They Knew They Were Right

The Rise of The Neocons

By Jacob Heilbrunn
Doubleday. 320 p. $26
Friday, February 1, 2008

Chapter One


And you, stand here by Me and I shall speak to you all the commands and the statutes and the laws that you will teach them, and they will do them in the land that I am about to give them to take hold of it. -Deuteronomy 5:28

It's the same with all you comfortable, insular, Anglo-Saxon anti-Communists. You hate our Cassandra cries and resent us as allies-but, when all is said, we ex-Communists are the only people on your side who know what it's all about. -Arthur Koestler, The God That Failed

I call them utopians ... I don't care whether utopians are Vladimir Lenin in a sealed train going to Moscow or Paul Wolfowitz. Utopians, I don't like. You're never going to bring utopia, and you're going to hurt a lot of people in the process of trying to do it. -Lawrence B. Wilkerson, chief of staff to former secretary of state Colin Powell in GQ

In the spring of 2003, shortly after the liberation of Iraq, Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb attended a party in Washington, D.C., for Melvin Lasky. They hadn't seen one another since a conference in Berlin in 1992 celebrating the end of the cold war. Now they were enjoying a sentimental reunion at which these eighty-year-olds reminisced about their years at the City College of New York in the 1930s. As Lasky held forth, Kristol waspishly intervened to tell the room that "none of you know what the first magazine" was that he had published an article in-an obscure Trotskyist publication called the Chronicle. After Kristol observed that the then-eighteen-year-old Lasky "rewrote every sentence in the piece," Lasky responded, "That was the last recorded moment your prose needed help."

It was a telling moment. For all the joviality, their reminiscences weren't about going out for sports or their old professors. Instead, they were about the intensely political sectarianism of the left. Decades later, the passions that had first impelled them into politics had hardly dimmed; as Lasky later recounted to me, "The memories are very sharp, it's not like an old man who says, 'Who? What college were you in?'"

Their saga began in Russia. At the turn of the twentieth century, Jews, overrepresented in left-wing and revolutionary movements, intent on creating a utopia, went on the attack against capitalism and imperialism. As one Yiddish newspaper put it, "With hatred, with a three-fold curse, we must weave the shroud for the Russian autocratic government, for the entire anti-Semitic criminal gang, for the entire capitalist world."

So pronounced was this phenomenon that in a 1927 study titled "The Jew as Radical," the Russian historian (and apologist for Stalin) Maurice Hindus maintained that Jews had an innate propensity to radicalism dating back to their biblical origins. Indeed, the Menshevik exile Simeon Strunsky, who would end up on the editorial board of the New York Times, sardonically recalled the intensity of Marxist debates that had been transported from Europe to the United States: "I remember quite well those pioneer Yiddish labor papers of the '90s with their learned editorialettes of six or seven columns and five thousand words about what Werner Sombart thought of what Boehm-Bauwerk said about how Karl Marx slipped up in a footnote on page 879."

Of the avatars of world revolution, no one beckoned more alluringly to a new generation of young Jewish radicals than the Russian exile Leon Trotsky. As Jews, they were deeply influenced by their parents' flight from czarist oppression and the rise of fascism in the 1930s, but they also sought to transcend the religiosity of their elders. Some joined the American Communist Party, at least until the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact dividing up Poland and the Baltic States between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. A much smaller segment became Trotskyists, attacking both Stalinism as a perverted form of communism and New Deal liberalism. The Trotskyist intellectuals saw themselves as martyrs, a kind of aristocratic intelligentsia.

According to their own prolific writings, they started out purely as an intellectual response to events such as the Spanish civil war, the Moscow show trials, the Hitler-Stalin pact, and the New Deal. Frequently scanted, or even missing altogether from this tale of brilliant and ambitious young intellectuals, is their Jewishness, which enters into the story as an over-the-shoulder glance at the vanishing "world of their fathers." In their seemingly inexhaustible stream of memoirs and autobiographical essays, the Jewish intellectuals who became the core of the neoconservative movement present themselves as fully secularized, their ideas and attitudes bearing little, if any, relation to the Jewish past or, in some cases, even to the immigrant milieu of their youth. Their Trotskyist past appears as a minor episode, paling in comparison to the supposed real emergence of neoconservatism in the late 1960s. One exegete of neoconservatism says that "despite its current popularity, the 'Trotskyist neocon' assertion contributes nothing to our understanding of the origins, or nature, of neoconservatism." Another, Joshua Muravchik, maintains that hardly any neoconservatives have been interested in Trotskyism, let alone sincere believers.

