There is a well-known aphorism, variously attributed to Disraeli, Churchill
and a few others, to the effect that if you are not a socialist (or a radical
or a liberal, according to whom the saying is attributed) at the age of twenty,
you have no heart, but if you are not a conservative at forty you have no
brains. According to a rather different version, accurately attributed to
Bernard Shaw, who was eighty at the time, “If you don’t begin to be a
revolutionist at the age of twenty, then at fifty you will be a most impossible
old fossil. If you are a red revolutionary at twenty, you have some chance of
being up-to-date when you are forty.” (GBS 12. February 1933.) Both Disraeli
and Churchill may have been attempting to excuse their earlier Radicalism and
Liberalism. Shaw, who never deserted the Left, was not so much renouncing the
red-blooded socialism of his younger self as acknowledging it as the basis of
the later “up-to-date” Fabian revisionism of which he was a founding-father.
There is nothing surprising about people changing their political opinions as they go through life. To hold dogmatically to a conviction when the evidence points to the need for revision, is suggestive of mental sclerosis or blind faith. Unreconstructed Stalinists – a dwindling and forlorn band, who still refuse to face the truth about the Soviet purges and the gulag, are extreme examples of this mindset. But the self-satisfied condescension of conservatives who regard youthful radicalism as nothing but a foolish juvenile dalliance on the road to political maturity, is not worth serious consideration. Of much greater interest and more serious consideration are the passionate ideologues of the right, often full of righteous anger against those they perceive to be the agents of destruction of civilized society – not only professed Marxists, but liberals, social-democrats, feminists, gays - all who reject or challenge their militant defense of neo-liberal capitalism as the only possible way to run the world. They see themselves as realists and regard their opponents as at best duped dreamers and at worst terrorists. Many of these ideologues are happy to call themselves “neoconservatives.” Neoconservatives, they like to explain, (borrowing the phrase from Irving Kristol, the godfather of the brand) are “liberals who have been mugged by reality.” Thus, they can claim that what is actually a profoundly ideological stance is simply the recognition of reality. What, if anything, is so interesting about the neoconservatives?
If the term is applied loosely to describe all those on the far reaches of the right who, unlike fascists, are at least nominally committed to democracy and opposed to a strong, interventionist state, it must be admitted that such people are not very interesting. It could apply to traditional English Tories or members of the U.K. Independence Party and to the know-nothings of the U.S. Tea Party movement. The real neoconservatives are of a different pedigree. What is striking about so many of them is that they are ex-leftists. Not just moderate, liberal-leftists (although a few of them are from that stable) but revolutionary leftists who started their political lives as communists or Trotskyists. This is what makes such people interesting. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that while some of these ex-leftist neoconservatives may be interesting as individual case studies, what is really interesting is how the lurch from Marxist left to ultra-conservative right is to be explained. While not all neoconservatives are ex-leftists and not all ex-leftists who move to the right become neoconservatives, the phenomenon is sufficiently common to warrant consideration as a sort of psycho-political syndrome.
An early notable example is the case of James Burnham, (author of the influential 1941 book The Managerial Revolution) who some regard as the first neo-conservative. He started his political career as a Marxist and was a close personal associate of Trotsky during the years of the latter’s exile from the USSR. Burnham was one of the founders of the U.S. Socialist Workers’ Party which was committed to the Trotskyist Fourth International. But in the late 1930s he became disillusioned with Marxism and rejected socialism in every form. However, he lost none of his revolutionary zeal, which he turned to the service of anti-communism and the advocacy of a newly-invigorated “free market” capitalism. After World War Two he became a militant cold-warrior, arguing for the exclusion of all communists from public employment. His only real difference with Joseph McCarthy seems to have been that he found the Senator’s witch-hunting style too crude and his brand of anti-communism insufficiently sophisticated to meet the demands of his own intellectual defense of red-baiting in the name of freedom of the individual. How do we explain the volte face renegacy of a Burnham and of those numerous others who followed the same course? A possible explanation may run along the following lines:
Most ex- leftist neoconservatives were, or are, intellectuals. Their schooling in Marxism is more likely to have come through academia than the trade union movement. If they were not the children of communist parents, it is possible that they became Marxists as a result of something resembling a religious conversion. Their Marxist convictions will anyway have been very strong and they will almost certainly have identified completely with the Russian October revolution, either as orthodox communists or as supporters of one brand or another of Trotskyism. Those who were orthodox Trotskyists, will still have had a strong commitment to the Soviet Union as a “deformed workers’ state”, which, despite what they regarded as Stalin’s betrayal of the Bolshevik revolution, still had to be defended against its numerous enemies. Whatever qualifications different varieties of Marxist may have had about the Soviet Union, they were all committed to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and imperialism.
