The Trotskyist Origins of US Neo-Cons

The Permanent Managerial Revolution

By Gwydion M. Williams

 I’ve always suspected that the Trotskyism’s real objection to ‘Stalinism’ was that Marxism under Stalin got rather too working-class. It ceased to be something dominated by the dissident intelligentsia. Marxist workers declined to be dominated, and the working class in general refused to take Trotskyism seriously. Some have carried on regardless, but a lot of the disappointed Trotskyists have migrated to somewhere where they’d be appreciated. Which often meant the Hard Right: not the unimportant neo-fascist types but the people who had actual power within the society and who also disliked the idea of sharing with those below them.

The Hard Right had lots of capable organisers, but rather few apologists who could present their activities as something more than greed and bullying. That was where well-educated and articulated migrants from the Left came in useful. Or at least were useful until some of the ‘practical men’ started acting as if their advisors knew what they were talking about.

“The official exoteric story is that there is really no such creature as a neocon, it’s all an “anti-Semitic” conspiracy theory dreamed up by Pat Buchanan and myself. The Iraq war was driven, not by highly-placed individuals with a specific agenda, but by historical necessity: the necessity, that is, of responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The neoconservative vision, they innocently aver, is based on building “democracy” not only in the Middle East, but throughout the entire world, and establishing what they call the “benevolent global hegemony” of a rising American Imperium, an “empire of liberty”…

“Trotsky, always sensitive to the charge by Stalinists and their fellow travellers that he was really a bourgeois traitor, had always insisted on defending the Soviet Union “against the Stalinists and in spite of the Stalinists.” But with the Nazis and the Commies now in alliance against the Western democratic powers – and poor little Finland in the Soviets’ sights! – how was it possible to any longer defend the “workers’ fatherland”? That’s what Max Shachtman and James Burnham, two of Trotsky’s top disciples in America, wanted to know. Trotsky, for his part, could give them no answer they found satisfactory, and so the Trotskyist movement split, with Shachtman and Burnham leaving the Fourth International’s American grouplet, known as the Socialist Workers Party, and founding the Workers Party. Burnham departed the newly-minted party almost as soon as it was set up, going on to translate his anti-Stalinism into a full-fledged and full-throated anti-Communism by joining the CIA and winding up as a top editor at National Review. (The Cult of Power: From Leon Trotsky to Paul Wolfowitz. Justin Raimondo (2004))

I’d assume there would be anti-semitic suspicion of the ‘neocons’, who are mostly ethnic-Jewish. Of course most Jews in the USA still vote Democrat. The success of the mostly-Jewish Neocons is due to a serious deficiency of intelligent non-Jews in modern Republican circles.

It is also part of a wider pattern. There would have been little serious intellectual activity in 20th century USA without the Jewish input; nor would US culture have got so widespread. Consider Hollywood—anyone can make a film, but the films the public really like tend to be made by Jews. Spielberg and Lucas, among others—and Lucas’s Jedi is a name that seems like a hybrid of Jewish and Judean, so it goes. Anyway, the ‘neocons’ are one aspect of a much wider process, most of it connected to the liberal-left. As a group, US Jews are a hold-out of the values of ‘Old Europe’, the very thing that the neocons want to destroy.

[A mistake here – Lucas is not Jewish]

A top-20 of US SF writers would probably be more than half Jewish, which isn’t true of British SF. Most of them—especially Isaac Asimov, the undisputed Number One, have values very different from the Neocons. Look at SF writers close to the New Right position, some of whom were operating while the Neocons were still Trotskyists, or maybe not even born. Robert E. Heinlein was the most prominent non-Jew among US science-fiction writers. Still, there is an interesting synchronicity with neocon success, suggesting it is something basic to US culture.

As for ‘conspiracy theorists’, this nowadays gets shouted every reasonable suspicion of conspiratorial links that the authorities want to deny. Real conspiracies happen all the time. Well before 1914, a clique of leaders in Liberal Party pre-planning a war against Germany, though not of course the war they actually got.. The Germans in the Great War planning to break enemy by ‘war of attrition’ at Verdun; in fact both sides bled and survived. The French maybe planning something similar at Dien Bien Phu, only Dien Bien Phu fell to the Viet-Minh and it was the end of their Indochina empire. Hanoi was definitely involved from the beginning in the insurgency in South Vietnam, and turned out to have placed its agents all over the place. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there were people who claimed that the ‘Star Wars’ anti-missile system was always intended to outspend them and push them into bankruptcy.