But as the sons of Jewish immigrants, they undoubtedly had a special perspective, one torn between tradition and assimilation, buffeted by radical winds, in love with ideas, consumed with ambition to participate in the great doings of the world outside the immigrant ghetto. Contrary to some of their critics, the neoconservatives hardly remain political Trotskyists in any meaningful sense. Their fling with Trotskyism did, however, endow them with a temperament as well as a set of intellectual tools that many never completely abandoned-a combative temper and a penchant for sweeping assertions and grandiose ideas.

Some of that grandiosity was rooted in the generational tensions between Jewish immigrant fathers and their Americanizing sons, which often took the form of disagreements about religion and politics. Put otherwise: the religiosity of the fathers was sublimated by the sons in radical politics. Trotsky, as a literary critic, a historian, a politician, and a warrior, captured their youthful imaginations. But on a deeper, unconscious level, they appear to have identified with Trotsky as a way of breaking with the paternal religion while maintaining the radical faith of their parents. They saw Trotsky as a kind of secular Jewish prophet who had been betrayed by the murderous "bureaucrat" Stalin.

The young radicals could hardly have grown up in a more intensely Jewish world. Yiddish theater, journalism, and literature flourished on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The social reformer Jacob Riis dubbed it "Jewtown," while Henry James referred to it more delicately as "The New Jerusalem." Whatever Lower East Side Jewish life was called, the children, desperate to Americanize, sought first to escape it, then to memorialize it. According to Irving Howe, the Jewish socialist intellectual who did more than anyone to re-create it in World of Our Fathers, "Often enough it was the purity of their vision-the moral firmness induced by religion or set free by radicalism-that provided the energies for realizing their personal ambitions." The literary critic Alfred Kazin recalled in his own memoir that he was expected to shine by his immigrant parents: "I was the first American child, their offering to the strange new God; I was to be the monument of their liberation from the shame of being-what they were."

Though the parents hoped for careers in medicine, law, and business for their sons, or as musical and intellectual prodigies, Marxist radicalism was the most common route of escape. As teenagers, they would stand on soapboxes in New York-known as the most interesting city in the Soviet Union-and demand a more just society. They didn't have to be told about the grinding, carking poverty created by capitalism; they saw people living in hovels all around them and foraged themselves for fruits and vegetables on the Lower East Side docks. As a sixteen-year-old freshman at City College, for example, Sidney Hook helped create the Social Problems Club, an organization made up of socialists, syndicalists, and communists that saw itself as part of the world revolution emanating from Moscow. In a number of stories and novels Saul Bellow, who grew up in a working-class milieu in Chicago and traveled to Mexico in August 1940 to meet Trotsky, captured the febrile intellectualism of the young immigrant Jews lecturing their elders on the fine points of Hegel and Marx while still in their knickers.

In America the Jews would no longer be downtrodden and contemned. But for a number of radical children, this was not enough. They didn't want in. They wanted out. They saw themselves as the avatars of a secular movement that would overturn the old order in America as well. After all, no matter how hard they worked, there were still quotas at the Ivy League universities. Then there were the fancy clubs, the legal and financial firms that saw Jews as interlopers who would soil their proud escutcheons and were to be kept at bay. Smarting with unsuppressed social resentment, the young Jews viewed themselves as liberators, proclaiming a new faith. They embraced a cosmopolitan creed that supposedly left behind the stifling religious customs of their elders as well as the warring nationalisms that perpetually dragged Europe into strife and combat.

Even as they nursed these illusions, however, the radical generation of intellectuals serenely ignored the mounting threat to their brethren in Central Europe and Russia. On the whole, the Jewish intellectuals have given themselves a pass on this question. They rarely talk about it. Indeed, it is telling that amid all the panegyrics to the moral seriousness of these intellectuals, one of the few critical notes was sounded only decades later by the neoconservative literary scholar Ruth Wisse in Commentary. As she shrewdly noted, "So great was the distance these Jews felt between themselves and their community that they voiced no sense of special responsibility toward the fate of their fellow Jews in Hitler's Europe." Even during World War II, these Jewish radicals saw the struggle against German and Japanese fascism as a sideshow, an imperialist plot, while ignoring the destruction of European Jewry. They were too busy searching for a prophet, a political Moses to lead them out of the wilderness, to focus on the actual threat to world civilization.

