Neo-Conservatism: The Chart

In today’s Washington Post, there’s an extensive chart tracing the history of neo-conservatism from Leo Strauss and Leon Trotsky to the Bush White House (the chart accompanies a review of Jacob Heilbrunn’s new book They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons).

The chart manages to pack in a great deal of information in a small space but necessarily simplifies and unnecessarily contains factual errors.

A few notes: I don’t think it’s true to say that Ayn Rand was an influence on National Review (she was excoriated in the magazine for her atheism).

Equally wrongheaded is describing Winston Churchill as an “early influence” on National Review. In its green days the magazine was filled with isolationists, Anglophobes and anti-communists who disliked Churchill for a host of reasons, including his wartime alliance with Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt (as well as his general squishiness in opposing democratic socialism). When Churchill died William Buckley penned a notably cold and dismissive obituary. The cult of Churchill was much stronger among the Straussians and also politicians like Donald Rumsfeld (who looked to the cigar-chomping prime minister as a model of manliness).

Nor was National Review really a neo-conservative journal for at least its first thirty years (from say 1955 to 1985). It is true to say that starting in the mid-1980s National Review style conservatism started to merge with the neo-conservatism (a trend that really solidified after Rich Lowry became editor in 1997).

The chart makes it seem as if Max Shachtman was an influence on Lionel Trilling and Philip Rahv. I’m not sure that’s true. I know a fair bit about Shachtman and I’ve never heard anything to indicate any sort of ties to Trilling and Rahv.

And certain people are fluid in their trajectory in ways that the chart doesn’t indicate. It’s true that Bayard Rustin was aligned with Dissent magazine and Irving Howe, but he also retained some sort of friendliness to Commentary and certain neo-conservatives (especially Midge Decter and Arch Puddington).

In general, the chart doesn’t allow for the way individuals were formed by multiple influences: Martin Diamond and Gertrude Himmelfarb were shaped by both Straussian political theory and the Shachtmanite milieu.

On a more minor note, Rachel Decter wasn’t born in 1960 and she’s the step-daughter, not the daughter, of Norman Podhoretz.

The chart tends to glide over the cultural dimensions of neo-conservatism (Saul Bellow gets a bullet point but there’s no mention of Hilton Kramer, Joseph Epstein, and The New Criterion). I think there should have been acknowledgement of Werner Dannhauser, who studied under Leo Strauss and also served on the editorial staff of Commentary. It was Dannhauser who sealed the alliance between the Staussians and the incipient neo-conservative movement in the 1960s.

Still and all, not a bad chart.

For anyone interested in learning more about the neo-conservatives, I have a fair number of articles on this subject. Here are links to pieces on Leo Strauss, on the legacy of Trotskyism, on Norman Podhoretz,  on The New Criterion, and on Michael Ledeen.

8 thoughts on “Neo-Conservatism: The Chart

  1. Shouldn’t Harry Jaffa be on this chart?

    I can also think of at least a couple of his students who are involved with right-wing think tanks and academic centers and such, but maybe they’re just too far removed (although, ideologically, I think not)…

  2. The idea that the neoconservatives were substantially influenced by Trotskyism is one of the urban legends of contemporary intellectual and political life. Few of them spent more than a very brief period anywhere near the movement, and even then it was usually while adolescents. To be sure, it must be very exciting for them to claim to have been deeply involved in radicalism once upon a time. But most of the younger (as in, under the age of 80) neocons just recite stuff they heard about Trotskyism at dinner parties, as far as I can tell.

    Incredible amounts of bullshit have been published to the effect that neocon foreign policy was “a continuation of the theory of permanent revolution” — invariably by people who have absolutely no idea what the latter means.

  3. The claim that Shachtman was a significant influence on either Rahv or Trilling pretty much gives the game away. This chart is about as serious as playing Six Degrees of Separation.

    Kristol and Himmelfarb were in “the Shachtmanite milieu” for, gosh, maybe nine whole months. They can’t have been much older than 20 when they left as part of a group that denounced all varieties of Leninism and Trotskyism.

    Urban legends and nothing more. I have a friend who knows a guy who put a Norman Podhoretz in a microwave to dry him off …

  4. I agree with Scott that a lot of nonsense has been written about the relationship between Trotskyism and the neo-cons, and the stuff about the “permanent revolution” is a particularly blatant example of journalistic fiction. (For that very reason, I deliberately avoided talking about “permanent revolution” in my one article on the subject).

    Having said that, I don’t think it’s true to say that there is no relationship at all. What has to be understood is that neo-conservatism is not a coherent set of ideas or a doctrine, but rather a gestalt or an attitude. And part of this attitude, to be found especially in the writers who are most interested in foreign policy who spent time following either Trotsky in the late 1930s or Shachtman in the 1950s and 1960s, is a certain romantic militarism, a fascination with bravado “forward-thinking” strategy (shading over into a support for pre-emptive war and unconventional tactics of guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency), and a focus on the revolutionary potential of countries outside of North America and Western Europe. This set of attitudes doesn’t derive so much from the historical Trotsky and his political philosophy as much as the myth of Trotsky, the revolutionary intellectual who was also a military genius. I think this mythical Trotsky holds a deep fascination for conservative and neo-conservative intellectuals who might have only spent a few short years anywhere near the real Trotskyist parties (as an example I would cite James Burnham, who constantly kept quoting Trotsky’s words as if they had talismanic power in his National Review columns from 1955 until well into the mid 1970s.) I think it’s this mythical Trotsky that has to be seen as forerunner to neo-conservatism.

  5. Since I’m replying to Scott, I should add that there is a further and bigger problem with the chart, one tied to the over-estimation of the importance of Trotsky. The chart totally ignores the role of Cold War liberalism as a formative experience in the neo-conservative story, and especially the way Cold War liberalism was allied to the CIA. (To his credit, the radical writer Richard Seymour noticed this omission). In general, the role of Cold War liberalism in incubating neo-conservatism is ignored in popular histories, in part because it’s an embarrassment to many respectable liberals. Much better to blame the whole thing on the Trotskyists and Straussians.

  6. I think you are quite right about the implicit (and utterly unacknowledged) motivation for this way of telling the story. But a lot of it can also be put down to pack mentality.

    Anyway, I should clarify that I don’t think of James Burnham as being a neocon in the strictest sense. A prototype, yes — but you find Burnham embraced by the paleocons, and that is a very important distinction. (The same is true of Wilmoore Kendall, who was briefly close to the movement but has never been embraced by the neocons at all, to the best of my knowledge.)

    Also, Burnham was heavily involved in the movement in a serious way, which was simply never the case with Kristol and his ilk. But it is by no means a trivial point that everything in Burnham’s later thinking was a matter of drawing out the implications of a thoroughgoing rejection of every aspect of Trotsky’s thought. This does not seem like much of a basis for claiming significant continuity.

    Let’s be clear. Any reference to Trotsky or Trotskyism is going to tickle the xenophobic, anti-intellectual, and/or anti-Semitic fancy. Saying that the neocons were continuing T’ist policies is thus a sure-fire way to discredit them with American boobs and easily-riled yahoos. At the same time, liberal pundits tend to know exactly as much about the history of ideas and ideologies as their fellow citizens — which is to say, just about nothing at all. So this nonsense proves to a win-win situation all around.

  7. The idea that the neoconservatives were substantially influenced by Trotskyism is one of the urban legends of contemporary intellectual and political life.

    What’s important is not whether certain neoconservatives believe in the teachings of Trotsky, what is important is why so many fake liberals feel betrayed by neo-conservatives who they see as the same as Trotsky’s betrayal of Stalin.

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