I remember being in Dublin ten years or so ago when Democratic Left voted to dissolve itself into the Labour Party. At the time, everyone I spoke to was firm in the belief that this marked the end of the Stickie experiment in Irish politics. “And about time, too” was frequently added. It was a bit surprising, although in retrospect it shouldn’t have been, that the Sticks would very quickly take over the Labour Party and have an iron grip on it to this day.
I thought of this a few weeks ago when Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) was interviewed on The Daily Show. Webb was promoting his new book, which is all about restoring a fair and just America. Jon Stewart, of course, is sharp enough to know that America is not based on fairness and justice but on the free market.
Stewart: Sir, I had no idea you were a Trotskyite.
Webb: Well, it was a bunch of Trotskyites who got us into this war in Iraq.
Actually, for generational reasons, about the only neocons left who actually were Trotskyists are Kristol the Elder and Podhoretz, but it’s a useful bit of shorthand for that intellectual tradition. More precisely, I suppose, the roots of the neoconservative movement are tied up with the late Max Shachtman and his tendency. And that’s an interesting little footnote for Cold War socialism.
You’ll recall that Shachtman’s WP/ISL led an independent existence for a whole eighteen years after breaking from the SWP in 1940, generally identifying as a Trotskyist current if in an increasingly loose sense. That was certainly the case in the 1950s when Cliff, having been knocked back by Pablo and Mandel in his attempts to get them to offload the bandit Healy and award Cliff the Fourth International franchise, arrived at the arresting notion of an alternative FI based around a lash-up between his group, the Shachtmanites, with a few other groups holding unorthodox theories of Russia. In this we can safely say that Cliff was twenty years ahead of his time, so it isn’t surprising that this cunning plan never took off.
In 1958, having arrived at the conclusion that their declining organisation had no future, Max led the ISL into Norman Thomas’ Socialist Party. And here’s where our Irish analogy comes in. The SP, despite being an established brand with a largish paper membership, turned out to be even more decrepit than the ISL. Within months Max and his mates had taken over the whole outfit. They did not, however, lead it to the left as one might have supposed. Instead, they led it to the right at a rate of knots and, by the time of Shachtman’s death in 1972, the majority found themselves in the Nixon camp. How did this happen?
The Shachtmanites had a lot of interesting thinkers, not least Max himself, who was apparently an attractive figure to a certain type of young intellectual, as well as being a bit of an annoying smartarse. They didn’t, on the other hand, have much theoretical output that’s stood the test of time. What did distinguish them was an absolutely consistent and ironclad Stalinophobia. And by that I don’t mean simply anti-Stalinism, but rather the exaggerated and one-sided anti-Stalinism criticised so heavily by Trotsky in the 1940 split. That’s what eventually led them from what was, if anything, an ultraleft position during WW2 to the destination of Cold War liberalism.
Not that it was a quick or straightforward evolution. Certainly, Shachtman’s The Bureaucratic Revolution, a little volume of Max’s greatest hits, was given a bit of judicious editing to make Max look as if he’d always been as staunch a foe of the Evil Empire as he was by then. No, for a long time the Shachtmanites’ Big Idea was the Third Camp, which has lately been given a bit of an airing by Max’s would-be apostle Matgamna. The idea (probably emanating from Joe Carter) was cooked up to avoid defending the Soviet Union during the Finnish war in 1939, and posited that in a clash between Stalinism and democratic capitalism (or even fascism, in the case of Mannerheim’s Finland) you back neither side but instead look for independent movements of the working class. Great in principle, somewhat more difficult in practice.
And made more difficult still by the Shachtmanites’ refusal to have anything to do with working-class or national liberation movements that had even a tangential connection to Stalinism, the logical outcome of Carter’s bright idea that the western communist parties were new bureaucratic ruling classes in embryo. Sometimes the convolutions could be quite funny. Tim Wohlforth has a nice story about how Hal Draper agonised over the Vietnam War, not wanting to back US imperialism but unable to find a local movement measuring up to his stringent anti-Stalinist standards. Hal apparently got very excited on discovering the Cao Dai religious movement in South Vietnam, who at the time were running their own private army. Could this be the fabled Third Camp? Alas, it soon transpired that the Cao Dai programme was to convert Vietnam into a theocracy…
It was so much easier, in the long run, to just defend democratic capitalism and put off the struggle for socialism to an indefinite future. And so you get the drift into Cold War liberalism, with old Marxist polemical skills being put to use on behalf of new masters. In Shachtman’s case, that meant none other than Scoop Jackson. But it shouldn’t be inferred that the Shachtman group’s support for Scoop’s presidential candidacy in 1972 was purely mercenary. No, they backed Scoop because he was the only candidate saying the Vietnam War could still be won. And when McGovern secured the Democratic nomination, they refused to support him, and a significant number went directly over to Tricky Dick. Hence Socialists For Nixon, that whimsical precursor of modern-day neoconservatism.
What a sad way to go out. And what’s the excuse of those who want to recreate this sorry devolution?