The proper definition is that Conspiracy Theorists believe in the existence of groups that other people don’t regard as important: or else attribute aims to them for which there is no good evidence. Neither of these apply to the Neocons: they are the only people who try to play down their own role, and I’ve not seen much dispute about what their overall purpose is. The purpose is bloody obvious and is the classic purpose of the Hard Right: more power and wealth for people like themselves.

Even when the Neocons praise democracy in the abstract and condemn disobedient democracies as dictatorial, they are merely being typical of US politicians as a whole. No original sins.

I was interested to note the link to Burnham. James Burnham wrote The Managerial Revolution, a book that helped to define the technocratic mixed-economy system that lasted from the 1940s to the 1970s. Its values have been so thoroughly absorbed that we nowadays fail to realise why it once had an effect. As George Orwell put it:

“James Burnham’s book, The Managerial Revolution, made a considerable stir both in the United States and in this country at the time when it was published, and its main thesis has been so much discussed that a detailed exposition of it is hardly necessary. As shortly as I can summarise it, the thesis is this:

“Capitalism is disappearing, but Socialism is not replacing it. What is now arising is a new kind of planned, centralised society which will be neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic. The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control the means of production: that is, business executives, technicians, bureaucrats and soldiers, lumped together by Burnham, under the name of “managers”. These people will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush the working class, and so organise society that all power and economic privilege remain in their own hands. Private property rights will be abolished, but common ownership will not be established. The new “managerial” societies will not consist of a patchwork of small, independent states, but of great super-states grouped round the main industrial centres in Europe, Asia, and America…

“In his next published book, The Machiavellians, Burnham elaborates and also modifies his original statement. The greater part of the book is an exposition of the theories of Machiavelli and of his modern disciples… What Burnham is mainly concerned to show is that a democratic society has never existed and, so far as we can see, never will exist. Society is of its nature oligarchical, and the power of the oligarchy always rests upon force and fraud. Burnham does not deny that “good” motives may operate in private life, but he maintains that politics consists of the struggle for power, and nothing else…

“But curiously enough, when one examines the predictions which Burnham has based on his general theory, one finds that in so far as they are verifiable, they have been falsified. Numbers of people have pointed this out already.” (New English Weekly, May 1946)

Orwell took Burnham’s vision of a world dominated by three super-states for 1984, but adjusted it to allow for points where he was blatantly wrong. Burnham had expected Nazi Germany to easily conquer Soviet Russia, as indeed did most people outside of the pro-Soviet camp, Orwell included. He also supposed that Japan would conquer East Asia, while the USA would drop its traditional meddlesome approach and go for direct control. Orwell ‘fixes up’ this vision, without bothering to explain what he’d changed or even admitting that Burnham was the source. ‘Airstrip One’ uses dollars: Eurasia is now an expanded Soviet Union while Eastasia is left hazy. ‘Deathworship’ sounds like something a Westerner might much more probably attribute to Japan than China, but he left it hazy.

[It would not be sensible or plausible creed in either culture, but Orwell didn’t know much about them.]

Works of fiction need not cite their sources, but an honest writer will usually have a few notes and acknowledgement. Orwell wasn’t an honest writer: he was splendid at describing other people’s dishonesty, but applied different standards to his own work. In Privatising Orwell, I detailed how he shifted his position on Spain and described his father’s career in India’s Opium Service as some undefined ‘administration’.

Burnham and Orwell both took an unrealistically pessimistic view of the world. They didn’t credit authoritarian rulers with having a serious and genuine vision, and with often carrying it through successfully. Hitler did lift Germany out of a massive slump which had caused monstrous unemployment. Stalin did turn the Soviet Union into a superpower. Preventing Hitler from conquering Europe. Preventing the USA from dominating the post-1945 world with some sort of permanent 1950s-style culture.

