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"Inverted" Trotskyism

A more sophisticated version of the "Trotskyist neocon" assertion focuses not on the pasts of individual neoconservatives but on the impact that Trotskyism has supposedly had on neoconservatism as a school of thought. This "neoconservatism-as-inverted-Trotskyism" approach is best exemplified by JP Zmyrak in his article entitled "America the Abstraction", which appeared in Pat Buchanan's The American Conservative, as well as in a follow up piece, "Lies, Damn Lies, and Anti-Semitism", that was posted on the website of the America's Future Foundation. Zmyrak maintains that the former Trotskyists who became Cold War anti-Communists, such as Kristol, Sidney Hook (who in fact was never a Trotskyist), and particularly James Burnham, brought with them a "… strong tendency towards pure abstraction, towards viewing national questions purely in ideological terms…." [19] According to Zmyrak this abstractionism would later become a hallmark of neoconservatism itself, and "…in some respects mirrors the Trotskyism [the neoconservatives] once held." [20]

While more sophisticated than the smears of the polemicists, this version of the assertion is perhaps even more flawed with regards to a connection between Trotskyism and neoconservatism. The "inverted" thesis has its roots at least in part in the academic works on neoconservatism that appeared in the 1990s. In particular, it can be traced back to Garry Dorrien's The Neoconservative Mind (1993), which Zmyrak cites in his article, and to a long book review by John B. Judis of John Ehrman's The Rise of Neoconservatism, entitled "Trotskyism to Anachronism: The Neoconservative Revolution" that appeared in Foreign Affairs in 1995. In his book, Dorrien argues for the centrality of James Burnham, who in the 1930s was a leading intellectual and leader of the American Trotskyists, as an ideological precursor of the neoconservatives. One of Dorrien's main contentions -- which is unfortunately not developed systematically but instead sprinkled frustratingly throughout the book -- is that through Burnham and later Irving Kristol, neoconservatism retained the "..rhetorical methods…" and "…chief concepts…" of Trotskyism. [21] This is evident in Burnham and Kristol's aggressive polemics and above all in their "contempt" for liberalism, which was brought over, according to Dorrien, directly from Trotskyism.

In his Foreign Affairs book review, Judis uses the same methodology as Dorrien with regards to the legacy of Trotskyism on neoconservative thought, and is more explicit in using the term "inverted Trotskyism". Writing specifically on the neoconservative view of foreign policy, Judis maintains that, "Neoconservatism was a kind of inverted Trotskyism, which sought to ‘export democracy', in Muravchik's words, in the same way that Trotsky originally envisaged exporting socialism", and that, "… [the] neoconservatives who went through the Trotskyist and socialist movements came to see foreign policy as a crusade, the goal of which was first global socialism, then social democracy, and finally democratic capitalism. They never saw foreign policy in terms of national interest or balance of power." Behind this lay the fact that, "What both the older and younger neoconservatives absorbed from their [Trotskyist] past was an idealistic concept of internationalism." [22]

The main weakness of the Dorrien/Judis approach used by Zmyrak is, ironically, its own excessive abstractionism. The approach is based precisely on abstracting Trotskyism from the concepts that define it as a Marxist political ideology, such as the anti-capitalist class struggle and proletarian internationalism, and those that define it as a specific school within Marxism, such as the need for a Fourth International and the transitional program. As archaic and even quixotic as those principles seem, without them the term "Trotskyism" is reduced to a meaningless label. It then becomes deceptively easy to refer to anything as "inverted Trotskyism", from an aggressive polemical style and "contempt" for liberalism as argued by Dorrien, to an "idealist" concept of internationalism as argued by Judis. But what does that really say? Can such commonplace characteristics and widely held viewpoints seriously be considered in any way specific to, or constitutive of, Trotskyism as a political ideology? This approach focuses on elements that are at best incidental to Trotskyism, and for that reason it implies more than it can demonstrate and misleads more than it illuminates. This is even more the case when we consider that very few neoconservatives were ever Trotskyists. It perhaps goes without saying that this type of abstractionism is disastrous as an approach to history, but is tailor-made for making sensationalistic accusations.

