Trotskyists in the White House? A recent article in the Canadian National Post suggests that President Bush's advisors were influenced by Leon Trotsky, the big loser in the Bolshevik power struggle after Vladimir Lenin's death, hounded out of the country by Stalin and eventually murdered by Stalin's agents in 1940. Although the link between dedicated Communist Leon Trotsky and the conservative Bush administration is tenuous, the author, Jeet Heer, pursues the link with zeal. According to him, Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz frequently consult an Iraqi-American intellectual, Kanan Makiya, who was once a Trotskyist. In addition, Christopher Hitchens, another former Trotskyist, serves the White House as an "ad hoc consultant." Finally, Wolfowitz in particular worked with some former Trotskyists during the early 1970s, in the offices of Senator Henry Jackson. Jeet Heer makes great efforts to insinuate that these former Trotskyists served as a transmission belt for Trotskyist ideas, especially the idea of 'pre-emptive war,' which were then used by White House officials for their own conservative purposes.
In other words, the article's a smear job, albeit an unusual one. Bush administration attacking Iraq? That's because of any legitimate reasons, but because Bush has been influenced by a bunch of leftover Communists gone right-wing but still retaining elements of their peculiar Commie philosophy. The argument, of course, is bunk. Christopher Hitchens' influence in the White House has been greatly exaggerated, while Kanan Makiya's Trotskyist past has been irrelevant for decades. Also, the last time I checked, pre-emptive war isn't solely a Trotskyist idea. Nor is it a particularly prominent one. Yet I'm sure the National Post article will be added to the pile of 'evidence' accumulated by the one group of the population who cares about such arguments, the isolationists led by Pat Buchanan and conspiracy-mongers like Antiwar.com's Justin Raimondo. Although supposedly to the right, that crowd spends most of its time attacking conservatives, claiming that true conservatism has been hijacked by a cabal of 'neo-conservatives'.
One of the isolationists' key arguments is that that the neo-cons are all secretly Trotskyists; more to the point, Jewish-American Trotskyists. (Many commentators have noticed the isolationist right's tendency to use 'Jew', 'neo-conservative', and 'Trotskyist' interchangeably.) According to Justin Raimondo, although they were no longer seeking world socialism, these ex-Trotskyists kept their decidedly un-conservative Trotskyist tactics - nothing had changed but the name of the enemy. Many articles can be found that repeat this same tired theme.
The conspiracy theories of Raimondo and company have legs, because they're built on a small foundation of facts. Prominent conservatives were Trotskyists at one point in their lives, including James Burnham, Irving Kristol, and the Middle East expert Stephen Schwartz. So have much less prominent conservatives - namely, myself. Before I became a conservative, I was a member of the Communist League of Canada, a minor political sect with bookstore-based offices in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. The Communist League is the Canadian affiliate of the New York-based Socialist Workers' Party, which was once the largest and main Trotskyist party in the United States. Trotsky himself helped establish the Socialist Workers Party in the late 1930s from his final home in Mexico.
Although both the Communist League and the Socialist Workers Party began quietly dropping the Trotskyist label around 1990, the other members reassured me repeatedly that this was merely a tactical issue. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they felt that they could claim the sole mantle of Communism for themselves, and avoid confusing a working class that had never heard of Trotsky. And make no mistake - Trotskyism is a variant of Communism. This shouldn't be glossed over; ex-Trotskyists like myself are ex-Communists. But let me also make this clear - the transformation from Trotskyist to conservative involves a fundamental break with the main tenets of Trotskyism. By suggesting that a conservative can remain in some way a Trotskyist, the isolationist right traffics in oxymoron, and their conspiracy theories fail bitterly.
To understand this, we have to look at the two main aspects of Trotskyism itself: on the one hand, its opposition to the crimes of Stalinism and the totalitarian, Stalinist regimes; on the other, its opposition to the system of capitalism and its desire for international Communist revolution. Both of these aspects are essential to Trotskyism; neither are unique to it. Take away the opposition to Stalinism, leaving only the revolutionary opposition to capitalism behind, and you're left with any of a hundred other varieties of Communism, including Stalinism itself. Remove the opposition to capitalism and the desire for international Communist revolution, leaving only the opposition to Stalinism, and you're left with what could be any of a hundred different political ideologies, from the social democratic anti-Stalinists in the American labor movement to the isolationist Right anti-Stalinists of the John Birch Society, or anywhere in-between. Trotskyism requires both forms of opposition to be recognizable as Trotskyism: opposition to Stalinism and opposition to capitalism. Commitment to Communism and revolution is an essential component of Trotskyism.