If an intellectual conviction is held rigidly and dogmatically, it can often resemble a religious faith. It is brittle and cannot bend. Once doubt sets in the belief system collapses. In such cases, the tremendous intellectual and emotional investment that has gone into pursuit of the socialist cause (often involving major contributions to the development of dialectical and historical materialism, or other aspects of Marxist theory) must find a different outlet. In Burnham’s case his right-ward trajectory led him from complete commitment to the Trotskyist analysis of the degeneration of the Soviet Union under the Stalinist bureaucracy, to the revised view (following the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact) that the Soviet Union couldn’t be defended in any circumstances. From there he proceeded further to the conclusion that far from being a “deformed workers’ state”, it was simply a totalitarian tyranny which was an inevitable outgrowth of the Bolshevik revolution. As the revolution itself was inspired by Marxism, it followed that Marxism was the source of a terrible evil. Communism, and every other form of socialism represented a threat to the freedom of the world – to the “Free World”. The main force standing up to the “Evil Empire” was the world’s “greatest democracy” – the USA. Not surprisingly, in 1983, towards the end of his life, Burnham was awarded the “Presidential Medal of Freedom” by Ronald Reagan. His metamorphosis, more or less, describes that of so many of the ex-leftist neoconservatives who followed him. And there have been quite a few - too many to mention more than a few by name.
If we exclude the former liberals who have become right-wing conservatives and the former Marxists who have moved to the right without becoming neoconservatives, we still have some interesting cases. In the United States, one of the most extreme examples is David Horowitz. In the 1960s and early 1970s Horowitz wrote some highly-regarded revisionist histories of the Cold War (First World Colossus; Empire and Revolution) and edited a post-humous collection of essays on his beloved mentor, the Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher. This was before, somewhat disastrously, he threw in his lot with the Black panthers. After being “mugged by reality” he now runs the David Horowitz Freedom Center – a witch-hunting outfit dedicated to “combating leftist indoctrination in academia.” The son of communist parents, he blamed them for screwing him up as a child by making him sit through silent Soviet movies instead of allowing him to watch Doris Day movies on TV. It is perhaps not too fanciful to imagine that he might now demand the dismissal of any academic foolish enough to recommend to his students works of Marxist propaganda written by a certain – David Horowitz.
Then, in Britain, there was Sir Alfred Sherman (1919 – 2006), a most interesting case. Sherman, from a working-class background in London’s East End, was a communist in his youth. He volunteered to serve in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He was captured by the fascists and spent some time in a Franco jail before being repatriated to Britain. His experience was not so uncommon for communists of his generation. But as a student at the London School of Economics after the war, he parted company with the Communist party over the Soviet-Yugoslav split of 1948, siding with Tito. He was expelled from the CP. From then on he followed the dreary path from left to right – in his case into the Tory party where, in the 1970s he became one of the leading Friedmanite free-marketeers. A man of formidable intellect and colossal ego, he impressed Margaret Thatcher and soon became one of her leading advisers and speech-writers. But such was his maverick unpredictability that he was sidelined after she came to power. This bred in him a deep resentment. He said of her “lady Thatcher is great theatre as long as someone else is writing her lines.” As a consolation prize for his efforts he was awarded a knighthood.
Unlike many other neoconservatives, Sherman, in his old age was given to expressing opinions that did not go down at all well with his most British Tories. He can have the last word here. This is from an article “The Empire for the New Millennium” written in 2000, just before George W. Bush took office.
“First, is there such a thing as ‘the international community’? Do people in China, which accounts for a fifth of the world’s population, and Buddhists, who account for another fifth – among others – really want the United States and its client states to bomb the Serbs or Iraqis? And who exactly, and when, deputed the U.S. to act on behalf of the ‘world community’?....Secondly, can the blunt weapon of force, of whose use the U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright boasted, balance conflicting and competing ethnic, religious, economic and political interactions over this wide and conflicting region.?”