May 23, 2003

They don't like it one bit!

Why are the neocons writing long screeds trying to disprove their own existence? Poor Jonah Goldberg is faced with an impossible task. He wants his readers to forget the history of their own movement, ignore the enormous literature documenting the neoconservative odyssey from left to right, and pretend that the doctrine of perpetual preemptive war is not antithetical to the conservative project of restoring limited government. No wonder it took three interminable installments for him to imagine he'd pulled it off. But quantity is not quality, and this is especially true in Jonah's case.

For 10,000-plus words, this neocon in denial exudes more and darker clouds of obfuscating rhetoric than a whole army of squids. Talk about protesting too much. Oddly, he addresses himself, not to conservatives – who deserve some sort of explanation as to why the neocons are so eager to purge their political enemies from the ranks of the Right – but to liberals:

"Conservatives are accustomed to liberals not understanding the zoology of our movement. But the use and abuse of the term 'neoconservative' has exceeded even the high allowance for cliché and ignorance generally afforded to those who write or talk about conservatism from outside the conservative ant farm. In fact, neoconservative has become a Trojan Horse for vast arsenal of ideological attacks and insinuations. For some it means Jewish conservative. For others it means hawk. A few still think it means squishy conservative or ex-liberal. And a few don't even know what the word means, they just think it makes them sound knowledgeable when they use it."

Liberals may be vague on right-wing zoology, but conservatives know what the score is, and they know the players all too well. They also realize that the three definitions offered above are not mutually exclusive, although I know of no one who holds to the first except Goldberg. A squishy conservative or ex-liberal who, nonetheless, hardens up considerably when it comes to foreign policy, one who gives two cheers for capitalism but three or even four for a policy of perpetual war – these guys have acted as a Trojan Horse inside the conservative movement for years. Why else do you think government has gotten bigger, and more intrusive, than it was before the so-called "Reagan Revolution"?

Goldberg quotes a piece by Micahel Lind that traces the neocons back to their Trotskyist roots, and then cites a recent New York Times article showing how Leo Strauss influenced leading neoconservative policy intellectuals, disingenuously declaring:

"But a recent article in the New York Times says the neocons aren't Trotskyists, they're Straussians: 'They are the neoconservatives, or neocons a catchall name for a disparate group of authors, academics, media moguls and public servants who trace their intellectual lineage (accurately or not) to the teachings of a German émigré named Leo Strauss.' Confused?"

Goldberg sure hopes so. But why is it impossible to have been influenced by both Trotsky and Strauss? After all, the two shared a common faith in elites whose esoteric knowledge qualified them to rule over the masses. That Goldberg seems unaware of this shows that he has read neither.

We are treated to anecdotal "evidence" of the neocons' nonexistence in the form of a story by Goldberg detailing some minor disagreement amongst his colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute during an informal lecture by Joshua Muravchik "on the current state of neoconservatism." Apparently no one told Muravchik that there's no such thing as a neoconservative movement. Goldberg's evidence that neocons are just a bogeyman conjured by anti-Semites and ignorant liberals is that the questions posed to Muravchik provoked disagreement on the definition of neoconservatism:

"Even the leaders of the 'neoconservative movement' – whatever that meant or means – could not agree on what neoconservatism is."

Yet none denied its existence. The leaders of a movement often have different emphases, as is shown in Goldberg's discussion of the various perspectives raised by Muravchik, Irwin Steltzer, and Michael Novak, but they agree on fundamentals, and, what's more, they share a common intellectual heritage. What Goldberg evades is that their discussion, as reported by him, concerned the nature of Reaganism and the role of neoconservatism within a broader conservative coalition. Far from disproving the existence of neoconservatism as a distinct strand within the conservative mosaic, if anything Goldberg's anecdote proves just the opposite. If there is no movement, then why argue over who or what is a neocon?