I want to take the time to explain this, because Jeet Heer's June 7th article has generated some controversy. In the original article, conservative author Stephen Schwartz, an ex-Trotskyist who has become both a respected figure on the Right and a frequent contributor to FrontPage Magazine, said he saw "a psychological, ideological and intellectual continuity" between Trotskyism and neo-conservatism. He went on to explain that there were two things neo-conservatives and Trotskyists had in common: "the ability to anticipate rather than react and the moral courage to stand apart from liberal left opinion when liberal left opinion acts like a mob." Two days letter, an article appeared in National Review Online, criticizing Jeet Heer's piece. Written by Hoover Fellow Arnold Beichman, it quite succinctly took the National Post article apart and exposed it as the smear job it was. Two days after that, Stephen Schwartz responded angrily in National Review Online, accusing Beichman of slandering not Trotsky, but all former leftists influenced by Trotsky. He argued that there was no need for former Trotskyists to renounce their pasts, that Beichman was demanding an apology for something not warranting an apology, and that he would defend to his last breath "the Trotsky who alone [sic.] said no to Soviet coddling of Hitlerism, to the Moscow purges, and to the betrayal of the Spanish Republic, and who had the capacity to admit he had been wrong about the imposition of a single-party state, as well as about the fate of the Jewish people."
This whole tempest in a teapot raises several questions. Do former Trotskyists have anything to apologize for? Is there really any continuity between Trotskyist ideology and neo-conservatism, as Stephen Schwartz suggests? Is Trotskyism and Trotsky himself worth defending?
The short answers - a qualified no, no, and no.
First off, is there anything for Trotskyists to apologize for? Even if they weren't members of the Communist Party, they were Communists, so why shouldn 't they have to publicly recant and apologize for their beliefs? The answer lies in the difference between thought and action. Trotskyism is a form of Communism, and Communism is an evil philosophy. Although its adherents believe it will bring about a better world, and adopt it because they naively want to do good, in practice it always ends badly, not due to failures of any particular implementation of Communism, but due to the basic character of the Communist philosophy itself. But I can't condemn someone for being naïve, even someone naïve enough to become a Trotskyist, as long as they aren't personally supporting or committing evil acts. Therefore Communist Party apologists for Stalin and his crimes owe the world a mea culpa that Trotskyists critical of Stalin do not. Communist Party members who spied for the Soviet Union owe the world a debt that Trotskyists do not. As long as a Trotskyist isn't supporting or supported by totalitarian foreign powers, the only question we have to consider is this: are they doing any evil at home?
The answer: not much. This might hurt the feelings of Trotskyists past and present, but Trotskyism has never been influential in the United States. They led one general strike in Minneapolis in the 1930s, and were responsible for the construction of one of the many anti-Vietnam War coalitions in the late 1960s. Perhaps they led a couple of other localized labor actions. But that's largely it. From time to time, they pop up in a campaign large enough to be noticed by the press; today, far-left groups with a Trotskyist past like the Workers World Party are far more influential than any actual 'Trotskyists.' But none of these groups has ever been able to put together even 2,000 members nation-wide, at any time in their histories from founding to present. Their protests, like the recent anti-war protests put together against Operation Iraqi Freedom, were full of sound and fury, but ultimately, they signified nothing. When I was a leftist, I can't think of a single issue where I actually affected something. Neither can any other Trotskyist. Despite their ludicrous claims that their protests stopped the Vietnam War, or the more recent claim that they prevented the Bush administration from invading Syria, the achievements of the Trotskyist left add up to null. Therefore, what have they got to apologize for? Thought crimes?
As far as I'm concerned, there's only a few qualified instances where a Trotskyist might actually do something worthy of an apology. First, they might cross the line into violent action; domestic terrorism sprouted from the far Left in the early 1970s, and there's no guarantee it won't again. For instance, the members of the Workers World Party who helped incite prison riots during the 1970s should be held accountable. Secondly, they might ease up on their Trotskyist critique of Stalinism, and begin treating Stalinist regimes uncritically, out of the pure psychological need to have some revolution, any revolution, that can serve as a role model. For instance, I owe the world an apology for my and the Socialist Workers Party' s uncritical support for totalitarian Cuba. To my shame, I defended an evil regime; luckily, I don't think anyone actually was convinced by my defense. Last of all, Trotskyist groups can collude directly with a hostile foreign power. For instance, the leaders of the Workers World Party have made numerous trips to North Korea and the Middle East, as Steven Schwartz himself has noted in FrontPage. If they're receiving money from foreign powers, they need to be held accountable. (Which may very well be the case; in National Review Online, Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest-ranking intelligence officer to ever defect from the Soviet Bloc, claimed that the Workers World Party was entirely a construct of the KGB.)
