations in which they are born or reside. Indeed, according to the Jabotinskyite ideology shared by Sharon, Netanyahu and many (not all) of their neocon allies, there are only two kinds of Jews in the world: Israelis and potential Israelis. For generations, many if not most Jewish Americans have rejected this illiberal conception.
And ending with the aknowledgement that neocons like David Brooks are denying that the neo-cons actually exist:
David Brooks and his colleagues in the neocon press are half right. There is no neocon network of scheming masterminds--only a network of scheming blunderers. As a result of their own amateurism and incompetence, the neoconservatives have humiliated themselves. If they now claim that they never existed--well, you can hardly blame them, can you?
I feel, perversely, the urge to defend Marxism from the arguments Lind deploys against neo-cons, but as a summary of Leninist and Trotskyist tactics, it's not so far off base. To view the state as inherently ideological is certainly a defensible position. To view its primary function to be the propagation of an ideology is not. States are at their most effective when they are very conservative institutions, devoted not to the expansion of their ideologies or those of their citizens but to the perpetuation of the conditions for their existence. Posted 2004/02/10 12:25 (Tue) | TrackBack

I gather that this is a common theme on the Libertarian right - somehow, some filthy Marxist strain has gotten into their beloved conservatism and perverted it.

"The fact that most of the younger neocons were never on the left is irrelevant; they are the intellectual (and, in the case of William Kristol and John Podhoretz, the literal) heirs of older ex-leftists."

That's a good point, but it omits to say that many so-called neoconservatives are straightforwardly of the paleoconservative American nationalist tradition (Rumsfeld). Others are more or less of the liberal Republican variety (Rice). Most neoconservative literature lauds the achievements of Ronald Reagan.

Possibly some of the idiom of Marxism has creeped into the new imperialism, but I think it's unlikely that anything of substance in Marxism remains embedded in neoconservatism.

Posted by: lenin at March 11, 2004 21:27

Loved the article?very insightful.
I will start with an oversimplification?then I?ll attempt to elaborate.
I don?t agonize over who the ?real neocons? are now?.because as you so cleverly point out?they don?t admit who they are and they are really just ?riding the tide?.

What we should concern ourselves with?is how the tide formed, and where is it going?.and how to keep it from washing us out of our homes.

I look at the ?new neocon movement? as really a combination of ?bad business? or ?capitalism gone bad? mixed together with the theory that ?good capitalism should be shared by all?. Obviously the 2 don?t mix and this doesn?t make sense. Bad business should not be spreading bad capitalism.

Evidently the ?original neocons? became strange bedfellows with Reaganomics and the Republican party in general because it represented an ideal ?growth chamber?. Actually, the original form of Reaganomics wasn?t all that bad?but it quickly progressed to ?Reaganomics gone mad? (too much of a good thing?).

Meanwhile the country developed into a funk of ?bad business habits?. What we live in now is a culture of bad business (championed to a great extent by Limbaugh)?..promoting that much more bad business through tax cuts and further promoting the mantra that growth is good, and power is good. Notice how growth in this regard is ?chemically compatible? with what comes next?.the idea that ?all should share in the goodness?.

You?ve pointed out the roots of various aspects of this convoluted thinking?and I see in much the same way, except I note more simplistic ?chemical reactions? that have taken place.

In other words, you took the original neocons, you mixed in Reaganomics, you put it in an environment of the Republican party which is pretty much oblivious to taking on a wacky ideological direction provided that they remain in power?and then you mix a whole lot of Limbaugh as flavor enhancer and filler and bring it all out for serving through W. Bush and a global war on terror.

I look at all of this as being an intense combination of all the wrong things at all the wrong times. Many get too wrapped up in what specific historical events precipitated where we are today?but they don?t understand who?s behind the ?power? and the direction that it is taking. So rather than think about all that water under the bridge, why don?t we think about what the solution is.

This also is an oversimplification?.you fix the ?bad business? part of capitalism?.and all this goes away?because good business?based in Total Quality, doesn?t exploit growth for the sake of growth?it gives good products for the sake of good products. Ultimately, there no longer exists the psychotic need to ?look elsewhere? for the answer to how capitalism ?finally grows itself into something good?.

Propping up more money to the top doesn?t help any of the business end or the people either. Having a middle class which exists solely on ?purchasing power? doesn?t make for good business.

Let us somehow?.someway?..find a way to endorse and promote ?good business?.

Posted by: wadestock at August 19, 2004 21:54
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