Mad Max: The Cold Warrior

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?


  1. Dunne and Crescendo said,

    July 31, 2008 at 8:40 pm

    Don’t know if Finland was fascist in 1940: they certainly had more than a case for nor being invaded by Uncle Joe.
    The real roots of neo-conservatism lie in domestic politics and disillusion with Black Power and the civil rights struggle; see Podheretz’s 1964 essay ‘My Negro problem and yours.’ The foreign policy stuff did take over eventually.
    Jim Webb was Secretary for the Navy under Reagan so he is on his own (Scots-Irish driven) journey.

  2. D.J.P. O'Kane said,

    August 1, 2008 at 2:20 am

    I think there was actual cooperation between South Vietnamese Trotskyists and the Cao Dai for a while. Ho and Co saw the latter as enough of a competitor to be targetted for assasination et cetera.

  3. Ken MacLeod said,

    August 1, 2008 at 7:14 am

    Sean Matgamna looks like he’s already well on the way.

  4. August 1, 2008 at 9:20 am

    at least, the Cao Dai were like many Buddhists in (sometimes open) confrontation with the South Vietnamese state which was controlled by Catholics, unlike the Buddhists, the Cao Dai had also a kind of militia

  5. johng said,

    August 1, 2008 at 9:35 am

    the shactmanite re-enactment society is having an ‘interesting’ debate at the moment:

    i understand that at the same time they’re setting up an organisation to organise ‘solidarity’ with iranian students.

    presumably they’ll spend a lot of time instructing them not to react in a ‘knee jerk’ manner if they have bunker buster bombs dropped on them. This would be chauvinism comrades.

    See the ‘debate’ underneath. Its amusing.

  6. jamie said,

    August 1, 2008 at 11:19 am

    I believe the infamous Edward Lansdale saw the potential of the Cao Dai as a Third Force too: an interesting convergence between counterinsurgency techniques and left sectarianism.

    “Alas, it soon transpired that the Cao Dai programme was to convert Vietnam into a theocracy…”

    Worshipping Victor Hugo, no less. They could at least have chosen Zola or Maupassant.

  7. Doug said,

    August 1, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    Finland might not actually have been fascist but was it ‘objectively’ fascist?

  8. Ken MacLeod said,

    August 1, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    Hey, the Cao Dai worship a trinity: Confucius, Jesus, and Victor Hugo.

    There’s a Frederick Pohl novel whose title I forget, where the US is fighting a world war against the Cao Dai.

  9. jamie said,

    August 1, 2008 at 2:19 pm

    Isn’t Joan of Arc in there too, in a kind of BVM manque role?

  10. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 1, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    I believe she is, and Sun Yat-Sen is also part of the pantheon.

    Sean’s latest really is desperate stuff. You can almost see Dave Broder burying his head in his hands.

  11. August 1, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    but Lenin is also included, see here … when the WP/ISL started turning to the right after some years of ultra-leftism in 1947/48, they e.g. identified the right wing of the Polish People’s Party around Stanisław Mikołajczyk as part of a third camp … a good overview on Shachtman’s way from socialist activist in New York via No. 2 of the FI to “state department socialism” can be found in Peter Drucker’s Max Shachtman and His Left: A Socialist’s Odyssey through the “American Century”

  12. ejh said,

    August 1, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    Is that available on Youtube?

  13. Binh said,

    August 1, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    I think there was actual cooperation between South Vietnamese Trotskyists and the Cao Dai for a while. Ho and Co saw the latter as enough of a competitor to be targetted for assasination et cetera.

    I never heard of that. Do you have a source?

  14. Jim Monaghan said,

    August 2, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    The journal Revolutionary History has a few articles on Vietnamese Trotskyism. They were a significant force until their leaders were murdered by the Viet Cong.
    Danile Guerin challenged Ho on the question.
    The Cao Dai are an ecletic religion with a bit of everything. I visited their temple, almost a Walt Disney creation.
    They had a militia in the 30s, as did a few other groups. The rumour is that they offered arms to the Trotskyists and were turned down.This was a triumph of idelogy against common sense.
    I have a few books on these Trotskyists. They were in an alliance with the CP for a long period, publishing a common journal, La Lutte”
    They had a big movement in France amongst exiles and I think there is a small group in the LCR there still.
    Oh I think the neo cons had at most a perhipheral relationship with Trotskyism.
    If anyone is interested I will publish the list.
    Housemans is a good place to look esp the secondhand place in the basement.

  15. NollaigO said,

    August 2, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    Housemans is a good place to look esp the secondhand place in the basement.
    Unfortunately, Jim, the basement is having a closing-down sale at the moment.

  16. ejh said,

    August 2, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    There’s a Frederick Pohl novel whose title I forget, where the US is fighting a world war against the Cao Dai.

    A librarian writes: this may be his 1957 work, Slave Ship.

