THE IMPERIAL DELUSION: NEOCONSERVATISM & THE CULT OF EMPIRE
Editor’s note: Today’s column is based on a speech delivered at Colorado College on Sept. 15, sponsored by the Robert and Janet Manning Endowed Fund for Political Science and the political science department.
Why are we in Iraq?
This question, I think, puzzles most Americans, who are – increasingly – opposed to the war, opposed to the present administration, and are wondering: how did we get here? We have 1,800 dead Americans, tens of thousands horribly wounded, and what do we have to show for it? We have the “Islamic Republic of Iraq,” that’s what we have: we have “liberated” that country on behalf of a bunch of religious fanatics, whose first acts are to put women in their place, introduce sharia law, and visit their co-thinkers in Tehran, where the newly-elected democratic leaders paid obeisance at the grave of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
How did we get here?
In New Orleans, thousands died while the National Guardsmen who could have saved them were in Iraq, along with the soil erosion equipment that could have averted a flood – which is being used for military purposes, in spite of the fact that these levee-reinforcement materials are manufactured in… Baton Rouge!
You can’t make this stuff up. Is this really happening? I have to pinch myself, occasionally, and ask myself that question. Surrounded by the utter irrationality of our foreign and domestic policies, you have to wonder: what, exactly, is going on? Who or what is behind this crazy, mis-directed, Bizarro World set of priorities? Have madmen seized control of the U.S. government, determined to drive it – and us – into the ground?
I’m reminded of something that Seymour Hersh, the investigative journalist, said in a speech to the ACLU last year. Remarking on how, in the wake of 9/11, the War Party managed to grasp the reins of power, he said:
“The question we have to say to ourselves is, ok, so here’s what happens, a bunch of guys, 8 or 9 neoconservatives, cultists – not Charles Manson cultists, but cultists – get in and it’s not, with all due respect to Michael Moore, and you’ll read it, his movie’s fine, but it’s not about oil, it’s not even about protecting Israel, it’s about a Utopia they have, it’s about an idea they have. Not only about – democracy can be spread – in a sense, I would say Paul Wolfowitz is the greatest Trotskyite of our time, he believes in permanent revolution, and in the Middle East to begin, needless to say.
“And so you have a bunch of people who’ve been for 10, 12 years have been fantasizing since the 1991 Gulf War on the way to resolve problems. And of course Israel will be a beneficiary and etc., etc., but the world in their eyes – this was Utopia. And so they got together, this small group of cultists, and how did they do it? They did do it. They’ve taken the government over. And what’s amazing to me, and what really is troubling, is how fragile our democracy is. Look what happened to us.”
A lot has been written about the neoconservatives: their storied history starting out as acolytes of Leon Trotsky conferring in Alcove One in the lunchroom at City College in New York City; their rise to literary fame as the so-called “New York Intellectuals“; their odyssey from the left-liberal Bohemian beret-wearing coffeehouse set to the wood-paneled boardrooms and lecture halls of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute – and the topic is a fascinating one. But I just want to focus here, for a moment, on Hersh’s description of them as a cult.
Now, one of the chief characteristics of a classic cult organization is that there are two sets of ideas that hold the cultists in thrall, two entirely separate and often contradictory ideologies that are held simultaneously by members of the group. As Murray N. Rothbard pointed out in his survey of The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult:
“Every religious cult has two sets of differing and distinctive creeds: the exoteric and the esoteric. The exoteric creed is the official, public doctrine, the creed which attracts the acolyte in the first place and brings him into the movement as a rank-and-file member. The quite different creed is the unknown, hidden agenda, a creed which is only known to its full extent by the top leadership, the ‘high priests’ of the cult. The latter are the keepers of the Mysteries of the cult.
“But cults become particularly fascinating when the esoteric and exoteric creeds are not only different, but totally and glaringly in mutual contradiction. The havoc that this fundamental contradiction plays in the minds and lives of the disciples may readily be imagined.”
