When neoconservatives perish, do they share the same circle of hell as Leon Trotsky, or that of Joseph de Maistre? Is their sin one of revolutionary hubris, or militant reaction? It is a staple of both liberal and right-wing critics of neoconservatism that it is a mutation of Trotskyism, a 'foreign' revolutionary doctrine overthrowing classically American conservative discourse. Justin Raimondo's informative and entertaining discussion of the late Irving Kristol is an example of such an attack from the libertarian right but, as his linkage makes clear, the analysis is broadly shared by liberals such as John Judis.
Raimondo's judgment is harsh, but unconvincing: "What the neocons did was simply switch allegiances from the old Soviet Union to the United States, taking their hotheaded Trotskyist temperament with them – and finally aspiring to lead a world revolution with the United States government at its head." This will not do, for a number of reasons. The first reason it will not do is that it implies that "the neocons" were, all of them, former Trotskyists. This happens not to be the case. The first generation of neoconservatives did include a number of people who had once been Trotskyists, including Irving Kristol, the subject of Raimondo's obituary. It also includes those who had never been anything of the sort, such as Midge Decter, Norman Podhoretz, James Q Wilson, Michael Novak, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. I am hardly being exhaustive here. The neoconservative pedigree includes centrist liberalism, as well as right-wing anti-communism. The idols of today's neoconservative movement are 'muscular' empire-builders such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR and Ronald Reagan. None of today's influential neoconservatives have any grounding in Trotskyism. Wolfowitz was trained by the conservative philosopher Leo Strauss, Feith was educated by the anticommunist historian Richard Pipes, Libby was a Dukakis Democrat, Perle was a Henry Jackson Democrat, the young Abrams was a liberal anticommunist who worked with Moynihan and Perle, Robert Kagan has always been a Republican while his daddy was never more radical than the Democratic Party mainstream, and David Frum at his left-most was a young member of Canada's New Democratic Party, hardly a Trotskyist trojan horse. Even those lesser figures such as Joshua Muravchik and Carl Gershman who were influenced by the Shachtmanites tend to have come in contact with the latter as members of the Socialist Party during a period in which the latter were aligned with the right-wing leadership and propounding little but hardline anticommunism.
The second difficulty is that of those neoconservatives who had experience in the Trotskyist movement, it may be questioned just how much "allegiance" they had to the USSR to "switch". The point about Trotskyism, even in its more eccentric variants, was that it was profoundly critical of the Soviet Union in a way that neoconservatives never have been about American society. Indeed, Raimondo concedes this and tacitly confutes his own point when he argues that: "The main goal of the neoconservatives during the Cold War era was the elimination, by military means, of their old nemeses, the Stalinists." So did they switch allegiances from Stalinism, or just find a new means of belabouring their long-standing Stalinist enemies? Did they even bother, at any point following their rejection of Trotskyism, to distinguish between Stalinism and communism as such?
The third problem is that the role of the early Trotskyism of some neoconservatives is in danger of being massively over-stated. Daniel Bell joined the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL) when he was thirteen, but was not a Trotskyist for more than a few months before siding with the right-wing of the Socialists. Irving Kristol and Philip Selznick were also YPSL members and Trotskyists during their college years but had left by the end of the 1930s, and had rejected marxism entirely. By the end of WWII, neither were socialists. Gertrude Himmelfarb had been a teenage Trotskyist in the 1930s, but no longer was when she graduated from Brooklyn College and married Kristol in 1942. Jeanne Kirkpatrick joined YPSL briefly as a college freshman, but it is not clear how much sympathy she had with Trotskyism. Her later political career unfolded in the right-wing of the Democratic Party, where she described herself as a supporter of Hubert Humphrey. In those prominent cases where an involvement with Trotskyism can be established, it was brief in light of their overall career, and did not follow them into full adulthood.
