How Neoconservatives’ Shift from Left to Right Inspired Anti-Semitic Conspiracy Thinking
by Ralph Seliger
The neoconservatives are an intellectual and political current of people (and, in some cases, their offspring)–many, but not all, are Jews–who were liberals or socialists until they reevaluated their positions in the 1970s. According to Evan R. Goldstein, writing in The Jerusalem Post, Oct. 26, 2005 (“How to Build a Conspiracy”), they were first dubbed “neoconservatives” in 1973, by Michael Harrington, writing critically in Dissent magazine of people he largely knew and had worked with for years.
This first generation included some important figures who did not ultimately see themselves as conservative, but were known for challenging liberal orthodoxies and attempting to think out of the box. The late Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was one such personage, who gained notoriety and weathered some controversy while serving as domestic policy advisor for Pres. Richard Nixon. Moynihan’s scholarly coauthor of Beyond The Melting Pot, Prof. Nathan Glazer, is another such freethinking intellectual.
I have relatively limited knowledge of the younger generations of neocons, but can personally recall a pudgy teenager named John Podhoretz, now a neocon New York Post columnist, hanging out at the headquarters of the Socialist Party. Norman Podhoretz, John’s father–the former editor of Commentary magazine and a founder of neoconservatism–once declared himself a Socialist Party “fellow traveler.” The elder Podhoretz’s son-in-law is Elliot Abrams, of Iran-Contra fame and back in government now, on Bush’s National Security Council.
Prominent non-Jewish neocons include: Jeane Kirkpatrick (who would have been Bob Dole’s secretary of state if he had won the 1996 election), William Bennett (a writer and commentator, who was Reagan’s secretary of education and the elder George Bush’s “drug czar”, and has recently embarrassed himself with some ill-chosen words about race, crime and abortion), Francis Fukuyama (a scholar who gained fame in the ’90s with his claim to liberal capitalist democracy as “The End of History”), James Woolsey (a former head of the CIA), Linda Chavez (who rose to prominence as an Hispanic who argued against affirmative action) and Michael Novak (a Catholic social moralist).
From Trotskyism to Social Democracy
With the much-touted rise to prominence of neocons in prominent positions during George W. Bush’s first term as president, there has been a flurry of attention on an obscure political philosopher at the University of Chicago named Leo Strauss, who died in 1973, as their intellectual guru. I will examine an entirely different personage and trajectory, beginning with an American protege of Leon Trotsky, Max Shachtman.
Shortly before Stalin succeeded in having Trotsky murdered in 1940, Shachtman broke with his great mentor over an important question of doctrine. Trotsky considered the Soviet Union under Stalin a “degenerated workers’ state,” but a “workers’ state” nevertheless, and as such worthy of defense against the capitalist West. Shachtman came to see the Soviet Union, and such governments in Eastern Europe, Asia and elsewhere, that were inspired by or modeled on the Stalinist one-party dictatorship as “bureaucratic collectivist,” brutal police states that were not worthy of being defended against the West. Shachtman theorized that bureaucratic collectivism gave rise to a new ruling class, which held title to property not by virtue of direct private ownership, but rather through rising to prominence within the ruling Communist Party or being granted material privileges by virtue of their connection to the powers that be within the Party. Now that prominent Communist Party officials in the former Soviet Union and in today’s China found it so easy to become rich capitalists in contemporary Russia, or to extort bribes making them rich in China, are evidences for this theory.
Shachtman founded a small radical organization called the Independent Socialist League. Among his early proteges were two brilliant graduates of the City College of New York (CCNY) from its glory years of the 1930s, Irving Howe and Irving Kristol. Kristol did not remain a Shachtman devotee for very long; in the ’60s and ’70s he became the godfather of neo-conservatism, a co-founder of the movement along with Norman Podhoretz. Kristol’s son is the editor-in-chief of the bellwether neocon publication, The Weekly Standard.