The Marxist-Leninist cults are, officially, champions of Science, and fanatically atheistic, and yet impart a quasi-mystical infallibility to “the party” that has about it a distinctly religious air. The Rand cult, as Rothbard illustrated in his informative and amusing study, officially upheld the values of Reason, Individualism, and Self-Esteem, and yet, in practice – when it came to the inner workings of the cult organization itself – enforced a ruthless conformism based on worship of the guru, in the person of Ayn Rand, that was founded on blatant emotionalism and the abject self-abnegation of the rank-and-file before the cult leaders.
The exoteric creed of neoconservatism is fairly straightforward and widely advertised: it consists of devotion to capital-D Democracy the world over, the virtues of what it terms “democratic capitalism,” and the special mission of the United States as not only the exemplar but also the exporter of freedom to the four corners of the earth. Liberty, Democracy, and the Rule of Law, all those Enlightenment values that embody the doctrine of liberalism in the classical sense of the term – including an ostensible devotion to free markets – all of these elements are essential components of what neocon godfather Irving Kristol calls the “neoconservative persuasion.”
The esoteric – or inner doctrine – of neoconservatism is quite a different matter: like that of the Marxists and the followers of Ayn Rand, it is in many ways the exact opposite of the official creed. While “liberty” and “freedom” are the bywords of the neoconservative Right, the cult’s philosophers – notably Leo Strauss – were and are advocates of rule by an elite. The ignorant masses, according to Strauss and his followers, are kept in thrall by various delusions – such as religion, ethics, and social conventions of one sort or another – that keep society together and that it is the duty of the philosophers to uphold. While they (the all-knowing, all-wise philosophers, that is) know the awful truth – which is that all values are relative, that good and evil are merely labels of convenience, and that brute force is what really rules the world – the general populace is better left in happy ignorance, while the philosopher-kings alone are fit to bear the burden of truth. Strauss believed, as William Pfaff put it, “that the essential truths about society and history should be held by an elite, and withheld from others who lack the fortitude to deal with truth. Society, Strauss thought, needs consoling lies.”
The people, in short, have to be ruled – and fooled – for their own good.
Strauss is the philosopher of the “noble lie,” and perhaps it is because of their belief in their own nobility that his followers have learned to utter their lies with a straight face, even with a certain amount of solemnity. We saw this in the run-up to war with Iraq, in which the Office of Special Plans – in effect, a parallel intelligence unit set up by the neocons to bypass the CIA and other government agencies – piped disinformation about Iraq’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction” to Congress, directly to the White House, and to the American people. It all turned out to be an elaborate fabrication, of course, but by the time this was discovered by the general public it was too late – we were already deeply ensconced in Iraq as the occupying power. The tragedy could not be kept from unfolding.
This is not at all surprising coming from an administration so thoroughly penetrated by Strauss’s disciples. The philosopher of the “consoling lie” includes among his acolytes and students an amazing number of Bush appointees and intellectual hangers-on, including: Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, Gary Schmidt, Leon Kass (chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics), John Walters (former drug czar), and Francis Fukuyama. Among the lesser, second-level bureaucrats, the list of Straussians – including students of Strauss’ leading disciples – is oneAbram Shulsky, the head of the Office of Special Plans, which, as Mother Jones magazine put it, functioned as a “lie factory” in the run-up to war with Iraq. Shulsky is a student of Strauss, and the co-author of an article on Strauss and the mechanics of deception in intelligence work.
The Straussian pattern of deceit was on exhibit in the rationale for war based on alleged “weapons of mass destruction” in Saddam Hussein’s possession and his nonexistent links to al-Qaeda, but not only there. It is also unfolding in the aftermath of the war, and in the kind of Iraqi state we are bringing to birth. How else could we have gone into Iraq proclaiming that we were “liberating” the country on behalf of “freedom” and “democracy” and wound up helping to institute a Shi’ite theocracy and a “constitution” based on the state religion of Islam and sharia law – except by reference to the exoteric/esoteric split in the Straussian mindset? There is much talk of the so-called “unintended consequences” of U.S. military intervention in Iraq, but what about the intendedconsequences?
