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America’s ‘World Revolution’: Neo-Trotskyist Foundations of U.S. Foreign Policy

The ideological foundations of U.S. foreign policy have neo-Trotskyite foundations. Hatred of the USSR since the time of Stalin was the primary motivation for Trotskyists to the point where a significant faction considered the USSR and Stalinism rather than America and capitalism as the major obstacles to world socialism. This faction was co-opted into the Cold War and has provided the ideological impetus for U.S. foreign policy ever since.

Abstract

Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky

America has been the center of ‘world revolution’ since the time of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points to shape the post-war world in a single image of liberal-democracy. The policy has been one of internationalism, and the Bush description of it as a ‘new world order’ in launching the war on Iraq is the latest name. While conservatives bothered much about the USSR and Red China, the heart of ‘world revolution’ lay in Washington. Because the policies of the USA and the USSR often coincided on the world stage, in particular promoting decolonization in order to fill the void with their own versions of neo-colonialism, such policies have often been mistaken for ‘Soviet communism.’ While the ‘Soviet threat’ lies in ashes, U.S. hegemony proceeds apace, destroying reticent nations with bombs where debt and foreign aid does not work. The ideological origins of American globalist foreign policy received impetus and ideological direction from sources arising from the Trotsky-Stalin split. The Moscow Trials continue to reverberate as a major historical event throughout the world. Whatever might be said about the judicial processes of the trials, the charge at the time that Trotskyists were agents of foreign capital became reality within a few years of the trial, as Trotskyist hatred of the USSR became all-consuming. This essay examines the manner by which Trotskyism metamorphosed into a primary ingredient of US foreign policy doctrine.

“Global Democratic Revolution”

In 2003 President George W Bush embraced the world revolutionary mission of the USA, stating to the National Endowment for Democracy that the war in Iraq is the latest front in the “global democratic revolution” led by the United States. “The revolution under former president Ronald Reagan freed the people of Soviet-dominated Europe,” he declared, “and is destined now to liberate the Middle East as well.”[1]

The origins of this US “global democratic revolution” are to be found in an unlikely and far-away source: the Trotsky-Stalin split and the Moscow Trials of 1936-1938. Such was the hatred of the Trotskyists and certain allied socialists towards the USSR from Stalin onward, that this “Opposition”, came to regard the USSR as the primary bulwark against world socialism and saw in the USA the only means of resisting Soviet world power, to the extent that these Leftists were eventually found supporting America in Korea and Vietnam, and ultimately present American foreign policy throughout the world, including the war against Iraq.

At Trotsky’s Villa

The tendency for this historically significant shift of Trotskyists and sundry allied socialists towards a pro-U.S. position can be discerned among the personnel of the sub-commission of the Preliminary Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made Against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials, or the Dewey Commission if one prefers less of a mouthful. The Dewey Commission emerged from the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky, as a supposedly “impartial body,” that had been initiated by Prof. Sidney Hook, a leading Trotskyist and who was to play a major role in pro-US machinations during the Cold War. It was fronted by the venerable Dr John Dewey, who had been one of Hook’s professors. The “impartial enquiry” was itself the suggestion of Trotsky who had “publicly demanded the formation of an international commission of inquiry, since he had been deprived of any opportunity to reply to the accusations before a legally constituted court.”[2]

The sub-commission went the Mexico to question Trotsky at the villa he was given by Diego Rivera. Those on the sub-commission included socialists and Trotskyists of various types, who exercised a deferent attitude towards Trotsky, which caused the only independently minded commissioner, the author and journalist Carleton Beals, to quit in disgust.[3]

A look at some of those involved with the Mexico hearings and their subsequent political orientations is instructive. John Chamberlain, a “left-leaning liberal” journalist, by his own description,was in 1946 among the founding editors of the libertarian journal The Freeman.[4]  Another founding editor of The Freeman was Suzanne La Follette, the Dewey Commission’s secretary whom Beals had described as having a ‘worshipful’ attitude towards Trotsky in Mexico.[5] Trotsky’s lawyer at the Mexico hearings, Albert Goldman, a Trotskyist who had joined the American Communist Party in 1920, was expelled for Trotskyism, and was one of a faction who broke with the official line that World War II would weaken Trotskyism, joined the Workers Party, and ended up as one of those who came to see the USA as the primary bulwark against the main enemy of socialism, the USSR. The sub-commission’s reporter was Albert M Glotzer, also a Trotskyist who had been expelled from the Communist Party USA in 1928 and with Max Shachtman founded the Communist League and subsequent factions, including the Workers Party, and the Social Democrats USA, of which Sidney Hook was an honorary president.[6]

Shachtmanism

The line pursued by leading Trotskyist Max Shachtman is of importance in considering the development of Trotskyism as a significant influence on US foreign policy. Shachtman was one of Trotsky’s primary representatives in the USA.[7] Expelled from the Communist Party USA in 1928 Shachtman co-founded the Communist League and the Socialist Workers Party, but split to form the Workers Party of the United States in 1940 with James P Cannon and James Burnham et al, which became the Independent Socialist League and merged with the Socialist Party in 1958; which in turn factionalised into the Democratic Socialists and the Social Democrats USA.[8]

Shachtman’s opposition to the USSR diverged from the official Trotskyist line and became known as the “Third Camp.” Trotsky and the Fourth International advocated during World War II a so-called “defence of the Soviet Union.” Trotsky and the Fourth International held that in the event of an attack on the USSR by capitalist or fascist states, the Soviet Union must be defended since, although it was a “degenerated workers state” controlled by a bureaucracy rather than the proletariat, the fact of its having a nationalised economy was the crucial point. Trotsky held that the armed proletariat and the crisis generated by war would lead to the post-war defeat of Stalin by another revolution.