Raimondo is right to emphasise divisions over World War II, and particularly the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and what this revealed about the nature of the USSR, as one decisive factor in turning Trotskyists into ex-Trotskyists. Trotsky and his followers still maintained that the USSR was a degenerated workers' state. Others, such as Max Shachtman and his supporters, felt that the pact showed that the USSR was no kind of workers' state, but a new kind of class society that they called 'bureaucratic collectivism'. Those who went on to become neoconservatives, however, did not bother with such distinctions. The problem, Philip Selznick explained in his contribution to The Neoconservative Imagination, was that marxism and revolutionary politics itself was tainted at source. Their disillusionment did not, therefore, involve transferring 'utopianism' from one plane to another. Bell, meanwhile, rejected any form of revolutionary politics very early on, concluding from the actions of the USSR (and of Trotsky over Kronstadt) that revolution was both an impossible dream and an unliveable reality. Kristol and Selznick concluded that Stalinism was no aberration, but the result of an attempt to impose a utopian blueprint on a species unprepared for it. They went on to become Cold War liberals.
Indeed, most of the early neoconservatives had spent decades as Cold War liberals before moving to the hard right. They had learned from Reinhold Niebuhr about the propensities for evil that were present in the human make-up and the impossibility of eradicating domination and coercion from human affairs. They learned to "take evil seriously", as Selznick has it, perceiving it as a real moral force corrupting people and communities from within. This evil could not be abated by social engineering. Neoconservatism adopted this profound pessimism. Far from being hubristic or 'revolutionary', it is profoundly respectful of tradition and institutions with longevity. The neocons espoused a culturalist reading of social institutions, in which the good or bad within any society was the result of certain cultural practises acquired over centuries. They tend to invoke something they call "Judeo-Christian morality" as the name for those cultural practises. Capitalism itself has been the subject of a religious defence by the neoconservative theologian Michael Novak, though neoconservatives in general have tended to worry, just as their liberal imperialist forebears such as Tocqueville and Teddy Roosevelt did, that capitalism's onus on individualism is a potentially decadent force. Contrary to Raimondo's suggestion, it is this concern, rather than support for the "welfare-warfare state", that led Kristol to offer only Two Cheers for Capitalism (a collection of articles originally written for the Wall Street Journal). In fact, if one theme dominates Kristol's argument in the cited text, it is that he cannot abide the "welfare state".
Far from bringing a "hot-headed" "temperament" with them, the ex-Trotskyists among the neoconservatives became very traditionalist in the face of African American rebellion and student uprisings. Kristol in particular was deeply sceptical of radical challenges to American society, hated those who were "arrogant toward existing authority", and became a 'realist' as far as international relations was concerned. Influenced by Hans Morgenthau, he was open to criticisms of the war on Vietnam, but he preferred the cool power-balancing strictures of 'realism' to anti-imperialist denunciations of US power. Far from frothing about the potential for the US to democratise the world, he asserted that American domination was needed because some societies were unfit for 'decent self-government'. He asserted the need to face "the harsh and nasty imperatives of imperial power". He and his colleagues went on to defend class hierarchies, advocate traditional gender roles, and blame the poor lot of African Americans on their cultural inhibitions.
There are, to be sure, neoconservatives who speak of a "global democratic revolution", most notably Michael Ledeen. However, he has never been a Trotskyist. He was influenced by Italian fascism in his youth, which he considers to have been truly revolutionary before it took power, but he makes it clear that he considers the 'revolution' he speaks of to be a distinctly American affair, rooted in its "historic mission" and traditions of "creative destruction". And in light of America's actual history, he can hardly be called a liar. The mainstream of neoconservatism, however, has always styled itself as a counter-revolutionary movement. When they defended American support for death squads and dictatorships during the Cold War, for example, their rationale was that in supporting even imperfect authoritarian structures they would avoid the nightmare of revolutionary 'totalitarianism'.
It is, after all this, a rather surprising conclusion that militant defenders of capitalism, of religion, of 'Judeo-Christian values', and of the authority of the state, the police, the schools, and fathers, are really the unacknowledged offspring of a Russian revolutionary.