Saturday, September 19, 2009
Transformations of Trotskyism: Irving Kristol (1920-2009) and the neoconservtives
Irving Kristol (1920-2009) with George W. Bush
Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism and father of Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, passed away on Friday. Kristol was known as the movement's Godfather because of the prominent role he and his wife Gertraud Himmelfarb played in promoting the movement and creating a professional network among its practitioners. Kristol performed that role from his various perches over the years at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Commentary, The Reporter, The Public Interest and The National Interest. Kristol in 1953 also founded a magazine called Encounter under the auspices of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a European-based cultural group whose members suffered some embarrassment when the group's CIA funding became public knowledge in the 1960s.
The New York Review of Books has made available several of its older articles on Kristol at its Web site. John Kenneth Galbraith reviewed Kristol's book Two Cheers for Capitalism in the Review's 04/20/1978 issue, A Hard Case. Kristol in that book was making a defense of neoclassical economics, which largely ignores the implications of corporate domination of markets and essentially negates the existence of marketing. But Kristol also made some concessions to views like Galbraith's that took serious account of those factors. Galbraith argues that Kristol does not want to concede that some of Kristol's own critical perspectives imply that "the corporation is the enemy of the market by which he defends the corporation." And Galbraith explains that in doing so, Kristol invokes the image of the New Class. Although their destructive contributions to foreign policy are the most notable piece of their disastrous legacy and continuing influence, neocons also have contributed other important notions to "movement conservatism" and the Republican Party. The New Class is one of them.
So, deliberately or unconsciously, he comes up with another inimical force where the corporation is concerned. It is the professors, journalists, scientists, assorted pundits, whom he groups together as the New Class. They react adversely to the corporation partly out of a sense of inferiority, partly out of envy of executive pay and expense accounts, partly out of a defensive reaction to the economic preoccupations of the corporation and specifically to its service to the consumer economy. This, in contrast with the concerns of the mind or soul, the New Class holds to be vulgar. Derived from these attitudes are an excessively costly concern for the environment (which Mr. Kristol, after conceding the adverse effect, would leave entirely to his market), a prodigal attitude toward public services and the welfare state, and a generally feckless commitment to closing tax loopholes and redistributing income. The need, he believes, is for a strenuous effort by business and its friends to educate the New Class ... [my emphasis]One lasting legacy of the first generation of neoconservatives, of which Kristol was one of the most prominent, is that they had been Troskyists in the 1930s. Leon Trotsky lost out in the internal power struggles inside the Soviet leadership in the 1920s and Trotsky himself emigrated from the USSR. He had followers in many places 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.
Leon Trotsky, born Lev Davidovich Bronstein (1879-1940)
In what may have been originally a case of the "narcissism of small differences", they tended to be more upset by what they saw as the betrayal of the Revolution by Stalin and the Soviet-line Communist Parties than they were about the capitalists in their own countries. I once saw a definition of Trotskyism that said Trotskyists supported revolution in every country except where one was actually taking place. This referred to a prominent characteristic of Trotskyist intellectuals, which is that they 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.
For Irving Kristol and for others who shared his trajectory from Troskyist to neoconservative, it didn't seem to be a difficult transition from being the true communists who were bitterly opposed to the Stalinist brand of Communism (along with anything and anyone that might give it the slightest support) to being just bitterly anti-Communist in a Joe McCarthy mode.
In another of the New York Review articles, An Anti-Intellectual Intellectual 11/02/1995, Theodore Draper describes Kristol's earlier years:
Irving Kristol belongs to a remarkable generation which came of age in the City College of New York just before the Second World War. Among his friends at the time were Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, a somewhat younger Nathan Glazer, and others who have made careers of distinction and influence. They were embryonic Jewish American intellectuals, who went to City College because it was the only college that would take them in or they could afford.Draper himself was a Jewish member of the Communist Party in the 1930s. After he left the Party, he distinguished himself as a critical historian of the US Communist Party. Though unlike people such as Whittaker Chambers or David Horowitz who defined themselves in their public persona as being repentant ex-radicals who became super-conservatives, Draper became a critical-minded liberal historian. (Though the Communist Party didn't much appreciate his reality-based histories of their movement.)
Draper makes an observation that I don't recall hearing before, that it was the US Socialist Party leader Michael Harrington that first labeled Kristol and his like-minded associates "neoconservatives". Draper notes that Harrington didn't mean it as a compliment. But, as sometimes happens with these things, the neoconservatives themselves wound up adopting the description as a self-designation. In the early 1970s, Kristol joined AEI, which is now informally known as Neocon Central.