What irks Goldberg to no end is the outing, so to speak, of the neocons as essentially leftists spouting superficially "right-wing" rhetoric. Since the Trotskyist roots of prominent neocons are well-known, Goldberg falls back on his limitless capacity for evasion, like a boxer who can't punch but can only feint:

"Let me just say that of the scores of famous neocons I've met, none of them have ever expressed any fondness for Trotsky. He's never quoted as an authority in neocon op-eds or journals, and he's never invoked – save in jokes – in neocon debates or conferences."

But what about the indirect influence of former Trotskyists, who became top leaders in the modern conservative movement? Goldberg cites James Burnham, and even details his early career as Trotsky's chief American intellectual disciple, but somehow fails to understand how the Trotskyist mindset could have influenced Burnham's later views. It is odd to see an alleged conservative deny the importance of history, directly contradicting Richard Weaver's famous dictum that "ideas have consequences."

Goldberg, however, has his own revisionist history of the neocons' rightward journey:

"Still, there are some important points to make about this version of history. First, the folks who became known as neoconservatives may have been liberals who'd been 'mugged by reality' (Irving Kristol's famous definition of a neocon), but most never called themselves neoconservatives, never studied Trotsky – let alone embraced his "theory of permanent revolution" – and many considered themselves honest liberals who stuck to their principles on civil rights as the Democratic party spun off into self-parody in the 1970s."

Yet Kristol himself did more than merely study Trotsky: he was a member of a dissident Trotskyist group, the Workers Party (later the Independent Socialist League), led by Max Shachtman. Goldberg quotes Kristol to the effect that he learned the art of argumentation as a young Trotskyist in "Alcove #1" and names a number of influential neocons who, like Irving Kristol, who had not only studied Trotsky, but followed him. In moving rightward, these people merely exchanged the golden calf of world socialism for the tin god of global "democracy."

Goldberg wants us to believe all this is ancient history, of interest only to hair-splitting sectarians who don't want to let any newcomers into their club. Goldberg spends a lot of time detailing conservative infighting over positions of influence, in particular the spiking of Mel Bradford's nomination as head of the Reagan-era National Endowment for the Humanities, and concludes:

"It's odd that such an event could be the catalyst for the creation an entire theology of grievance and outrage by the paleos. But pettiness, intellectual and personal, often drives politics. So, the more successful the neos became, the more bitter the paleos became."

It's hardly surprising that someone who rose to prominence as the purveyor of the juicier tidbits of the Monica Lewinksy scandal story should reduce a serious ideological debate to … pettiness. Shocked and awed by the neocons' greatness, that's what I am. But didn't Goldberg's magazine just launch a major attack on paleoconservatives, charging them with ideological transgressions so serious that they made it the cover story just as the war ended? So, it turns out, it isn't all about Mel Bradford….

The irksome leftist ghosts who haunt the neocons' storied past rose up, coincidentally, to remind us of their existence just as Goldberg's piece was posted: the Social Democrats, USA held a national conference which saw neocons and the last of the right-wing democratic socialists joined at the hip. The headline in The Forward read: "Debs' Heir Reassemble to Seek Renewed Role as Hawks of Left."

"The evolution of the Social Democrats is largely a tale of slow half-steps to the right, from socialism to reformist social democracy to Cold War liberalism to neoconservatism and finally – why mince words? – to plain conservatism. One day you're on the party central committee with Michael Harrington, and the next you look across the table to see Pat Robertson. And somehow, through this long series of political half steps, ideological epiphanies and situational compromises, it all seems to make sense."

I won't go into the byzantine organizational history that links the old Shachtman group with the Social Democrats, USA: a useful synopsis is provided by Jesse Walker, here. While some of the attendees at this renunion of old lefties had indeed crossed all the way over to the right, such as Joshua Muravchik – a former national chairman of their youth group, now firmly in the neocon camp – the majority clearly see themselves as men and women of the left who endorse Bush's policy of perpetual war as "armed anti-fascism," as one German Social Democrat at the conference admiringly put it.