The guff about “democracy” was for the benefit of a Western audience, while, on the ground in Iraq, the Straussians in the administration had another agenda – civil war, the atomization of the country, and, perhaps, a regional religious conflict that tears the Muslim world asunder. The exoteric goals – the liberation of Iraq, the elections, and all the accompanying rhetoric about “self-determination” – were only a cover for the real, esoteric objectives: a cynical geopolitical manipulation that can only lead to perpetual war in the Middle East and the pulverization of the existing Arab and Muslim states, all of it lorded over by a rising American Empire.
In his book, America the Virtuous: The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire, Professor Claes Ryn directs his ire at the neoconservative network in government and academia whose foreign policy agenda, he believes, is anything but conservative. It is, instead, the product of a colossal conceit that has fixed its sights on the idea of American global hegemony, an ideology that is more Jacobin than Jeffersonian, and one that is particularly well suited to the Straussian mindset. As Professor Ryn puts it:
“A part of the appeal of Strauss to members of this [neoconservative] network of intellectuals has been his idea that only a few sophisticated minds can really understand and face the truth about politics. To protect themselves against the ignorant and to be able to influence the powers-that-be, the philosophers must, according to Strauss, hide their innermost beliefs and true motives, not least from rulers whom they want to advise. Following Plato’s recommendation, the philosophers must tell ‘noble lies’ that are more palatable to others than the truth. … Having gained access to the ruler through dissimulation, sycophancy, and general craftiness, they are in a position to whisper in the ruler’s ear, making him their instrument”
“Dissimulation, sycophancy, and general craftiness” – a better and more succinct description of how the neocons wormed their way into the corridors of power and seized de facto control of the ship of state, could hardly be imagined. This, I think, fills in the background to Seymour Hersh’s scenario of what was, in effect, a coup d’etat, and this view is echoed by Bob Woodward, writing in his book, Plan of Attack, who cites none other than Colin Powell on the mechanics of how this actually came about:
“Powell felt Cheney and his allies – his chief aide, I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith and what Powell called Feith’s ‘Gestapo’ office – had established what amounted to a separate government.”
The neoconservatives came to Washington – or, rather, came back to Washington, since they had first tasted the fruits of power during the Reagan administration – with a very clear agenda, one they had, as Hersh points out, been working on for over a decade. The Project for a New American Century (PNAC) had been issuing statements, petitions, policy papers, and whatnot, pretty continuously on the subject of invading Iraq – and much of the Middle East – since its inception. Founded by Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, PNAC worked quietly but effectively to mobilize elite opinion behind the neocons’ foreign policy goals, first and foremost a huge increase in the military budget. The PNAC group advocated a massive and fundamental “transformation” of the American military, from a defensive shield into an instrument of empire, but realized, in a report entitled “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” published in September of 2000, that this would not be accomplished without “some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.”
With the victory of George W. Bush several of PNAC’s leading lights found themselves on their way to Washington, and when 9/11 rolled around – the “new Pearl Harbor” they had been waiting for – the neocons were more than ready for their moment in the sun. They came pouring out of the shadows like the legions of Mordor, and they took over the Shire – that is, Washington, D.C., and the foreign policy apparatus of the U.S. government – quickly and effectively dispatching their enemies in the CIA and the military establishment, riding the momentum of the war hysteria generated by the worst terrorist attack in American history.
Theirs was not an overnight victory, however, and it is worth delving into the history of the War Party in order to better understand how we got to where we are today – and where we are going.
The neoconservatives are widely recognized as a tendency on the Right, indeed the dominant tendency in the American conservative movement, but the reality is that their origins are on the extreme Left of the political spectrum. Let’s go back to what Seymour Hersh said about Paul Wolfowitz: he called him “the greatest Trotskyite of our time” and described him as believing in “permanent revolution,” all of which may seem rather mysterious to the average listener, but in fact is not at all a mystery to anyone acquainted with the history of neoconservatism.