Permanent Confusion

Paul Wolfowitz

The final variation of the "Trotskyist neocon" assertion is the one that received much attention during the debates over the war in Iraq, and which contributed the most to the assertion's current widespread popularity. It is also perhaps the most confused. The contention here, as ludicrous as it may seem, is that neoconservatives in the US Defense Department, such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle, are surreptitiously implementing Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution from the White House. [23]

This charge is associated primarily with the liberal pundit Michael Lind, who in a much quoted article in the New Statesman from April of this year wrote that, "…neoconservative defence [sic] intellectuals…call their revolutionary ideology 'Wilsonianism' (after President Woodrow Wilson), but it is really Trotsky's theory of the permanent revolution mingled with the far-right Likud strain of Zionism". [24] Even before Lind, however, the charge had already been made by Paris-based columnist William Pfaff, who had written in the International Herald Tribune in December of 2002 that, "The Bush administration's determination to deal with its problems through military means [….] seems a rightist version of Trotsky's "permanent revolution," destroying existing institutions and structures in the millenarian expectation that all this violence will come to an end in a better and happier world." [25] As recently as this past August, Pfaff was still insisting in the IHT that neoconservatives, "…are influenced by the Trotskyist version of Marxist millenarianism that was the intellectual seedbed of the neoconservative movement." [26]

Yet if anti-neocon liberals such as Lind and Pfaff -- together with an assortment of conspiracy theorists [27] -- have done the most to popularize the idea that neoconservatives adhere to the theory of permanent revolution, it is again the paleoconservatives that deserve the credit for coining the idea -- or at least some of the credit, for the actual origins are more varied than one would imagine. Paleoconservative criticism of the aggressive internationalism championed by some neoconservatives dates back to the origins of their dispute in the early 1980s. But at that time, neoconservatives were only being accused of "neo-Wilsonianism". Explicitly equating the belief in promoting a "global democratic revolution" with Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution is a much more recent invention that started during the debates over how to respond to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 -- and it has some rather surprising roots.

In September of 2001, just a few weeks after the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the paleoconservative author Joseph Stromberg devoted an article on the LewRockwell.com web site to attacking a piece by neoconservative scholar Michael Ledeen entitled "Creative Destruction: How to wage a revolutionary war". Ledeen's main argument was that it was "…time once again to export the democratic revolution" as the best way to defeat the terrorists. [28] Polemicizing against this view, Stromberg questioned whether Ledeen's approach stemmed from "Schumpeter or Bakunin" and decided it was neither. Stromberg then quoted a Yugoslav bureaucrat from the 1960s, Edvard Kardelj, who at the height of the Soviet-Chinese dispute sought to discredit the "Chinese line of exporting the revolution by force" by labeling it as "Trotskyite". Stromberg, who at least gives credit to Commissar Kardelj, then went on to -- incredibly -- choose that very same label to smear Ledeen and the neoconservatives. Given these methods, one should perhaps refer to the paleocons as the "inverted Titoists" of conservatism!

In reality, while Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution can be called many things, including irrelevant, it has nothing whatsoever to do with exporting revolution. Much less does it extol upheaval for its own sake or the inherent virtues of violence and destruction -- something more akin to a blend of Georges Sorel and Frantz Fanon than to Trotskyism. As defined in its final form by Trotsky in the late 1920s, the theory of permanent revolution held that in third world countries, attempts to carry out the tasks of the "bourgeois-democratic" revolution, such as land reform and "authentic" national independence, would fail unless those attempts led to the seizure of power by the working class through a socialist revolution. [29] Rather than a theory of "exporting revolution", Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution is above all a theory of the possibility of socialist revolution in the third world through combining and passing over the "historical stage" of a "bourgeois-democratic" revolution.