"Everything Changed: What Now for Labor, Liberalism and the Global Left?" – and the answer is a new pro-war post-9/11 Left energized by a militarized, Prussianized socialism. Or, as their conference document proclaimed:

"American social democrats believe unabashedly that the United States is a force for good in the world. (A view most persuasively argued in recent times by the social democratic Prime Minister of Britain, Tony Blair.) But our citizens and our government alike need continuous encouragement if our moral influence and our diplomatic and military power are to be used effectively to assist those in other countries who share our commitments to democracy and human rights. Some conservatives consider such commitments sentimental, or a drain on our national capabilities. Certain liberals and leftists scorn American efforts in behalf of democracy abroad as a spurious disguise for economic and military domination – an anti-Americanism that overrides consideration of the good that so often comes from such engagement, even under Republican Administrations."

Penn Kemble, former head of the National Endowment for Democracy – a government sinecure created especially for the neocons during the Reagan years – made the keynote speech. Kemble gave a mild critique of capitalism, effectively two cheers for a system that, nonetheless, requires a considerable amount of guidance from the state. But the SocDems went on the offensive against (unnamed) libertarians, who are supposedly just as bad, in their way, as the radical left::

"Free market radicals, whose ideological obsessions often make them as blind as doctrinaire leftists to the practical consequences of their policies, will continue their campaign against our unions. But conservatives who recognize the dangers of unchecked power and value of mediating institutions may want to reflect on the possible effects of the transformation these radicals seek. (The capitalist arena is too important to leave to capitalists themselves, who, as recently demonstrated, can mangle its rules in pursuit of immediate and personal gain.)"

No need to go after "free market radicalism" in the Bush administration, but they're just making sure. Notice that they are appealing to conservatives, not their fellow leftists: clearly, they see themselves as the social democratic conscience of the neocon Right, and, in other ways, its instrument:

"The strident anti-Americanism and magnanimity toward third world dictatorships of some who claim loudly to speak for the left are once again feeding the perception that the left cares little about freedom. As in the conflicts with communism waged by past generations of the democratic left, social democrats not only must distinguish ourselves from the false left – we must take the lead in exposing and combating it. We know this enemy better than the conservatives, we know the territory better, and we understand the damage that can be done to good people and good causes when the battles that must be waged are conducted in reckless ways."

The Left-neocon alliance, symbolized by the presence of American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Muravchik at the speakers' dais, is based on a shared view of the antiwar opposition. While some who oppose the neocons' endless wars of national "liberation" are "people of good will and reasoned judgement," albeit "mistaken," on the other hand:

"A new global network is taking shape that encompasses Islamic extremists, remnants of the old communist system and its friends, agents of thug governments, assorted third world liberation groups and a variety of other dissidents and anti-democratic malcontents. The common premises of this unseemly alliance are anti-Americanism, opposition to Israel and hostility to the global economic system, which is depicted in the most lurid colors."

This is the political and practical basis of the neocon-socialist alliance. The former never cared about domestic policies much, as long as they held the foreign policy reins. So let the Social Democrats have their unions and the maze of government regulations that make union power possible: let them have a slightly reduced and streamlined version of the Big Government policies of the past fifty years, along with the high taxes and centralized bureaucracy that oppress us all. Just as long as the neocons have their policy of perpetual war, and Israel is protected from the depredations of an "unseemly alliance" of "malcontents" – that's all they ask.

These political heirs of erstwhile Trotskyists-gone-haywire have always been an influential component of the War Party. Now they are proudly reasserting themselves, their leftist heritage, and their ideological and personal links to the neoconservatives – just in time, as it turns out, to show up Goldberg as a liar, and a bad one at that.

I won't tarry any longer in the swamp of Goldberg's denialism, except to ask: Why don't these people come out of the closet? Why are they afraid to be identified for what they are: a cohesive political grouping that, more than any other factor, is responsible for dragging us into a series of endless wars? Why don't they stop running from their heritage, and their own ideas, and start proclaiming the virtues of Neocon Pride?

Not that I blame them, you understand, from trying to stay on the down-low, as it were. Because what they are – power-hungry warmongers, and cowards to boot – is nothing to be proud of….

– Justin Raimondo

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.

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