‘Managerialism’ flourished in the 1950s, or rather several varieties of it did. ‘Management’ as such is as general a term as ‘sport’; there are managerial styles that differ as widely as rugby from cricket. Keynesian ‘managerialism was mortally wounded by the 1960s protests from its own best products and was overthrown by the New Right in the name of Laissez-Faire, which Burnham had regarded as dead .

After which it was Shachtman’s turn, you might say. Mainstream US culture produces excellent engineers and managers, but no real thinkers. The influence for former leftists is remarkable:

“When the Cold War began to press down on his isolated grouplet with such force that it was put on the list of “subversive” organizations, Shachtman regurgitated a brand new theory: the Soviet Union, in the Shachtmanite view, no longer represented socialism, but instead constituted a new and even more terrible danger than Western capitalism: bureaucratic collectivism. From that point on, Shachtman and his followers began to advocate a hard foreign policy line against the Soviet Union, a line that got progressively harder with the years. The Shachtmanites eventually disbanded their grouplet, at least in a formal sense, and merged with the remnants of the old Socialist Party, which they effectively took over, changing the name to the Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA)…

“Key neoconservative cadre came directly out of the SDUSA: Jeanne Kirkpatrick, James Woolsey, Carl Gershman, Max Kampelman, Penn Kimble, and Elliott Abrams, to name just a few. Scoop Jackson’s aides, such as Richard Perle and Abrams, went on to become prominent neocons. Reinforced by successive waves of ex-leftists, such as the Commentary crowd and Irving Kristol (a former Trotskyist follower of Burnham’s), Shachtmanism, especially after Shachtman’s death, in 1971, essentially morphed into neo-conservatism.

“It’s widely recognized that we were lied into war by a group of ideologues, but what is this “idea they have”? What kind of “utopia” is Iraq? The old Trotskyist idea of internationalism is here preserved, but for the red flags. Some of them even call themselves “Trotsky-cons.” But this “outing” of the neocons has caused them considerable embarrassment – since they are currently masquerading as “conservatives” – and they’ve struck back by seeking to label the outers “conspiracy theorists” and “anti-Semites.” Most deny their Trotskyist heritage – the more strenuous denials coming from the very people who embody it, such as Joshua Muravchik, once a youth leader of the SDUSA and now a rising neocon star over at the American Enterprise Institute.” (The Cult of Power.)

I don’t know the details of the Neocons, but this broadly matches what I have heard from other sources. It is worth noting that both hostility to Jews and an admiration for Hitler were widespread in the US in the 1930s. Only during the anti-Hitler war did anti-Jewish hostility cease to be respectable. Only after Israel’s stunning success in the Six Day War—the West’s only clear military success in the entire Cold War—did US Jews begin asserting themselves as Jews. Only then, I suspect, did US circles that had traditionally been suspicious of Jews start letting some of them in—though only if they brought a message that the Hard Right wanted to hear.

One suspects it will turn out to have been a ‘fatal attraction’. Most Jews stayed rightly sceptical [about people] who didn’t like them or their values. The neocon faction are hardly typical of US Jews, any more than the Yorkshire Ripper was typical of Bingley, Dr Crippen typical of the medical profession, or Heinrich Himmler typical of chicken-farmers.

Neocons have recently popped up again as the ‘Henry Jackson Society’. Justin Raimondo notes the connection: he helped bring them into regular politics. They are of course denying their own existence, but the names are familiar to Neocon-watchers. Look at the herd and then the cowboys in charge of them. All the ‘cowboys’ are identified as Neocons, with no signs of another outfit.

The ‘Henry Jackson Society’ is supposed to be about democracy. Is it? In line with mainstream US culture, they think it can’t be democracy if people they don’t like keep getting elected. More exactly, they can’t accept the success of candidates that no US electorate would vote for. It is allowable for politicians to be corrupt and contemptible, but only on the US model. Standard Units of The Individual would never doing anything else, so there has to be something wrong, regardless.


First published in Labour & Trade Union Review in 2005.  I later did a study of Trotsky himself, available at this website.

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