The first neoconservative – or, at least, one of the first – was a man by the name of Max Shachtman. He was one of the three founders of American Trotskyism. As a longtime member of the Communist Party, old Max was a veteran Communist organizer who had devoted his life to the party, first as a member of the youth league and then as a courier who delivered Moscow’s gold to party headquarters in New York. Totally devoted to the cause, he was recruited to the Trotskyite heresy by his then-friend James P. Cannon, a party leader, and together with their small group of followers they were expelled from the party in 1928. Whereupon they founded their own group, the Communist League of America (CLA).
The charismatic albeit tragic figure of Leon Trotsky loomed large in the 1930s, when the world was fascinated as the Russian Revolution devoured its own and Stalin consolidated power as the unchallenged leader of the world Communist movement. Sent into exile by Stalin after a brief power struggle inside the Soviet Union, Trotsky roamed Europe hounded at every turn by loyal Stalinists and by anti-Communists, until he finally found a kind of sanctuary in Mexico. While ordinary workers and Communist activists found little to appeal to them in Trotsky’s complicated critique of Soviet society, he attracted a small but talented cadre of intellectuals who found his explanation of how and why the Revolution went wrong compelling.
According to Trotsky, the degeneration of the Soviet state into a crude dictatorship headed by Stalin was the result of its national isolation. Communist theory had always promised the faithful a world revolution, and, furthermore, the victory of the communists in Russia was an historical accident that could have fateful consequences for the future of the proletariat. Because, you see, Marx had never counted on a successful communist revolution in a backward state, such as Russia: according to Marxist theory, only the full development of capitalism could make manifest the contradictions inherent in the system, and usher in a communist-led revolt of the workers. Russia, which had barely managed to emerge from feudalism, wasn’t ready for a communist revolution, at least according to orthodox Marxist doctrine: however, it happened anyway, due to the exertions of Lenin, yet there was a price to be paid. The low level of economic development meant that socialism could not yield the results foretold by Marx and Engels, at least not immediately. This meant that the Revolution had to extend itself internationally, especially to such highly industrialized countries as Germany, France, England, and the Low Countries – or else suffer national isolation and eventual extinction.
According to Trotsky’s theory, that is exactly what happened, or was in the process of happening, and one consequence of this was the degeneration of the Soviet Union and the rise of a new ruling caste of bureaucrats. Trotsky evolved a complex analysis of the contradictory nature of the Soviet state under Stalin, one, as I have said, that had little appeal to the ordinary rank and file of the Communist movement but had a great attraction for left-wing intellectuals. Those who wanted to distance themselves from Stalin’s crimes, yet still bask in the reflected glory of the Communist ideal, could embrace Trotskyism and have it both ways.
As the Moscow Trials, the massacre of the kulaks, the vast prison system known as the gulag, and the zigs and zags of Soviet foreign policy alienated Western intellectuals who had, at first, embraced the Soviet experiment with nearly uncritical adoration, Trotskyism became fashionable for a brief historical moment. Shachtman and his comrades recruited hundreds, and then thousands into the ranks of the Trotskyist movement, and Shachtman began to develop his own critique of Stalinism that would eventually lead to his break with Trotsky and the orthodox Trotskyist movement.
On the eve of World War II, as Stalin teamed up with Hitler to divide Poland and swallow the Baltics, a faction fight broke out in the Trotskyist movement over the class character of the Soviet Union. Trotsky and his loyal followers maintained that, even in alliance with Hitler, and in spite of its bureaucratic deformations, the Soviet Union still remained a progressive force on the stage of world history, and had to be defended “against Stalin and in spite of Stalin.”
On the other hand, Shachtman and his co-thinkers – one of whom was the philosophy professor James Burnham, who later went on to become one of the principal founders of National Reviewmagazine – began to develop their own critique of Stalinism. According to Shachtman, the Soviet Union was no longer socialist at all, but represented a new kind of society that he called bureaucratic collectivism. And since collectivism, by his lights at least, was more efficient than capitalism, the threat represented by the growing Soviet empire to the West could not be overestimated. The Soviet Union, to Shachtman, was a mutant monster of enormous strength that would soon overcome the West – unless the “Third Camp,” represented by Shachtman and his small band of erstwhile Trotskyites, somehow prevailed.