By 1940 Shachtman was in dispute with the Workers Party and the Fourth International over the issue, and declared that Trotskyists should pursue a defeatist policy for the USSR in the war. It is of interest that Shachtman’s main ally was James Burnham who was to become a principal ideologue of American Cold War strategy. Shachtman wrote to Trotsky and the Fourth International spelling out his line of “true Trotskyism”:

The Fourth International established, years ago, the fact that the Stalinist regime (even though based upon nationalized property) had degenerated to the point where it was not only capable of conducting reactionary wars against the proletariat and its revolutionary vanguard, and even against colonial peoples, but did in fact conduct such wars. Now, in our opinion, on the basis of the actual course of Stalinist policy (again, even though based upon nationalized property), the Fourth International must establish the fact that the Soviet Union (i.e., the ruling bureaucracy and the armed forces serving it) has degenerated to the point where it is capable of conducting reactionary wars even against capitalist states (Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, now Finland, and tomorrow Rumania and elsewhere). This is the point which forms the nub of our difference with you and with the Cannon faction.

War is a continuation of politics, and if Stalinist policy, even in the occupied territory where property has been statified, preserves completely its reactionary character, then the war it is conducting is reactionary. In that case, the revolutionary proletariat must refuse to give the Kremlin and its army material and military aid. It must concentrate all efforts on overturning the Stalinist regime. That is not our war! Our war is against the counterrevolutionary bureaucracy at the present time!

In other words, I propose, in the present war, a policy of revolutionary defeatism in the Soviet Union, as explained in the statement of the Minority on the Russian question – and in making this proposal I do not feel myself one whit less a revolutionary class patriot than I have always been.[9]


  • PatrickSMcNally

    > Hatred of the USSR since the time of Stalin was the primary motivation for Trotskyists

    This is obviously not an accurate characterization, and is even contradicted by the fact that Trotsky intervened in the Socialist Workers Party to bring about the expulsion of Shachtman and Burnham. It was the latter two who diverged off from Trotsky’s ideas and turned instead in favor of Right-wing Cold Warriorism.

  • PatrickSMcNally

    > By 1948 Shachtmanism as the Cold Warrior apologist for American foreign policy was taking shape.

    > Hence this not insignificant faction of Trotskyism

    Since his expulsion from the Fourth International in 1940, Shachtman no longer represented a faction of Trotskyism.

    > That Trotsky might have endorsed the Shachtman line, and henceforth the reorientation towards the USA in the Cold War, had he lived, is given a strong indication from this being precisely the line his widow and long time comrade, Natalia took in 1951 precisely when the period of the Cold War had started to unfold.

    That is much more fully contradicted by Trotsky’s analysis of World War II as an inter-imperialist war. While the Stalinized Communist Party USA maintained that the Roosevelt administration’s alliance with Moscow against Hitler made this the Good War, Trotsky had firmly maintained that the USA was the new rising imperial power and that the task of revolutionaries in the US was to seek to turn the working class against the US imperialists. Since Trotsky during his lifetime was not won over to supporting an alliance with the Roosevelt administration against Hitler, we can feel safe in assuming that he would not have been won over to supporting US imperialism during the Cold War. Had Trotsky died a decade earlier then it is more likely that Natalia would simply have declared her support in the 1930s for Roosevelt and would have endorsed both the US entry into WWII and the later Cold War. But those were not Trotsky’s politics. Not at all.

  • PatrickSMcNally

    > That American foreign policy is fundamentally Trotskyist can be discerned through the ideological statements on foreign policy that use terms such as “creative destruction,” “constant conflict”, and “American world revolutionary mission”.

    That’s complete nonsense, since Trotsky specifically defined the tasks of the coming period in terms of the necessary stand against US imperialism.

    > For example, Maj. Ralph Peters, a prominent military strategist, appears to have coined the term “constant conflict.”

    If one was going to draw any analogies with the political positions of parties in 1941, then the most natural analogy to draw here would be with Earl Browder’s argument that the capitalistic USA was capable of making a Progressive military intervention into the war in Europe. This was not a position taken by Trotsky, and since he didn’t take such a position towards the war against Hitler we can feel safe in assuming that he would never have fallen to the level of supporting the Cold War.

  • K R Bolton

    It is an ideological trend that is being discussed and an obsessive anti-Sovietism that was initially motivated through the Trotsky-Stalin split.

    Nothing is said about such post-Cold War terms as ‘creative destruction’ being coined by Trotsky, but that the mentality is the same and Trotskyists have a a lasting input into the neo-con and social democratic movements that seek a ‘world democratic revolution’. It is a matter of dialectics.

    As for Trotskyist attitudes towards the USSR during WWII, Shachtman et al considered they were following a pure Trotskyist line, moreso than Trotsky himself, even while falling out with their guru; while Natalia Sedova ended up endorsing Shachtmanite positions. Trotsky himsellf left the matter open as to what would develop post-war. His belief in regard to an attack on the USSR was that the SU should be defended solely because it had nationalised property, and that a post-Stalin regime could return to pre-Stalin bolsehvism, confident that the war would provide opportunities to overthrow Stalin, with an armed proletariat.

    Trotskyists have ever been willing to prostitute themselves politically, generally through an obsessive hatred of post-Trotsky/Lenin Russia, arriving at all kinds of aberrations,.