Trotsky's Ghost Wandering The White House
Influence on Bush aides: Bolshevik's writings supported the idea of
Saturday, June 07, 2003
Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, was paranoid. Perhaps his
deepest fears centred around his great rival for the leadership of
the Bolshevik movement, Leon Trotsky. Stalin went to extraordinary
lengths to obliterate not only Trotsky but also the ragtag
international fellowship known as the Left Opposition, which
supported Trotsky's political program. In the late 1920s, Stalin
expelled Trotsky from the Communist Party and deported him from the
Soviet Union. Almost instantly, other Communist parties moved to
excommunicate Trotsky's followers, notably the Americans James P.
Cannon and Max Shachtman.
In 1933, while in exile in Turkey, Trotsky regrouped his supporters
as the Fourth International. Never amounting to more than a few
thousand individuals scattered across the globe, the Fourth
International was constantly harassed by Stalin's secret police, as
well as by capitalist governments. The terrible purge trials that
Stalin ordered in the late 1930s were designed in part to eliminate
any remaining Trotskyists in the Soviet Union. Fleeing from country
to country, Trotsky ended up in Mexico, where he was murdered by an
ice-pick-wielding Stalinist assassin in 1940. Like Macbeth after the
murder of Banquo, Stalin became even more obsessed with his great
foe after killing him. Fearing a revival of Trotskyism, Stalin's
secret police continued to monitor the activities of Trotsky's widow
in Mexico, as well as the far-flung activities of the Fourth
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More than a decade after the demise of the Soviet Union, Stalin's
war against Trotsky may seem like quaint ancient history. Yet Stalin
was right to fear Trotsky's influence. Unlike Stalin, Trotsky was a
man of genuine intellectual achievement, a brilliant literary critic
and historian as well as a military strategist of genius. Trotsky's
movement, although never numerous, attracted many sharp minds. At
one time or another, the Fourth International included among its
followers the painter Frida Kahlo (who had an affair with Trotsky),
the novelist Saul Bellow, the poet André Breton and the Trinidadian
polymath C.L.R. James.
As evidence of the continuing intellectual influence of Trotsky,
consider the curious fact that some of the books about the Middle
East crisis that are causing the greatest stir were written by
thinkers deeply shaped by the tradition of the Fourth International.
In seeking advice about Iraqi society, members of the Bush
administration (notably Paul D. Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of
Defence, and Dick Cheney, the Vice-President) frequently consulted
Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi-American intellectual whose book The Republic
of Fear is considered to be the definitive analysis of Saddam
Hussein's tyrannical rule.
As the journalist Christopher Hitchens notes, Makiya is "known to
veterans of the Trotskyist movement as a one-time leading Arab
member of the Fourth International." When speaking about Trotskyism,
Hitchens has a voice of authority. Like Makiya, Hitchens is a former
Trotskyist who is influential in Washington circles as an advocate
for a militantly interventionist policy in the Middle East. Despite
his leftism, Hitchens has been invited into the White House as an ad
Other supporters of the Iraq war also have a Trotsky-tinged past. On
the left, the historian Paul Berman, author of a new book called
Terror and Liberalism, has been a resonant voice among those who
want a more muscular struggle against Islamic fundamentalism. Berman
counts the Trotskyist C.L.R. James as a major influence. Among neo-
conservatives, Berman's counterpart is Stephen Schwartz, a historian
whose new book, The Two Faces of Islam, is a key text among those
who want the United States to sever its ties with Saudi Arabia.
Schwartz spent his formative years in a Spanish Trotskyist group.
To this day, Schwartz speaks of Trotsky affectionately as "the old
man" and "L.D." (initials from Trotsky's birth name, Lev Davidovich
Bronstein). "To a great extent, I still consider myself to be [one
of the] disciples of L.D," he admits, and he observes that in
certain Washington circles, the ghost of Trotsky still hovers
around. At a party in February celebrating a new book about Iraq,
Schwartz exchanged banter with Wolfowitz about Trotsky, the Moscow
Trials and Max Shachtman.
"I've talked to Wolfowitz about all of this," Schwartz notes. "We
had this discussion about Shachtman. He knows all that stuff, but
was never part of it. He's definitely aware." The yoking together of
Paul Wolfowitz and Leon Trotsky sounds odd, but a long and tortuous
history explains the link between the Bolshevik left and the
To understand how some Trotskyists ended up as advocates of U.S.
expansionism, it is important to know something about Max Shachtman,
Trotsky's controversial American disciple. Shachtman's career
provides the definitive template of the trajectory that carries
people from the Left Opposition to support for the Pentagon.