Irving Howe eventually stopped being a Shachtmanite, but remained a staunch advocate of democratic socialism for his entire life, and co-founded the socialist journal Dissent in 1954, remaining co-editor until his death in 1993. In addition, he became an influential literary critic and academic, especially noteworthy for his classic study of the Yiddish-speaking Lower East Side, The World of Our Fathers, and in launching Isaac Bashevis Singer from being an obscure Yiddish writer to a Nobel Prize winning celebrity.
Max Shachtman was the founder of the “Third Camp” radical-left perspective. Shachtmanites in the ’40s and ’50s opposed the Stalinist or bureaucratic collectivist East and the capitalist West equally. The radical journal, New Politics, remains an expression of this viewpoint today.
Shachtman gradually softened and led his ISL into the reformist Socialist Party of Norman Thomas in 1958. Shachtman no longer saw the two opposing Cold War camps, the capitalist West and the Stalinist East as equally bad. He now saw the Stalinist East as worse, because of the total control that the ruling Communist parties generally exercised over all aspects of life; he also understood that most Western societies had democratic and progressive currents competing for power. Eventually, Shachtmanites and ex-Shachtmanites came to dominate what remained of what was once a mass political movement– the Socialists– but very much on the wane in the ’50s and ’60s. One brilliant disciple of Shachtman from this time, Michael Harrington, went on to succeed Thomas as national chair of the Socialist Party and became the last great American socialist theoretician of the 20th century.
Harrington was both a prolific writer and a brilliant speaker, but he no longer led a political movement that had any hope of gaining national power. During his tenure as leader, the Socialist Party changed its name to the Social Democrats USA, to underscore that it was no longer a political party, but rather an organization that operated within the Democratic Party and the American labor movement. A number of mainstream trade unionists were alumni or active members of the SD-USA, or of earlier Shachtmanite groups; most prominent of these were Al Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers and his successor, Sandra Feldman (recently deceased).
At the end of his time as chair of the SD, Harrington became co-chair with Bayard Rustin, the civil rights leader who had been Martin Luther King’s main organizer of the famous march on Washington in 1963. Although Rustin had not come through their ranks, he was a favorite of the emerging right-wing Shachtmanite faction which was increasingly doing battle with Harrington.
Harrington had been a Shachtmanite and remained so in certain ways, but differed with the old man himself and most other activists who personally still looked to Shachtman for inspiration. Shachtman lived in Floral Park, Long Island (mainly supported by his wife Yetta’s job as Al Shanker’s secretary) until he died in 1972 at the age of 68. I recall visiting him in Floral Park in 1970 as part of a delegation of the Socialist youth group, the Young People’s Socialist League; he uged us to devote at least a few years of our lives to the movement, before going to “dental school,” or otherwise pursuing our private ambitions.
Both sides of the Shachtmanite divide in the socialist movement, Harrington and Howe on the center-left and the others– including Shachtman himself– on the right, believed in “Coalition Politics.” This perspective was classically articulated in an essay by Bayard Rustin called “From Protest to Politics,” published in Commentary magazine, February, 1965. They favoured a broad coalition within the Democratic Party of minority groups and the civil rights movement, workers represented by the labor unions, liberals and intellectuals. They also all favoured a “realignment” of progressive forces within the Democratic Party, breaking the stranglehold of the racist and ultra-conservative bloc of southern Democrats, known as the Dixiecrats. Commentary was, until the late ’60s, a high-toned left-liberal journal, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, that was more about American politics and society than Judaism; Norman Podhoretz was the long-time editor who led and bridged its transformation into a conservative, i.e., neoconservative, publication that it remains today. Many left-wing writers who also wrote for Dissent, a similarly high-brow journal, used to write for Commentary, which had a larger circulation than Dissent. For example, it was in Commentary that Michael Harrington published his essays on poverty in America that became the basis for his classic study, The Other America, which influenced Lyndon Johnson to launch his War on Poverty. (I am reminded of Woody Allen’s quip in Annie Hall, that “if Dissent and Commentary merged [both heavy reading fare] you’d get dysentery.”)
