Back in the early 1990s, before Antiwar.com was founded, I was a regular at a roundtable discussion group sponsored by the late Bill Rusher, a founding editor of National Review: these seminars were organized by a young man associated with a prominent conservative educational organization. Bill lent us a room at the posh Union Club, at the top of San Francisco’s Nob Hill, where every month we would hear a speaker give an informal talk: we would then retire to the lounge, where refreshments and a lively discussion were enjoyed. I became friendly with the young organizer, and we had several interesting discussions about various matters: one day he confided to me how he had become involved conservative politics.
He had been attending a college somewhere in the Midwest, at which time his politics were vaguely conservative: one day he saw an advertisement for a lecture and meeting "in solidarity with Poland’s Solidarity" – the Polish anti-Soviet labor group that eventually overthrew the Communist party’s dictatorship – and decided to attend. Although he didn’t know it at the time, it was the beginning of his ideological hegira….
The group sponsoring the meeting was Social Democrats, USA, formerly known as the International Socialist League, a Trotskyist group founded and led by Max Shachtman. Shachtman had been Leon Trotsky’s chief intellectual advocate in the US until breaking with the Red Army commander in 1938 over the issue of the class nature of the Soviet Union. While insisting on retaining his socialist credentials, Shachtman gradually moved away from defending the Soviet Union – a favorite pastime of American commies and their numerous fellow travelers – and came to believe the Kremlin represented a far more deadly threat to socialist ideals than the West.
After breaking with the orthodox Trotskyists, Shachtman initially espoused the so-called Third Camp position, advancing the slogan "Neither Washington nor Moscow," and placing his hopes on an "independent" upsurge of socialist-minded workers. When that failed to materialize, and as the cold war got hotter, Shachtman slid further to the right: the ISL began emphasizing its opposition to "Stalinism," and issuing dire warnings about the alleged Soviet threat. When the Vietnam war broke out, Shachtman took the position that the US and its Vietnamese sock-puppets were preferable to the North Vietnamese Stalinists, and supported the war – a position that further decimated the ranks of his minuscule group, which had by that time dissolved itself into the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas.
Yet the Shachtmanites retained their internal cohesiveness, eventually reemerging as Social Democrats, USA, a group which still exists, albeit only in the formal sense. Shachtman, meanwhile, had other fish to fry: he had become an advisor to AFL-CIO chieftain George Meany, and a confidante of Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the warlike Democratic Senator from Washington state whose foreign policy views often led his critics to describe him as "the Senator from Boeing." In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Shachtman’s followers became influential in the labor movement and in the budding civil rights movement: Bayard Rustin, the real organizer of Martin Luther King’s famous "March on Washington," was a Shachtmanite, although kept out of the limelight by his homosexuality.
It was at this point that a naïve Midwestern college student, motivated by his anti-Communist inclinations, attended a meeting in support of Poland’s Solidarity movement – and was introduced to the insular and highly obscure world of the Shachtmanites. After the lecture, he told me, he was invited to another SDUSA meeting, and found the group conducive to his hawkish anti-Communist views, and so he joined up. However, one thing puzzled him: at the end of the meeting, everyone rose and sang "The Internationale," the old commie anthem! A fine way for a supposedly anti-Communist group to operate!
Although he found this somewhat off-putting, to say the least, my young friend attributed this to the personal and ideological eccentricities of his new-found anti-Communist comrades. In any case, he became an active member of the group, and from there found his way into the conservative movement. And he wasn’t the only one: indeed, a whole generation of leftists-turned-rightists – known as the neoconservatives – were veterans of Shachtman’s circle: when Ronald Reagan came to Washington a whole government agency was turned over to these characters – the National Endowment for Democracy, the goal of which was to combat Communist ideological influence in the international sphere.
Weaseling their way into the US government, these "State Department socialists" began to become a real force in Washington. Shachtman’s cultivation of Senator Jackson paid off as several Shachtmanites found their way to his office and were hired as aides. Prominent neocons graduated from SDUSA and its youth group, the Young Peoples Socialist League (known as Yipsels), to become the War Party’s brain trust: Jeanne Kirkpatrick, James Woolsey, Carl Gershman, Max Kampelman, Penn Kimble, and Elliott Abrams, to name just a few. Irving Kristol, the neoconservative "godfather," wrote about his Trotksyist youth in this brief memoir.
While Shachtman’s tiny grouplet never had more than a few hundred members, they had influence way out of proportion to their numbers. Indeed, Shachtman’s reach extends even unto the present day, as we can clearly see from this recent op ed piece by Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior advisor to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Entitled "Why Mitt?", this Jerusalem Post article is subtitled: "My support for Mitt Romney has something to do with a ship called the Serpa Pinto and with an American Marxist revolutionary."
October 20, 2012
Justin Raimondo [send him mail] is editorial director of Antiwar.com and is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard and Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement.
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