The Prophet Unarmed: Max Shachtman

No one exemplified these impulses better than a Jewish immigrant from Poland-and founding father of neoconservatism-named Max Shachtman. Shachtman wasn't physically commanding. He was short and had a high-pitched voice and a pencil mustache. But he more than made up for it with his exuberance, zaniness, irony, and zest for polemics: put him up on a rostrum or podium and he could speak for hours about the fate of the world and socialism-in Yiddish, English, German, and French. He was a fiery presence-a Trotskyist who went from denouncing U.S. participation in World War II to embracing the Vietnam War and George Meany's AFL-CIO.

Shachtman inculcated a hatred of liberalism in his proteges: he taught them how to organize an obscure political movement, he hammered away at the idea of Trotsky's belief in a Fourth International global democratic revolution, and he set forth the lineaments of what would become the idea of an exploitative, postbourgeois "new class." He remains an object of fascination: it was no accident that Christopher Hitchens, himself now far along the road from youthful Trotskyism to neoconservatism, recently declared in the pages of the Atlantic that a biography of him would constitute an "intellectual Rosetta Stone" for the cold war. His proteges included everyone from Carl Gershman, the current head of the National Endowment for Democracy, to the neoconservatives Irving Kristol and Joshua Muravchik, the longtime head of the American Federation of Teachers Albert Shanker, Irving Howe, and the African-American leader Bayard Rustin.

Shachtman, who was born in Warsaw on September 10, 1904, grew up in a working-class Eastern European Jewish neighborhood in East Harlem that was filled with synagogues, coffee shops, and religious schools. His father transmitted his hatred of the Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian empires to him. Though his parents hoped he would enter a middle-class profession, Shachtman dropped out of City College to become a radical organizer in 1921. His mentor was a humorless, hard-nosed American Bolshevik named James P. Cannon. Born in Rosedale, Kansas, in 1890, Cannon was a founding member of the American Communist Party, serving as party secretary from 1919 to 1928, when he, along with Shachtman, was expelled for supporting the Trotskyist heresy. Unlike Shachtman, however, Cannon didn't engage in abstruse theoretical debates; instead, he simply repeated what the grand old man Trotsky dictated from exile.

At the time of his expulsion Shachtman was twenty-four years old. Together with Cannon and Martin Abern, the young firebrand founded the rival Communist League of America, which was quickly dubbed "Three Generals Without an Army." Shachtman became editor of the party newspaper, the Militant, and focused on winning the support of young radicals. Under Shachtman's influence, young educated Jews would transfer their innate hostility toward the WASP establishment to the cause of the working class. The labor movement was supposed to serve as a kind of petri dish where radicals of all stripes could mingle. It was a place where ideas and politics intersected, allowing intellectuals to forge schemes to bring the working class to power. To many of his followers, Shachtman seemed to exemplify the union of theorist and politician.

In 1930 Shachtman visited Trotsky, then in exile on the Turkish island Buyukada. He quickly became an international figure in the Trotskyist movement, corresponding with comrades around the globe. But his main work was at home. Shachtman saw radicalism as synonymous with youth. He started the Young Workers League and denounced Citizens' Military Training Camps as well as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. They were tools for molding young people into the slaves of big industry. "In America," he said, "the minds of the youth are filled with a greater proportion of capitalist poison per square brain cell than in any other country."

In a not untypical schism within the communist ranks, Shachtman and Cannon were expelled from the Socialist Party in August 1937. This time, however, they took along many members, including the party's youth division, the Young People's Socialist League. The YPSL served as a training ground for several generations of neoconservatives, ranging from Irving Kristol in the 1930s to Jeane Kirkpatrick in the 1940s to Joshua Muravchik in the 1960s. This glittering prize would allow the Trotskyists to swell their future ranks, capturing the best and brightest among the New York Jewish intellectuals. The result was that in January 1938 they founded the Socialist Workers Party.

Prominent among Shachtman's youthful followers was Irving Howe, who went on to become a famous critic and editor, not to mention a mentor in his own right to several generations of Jewish writers and socialists. Like Trotsky, Howe was a tremendous rhetorician who took an almost sadistic pleasure in eviscerating his opponents in debates. But Howe did his most lasting work as a literary critic. He would eventually reconcile himself to his Jewish heritage, partly by editing several volumes of Yiddish poems, short stories, and essays. He would contrast the communal world of the shtetl with the avaricious capitalism that he believed prevailed in the United States. But Howe recoiled at the New Left and its consequences: in the early 1990s he berated his younger English department colleagues at the City University of New York as "gutless" for failing to condemn multiculturalist fads that pooh-poohed high culture and the literary canon as being made up of "dead white males."


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