The New Face of National Review

April 17, 2007

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In one of the more grotesque episodes in the ongoing slide of “conservative” opinion into nonsense and ideology, Stephen Schwartz, in a commentary for National Review Online, offered a flattering depiction of onetime Soviet Communist leader Leon Trotsky (1879-1940). The loser in a power struggle with Stalin after the death of Lenin in 1924, Trotsky in exile, first in Norway and later in Mexico, had warned against the rise and spread of “fascism.” According to Schwartz, who has made a career denouncing the danger of “Islamofascism,” the democracies should have heeded the admonitions of the “antifascist” Communist revolutionary Trotsky. Our own society, contends Schwartz, has had trouble mobilizing against Muslim fascists, because we have been weakened by “neofascists” at home. So-called anti-democrats typified by Pat Buchanan, consider every war against “fascism” the work of Trotsky’s disciples. Hateful rightists are supposedly still blaming Trotsky for a Soviet dictatorship, to which, according to Schwartz, he had contributed only minimally. Were Trotsky still alive, we are told, he would be lending his considerable talents to fighting Islamicists and other rightwing extremists. Schwartz ends his commentary by declaiming:

To my last breath, I will defend Trotsky who alone and pursued from country to country and finally laid low in his own blood in a hideously hot house in Mexico City, said no to Soviet coddling to Hitlerism, to the Moscow purges, and to the betrayal of the Spanish Republic, and who had the capacity to admit that he had been wrong about the imposition of a single-party state as well as about the fate of the Jewish people. To my last breath, and without apology. Let the neofascists and Stalinists in their second childhood make of it what they will.

There are several observations occasioned by this fevered peroration. The least important of them, from the standpoint of my comments, is that Schwartz grossly understates Trotsky’s complicity in the mass murders carried out by his associate, the Communist dictator, Lenin. In the gulags which Lenin and Trotsky, who then headed the Red Army, set up and in the prisons run by the Soviet secret police, alleged enemies of the Communist regime were routinely butchered; and this killing went on even before Stalin had bested Trotsky as Lenin’s successor in the late twenties. Noticing Trotsky’s “anti-fascism” is a bit like praising Hitler for defending Western Christian civilization against Bolshevism or for criticizing the unjust Treaty of Versailles. In both cases relevant parts of the story are left out. As for Trotsky as an opponent of anti-Semitism, his sympathetic Jewish biographer, Isaac Deutscher, admits that he advocated the jailing of Russian Zionists as counterrevolutionaries both before and after his exile from Russia in 1929. Nor is it clear that Ramon Mercader—the Belgian radical and longtime confidant of Trotsky, who murdered him in Mexico City in August 1940—was acting upon orders from Stalin. Even less certain is that his assassin was punishing his host for not supporting the alliance concluded in the summer of 1939 between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany.

But far more noteworthy than Schwartz’s laundered history of Lenin’s accomplice is the fact that National Review published his ode to Trotsky and to the fallen Communist’s antifascist militancy. It is for me hard to believe that such a piece dropped by accident from the sky or that the editors were not looking very carefully at what they posted on June 3, 2003. For decades now, almost all paleoconservative and paleolibertarian authors have been kept from publishing in NR; nor have they been allowed to appear on its online extension, as far as I can determine. The only time that one encounters such reprobates there is when NR’s gatekeepers pull out the names of evil people in campaigns against putative anti-Semites and Arab appeasers. Even a quick survey of NR and the rest of the neoconservative press will reveal that T.S. Eliot, H.L. Mencken, and other heroes of the Old Right have been assigned to eternal perdition, as anti-Semites, Teutonophiles, and /or racists. One might therefore conclude that Trotsky is less offensive than other, more conservative personalities to the editorial boards of National Review, The Weekly Standard, and The New Criterion, despite the fact that neither Eliot nor Mencken was involved in murdering counterrevolutionaries.

One reason for these judgments is the closer correspondence in beliefs between Trotsky and the neoconservatives than between them and Mencken, T.S. Eliot or anyone else revered on the Old Right. What is being suggested is not a total agreement but an overlap between the way the neoconservatives understand politics and history and certain recurrent themes in Trotsky’s view of the human condition. A leftist critic of the neoconservatives, Michael Massing, observed in 1987 in the New Republic how “Trotsky’s orphans” had moved into the camp of Ronald Reagan as the sworn enemies of Soviet “Stalinism.” What had driven them toward the anti-Soviet Republicans was not an imaginary conversion to the Right, but rather hatred for the Soviet government, a regime that had betrayed their vision of revolution.   Internationalism, the call for a world upheaval that would transform pre-modern, anti-egalitarian societies, and the continuing struggle against “fascism,” linked to anti-Semitic, anti-modern regimes, were the ideals that “Trotsky’s orphans” had hoped that Russian socialist revolutionaries would pursue. Since they did not, the incipient neoconservatives became anti-Communists of the Left; and in due course they took over a moribund and highly corruptible “conservative movement.” (My forthcoming book on this movement goes into exactly how this happened.) The fact that Trotsky and the neoconservatives were Eastern European Jews, who had been touched by socialist thinking and who identified traditional nationalism with anti-Semitism, rendered this affinity even more probable.