Shachtman split off from the main body of Trotskyism in 1940, forming the Workers Party, of which Burnham was briefly a member. However, Professor Burnham dropped out after a few months, and soon after announced that a new form of society – which he called managerial society – was inevitably displacing the old capitalist class, and that a new system, neither socialist nor capitalist, but purely managerial, was even at that moment completing its conquest of the earth. Burnham very quickly moved rightward and developed his anti-Stalinism into a fully-focused and even professional anti-Communism, moving into the orbit of William F. Buckley, Jr., and, as I have noted, becoming a founding editor of National Review, the flagship publication of the postwar American Right.
Burnham’s rightward journey was replicated by Shachtman, but in slow motion. Instead of moving into the camp of militant anti-Communism in a matter of a few years, for old Max, it was an odyssey that took place over decades.
He stubbornly maintained his devotion to the cause of socialism, but alongside it began to develop a strategic orientation that involved less revolutionary means to achieve it. As the Workers Party began to move into the 1950s and beyond, they changed their name to the Independent Socialist League and buried themselves in the old Socialist Party, reconciling with the Social Democrats whom they had once disdained and burrowing into the unions, especially the teachers union in New York. They became a major force in the AFL-CIO on account of their hold on union offices, and they used this influence to fight their old enemies, the Communist Party, tooth and nail. By this time, Shachtman’s hostility to the Soviet Union had reached full flower, and by the time the Vietnam War rolled around he was supporting the war – in the name of the fight for “authentic socialism.” The militant anti-Stalinism of the Trotskyist left, in the end, translated into a militant anti-Communism that owed more to Senator “Scoop” Jackson, of Washington, the hardline cold warrior Democrat, than to an orthodox interpretation of the Communist classics.
Speaking of Jackson, Shachtman and his followers soon latched on to the senator as the exemplar of their foreign policy views, and it was through this connection – Shachtman supported Jackson’s abortive presidential bid and planted his followers on staff – that the neocons made their first appearance in Washington.
As aides to Senator Jackson, the list of neocons is impressive:
- Richard Perle, the neoconservative foreign policy guru and a major force in the Bush administration.
- Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon – and overseer of the Office of Special Plans, where the Iraq war intelligence was cooked and served up to the White House.
- Elliott Abrams, special assistant to the president focusing on Middle East affairs, was Jackson’s special counsel.
- Paul Wolfowitz, formerly Bush’s deputy secretary of defense and the main architect of the Iraq war, maintained a long relationship with Jackson, although he never was directly employed by him.
The Jackson connection was the first beachhead established by Shachtman and his followers in Washington, when they were still in the Democratic Party. Their party loyalties, however, as we have seen, were less than rock solid, and they readily moved into the Republican Party when both necessity and opportunity required it. The issue at hand in their split with the Democrats was the Vietnam War, and they walked out when the McGovernites took over and the Democratic party lapsed back into one of its periodic fits of what the neocons today deride as “isolationism.”
Shachtman died in 1972, but his legacy lives on. He had tremendous moral and political authority on the anti-Stalinist Left, and a huge influence on the so-called “New York intellectuals” who eventually evolved into the neoconservatives. The group he established, Social Democrats, USA, continues to exist, at least in the formal sense, but more importantly his intellectual legacy lives on in the form of the fascination with capital-D Democracy that is the chief ideological capstone of the neoconservative foreign policy revolution. Having lost faith in the alleged inevitability of socialism, and been disillusioned by what the Soviet Union had become, the Shachtman group devoted itself to the worship of abstract Democracy as a substitute for their lost faith. Having started out as the would-be founders of the so-called “Third Camp,” they finally came to the conclusion that, in a war, one must choose sides, and they chose the West. The U.S., for them, became the embodiment of Democracy, and the American military its righteous instrument.