The claim that neoconservatives derive their view of foreign policy from an inversion of the American Trotskyists' call for permanent revolution in the 1930s and 40s is thus deeply flawed right from the start: Permanent revolution was never about using the Red Army to spread socialism. The Trotskyist movement's actual conceptual framework and political activity in the 1930s and early 40s consisted of trying to bring about world-wide revolutions "from below" as the way to break the Soviet Union out of its isolation and achieve world socialism. Calling for the Stalinist bureaucracy to export socialism by bayonet would not only have had nothing to do with permanent revolution, it would have been suicidal to boot! [30] It was, after all, that same Stalinist bureaucracy that the Trotskyists were seeking to overthrow through "political revolution" in the USSR, and which was itself actively strangling revolutions and annihilating Trotskyists wherever it could, from Siberia to Spain to Vietnam.

Even if one were to accept, for the purpose of example, that Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution was based on an idealist internationalism that called for the military expansion of the USSR, the anti-neocons would still be mistaken in their claim that there is a single neoconservative approach to foreign policy that emerged as an inversion of this theory. One need only note that Irving Kristol, the supposed "arch-Trotskyist" according to the paleocons, has never adhered to an internationalist or "crusading" view of international relations. Kristol has instead argued for a "global unilateralism", a hybrid view based on the criteria of American national interest, something which situates him closer to foreign policy realism than to an idealist focus on "global democratic revolution". [31] As John Judis himself pointed out in an earlier, more measured article, even James Burnham, often considered a forerunner to the neoconservatives, viewed American foreign policy, "…not in terms of a Wilsonian quest for global democracy, but in terms of American national interest." [32] And Burnham was once a leader of the American Trotskyists.

On the other hand, Joshua Muravchik, one of today's leading neoconservative foreign policy intellectuals, who does indeed argue for a "democratic internationalism", is not now nor has he ever been a "Trotskyite", "Shachtmanite", or a supporter of any of Trotsky's theories -- least of all his theory of third world revolution. The same applies to all the other second generation neoconservatives both in and out of the White House such as Ledeen, Wolfowitz, Perle, Douglas Feith, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and former director of the CIA, James Woolsey. Beyond just a massive misreading of Trotsky, it is simply a lack of common sense to maintain that today's neoconservatives, all leading figures in the most powerful capitalist democracy in the history of the world, have been in any way influenced by a theory whose staunchest partisans have included insurgent Bolivian miners in the 1950s, Peruvian peasant militias in the 1960s, urban guerrillas in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s, and which today still has adherents among the many rabidly anti-American academics that can be found on university campuses throughout the world.

What paleoconservatives and anti-neocon liberals are really referring to when they talk about "permanent revolution" is a straw-man construct that could more accurately be labeled "perpetual war". This construct is then attributed to neoconservatives as "proof" that they have been influenced by Trotskyism. And just as this construct has no similarity to either neoconservatism or Trotskyism, one cannot help but notice the just as obvious lack of similarity between it and the current National Security Strategy being implemented by the Bush administration. Claims of a "perpetual war" waged by the Pentagon and of endless adventurism against all and sundry courtesy of the "War Party" stand in stark contrast to the actual course of American foreign policy since the formal end of the war in Iraq, in which diplomacy (backed by credible examples of force) has far outweighed military action.

Recognizing this fact does not entail glossing over the difficulties that the Bush administration faces -- and will continue to face if re-elected -- in the design and pursuit of its foreign policy objectives. Nor does it entail ignoring the fact that, as part of the ongoing war on terror, military force may well have to be used again in other parts of the world. What it does entail is seeing through the profoundly nonsensical notion that a desire to implement Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution is motivating US foreign policy, rather than the need for a strategic response to a radical Islamist terrorism that has already taken the lives of over 3 000 Americans and many others around the world. And given this deadly menace, what further motivation could possibly be needed?