Among the neoconservative first generation the attraction to Trotskyism had taken concrete form: Irving Kristol had begun his journalistic activities as a Trotskyist; while CUNY professor of philosophy Sidney Hook had spent years trying to vindicate Trotsky’s reputation as a “democratic revolutionary.” Many of the older generation of neoconservatives were members of or very close to the Fourth International that Trotsky had set up as an exile in Mexico. Basic to this rallying of non-Stalinist Communists were the rejection of Stalin’s notion of “socialism in one country” and the insistence that revolutionary socialism must be international and should not identified with any one nation and its interests.

One of the prices that neoconservatives have sometimes had to pay as directors of the “movement” has been to tone down their revolutionary language. But these efforts have not been very successful, and abundant evidence exists that many neoconservatives have never stopped sounding like Marxist revolutionaries. My friend Claes Ryn and I have laced our recent books with quotations from Michael Ledeen, Joshua Muravchik, Alan Bloom, William Kristol, and Robert Kagan. All of the passages in question read as if they came from Trotsky’s Soviet Comintern, the institution that he founded to foment international Marxist revolution. Although I would not deny the presence of other components in what one eulogist calls “the neoconservative vision,” the Trotskyist aspect has never been abandoned completely. The zeal for revolutionary upheaval, summed up by the boast of Michael Ledeen while speaking to the American Enterprise Institute,  that “Destruction is our [America’s] middle name” goes well beyond the parameters of the vision proclaimed by Woodrow Wilson and his followers for a “world made safe for democracy.” Because of his declaration of war against the hated Germans and his extension of the welfare state at the federal level, neocons are happy to identify with Wilson. But their vision includes more than Wilson’s Anglophile policies and his hopes for Anglo-American hegemony. Neocons yearn for a world democratic revolution, a term that one does not find in Wilson or even in FDR. American “national greatness” is measured by Kagan, Kristol, and other neoconservative policy-makers as the willingness to deploy American armies and to lavish revenues on a continuing crusade to remake the world.  

Such journalists are also no more nationalist than was Trotsky, who saw Russian soldiers simply as a means toward a modernizing revolution that had to be exported to other countries. The talk by the neocons and their dependents that the U.S. was founded as a “propositional nation” is a Trotskyist ploy, to deny the country in which they find themselves and which they have come close to taking over propagandistically a true national character. Like Soviet Russia, the U.S. is a means toward a universalist end, which can only be advanced through revolutionary violence. It is a measure of the utter worthlessness of the American establishment Right that it mistakes such radical left lunacy for a conservative teaching consistent with our national traditions.

Two final observations seem in order. One, it is possible to have adapted Trotsky’s thought without having taken away what neoconservatives now believe. One Catholic of English descent, James Burnham, had been Trotsky’s leading disciple in the US in the 1930s. Although Burnham had drifted away from Marxist-Leninism, even before Trotsky’s assassination, he continued to write on the Trotskyist theme of how the Soviet experiment had been “derailed bureaucratically.” From Burnham’s Trotskyist phase came his continuing interest, which he eventually carried over to the Right, in the managerial transformations of democracy and socialism. Both of these themes informed Burnham’s classic The Managerial Revolution, a work that decisively shaped the thinking of his later right-leaning disciple Sam Francis. But the Trotskyist imprint on the neoconservatives is of another kind. It reflects their passion for universal revolution and an instinctive repugnance for things as they are, unless neoconservative revolutionaries are causing things to happen. This vision is also distrustful of national identities, unless they are founded on revolutionary slogans—with the obvious exception of a Jewish state in the Middle East.

Two, the designation of neoconservative thought and politics as Trotskyist does not exclude the possibility that they resemble other revolutionary ideologies. Ryn, for example, has stressed the parallels between neoconservative rhetoric and that of the radical wing of the French Revolution, the Jacobins, who planned the invasions of neighboring countries to spread the blessings of revolutionary France. The proposed fit is not hard to make, and not insignificantly, two years ago on a visit to France, our Secretary of State, who often sounds like a neoconservative, praised the French government for having been established on a “universal revolutionary tradition” similar to ours. Like the Trotskyists, the admirers of the Jacobins try hard not to notice the butchery carried out in the name of the causes that they imagine are good for us. (The Jacobins executed over 100,000 in their own country alone, including mothers and babies, as enemies of their “universal” values.)

Yet it seems to me that the Jacobins, like Woodrow Wilson, may have been a derivative influence for neoconservative thinking. More primal was their hero Trotsky, who incidentally saw the Jacobins as a model for Bolshevizing Russia and the rest of the world. The fact that neocons deviated from his plan for public ownership of productive forces does not mean that they gave up on the bigger picture. If “democratic capitalism,” which means in effect the enforcement of cooperation between public administration and large corporations, can be used to penetrate and break down traditional societies, then it would serve the same modernizing end as the one that Marxists attached to full-blown socialism. English historian John Laughland has aptly summed up this neocon adaptation of Marxism as “using modified capitalism to attain revolutionary ends.” An Australian scholar Philip Ayres begins a description of the neoconservative worldview for the Spring 2006 issue of the (Australian) National Observer with this perception: “In fact they were not really conservative at all. They included a number of former Trotskists (such as Irving Kristol and Christopher Hitchens) whose real loyalty in some cases was, and remained, to a strange form of utopianism that transformed their old Trotskyist notion of the ‘permanent revolution’ into an ongoing ‘spreading of democracy and freedom’ a the solution to the world’s woes.” Ayres merits praise for noting the obvious, a practice that the captive American Right has still not picked up. 

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