Throughout the cold war era, the Scoop Jackson Democrats were the most militant exponents of “rolling back” the Soviet empire by a strategy of military confrontation. It was this group that constituted the infamous “Team B” that wildly overestimated Soviet military power in the 1970s. As Eric Alterman has noted:
“Many of the very same people who deliberately created the misimpression about Iraq to goad the American people into supporting a war had already executed a run-through of the same strategy in the 1970s. Back then, establishment hardliners associated with the now defunct ‘Committee on the Present Danger’ heaped scorn upon the professional intelligence services for their alleged underestimation of Soviet military capabilities. They succeeded in convincing then-CIA Director, George H.W. Bush, to appoint a now infamous ‘Team B’ to go through the same material and come up with an answer that would justify a vast increase in U.S. defense spending. With the powerful political patronage of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, its members, including Paul Wolfowitz, came up with astronomical numbers for alleged Soviet military spending and capabilities.”
As in the case of fomenting war with Iraq, the neocons’ chief adversary was the CIA, which gave an analysis of a drop in Soviet economic efficiency and military spending that – while itself somewhat more optimistic than the dismal reality – nevertheless offered a basis for détente and mutual disarmament. As Anne Hessing Cahn establishes in her history of the Team B affair, however, the neocons were in a position to know that their data was faulty:
“Team B had at its disposal sufficient information to know that the Soviet Union was in severe decline. As Soviet defectors were telling us in anguished terms that the system was collapsing, Team B looked at the quantity but not the quality of missiles, tanks, and planes, at the quantity of Soviet men under arms, but not their morale, leadership, alcoholism, or training.”
As good Straussians, however, these folks knew that the truth must be bent and “noble lies” must be told in order to serve a higher end – known only to themselves, of course. The run-up to the Iraq war was merely a replay of an act the neocons had first performed in the 1970s. After that, as we have seen, they moved effortlessly into the ranks of Republicans, where they rose to the top leadership of the conservative movement and made their reappearance in Washington during the Reagan years as lower-level appointees and intellectual advisers to top officials. A leader of the Shachtman group, Carl Gershman, was appointed head of the National Endowment for Democracy, which was first brought to birth during the Carter years, and the agency under Reagan burgeoned into a huge bureaucracy dispensing millions of dollars to “pro-democracy” (i.e. pro-U.S.) groups throughout the world. The NED became a bastion of neoconservative influence in the administration, and the neocons soon moved into the Pentagon, penetrating key positions in the foreign policy apparatus.
A major victory for the neocons was the consolidation of their dominance over the contemporary conservative movement. The main conservative think tanks and periodicals came to be dominated by them on account of neoconservative links to the big foundations, such as Olin, Scaife, Bradley, and others, which subsidized neocon scholars, founded and promoted neocon publications, and starved the neocons’ opponents on the right, driving them out of the mainstream institutions and relegating them to only a few small think tanks and periodicals.
The great problem for the neocons, however, was that by the mid-1990s the specter of Communism was almost entirely banished from the planet. The eradication of Marxism-Leninism had become the end-all and be-all of their ideology, but when it finally was eradicated, the neoconservative movement nearly imploded. Without an enemy to mobilize against, a holy war to embark on, the neoconservative movement – which by this time was almost entirely centered around a militantly aggressive foreign policy – seemed to wither on the vine. They had become the War Party, but there was no war. While they supported virtually all of Bill Clinton’s numerous overseas interventions – especially the Kosovo war, during which Bill Kristol declared it was America’s duty to “crush Serb skulls” – none of these enemies loomed large enough to justify their obsessive preoccupation with the exercise of American military power. They didn’t support George W. Bush, at first, preferring the more militant John McCain, but when the Republicans took Washington they finagled their way into the new administration and soon ensconced themselves in key positions. As Robert Pippen, chairman of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, put it: Leo Strauss thought that
“Good statesmen must rely on an inner circle. The person who whispers in the ear of the king is more important than the king.”