Ultimately, regardless of what aspect of the theory one chooses to examine, there is no real substance to the "Trotskyist neocon" assertion. Whether the result of polemical excess or simply the quest for spiced-up prose, the assertion is essentially a collection of fabrications, exaggerations, and distortions. It combines the historically inaccurate with the intellectually sloppy. Lost amidst all the abstraction and distortion are the real, distinct, and -- save for a few tenuous connections -- unrelated histories of neoconservatism and American Trotskyism.

What makes all this so ironic is that it is the paleoconservatives and anti-neocon liberals themselves who not so long ago marched together with Trotskyists -- the real ones that is -- in opposition to the toppling of Saddam's dictatorship in Iraq. Even more, they have featured articles attacking US foreign policy by prominent long-time Trotskyists on the very same web sites in which they have accused neoconservatives and the Defense department of… Trotskyism! Amidst the shrillness of their accusations one thing is certain: the "Trotskyist neocon" assertion is without a doubt one of the major oddities of recent American intellectual life.

Bill King lives in Surrey, BC.

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1 Sam Tanenhaus, "Hello to All That: The irony behind the demise of the Partisan Review", Slate, April 16, 2003, http://slate.msn.com/id/2081610 (April 24, 2003).

2 Jeet Heer, "Trotsky's Ghost Wandering the White House", National Post, June 7, 2003; Jim Lobe, "What is a neo-conservative anyway?", Asia Times Online, August 13, 2003, http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Front_Page/EH13Aa01.html, (August 14, 2003).

3 Dimitri K. Simes, "America's Imperial Dilemma", Foreign Affairs, November-December 2003, p. 95.

4 Stephen J. Tonsor, "Why I Too Am Not A Neoconservative", National Review, June 20, 1986, p.55.

5 Leon Hadar, "The "Neocons": From the Cold War to the "Global Intifada"", WRMEA, April 1991, http://www.washington-report.org/backissues/0491/9104027.htm (May 10, 2003).

6 Alexander Bloom, Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals & Their World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 369.

7 See Paul Gottfried and Thomas Fleming, The Conservative Movement, (Boston: Twaine Publishers, 1988), and Gottfried, The Conservative Movement, Revised Edition, (New York: Twaine Publishers, 1993), p. 161.

8 Paul Gottfried, "The Trotsky Hour", Lewrockwell.com, March 6, 2003, http://www.lewrockwell.com/gottfried/gottfried46.html, (May 10, 2003).

9 Daniel McCarthy, "Springtime for Trotsky", Lewrockwell.com, Nov. 6, 2001, http://www.lewrockwell.com/dmccarthy/dmccarthy23.html, (May 10, 2003).

10 Leon Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism. (New York: Pathfinder, 1990), p.63.

11 Alan M. Wald, The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930's to the 1980's (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), p.350.

12 Seymour Martin Lipset, "Steady Work: An Academic Memoir", Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 22, 1996, pp. 1-27.

13 Gary Dorrien, The Neoconservative Mind (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), p. 71. See Enquiry, vols. 1-2, 1942-45, particularly the articles by Philip Selznick.

14 Robert Alexander, International Trotskyism: 1929-1985 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), p. 812-813. See also Eric Chester, Socialists and the Ballot Box (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1985), pp. 135, 146.

15 Srdja Trifkovic, "Neoconservatism, Where Trotsky Meets Stalin And Hitler", Chronicles Extra, July 23, 2003, http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/News/Trifkovic/NewsST072303.html (July 27, 2003).

16 Justin Raimondo, "Smoking Gun", Anti-war.com, May 9, 2003, http://www.antiwar.com/justin/j050903.html, (May 10, 2003).

