Trotsky's ghost wandering the White House

Influence on Bush aides: Bolshevik's writings supported the idea of pre-emptive war

 

National Post
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 International.

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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 hoc consultant.

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 Republican right.

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.