A 2006 essay by Ralph Seliger, himself a left-liberal Zionist, remains one of the best article overviews of the oft-cited relationship between neoconservatism and Trotskyism. Its stated purpose is to debunk the “Jewishness” of the neoconservatives, but the author’s retelling of events that he was sometimes a first-hand witness to speak for themselves.
Unlike virtually everyone else, I don’t regard neoconservatism by itself as ever having been a significant phenomenon. It’s nothing more than the Jewish wing of Wilsonianism, and the perspectives of neoconservatism and mainline gentile liberal internationalism do not differ significantly from each other, except that some of the first-generation neocons did partially criticize various Great Society programs — like Nathan Glazer did. Even without the neocons, it is unlikely to me that the US and Israel’s cozy relationship (beginning with LBJ, thus predating AIPAC influence) would have differed. Before PNAC, there was the UDA. The Old Right had already dissolved by that point, and in fact I’d say that realistically it was the final defeat of the Taft Republicans by Eisenhower during the debates on the Bricker Amendment that was far more traumatic to American conservatism than in whatever influence the social democratic ideas of the Partisan Review and neoconservatism may have had.
Either way, discussions of neoconservatism frequently return to the name of Max Shachtman, a Trotskyist revisionist who would formulate the theories of “bureaucratic collectivism” and the so-called “Third Camp” approach to foreign policy of “neither East nor West.” Bureaucratic collectivism as a theory of the Soviet economy posits the bureaucratic expropriation of the surplus product in society as constituting a distinct mode of production separate from both capitalism and socialism. Many Trots didn’t like this theory since, besides introducing a new system with ill-defined “laws of motion,” it had a rather pessimistic overtone in that a bureaucratic collectivist society did not have a straightforward way of resuming into a proletarian dictatorship, unlike the competing theory of “state capitalism” which did introduce such a backdoor — more on this in a bit.
As the standard “neocons are degenerated Trotskyites” account goes, the Third Camp position morphed from “neither East nor West” to “I support the East though I’m leaning, leaning to the West.” This transformation would reach its apex after Nixon’s election, when the Coalition for a Democratic Majority was formed, with its bombastic manifesto published in 1972 entitled “Come Home, Democrats,” calling for a return to the “great tradition” of “Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert H. Humphrey.” Commitments to equal opportunity (but not yet affirmative action), income redistribution and democratic interventionism are clearly outlined. Podhoretz, Bell and Lipset are among the sponsors, as are many others.
Henry “Scoop” Jackson was the de facto figurehead of the CDM, and indeed it was organized in support of his nomination as Democratic candidate for president. Scoop Jackson combined the politics of the New Deal coalition, civil rights and environmentalism with consistent hawkishness and military Keynesianism. Wolfowitz and Perle served as his aides. The failure of the Scoop Jackson campaigns and the integration of certain neocons into the foreign policy think tank Committee on the Present Danger (which, contrary to expectations, appears to have been financed on a relatively grassroots level), led to an exodus to Reagan and the GOP more broadly. Some, like Joshua Muravchik, remained registered Democrats regardless.
Pursuing the Shachtman line, I stumbled upon one of his early critics, the prominent Trotskyist Tony Cliff, and his 1948 essay The theory of bureaucratic collectivism: A critique.
I found it to be a highly entertaining illustration of the pretensions of “scientific socialism” and how it so desperately tries to sneak in the most utopian of optimism while pretending to have the upper hand in rigorous analysis.
Cliff says the USSR is “state capitalist” and not “bureaucratic collectivist.”
It is so because, first of all, “bureaucratic collectivism” is incoherent:
Actually, if the Bureaucratic Collectivist economy is geared to the “needs of the bureaucracy” – is not subordinated to capital accumulation – there is no reason why the rate of exploitation should not decrease in time, and as the productive forces in the modern world are dynamic – this will lead, willy-nilly, to the “withering away of exploitation”.
Once the Stalinist bureaucracy created a massive working class and massive concentrated capital, the objective prerequisites for the overthrow of the bureaucracy had been laid.