This is how the neocon coup d’etat was accomplished in the days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The neocons had become more important than the king by making sure that their whispers and only their whispers reached Bush’s ears. Inexperienced and unschooled in foreign affairs, and caught flat-footed by the scope of the attacks, the president was putty in their hands.
9/11 revitalized the neoconservative movement and catapulted it to a brief but heady hegemony over the foreign policy of the United States. The greatest disaster in our history enabled them to mobilize the general population behind a policy of perpetual war and establish a beachhead for their imperial project in Iraq. That nation is now to be used as a launching pad for attacks on Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and indeed the entire Muslim world. The Cold War – during which they flourished – has now been replaced and replicated in its global scope by a war of civilizations, pitting the West against Islam. All the out-of-work Sovietologists and Kremlinologists now have found a new calling: the categorization and explication of the various components of what they see as a worldwide Islamist conspiracy against modernity. And they have a new task: to bring modernity to the supposedly “backward” Middle East and effect a long-term transformation of the region in order to eradicate the threat of terrorism.
The philosophy of the War Party, as it evolved during the Cold War years, came to resemble a kind of inverted Trotskyism. The United States took over the hallowed place once given over to the Soviet Union as the agency of History, and a ruthless elitism that in many ways reflected the elitist antecedents of the Leninist theory of the party was and is a key part of their methodology. The old Trotskyist idea that the national encirclement of the Soviet Union sealed its fate is reflected – in an inverted sense – by the neoconservative insistence that “democracy in one country” is similarly threatened. The neocon campaign to extend American hegemony to every continent owes much to the Trotskyist legacy bequeathed to them by Shachtman. There is a reason why many former Trotskyists, such as Christopher Hitchens, are now among the most combative and articulate supporters of the Bush Doctrine. The president, in his second inaugural address, sounded like the founder of the Red Army addressing the workers and Peasants of Leningrad:
“By our efforts we have lit a fire as well, a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power; it burns those who fight its progress. And one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.”
A revolutionary “fire in the mind” – what, pray tell, is “conservative” about that? The answer: exactly nothing. It is, instead, a radical approach to foreign affairs worthy of any Bolshevik of old.
I would remind you that all of the greatest crimes of the 20th century have been committed by armed ideologues. Convinced that they were the vessels of righteousness, the spirit of History emblazoned on their banners, they murdered millions and celebrated by standing atop a mountain of skulls and beating their chests, proclaiming their virtuous “idealism” to all who would listen. And millions more followed them, unthinkingly – including many intellectuals of note, convinced that they were embarking on a holy crusade to save the world, when in reality they were engaged in a devilish act of mass murder and cultural and spiritual suicide, and would not be readily forgiven.
Posterity will not easily forgive the perpetrators of these newer horrors, least of all because they are done in the name of the one country on earth that has stood fast against the totalitarian temptation and the fatal lure of fanatical ideology. Not only will they murder god knows how many before they’re done, but they’ll strangle our old republic and replace it with a decadent and thoroughly corrupt empire. This is the imperial delusion, the idea that such people can escape the verdict of history, morality, and common sense: so thoroughly are they imbued with the revealed dogmas of their ideology that they think they have transcended the laws of God as well as Man. I am reminded of what one high-ranking White House official told journalist Ron Suskind in answer to questions about the lies told by this administration in the run-up to war with Iraq:
“In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend – but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'”
Suskind is more right than he knows: what that senior adviser said to him gets to the heart of much more than the Bush presidency. It is the reason we are in Iraq today, and may be in Syria, Iran, or somewhere else tomorrow. It gets to the very essence of the sickness that has infected our world since the dawn of modernity, and that is the delusion that men can be like gods. Such hubris is bound to be punished, sooner or later, and with the accelerated pace of events speeding up before our eyes, I’m inclined to think it will be sooner.
That White House senior aide is also right, in a sense: we will study the actions of him and his masters, just the way doctors study the onset of some particularly loathsome plague. In the hope, of course, of finding a cure…