The Trotsky Hour

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by Paul Gottfried

My cascading invectives may have suggested to some of my readers that I believe that neoconservatives provide a sufficient reason for the collapse of the American Right. If so, it may be necessary to offer clarification. Although neocon advocates of permanent revolution have dragged Trotskyist themes, along with other baggage, into the conservative movement, one can not ignore the enthusiastic reception that these interlopers met. A healthier and more conservative Right would have resisted their invasion, a point that I have made repeatedly in my writings.

Contrary to the otherwise illuminating statements of my friend Jeff Tucker, I do not think that neocon Trotsykists are the sole cause for the Right going to ruin. What I do think is that the ease with which an eccentric part of the Left occupied the American Right in the 1980s, and destroyed professionally those who protested, indicates how corrupt and unprincipled that Right had become.

Concerning another related point that Jeff and Joe Stromberg have both made on this website, I must dissent partially. Admittedly the postwar Right, of James Burnham and Bill Buckley, pioneered those noxious practices that neocons have refined, by making war on those who disagreed with their activist foreign policy and by helping to isolate Taft Republicans from “mainstream," aka NR, conservatives. Moreover, the postwar Right in its anti-Communist zeal formed close ties, which Stromberg has pointed out, between the CIA and other predominantly liberal Cold War agencies. Much of this at NR had to do with the associations of Burnham, who had moved in leftwing anti-Communist circles and had been an architect of the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Although the Buckleyites, as I show in my book on the conservative movement, savaged the libertarian and isolationist Right, it is still hard to depict them as neocons. What these publicists did, however, was train conservative groupies to act like Communists, taking orders from those whom they considered above them and consulting a party periodical to know what they should believe. But the beliefs one encountered in National Review and in the Burnhamite tract Suicide of the West could hardly be described as neoconservative, that is, anti-Stalinist leftist, Teutonophobic, anti-Southern white, and hysterically obsessed with the Middle East.

The examinations of these materials that I and others, including neocons, have undertaken would lead to different conclusions. Burnham was an avowed admirer of most rightwing authoritarian governments in the fifties, sixties, and seventies and took a generally pro-Palestinian position in the Middle East. His book The Machiavellians, written during World War Two, reflects a strong partiality for thinkers who foreshadowed Latin fascism and/or identified with it. Note this book was published when Burnham was still associated with the anti-Soviet Left and had severed his contacts only recently with the Trotskyists. Throughout the sixties and into the seventies, NR attacked the civil rights movement, ridiculed Martin Luther King, praised the Confederacy, and expressed anger at Teutonophobia. In short, it might be hard to place the postwar Right into anything resembling a neocon mold.

Much of the change that the Right subsequently underwent came from the social insecurities that have characterized WFB. After the fading of Burnham in the late seventies, Buckley took himself and his publication to new gurus, who were cold-war liberal ones, while his slavish followers, who had, for the most part, neither smarts nor firm convictions, went in the same direction. The man who had moved only provisionally “up from Liberalism" waged wars of disinformation against much of the Old (anti-New Deal) Right, and it was therefore possible for him to hand over to new masters hangers-on who had relatively short or very garbled memories about the American Right. Those who came into the transformed conservative movement afterwards were faithful to a new partyline and did not require reconditioning. In any case there was enough money to hand out to make groupthink a worthwhile activity.

What might be concluded is that the postwar Right filled a gap between a Taft Republican Right and the Trotskyist ascendancy over the conservative movement that began in the seventies and eighties. It was this Right of the 1950s that brought together a number of tendencies, juggling Catholic corporatist and rightwing authoritarian ideas with defenses of American constitutional government. Although it occasionally paid lip service to libertarian ideals, this particular Right looked toward ideologies of order to sustain its conception of an anti-Communist struggle. What held it together, as long as it endured, were certain personalities, CIA-laundered money, and a crusading anti-Communist foreign policy. When the personalities in question vanished or became unglued and as the Cold War ceased to occupy center stage, that conservative movement would simply dissolve. It did not prepare the way for neoconservatives so much as represent a journalistic and rhetorical interlude. It was the ideological space chronologically wedged in between the anti-New Deal Right and the Trotskyist hour that came in the eighties.

Although what remained of this postwar movement tried to attach itself to Cold War candidates for the presidency, it failed to make any difference. Goldwater and Reagan would have been what they were without memorizing or reciting a few patched-together phrases from “movement conservative" authors. No National Review conservative had the kind of hold on a president or a presidential candidate that the neocons have achieved in the case of Dubya. His speeches about bringing global democracy to the Iraqis and Palestinians sound as if they had been crafted, word for word, by David Frum or Paul Wolfowitz.

The reason for these disparate influences should be self-evident and in no way should reflect on the brain power of the postwar conservatives grouped around NR. No force positioned on what plausibly can be called the Right, except for the welfare state-tinged populism of George Wallace and Pat Buchanan, has gone very far in recent American politics. There was no “Reagan conservative revolution" in the 1980s. Indeed the takeover of the Reagan presidency by neoconservatives made sure that the record of conservative failure in undoing any aspect of the centralized managerial state stayed exactly as it was. And this replacement of the postwar Right and its adherents by the neocons in a “conservative" Republican administration underscores the inescapable fact that the bypassed conservatives had no detectable effect on American political leaders.

After the neocon mugging of M.E.Bradford in 1981, Reagan would turn to the ascending muggers when filling high-profile appointed posts with “conservatives." The postwar conservatives who had been rallied by Buckley thereafter fell by the wayside or hastened to join the triumphant Trotskyists.

March 6, 2003

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is professor of history at Elizabethtown College and author of, most recently, the highly recommended Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt.

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