Draper explains how the idea of the New Class worked in the neocon framework of Trotskyism transmuted into conservatism:
One of Kristol's main ideas was that of the "new class." The term had been used by Milovan Djilas for the Soviet and Communist bureaucracy. Kristol applied it to "a goodly proportion of those college-educated people" who make up the "scientists, teachers and educational administrators, journalists and others in the communication industries, psychologists, social workers, those lawyers and doctors who make their careers in the expanding public sector, city planners, the staffs of the larger foundations, the upper levels of the government bureaucracy, and so on." These people represent a "quite numerous," "indispensable," and "disproportionately powerful class." They "do not 'control' the media, they are the media - just as they are our educational system, our public health and welfare system, and much else." ...It's sociological and empirical problems aside, this view of a New Class provides a valuable propaganda framework for the Republicans' rightwing-populist appeals in which workers are encouraging to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with plutocrats and Christian Right leaders against the snobbism, elitism and contempt supposed imminating from this arrogant New Class against them. While we don't often hear the term "New Class" from the teaparty movement or Republican politicians like Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin, they actually make use of a framework much like this. Providing some kind of intellectual coherence for that framework has been one of the main influences of Irving Kristol and his fellow neoconservatives.
It worth noting Draper's reality-based judgment on Kristol's version of this New Class notion:
Kristol's ideological theses of the 1970s seem in retrospect to be little more than political fantasies. There never was such an almost irresistible drive for power by liberal intellectuals, and they never came close to achieving such an end. His words, reprinted now, seem like echoes of a mythological past.Draper finds Kristol's claims that his religious outlook is Orthodox Jewish unconvincing, as well as weirdly inconsistent with this praise for Christian conservatism. Here I have to wonder if the influence of Leo Strauss' ideas on the value of the rulers deceiving the population who are uncapable of assimilating the higher truths practiced by the rulers may not have had some effect on Kristol's ideas on the value of religious belief in society. Sidney Blumenthal in his book The Rise of the Counter-Establishment (1986) focused on the history of the neocons, including Irving Kristol. Strauss is a major influence on the neocons, and Blumenthal points to his particular emphasis on Kristol. Especially Strauss idea of virtue, which Bluenthal describes as "a harmonious balance within society, achieved by a higher morality promoted by the state."
Draper writes, "What is clear is Kristol's receptivity to almost any kind of religious orthodoxy, whether Christian or Jewish." Because Jewish and Christian orthodoxies are mutually exclusively, the idea that Kristol was looking for Straussian virtues in religion seems to be a good possibility.
The Trotskyist polemical habits of the neocons is also one of their most dubious contributions to American politics. When Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, rant about socialism and communism and fascism and liberalism and Nazism as though they were all some interchangable mismash of Bad, I have to wonder how someone with that perspective could make even general sense out of the world of the last century.
But intellectuals like Kristol also contributed to this bizarre mode of thinking. (Or, in this case, not thinking.) In the run-up to the Iraq War, neocons commonly accused opponents of the war of being "objectively" pro-Saddam, a weasily way of calling them traitors. As Blumenthal points out, this idea was common in the Marxists polemics in which later neocons like Kristol and Norman Podhoretz participated in the 1930s. The German Communist Party (KPD) attacked the Social Democratic Party (SPD) for being "objectively" pro-fascist because the SPD opposed the KPD. This was a concept of Hegelian descent, in which a person for groups might think of themselves subjectively as favoring a certain position, while the inevitable consequences of their positions or actions was objectively promoting a different result. The Communist Parties attacked the social-democratic parties like the SPD as "social fascists", an expression of their alleged "objectively" pro-fascist position. Trotskyists and Soviet-line Communist chronically accused each other of being "objectively" pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist, pro-fascist, etc.
Blumenthal argues that this notion, particularly in relation to Soviet Communism which was still the neocons favorite bogeyman as it had been when they were Trotskyists, was a very important element in neocon thought, the idea "that the liberals are 'objectively' contributing to the Communist cause" by opposing the neocons' worst-case-scenario, aggressive and militaristic notions of combatting Communism (and later The Terrorists):
Neoconservatism is the final stage of the Old Left [of the 1930s], 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. [my emphasis]It would probably have been more accurate in 1986 to say that neoconservatism was the only major element in US politics so inclined. With Glenn Beck as a high-profile cheerleader for a John Birch Society-style ideology playing a major role in today's Republican Party, neocons are not the only significant faction with such a worldview. In the case of both neocons and Birchers, the demise of their main bogeyman, Soviet Communism, hasn't seemed to have much altered their basic outlook.
In an odd historical refraction, the neoconservatives regularly denounce liberals employing a tactic that bears a through-the-looking-glass resemblance to that of "social fascism." But instead of exposing liberals as dangerously disguised agents of fascists, neoconservatives now unmask them as helpers of Communism. The chief doctrinal device used to prove the point is the notion of "moral equivalence." Many liberals, the neoconservatives claim, criticize official policy by somehow equating the Soviet Union and America, "objectively" aiding the other side. This is "social fascism" upside down and, therefore, can be called the ideological technique of "social communism." [my emphasis]Draper writing in 1995 suggested that the "neo" part of the neocon label is misleading in that they could also be seen as regular old conservatives but with a Trotskyist stylistic edge:
The term "neo" implies that something new is being added to conservatism. In fact, however, Kristol is almost always proposing something old. He is an advocate of nostalgia, of turning the clock back, of returning to the past.But Beck, like the neocons, can be expected to go on hurling such accusations, dishonest or incoherent thought they may be.
Tags: neoconservatives, trotskyism
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