There were differences among the Shachtmanites on how to implement their strategy and who exactly to align with. The right-Shachtmanites allied themselves with the leadership of the AFL-CIO, including the cigar-chomping elderly president George Meany and his chief aide and successor, Lane Kirkland. As I’ve indicated, a number of young Shachtmanites began careers in the labor movement, mostly as AFL-CIO staffers. Al Shanker came up through the ranks as a worker, i.e., a teacher, and founded the first teachers’ union, New York City’s United Federation of Teachers. Tom Kahn became a staffer in the AFL-CIO and eventually headed its international affairs department.
The right-Shachtmanites allied with Meany and Kirkland in establishing a staunchly anti-Communist and Cold War oriented direction. It was natural in a way for most trade unionists to be anti-Communist; they knew that Communist or Stalinist societies did not tolerate trade union movements that were truly independent of the government and the ruling party. One problem with this, among others, was that more of the AFL-CIO’s energies seemed to be going into international politics than into organizing workers into unions at home. This inattention to organizing new workers and unions, is one of a number of factors regarded as having led to a steady decline in the influence and numbers of organized workers in the work force. The unions were and remain a key Democratic Party constituency, benefiting from the Democrats more pro-labor stands in legislation and in enforcement decisions. But this is a far cry from Shachtmanite hopes that labor would come to dominate the Democrats, converting it into an American equivalent of the European labor or social democratic parties.
Harrington, Howe and the more left-wing socialists took issue with what they saw as the right-Shachtmanites’ overly cozy relationship or fawning support for the Meany-Kirkland leadership of the AFL-CIO and their identification with the AFL-CIO’s alliance with Lyndon Johnson’s war policy in Vietnam. The AFL-CIO actually identified with what they called a “third force” of trade unions and cooperatives in South Vietnam, but they firmly supported a US military victory over the Communists as necessary to allow the third force to survive. (I recall Shachtman referring to Vietnam as “an annihilative war,” by way of defending its ferocity.)
So the Shachtmanites opposed New Left, Old Left and liberal opposition to the Vietnam War. Harrington and his comrades did not advocate or hope for a Communist victory in Vietnam, but saw the war as increasingly pointless as it continued into the Nixon administration to kill Vietnamese and Americans in ever larger numbers. Harrington was a Democratic convention delegate for Bobby Kennedy for the Democratic nomination in 1968 and rode in Kennedy’s funeral train sitting next to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Harrington supported George McGovern for president in 1972; many of the increasingly visible neoconservative faction (beginning even to use that term) supported a “Democrats for Nixon” committee. Soon after, Harrington resigned from the Social Democrats and established a separate organization with Irving Howe called the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee; approximately in 1980, the DSOC merged with the New America Movement– which included Michael Lerner among its leaders– to form the Democratic Socialists of America.
From Social Democracy to Reaganism
The right-Shachtmanites and the neoconservatives mostly supported Sen. Henry M. (Scoop) Jackson in his runs for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972 and ’76. Scoop Jackson was a classical New Deal liberal, firmly pro-labor, who was relatively hardline or hawkish on confronting Communism in foreign policy. But the Vietnam War basically rendered this combination of domestic liberalism and Cold War hawkishness into a minority view within the Democratic Party. Still, it is from the Congressional staff and coterie of Sen. Jackson that the burgeoning neoconservatives gained new allies– most importantly, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. The Shachtmanites and the neocons were disgusted with the presidency of Jimmy Carter; they saw Carter as an uninspiring leader who presided over a weak foreign policy at a time that the Soviet bloc was on the offensive– with Soviet bloc and Cuban soldiers intervening widely in African wars, massively supporting Arab states and the PLO against Israel, and directly invading Afghanistan.
What Shachtman took from Marxist-Leninism and Trotskyism was a strategic orientation toward progressive social change. As a Marxist, he examined socio-economic institutions for the driving force of history. With the overly-broad Marxist glorification of the industrial working class, Shachtman looked at the trade union movement as its insitutional expression, and at the national labor confederation, the AFL-CIO, and particularly the AFL-CIO leadership, as the vanguard agent of the working class. Shachtman saw it the duty of socialists to ally with the AFL-CIO leadership as the functional surrogate of the working class. Since the AFL-CIO was an important influence in the Democratic Party, he saw it as a socialist obligation to advance the AFL-CIO agenda within the Democratic Party and not to build a partisan alternative to the Democratic Party.
