20 May 2003


Arthur Lipow has emailed me on the subject of the left backgrounds of the American neo-cons, and he confirms that the idea that the current neo-con mob came out of Trotskyism is very crude intellectual history. There is, however, a germ of truth in it. Several of the today's neo-cons started out in the late-1960s/early-1970s cold-warrior Social Democrats USA gang around George Meany, the hardline anti-communist boss of the AFL-CIO, and senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, who challenged unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 and 1976 on a cold warrior populist ticket. And the eminence grise of the SDUSA scene was Max Shachtman (1904-72) - who in the 1930s had been America's most charismatic Trotskyist and in the 1940s and 1950s had been the leader of an important "Third Camp" ("Neither Washington nor Moscow") current in far-left politics that went under various organisational guises.

Of the first generation of neo-cons, Irving Kristol was briefly an early-1940s member of Shachtman's Workers' Party, but drifted away; and during the late 1940s and 1950s Shachtman's group remained influential among the New York intellectuals: people like Nathan Glazer were, says Lipow, "part of the milieu". But the Shachtman connection with today's neo-cons (and indeed those of the 1980s) really dates from the period after Shachtman himself had broken with most of his old comrades by backing the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and then throwing in his lot with the cold warrior liberal wing of the Democratic party over Vietnam. Several key figures in the current neo-con firmament - among them Richard Perle and Jeane Kirkpatrick, both of whom campaigned for Jackson - got into politics through the Jackson-Meany-Shachtman-SDUSA milieu. But as Lipow puts it, "Take all of this as a course in intellectual history not as an organised conspiracy." A Brit connection to this cold-warrior Democrat scene is the noted historian Robert Conquest, who wrote speeches for Jackson. A brief account of Shachtman's later years is in Peter Drucker's Max Shachtman and his Left, published in 1994 by Humanities Press.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, John Kampfner produced an extraorinarily barmy piece in the New Statesman a couple of weeks ago claiming to identify a British neo-con movement in the making. One of the people he identified as a leading figure was David Aaronovitch, who has responded, very amusingly, in the Guardian, for which click here.

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