17 A compelling case can be made that the legacy of Shachtmanism is found not in the right wing of social democracy, but in the International Socialist current that split from the SP-SDF/YPSL in the early 1960's and was led by long-time Shachtmanite Hal Draper. See Alexander, Trotskyism, p.899, and also Milton Fisk, Socialism from below in the United States: The origins of the International Socialist Organization (Cleveland: Hera Press, 1977).

18 Joshua Muravchik, "Socialists of America, Disunited", The Weekly Standard, August 28, 2000, http://www.aei.org/news/newsID.11887,filter./news_detail.asp, (May 15, 2003).

19 J.P. Zmirak, "America the abstraction", The American Conservative, January 13, 2003, http://www.amconmag.com/01_13_03/cover7.html (July 26, 2003).

20 J.P. Zmirak, "Lies, Damned Lies, and Anti-Semitism", America's Future Foundation, July 24, 2003, http://www.americasfuture.org/viewBrainwash.cfm?pubid=215 (July 26, 2003).

21 Gary Dorrien, Neoconservative, pp.381, 36.

22 John B. Judis, "Trotskyism to Anachronism: The Neoconservative Revolution", Foreign Affairs, July/August, 1995, http://www.foreignaffairs.org/19950701fareviewessay5058/john-b-judis/trotskyism-to-anachronism-the-neoconservative-revolution.html (April 24, 2003).

23 Through an approach that resembles "six degrees of separation" more than historical research, it has been suggested that because Wolfowitz, Perle, and James Woolsey were influenced by military strategist Albert Wohlstetter (who was not a neoconservative) in the 1970's and 80's, and because Wohlstetter had in the 1930's belonged to a breakaway Trotskyist splinter group, that this therefore demonstrates a link between neoconservatism and Trotskyism. See Heer, "Trotsky's Ghost". For Wohlstetter, see Wald, Intellectuals, p. 107.

24 Michael Lind, "The Weird Men Behind George W. Bush's War", New Statesman, April 7, 2003, http://www.newamerica.net/index.cfm?pg=article&pubID=1189, (April 24, 2003).

25 William Pfaff, "Al Qaeda vs. the White House", International Herald Tribune, Dec. 28, 2002, http://iht.com/articles/81589.html (April 24, 2003).

26 William Pfaff, "The philosophers of chaos reap a whirlwind", International Herald Tribune, August 23, 2003, http://www.iht.com/articles/107407.html, (August 25, 2003).

27 For a cringe-inducing article on George W. Bush's supposed adherence to Trotskyism, see Ted Rall, "Permanent Revolution", Progressive Populist, Feb. 19, 2003, http://www.populist.com/02.19.rall.permawar.html, (April 24, 2003).

28 Joseph Stromberg, "Neocons and Total War", LewRockwell.com, Sept. 27, 2001, http://www.lewrockwell.com/stromberg/stromberg21.html (April 24, 2003); Michael Ledeen, "Creative Destruction", National Review Online, Sept. 20, 2001, http://www.nationalreview.com/contributors/ledeen092001.shtml (April 24. 2003).

29 See Leon Trotsky, Permanent Revolution (New York: Merit, 1969).

30 It is true that the Trotskyists' "dual theory" of Stalinism (opposing the bureaucracy but "defending" the nationalized economy) led them to offer post-fact justifications for the Soviet invasion of Finland in late 1939. However, offering justification for an invasion is not the same as advocating that invasion, nor does it mean that they proactively called for such invasions in general as the way to advance world revolution. It is also worth noting that the justifications were accompanied by warnings from Trotsky that such "shameful" military actions on the part of the Stalinist bureaucracy would end up harming the "degenerated workers' state". See Leon Trotsky, Writings: 1939-40 (New York: Pathfinder, 1973), pp.142-143.

31 See Christopher C. DeMuth (ed) The Reagan Doctrine and Beyond (Washington DC: AEI, 1987), pp.21-30.

32 John B. Judis, "Apocalypse Now and Then", The New Republic, August 31, 1987, p.29

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