The Shactmanites’ anti-Communist orientation in the Vietnam War and after was a natural outgrowth of their anti-Stalinism. This transmuted in the ’70s into a primary concern for formal democracy (what Leninists disdained as “bourgeois democracy”). Indeed, it may be cogently argued that democracy, in a formal constitutional sense, is a necessary but insufficient condition for society to evolve in a more egalitarian and progressive direction. But they elevated democracy to an abstract ideal that came to excuse mass violence and injustices in its name, in the same way that the notion of building or defending “socialism” was exploited by Stalinists and Maoists to excuse their crimes against so-called class enemies. The neocons have continued this supreme emphasis on democracy as an ideal, even as they embraced the Republican Party. It was natural for the Reagan administration to welcome such idealistic strategic thinkers as reinforcements in Reagan’s successful battle against the Communist world.
One might add of more recent times, that once the WMD argument crumbled in Iraq two years ago, it was natural for the Bushies and the neocons to repackage Iraq as a battle for democracy. And this more lofty endeavor is what the neocons had preferred all along.
With the election of Reagan, they mostly switched sides, with a number of neocons and their Shachtmanite friends being appointed to jobs in the Reagan administration. Even Carl Gershman, the executive director of the Social Democrats through most of the ’70s, went into the Reagan administration as counsel to Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s ambassador to the UN. Kirkpatrick got her job as UN ambassador basically through an article she wrote in Commentary, “Dictatorships and Double Standards” (November 1979). In it she argued that it was important for the United States to differentiate between traditional authoritarian dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. Traditional authoritarians are basically in power for themselves, their relatives and cronies; as long as they control political power, they generally leave the rest of society and culture alone. Totalitarians are driven by ideologies that cause them to transform or destroy other social and cultural institutions, with much wider damage to society and making them harder to overthrow in forming a more democratic and responsive government. Writing during a difficult time in the Cold War, her theory rationalized strategic US support for right-wing dictatorships, “traditional authoritarians” in her words, as allies against the totalitarian left. Her essay was a rebuke to the Carter administration’s emphasis on human rights as a distinct objective of US foreign policy.
Even putting the morality of Kirkpatrick’s approach aside, we now know that some right-wing dictatorships, like in Chile and Argentina, were more total and destructive than she acknowledged, and– even more importantly– that the dictatorships of the totalitarian left, especially the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe, were far weaker and therefore far more vulnerable to popular overthrow than she had imagined. Regardless, her career in the Reagan administration and the Republican Party was launched by her being a neocon writing this article in Commentary that came to Reagan’s attention.
Kirkpatrick still considered herself a Democrat at the time, and brought Carl Gershman and his Social Democrats colleague, Joseph Shattan, with her. In 1984, Gershman was appointed by Reagan as the first president of the National Endowment for Democracy. If one wants to be nasty, you’d call this new institution as the overt side of what Ollie North was doing in Central America on the covert side. The National Endowment for Democracy helped fund opposition political parties in such countries as Nicaragua, whose Sandinista government the US disapproved of. I knew Gershman and Shattan personally, and in general I respect Gershman even as I question the direction his career took.
In October of 2005, it was at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) that George W. Bush defended his policy in Iraq with a widely reported address. Televised images showed Carl Gershman, still in this job after 21 years, sitting next to Laura Bush in the first row of the auditorium. But fitting with the bi-partisan nature of the Congressionally-chartered NED, Richard Gephardt, the retired Democratic Party leader in the US House of Representatives and a 2004 contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, was clearly visible a couple of rows behind. Gershman has obviously won friends for himself on both sides of the political divide.
When I first knew Joseph Shattan in the early ’70s, he had a newly minted doctorate in international relations from Brandeis University and seemed entirely opportunistic in his political affiliation. We disagreed even then on Israeli policy; he expressed doubt that Anwar Sadat had peaceful intentions. We wrote opposing articles on this in 1974, in a publication edited by Carl Gershman. History gave me the better of that argument, but I recently discovered Shattan arguing online against George W. Bush’s announced goal for a Palestinian state to coexist alongside Israel. It was at the conservative website, “National Review Online,” which also tells you who his friends still are politically. I also recall seeing him identified in The New York Times about 15 years ago, as being on Dan Quayle’s Vice Presidential staff; Quayle’s chief of staff was a much more accomplished neocon, William Kristol.