Despite these unsavory connections, the historical record of Trotskyism in the United States is worthy of nothing more than a halfhearted shrug. Trotskyists who avoided treason and violence did little harm at most. Therefore it's not hard to look back at one's days as a Trotskyist as a bit of a youthful lark, enabling even a conservative giant like Irving Kristol to say, "I regard myself to have been a young Trotskyite and I have not a single bitter memory." And why not? They didn't support existing totalitarianism abroad and, despite their own horror-show politics, were too ineffective to mess up things in America itself. Having done no evil and having supported no evil, Kristol can treat his Communist past as an amusing interlude if he likes. And I can look back on my period in the Communist League and say to myself "no harm done - thank God." Knowing what I do now, I would have preferred to avoid my time in the Communist League - the money I sank into dues and fundraising drives could have bought a car - but its impact on society was zero.
But can we say there's continuity between Trotskyism and neo-conservatism, as Stephen Schwartz claimed? Kristol did become a prominent conservative, as did Schwartz. Again, the answer is no, because nothing unique to Trotskyism survived their political transformation. Once the desire for revolution passed, and the opposition to capitalism faded - in other words, once the Trotskyists became less naïve - they completely ceased to be Trotskyists. All that remained was their anti-Stalinism, and that wasn't unique to Trotskyism; instead, it was shared by many conservatives with no experience with the Left. The two things Schwartz claims were taken from Trotskyism by neo-conservatives aren't particularly unique to Trotskyism, either: "the ability to anticipate rather than react" is found in energetic people from all points of the political spectrum, and "the moral courage to stand apart from liberal Left opinion" wasn't just practiced by Trotskyists, but also by conservatives completely separate from the Left. The number of conservatives coming over from the Trotskyist Left was significant, but limited; many more were conservative all their political lives. The zeal, drive, and moral courage of modern conservatism therefore only obliquely comes from Trotskyism; the bulk of it comes from the conservative tradition itself. Remember, the ex-Trotskyists joined the conservative movement, and not the other way around.
Last of all, is Trotskyism and Trotsky worth defending? Once again, no. Certain aspects of Trotskyism were worth defending, in particular his opposition to Stalin - for that, Trotsky can be praised, and on that basis alone, Trotskyists are less repugnant than the Stalinists of the Communist Party. But those actions of Leon Trotsky can't be separated from his basic Communist philosophy, and the evil empire he helped construct in the 1910s and 20s. Unlike Irving Kristol, Stephen Schwartz, and, far less importantly, myself, Trotsky was in a position to put his ideals into action. Trotsky was Commander in Chief of the Red Army; and Trotsky therefore shares some responsibility for the 20th century's bloody Communist mess. His correct evaluation of Stalin no more absolves him than a convict's time off for good behavior does for his crimes; anti-Stalinism makes Trotskyism no more palatable than welfare reform made the eight years of the Clinton administration.
When Stephen Schwartz writes that he will defend Trotsky to his last breath, and "[l]et the neofascists, and Stalinists in their second childhood, make of it what they will," I must respectfully disagree. Trotsky's simply not worth it; the good points of Trotskyism weren't unique, and the bad points outweigh the good. But I disagree even more strongly with the attempts of the isolationist Right to slander good conservatives with a philosophy they've left behind, and stronger still with any suggestion that these former Trotskyists in America must perpetually apologize for their past, forever excluded from the realm of 'real' conservatives. The works of someone like Stephen Schwartz, who has contributed so much to our knowledge of Wahhabist Islam, speak far more eloquently than any writing he could do about his Trotskyist past. Critics of him or any other ex-Trotskyist conservative ought to direct their attention, not on former Trotskyists who changed their ideology for the better, but those ex-Trotskyists, ex-Communists, and other former radicals who left their organizations only to slither into the ranks of the Democratic Party, to continue advocating the same hard-left ideology behind a 'liberal' mask.