This morning, when I turned on FoxNews for our three dogs, who seem to like the staccato sounds on Rupert Murdoch Central, I caught sight of the well-publicized visage of David Frum. Apparently Frum was being asked to comment on the Christian faith of George W. Bush, a spiritual disposition that had just received high grades from an Evangelical Republican who was particularly struck by the Prez’s remarks about everyone having the potential for democracy. Frum, who was in agreement with the Evangelical, spoke about how effusively Bush’s faith had come out in his speech before the American Enterprise Institute. Supposedly, someone who is about to bring democracy to the Middle East should be a man of strong Christian faith.
As a cultural historian, I find all of this indescribably interesting. Why is a Jewish agnostic authorized to speak with pontifical authority on a "conservative" news channel about the Christian spiritual well-being of an American president? And why would anyone, particularly a "conservative," believe that someone is a devout Christian because he intends to impose a facsimile of the current US regime upon countries in Asia with vastly different cultural and social traditions?
Most important, what does this conversionary goal have to do with Christianity or with the constitutional understanding of limited republican government provided by the American Founding Fathers? Needless to say, the answer to all these rhetorical questions is: nothing at all. What has become the acid test for a lot of things, especially in the utterly misnamed "conservative movement," is accepting and promoting a Trotskyist vision of permanent revolution under neoconservative auspices.
One of the best treatments of this subject I’ve recently encountered is by a French scholar who teaches at the London School of Economics, Nicholas Guilhot; he delivered the study at the most recent plenary gathering of the French Political Science Association in Lille. What makes this paper, which a former student of mine sent from France, especially intriguing is that Guilhot is clearly on the Marxist Left and, moreover, apparently unfamiliar with my writings. Nonetheless, he arrives at identical conclusions about "la matrice trotskiste" that nurtured the neoconservative view of the American managerial state as an instrument of world revolution.
Guilhot goes back to the contacts among the Russian Marxists who paved the way for the neoconservative moment. Surveying the dissident Marxist Max Schachtman and other members of the anti-Stalinist Left, which is the subject of a distinguished monograph by Alan Wald, and the leadership of the Young People Socialist League at City College, Guilhot treats these figures and anti-Stalinist Marxism generally as the architects of a distinctly neoconservative worldview. He is right to present both the Congress for Cultural Freedom and the work of S.M. Lipset as representing an inchoate neoconservatism.
By the fifties the anti-Stalinist Left is depicting the working class as authoritarian and anti-Semitic, but at the same time continues to favor a global movement toward a scientifically managed, pluralistic society. This would be brought about, explains Lipset in 1963 in Political Man, by pushing other countries toward the "American model," which he found the only morally acceptable one. What made the US exceptional was the acceptance by the middle class of economic redistribution and extensive public administration for progressive ends. Thus the reactionary deficiencies of blue-collar voters would not matter in the end because of the openness of the American bourgeoisie to managerial direction.
Guilhot is correct to observe that such ideas foreshadow the entire history of neoconservatism as a political position. The notion of "permanent revolution" drawn from Trotskyist ideology is given a new meaning by being linked to an expansive American public administration that tries to replicate itself throughout the world. And though neocons in the seventies and eighties turn fanatically anti-Communist, Guilhot recognizes that his subjects are "anti-radical radicals," opposing the Communists for betraying the revolutionary vision.
Alan Wald makes the observation that "the anti-Stalinist Left moves to the right for social and not ideological reasons." What may be more accurate to say is that they appear to move to the right in response to improved social positions, especially after taking over policy positions in the Reagan administration from a WASP establishment gone bad in the teeth. But this ascent to power does not really signify that those who are ascending are on the right. It merely enables the ascending group to pull toward the managerial Left the American Right and Right Center, while concluding a compromise with corporate capitalists.
In return for the support of an expanding welfare state, neocons would deal Big Business in, exactly the way the Fascists did with European capitalists, that is, conditionally. Thus neocons would defend "democratic capitalism" or a mixed economy, together with global democratic military crusades and the opening up of foreign markets as a method of global transformation. Guilhot notes that the neocon usage of "modernization," since the popularization of the term by Lipset in the fifties, has meant positive revolutionary change. It is a bootlegged Marxist value judgment pretending to be a neutral descriptive term.
Finally I would note that the "droitisation," or veering rightward, that Guilhot ascribes to the neocons in the seventies and eighties is entirely an optical illusion. Rather what happens is that the Right, by then in its Buckleyite revised version, does the veering, toward the social democratic Left, partly in response to neocon guidance. The neocons took over a pliant conservative movement organization, whose leaders and staff scurried to do their bidding. Guilhot, as I have told him, would do well to read the second edition of my book on the conservative movement, which explains the phases of this friendly take-over that occurred in the 1980s. What my book failed to deal with, however, is the profound stupidity and utter venality that drove this process on the American Right. Today’s "conservatives" shout Trotskyist slogans that they mistake for patriotism and religion. Unlike my two wizened Dachshunds and a Basset puppy, I would prefer not to listen.
March 1, 2003