It would be a mistake to see all neoconservatives as seeing issues in exactly the same way; some are more thoughtful and insightful than others. There’s even some non-ideological scholarship in what is regarded as basically a neoconservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). For example, Norman Ornstein is the nation’s most widely interviewed, cited and respected authority on the operations of Congress.
Among the least insightful neocons, however, was a group put together by Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz called the Committee on the Present Danger. In the late ’80s, the CPD sponsored ads and programs which attacked Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush from the right — stating that it was a terrible mistake for the US to trust Mikhail Gorbachev as a qualitatively different Soviet leader who meant to end the worst excesses of the Soviet system and the Cold War. Happily, Reagan and the first Pres. Bush ignored these strident warnings.
An AEI intellectual who followed the general drift rightward from social democracy, in his own particular way, is Joshua Muravchik. I knew him as a fellow student at the City College of New York in the late 1960s, when he headed the Socialist Party’s youth wing, the Young People’s Socialist League, that I joined in 1969. He was firmly in the right-Shachtmanite camp, but committed in principle to the ideals of democratic socialism or social democracy. To this day, he is a registered Democrat, but vigorously supported Bush’s election in 2004. In 1993, he was enough of a Democrat to be considered by the Clinton administration to head the state department’s section on human rights. For whatever reason, he was not appointed, but wrote a number of articles in the early ’90s for the moderately liberal New Republic magazine. In 1992, the AEI published his book whose title says it all in neocon speak: Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America’s Destiny.
In the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of doing an oral history of Josh’s 90 year-old father, Emanual Muravchik, who was my employer briefly over 30 years ago at the Jewish Labor Committee. The elder Muravchik, a lifelong socialist/social democrat, a disciple not of Shachtman but of Norman Thomas, maintains warm personal relations with his son, but is very opposed to Josh’s current political direction. In 2003, the conservative publishing house, Encounter Books, published Josh’s Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism, in which he renounces his past as a socialist/social democrat.
It is the neoconservatives who are widely perceived– in Europe, in the Islamic world and among many Americans– as a Jewish or pro-Israel conspiracy which runs US foreign policy. As with all conspiracy theories, there are elements of truth in this, but to buy this line whole is to accept an anti-Semitic canard with classically dangerous consequences. Anti-Semitic movements always assign out-sized, sinister powers to “the Jews.” This current version of conspiratorial thinking ignores the fact that the vast majority of American Jews are Democrats, second only to African Americans for their consistently high majorities voting for Democrats. The Bush administration was hoping to duplicate Reagan’s high watermark in 1980 of winning 31% of the Jewish vote. In 2000, Bush received 19% of the Jewish vote. In 2004, he increased his share to a less-than-impressive 24%. What happened for the first time in decades, however, is that one segment of the American-Jewish community, the religiously Orthodox (about one tenth of the US Jewish population) voted in its majority for the Republican candidate.
The current Republican administration, despite its remarkably diverse cabinet, did not contain a single Jew until Michael Chertoff was appointed secretary of homeland security early in 2005. Since last year, the two most prominent Jewish neocons in the Pentagon, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, have both left. It is mostly within the defense department that Jews figured in positions of authority. Wolfowitz and Feith, plus a few others also identified as influencing administration policy in Iraq– such as Richard Perle, Kenneth Adelman and Elliot Abrams– obtained international infamy as part of this alleged neoconservative/Jewish conspiracy to aid Israel and oppress Islam.