  17. Lobby Ludd said,

    August 3, 2008 at 12:02 am

    Am I misunderstanding things if I draw attention to the odd connection between this article and that of Mr Matgamna in the latest issue of ‘Workers’ Liberty’?

    Do Shachtmanites always fuck-up?

  18. John Palmer said,

    August 3, 2008 at 5:39 am

    Splintered Sunrise – Your reference to Hal Draper is extremely unfair. He was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam war – even if there was no serious political current in Vietnam to which he (or most others on the thinking far left) could give their support to. Virtually all the old Vietnamese Trotskyists were either dead (courtesy of Ho Chi Minh) or in prison (courtesy of the pro-American government in Saigon) or in exile (mainly in Paris). I remember his powerful address at a rally in Berkley in the late 1960s which I also spoke at. I found Hal one of the most impressive comrades I have encountered in several decades in the Trotskyist movement. The best debate I have heard on the issues of the class nature of Russia (that is between Bureaucratic Collectivism and State Capitalism – a la Joe Carter/Cliff/Kidron) was about the same time between Hal Draper and Mike Kidron.I only met Max Schactman in his latter days of political decline. But he was extraordinarily smart and well read. However he had a particular animus against Johnson (CLR James) and Forrest (Raya Dunayevskya) which seemed to go beyond the confines of the internal debates in the SWP and later the Workers Party. He did give birth indirectly to a significant number of neo-cons (some of whom transitioned between Schactman and an even more hard line anti-Stalinist faction in New York. However there is no way that Max can be blamed for the emergence of his life after death acolyte Sean Matgamna who is not to be taken too seriously on most issues.

  19. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 3, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    Indeed, we only have Sean’s word for it that he really is the Dalai Lama…

  20. Ken MacLeod said,

    August 3, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    Recently the PRC passed a law against unauthorised reincarnations – you are only allowed to reincarnate as the Dalai Lama (or anybody, as far as I know, but that’s the only metempsychosis the law is aimed at) with the permission of the government. Perhaps the Trotskyist movement should take a leaf out of the post-Maoist book and forbid unauthorised reincarnations of Max Shachtman?

  21. John B. said,

    August 3, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    This “neocons as Trotskyistes [sic]” meme has certainly gotten a workout lately, thanks mainly to the diligent efforts of the crowd and paleocons like Patrick Buchanan. It’s basically bullshit, but as you document there is an essential thread of truth in it.

  22. johng said,

    August 3, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    I was interested in John Palmers recounting of the debate between Hal Draper and Mike Kidron. Is that one of the debates which was taped at the Berkely teach-ins? I seem to remember coming across a whole bunch on line. I absolutely agree that Hal Draper is not to be confused with the Shactman wannabe’s of the AWL but as I recall, despite taking a principled position against imperialism in the case of the Vietnam war, the legacy of third campism meant that the national liberation dynamic was much underestimated in favour of an analyses which saw the NLF as simply a spin-off of Soviet power, thus leading to a failure to differentiate between them and US imperialism, clearly an absurd position, which cannot have helped the better American trotskyists to relate to the wider movement. However its also true that the smearing of Trotskyists in Vietnam on this thread is politically stupid. Precisely because the NLF was a national liberation movement and therefore deserving of Marxists support, its also true that there is no need to pretend that their policies towards rivals to the left should be dignified with epithets about the need to fight ‘sectarianism’.

  23. John Palmer said,

    August 4, 2008 at 6:27 am

    johng: The debate may well have been recorded by the ISL members present. I alas do not have a copy. You are wrong however to accept the stereotype of Draper’s position as being that the NLF was simply “a spin off of Soviet power.” Their actual position was rather more sophticated than that. They accepted the element of indigenous Vietnamese nationalism in the NLF. But they saw the NLF’s orientation to the Soviet Union (and consequently to the French CP) are illustrated by Ho Chi Minh’s initial acceptance of French reoccupation after the defeat of Japan and its opposition to radical anti-capitalist demands when the French CP was in coalition with de Gaulle.

  24. D.J.P. O'Kane said,

    August 4, 2008 at 10:07 am

    FAO Binh @ 13: My source is Popkin’s _The Rational Peasant_, written in opposition to Scott’s _Moral Economy of the Peasantry_. I was (and am) writing from memory, so I may be completely wrong.

  25. johng said,

    August 6, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    Yes but I would argue an organisation having an ‘orientation’ towards the Soviet Union (even with lamatable results) is not sufficiant a reason to adopt ‘a plague on both your houses’ approach, which, as I remember, was EFFECTIVELY what they did. Again, not opportunist with regards to imperialism, just wrong, and also a great shame in terms of the relationship of the healthiest section of the revolutionary left at a time of great opportunity.

  26. johng said,

    August 6, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    oh, but thanks for the info.

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