This is so, because Cliff deems capital accumulation and its “anarchic competition” to be inherently exploitative in a way that economic systems revolving around the creation of use values for a ruling class simply aren’t. Slaves and serfs have physiological limitations that capital doesn’t. “With the dynamism of highly developed productive forces,” he writes, “an economy based on gratifying the needs of the rulers can be arbitrarily described as leading to the millennium or to 1984.” Anything is possible.
This comes awfully close to being a proslavery argument worthy of a Southern Fire-Eater. But Cliff has a very weasely method for slipping out of this reactionary consequence.
It is historically retrogressive!
Marx maintained that the historical tendency towards the degradation of the proletariat, its increased oppression by capital, is fundamental to capitalism, whereas the substitution of the proletariat by a new, or rather, ancient, class of slaves is quite contrary to the general tendency of history. As we have said, only a lack of means of production and an abundance of labour power can explain the widespread use of prison labour in Stalin’s Russia.
Slavery, to Cliff, is inherently periodized. It exists in the past. It is something that is done. Completed. Anything that resembles a new slave society therefore must in fact be a mirage springing from underdevelopment of “productive forces.” Otherwise we would have a contradiction of the “general tendency of history,” which says slavery cannot possibly be a driving economic class structure in THE CURRENT YEAR.
And here is the case for “state capitalism” over “bureaucratic collectivism”:
For a Marxist who thinks Russia is state capitalist, the historical mission of the bourgeoisie is the socialisation of labour and the concentration of the means of production. On a world scale this task had already been fulfilled. In Russia the revolution removed the impediments to the development of the productive forces, put an end to the remnants of feudalism, built up a monopoly of foreign trade which defends the development of the productive forces of the country from the devastating pressure of world capitalism, and also gave a tremendous lever to the development of the productive forces in the form of state ownership of the means of production. Under such conditions, all the impediments to the historical mission of capitalism – the socialisation of labour and the concentration of the means of production which are necessary prerequisites for the establishment of socialism, and which the bourgeoisie was not able to fulfil – are abolished.
Russia must be capitalist, else there couldn’t be any socialism emerging from the embryo of “social, collective, large-scale production, and associated with it, the working class,” as he calls it earlier. There has to be socialism eventually because otherwise, well, it would be terrible if there wasn’t. Therefore, Russia is state capitalist.
Bruno Rizzi, an Italian shoemaker who wrote the revisionist Marxist tract The bureaucratization of the world in 1939 and was something of a predecessor to James Burnham (as well as being referenced by Cliff in this pamphlet) taunted this attitude like so: “Once the existence of a new class in the USSR is admitted a yawning chasm opens up before the Marxist mentality, but this chasm will not go away by closing one’s eyes. The cup of bitterness must be drunk to the dregs, only then will it be possible to take up the wire again and follow it to safety.”
“History does not insist that a new ruling class should coincide with a former exploited class,” Rizzi says.
So it doesn’t.
For, when laborers can no longer subsist on their wages, the deficiency must in some way be supplied by the property owners. In lawless or badly governed countries, beggary and theft may be the irregular means of drawing that support from property which was denied in wages. In better regulated communities, the supply is furnished by the “poor law,” or a compulsory provision for the laboring poor who cannot subsist on their wages, as well as for the infirm poor, incapable of labor . . . The pauper, whether laborer or otherwise, receiving support from the parish, is neither more nor less than a slave to the administrators of the law and dispensers of the public charity. The pauper ceases to be a free agent in any respect.
This raises the question of just how different the social provisioning from “social, collective, large-scale production, and associated with it, the working class” would be from a poor law committee. Given that by Cliff’s statement any society not subordinated to capital accumulation but using modern large-scale production should see decreasing rates of exploitation, so could a neo-patrimonial economy. After all, the “socialisation of labour and the concentration of the means of production” which are deemed to be the prerequisites of socialism are already basically complete… but we have not transcended the poor law committee? Then again, these are only prerequisites, of course. There’s still something missing. There always is. If only Bukharin was in charge.