The neocon label has been falsely directed at an array of personalities that administration critics love to hate, such as Vice President Cheney and the hard-hearted ambassador to the UN, John Bolton. Although Cheney and Bolton did have stints with the American Enterprise Institute while out of power, they have mainstream Republican or “paleo”-conservatives roots. Yet Cheney’s now indicted chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Jr., as a longtime protege and associate of Paul Wolfowitz, genuinely may be considered a neocon. It has also come out in some sources that Libby, despite his very goyish sounding name, is Jewish. Naturally, the news of his apparent Jewishness, however private and marginal his involvement in the Jewish community, inspired the headline in a so-called White civil rights website, which features writings by the notorious former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke: “One more Jewish Neocon Traitor.”
Other prominent neocon voices– such as Francis Fukuyama and William Kristol– have become increasingly critical of US policy in Iraq. The contention that a few second- and third-level Jewish officials, plus a few journalists, could compel or manipulate their non-Jewish superiors–Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and Powell–to do what they otherwise wouldn’t, smacks of classical anti-Semitism.
This is not to say that neoconservative individuals and institutions have not been critical in promoting disastrous policies in Iraq. In a way, Cheney came “home” to friendly territory at the American Enterprise Institute on November 21 to defend his administration’s decision to invade Iraq, in a nationally-covered address. Undoubtedly, this venue further fuels the conspiratorialist arguments that entirely blame the neocons/Jews; but, again, it’s important to remember that Cheney was defending his— the Bush-Cheney (some might reverse these names) administration’s decision. This was not AEI’s decision to make.
Neocons are widely assumed to be a “pro-Likud cabal.” Douglas Feith fits this profile as pro-settler but his ex-boss at the Pentagon, former deputy secretary of defense Wolfowitz, is not really a supporter of Likud and pro-settler policies–this on the word of his sister, a biologist who immigrated to Israel years ago, and substantiated by Wolfowitz’s speech before a large pro-Israel rally in Washington, DC, in 2003; he was booed after speaking of the need to fulfill the legitimate rights and aspirations of Palestinians as well as Israelis. Even such journalistic neocon boosters of the Iraq war originally as William Kristol and David Brooks have off-handedly stated in their roles as frequent television pundits that they don’t think West Bank settlements are a good idea.
In his New York Times column of November 17, 2005, Brooks (hired away from Kristol’s Weekly Standard several years ago to fill a Times slot for a conservative columnist) argued poignantly for a negotiated peace with the Palestinians and against a continuation of Israeli “disengagement.” Among the cogent, even liberal, observations made by Brooks: “…unilateral disengagement is no option because the Israelis will never do it well. Driven by normal self-interest and by the bitterness of war, Israelis will grab too much land, and impose too much pain…. Unilateral action is bound to be unjust and thus unstable.”
If all neocons were slavish backers of the Israeli right, why would they have exhibited opposite sympathies during the Kosovo war? Prominent neocons eagerly supported NATO action against Serb ethnic cleansing of Muslims, while Sharon, and especially the militant core of the pro-settler movement, sided with the Serbs. The neocon Weekly Standard magazine even advocated the use of ground troops as essential to complement the NATO bombing campaign. By the way, if we take The Weekly Standard as setting the standard for neocon political preferences, their favorite candidate for president was not George W. Bush, but John McCain.
And even that supposedly anti-Muslim, anti-Arab ogre, Wolfowitz, has a close friendship of several years duration– apparently romantic– with a middle-aged Arab-Muslim feminist, Shaha Ali Riza, a World Bank official who was born in Tunis and raised in Saudi Arabia (both are divorced). Paul Wolfowitz may have manically pushed US foreign policy in a wrong-headed direction in Iraq, but he could not have succeeded without the agreement of the real decision makers in the Bush administration, none of whom are either Jews or neocons.
I don’t state these facts in approval of the neocons, but only to indicate how the “neoconservative” label has largely become a codeword and a cover for anti-Semitic conspiratorial thinking. As is all too often the case historically, conspicuous Jews are being srutinized less as individuals than as “Jews.”
Ralph Seliger is the editor of Israel Horizons, the publication of Meretz USA, a left-liberal Zionist organization associated with the Meretz/Yahad-Social Democratic Israel Party. Ralph was affiliated with the Socialist Party USA, the Social Democrats USA and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee when the neoconservative movement began to take shape from within the social-democratic left and the Democratic Party in the late ’60s and early ’70s.