Throughout the 1930s, Shachtman loyally hewed to the Trotsky line
that the Soviet Union as a state deserved to be defended even though
Stalin's leadership had to be overthrown. However, when the Soviet
Union forged an alliance with Hitler and invaded Finland, Shachtman
moved to a politics of total opposition, eventually known as
the "third camp" position. Shachtman argued in the 1940s and 1950s
that socialists should oppose both capitalism and Soviet communism,
both Washington and Moscow.
Yet as the Cold War wore on, Shachtman became increasingly convinced
Soviet Communism was "the greater and more dangerous" enemy. "There
was a way on the third camp left that anti-Stalinism was so deeply
ingrained that it obscured everything else," says Christopher
Phelps, whose introduction to the new book Race and Revolution
details the Trotskyist debate on racial politics. Phelps is an
eloquent advocate for the position that the best portion of
Shachtman's legacy still belongs to the left.
By the early 1970s, Shachtman was a supporter of the Vietnam War and
the strongly anti-Communist Democrats such as Senator Henry Jackson.
Shachtman had a legion of young followers (known as Shachtmanites)
active in labour unions and had an umbrella group known as the
Social Democrats. When the Shachtmanites started working for Senator
Jackson, they forged close ties with hard-nosed Cold War liberals
who also advised Jackson, including Richard Perle and Paul
Wolfowitz; these two had another tie to the Trotskyism; their mentor
was Albert Wohlstetter, a defence intellectual who had been a
Schachtmanite in the late 1940s.
Shachtman died in 1972, but his followers rose in the ranks of the
labour movement and government bureaucracy. Because of their long
battles against Stalinism, Shachtmanites were perfect recruits for
the renewed struggle against Soviet communism that started up again
after the Vietnam War. Throughout the 1970s, intellectuals forged by
the Shachtman tradition filled the pages of neo-conservative
publications. Then in the 1980s, many Social Democrats found
themselves working in the Reagan administration, notably Jeanne
Kirkpatrick (who was ambassador to the United Nations) and Elliott
Abrams (whose tenure as assistant secretary of state was marred by
his involvement with the Iran-Contra scandal).
The distance between the Russia of 1917 and the Washington of 2003
is so great that many question whether Trotsky and Shachtman have
really left a legacy for the Bush administration. For Christopher
Phelps, the circuitous route from Trotsky to Bush is "more a matter
of rupture and abandonment of the left than continuity."
Stephen Schwartz disagrees. "I see a psychological, ideological and
intellectual continuity," says Schwartz, who defines Trotsky's
legacy to neo-conservatism in terms of a set of valuable lessons. By
his opposition to both Hitler and Stalin, Trotsky taught the Left
Opposition the need to have a politics that was proactive and
willing to take unpopular positions. "Those are the two things that
the neo-cons and the Trotskyists always had in common: the ability
to anticipate rather than react and the moral courage to stand apart
from liberal left opinion when liberal left opinion acts like a mob."
Trotsky was also a great military leader, and Schwartz finds support
for the idea of pre-emptive war in the old Bolshevik's
writings. "Nobody who is a Trotskyist can really be a pacifist,"
Schwartz notes. "Trotskyism is a militaristic disposition. When you
are Trotskyist, we don't refer to him as a great literary critic, we
refer to him as the founder of the Red Army."
Paul Berman agrees with Schwartz that Trotskyists are by definition
internationalists who are willing to go to war when necessary. "The
Left Opposition and the non-Communist left comes out of classic
socialism, so it's not a pacifist tradition," Berman observes. "It's
an internationalist tradition. It has a natural ability to
sympathize or feel solidarity for people in places that might strike
other Americans or Canadians as extremely remote."
Christopher Phelps, however, doubts these claims of a Trotskyist
tradition that would support the war in Iraq. For the Left
Opposition, internationalism was not simply about fighting all over
the world. "Internationalism meant solidarity with other peoples and
not imperialist imposition upon them," Phelps notes.
Though Trotsky was a military leader, Phelps also notes "the Left
Opposition had a long history of opposition to imperialist war. They
weren't pacifists, but they were against capitalist wars fought by
capitalist states. It's true that there is no squeamishness about
the application of force when necessary. The question is, is force
used on behalf of a class that is trying to create a world with much
less violence or is it force used on behalf of a state that is
itself the largest purveyor of organized violence in the world?
There is a big difference." Seeing the Iraq war as an imperialist
adventure, Phelps is confident "Trotsky and Shachtman in the '30s
and '40s wouldn't have supported this war."
This dispute over the true legacy of Trotsky and Shachtman
illustrates how the Left Opposition still stirs passion. The
strength of a living tradition is in its ability to inspire rival
interpretations. Despite Stalin's best efforts, Trotskyism is a
living force that people fight over.