The “Neocon Cabal”: Its Roots and Resonances


by Sam Bluefarb (January 2014)

By Way of Introduction

The following essay was written some time early in the first term of the George W. Bush administration (2001-2009) when, because of their disproportionate influence on that administration, neo-conservatives (or neo-cons) were the unremitting targets of liberal / progressive critics. Lost in that swirling controversy was the profound historical fact that, long before neo-conservatives evolved into a so-called “movement,” most were leftists, made up of ex-Stalinists, a mixed bag of affiliated and unaffiliated socialists, social democrats, and ex-Trotzkyists who, in their new role, became the most active  nucleus of the “neo-con cabal,” closely identified with their seminal periodical, Partisan Review (1937-2003).1 Many who appeared in Partisan Review—PR. as it was familiarly called by “the family” of “New York Intellectuals”2—later published in Commentary magazine, which in its early years (1945-1960s) was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. PR published the early essays of George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, Edmund Wilson, Sidney Hook, and other distinguished writers. They were the very early whistle-blowers to reveal the truth about communist conspiracies, since after 1945, Nazism was now an irrelevancy. Those concerns would apply of course not only to the Stalinist form of communism, but to its various progeny—Castro’s Cuba, Communist China, the puppet states of Central and Eastern Europe—misnamed “people’s democracies.” Such anti-communist leftists as George Orwell and Arthur Koestler fled Civil War Spain (1936-39) steps ahead of the execution squads of the Stalinist dominated Loyalist government.3 Orwell was seriously wounded and Koestler was eventually freed in a prisoner-of-war exchange, after a grueling three months on death row in a Franco Nationalist prison. Thus their “take” on communism carried more weight than the demagogic anti-communism of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Ironically it swept up in his hysteria-driven net, liberals, and even more than a few innocent members of church-affiliated groups. 

 —December, 2012


The term neoconservative was originally coined by Michael Harrington, self-styled Democratic Socialist and author of The Other America (1962), a work that discussed the problem of poverty in 20th century America at a time when America was enjoying a post-war prosperity comparable to that of the 1920’s before the Wall Street Crash (1929). But as the millennium (1999-2000) approached and American political life became more sharply polarized, the term was shortened to neocon, exhibiting that American-English penchant for cutting Latinate words “down to (Anglo-Saxon) size.”  So that neocon entered the language as a neologism of a neologism, even to their shared prefixes! But the semantic vulgarization of the term is of recent currency.

Apart from that linguistic tendency, the con in neocon has its own subtext–as in confidence man, or, again, its shortened version, con-man, which possesses all of the conscious and subconscious associations with things or persons sinister, dark, or something shady or less trustworthy. For his novel Confidence Man (1857), Herman Melville’s chose a simple, direct, and felicitous title which, unlike so many oblique and allusive titles, said it all.

The other half of that etymological equation is “cabal.” It, too, also has its own dark and sinister associations. In spite of the buffetings the English language has been subjected to by history, migration, borrowings and cross pollinations, the word cabal has held its own as far back as Charles II whose ministers’ initials, co-incidentally, formed the acronym CABAL. Going back to its origins, it comes from the Hebrew Cabbalah, which evokes esoteric associations with secret (mystical) doctrines, but which has little in common—other than its secretive nature—with the word cabal as it has since come to be used—and abused—in politics (see: George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language”). In that respect, it has more in common with insidious conspiracies than with cabbalistic doctrines. And yet, because of the anti-Semitic undertones of the word today (which I shall come to), there is a delicious irony in that its Hebrew origins lend some perverse legitimacy to the claim that the “neo-con cabal” is a “Jewish” conspiracy. (Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, accused the Bush administration’s foreign policy as being designed by the “Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal.” Neither Cheney nor Rumsfeld is Jewish—so far as we know.)

More reasonably, such figures as Norman Podhoretz, former editor of Commentary magazine, the late Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, and early on, though he distanced himself from them over Ronald Reagan’s proactive policy toward the Soviet Union, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as well as many of the early editors of, and contributors to Commentary magazine can legitimately be called neoconservatives, or neocons.

In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Sam Tanenhaus, found that the “neocon” Bush Doctrine called for a democratic revolution to transform the world of dictatorships and corrupt autocracies and turn them into democracies (“When Left Turns Right, It Leaves the Middle Muddled,” September 16, 2000) The fulcrum of Tanenhaus’s argument is that neoconservatism had its roots in the Trotzkyite “permanent revolution.” which would lead to a world socialist transformation; that many neocons—like Irving Kristol, neoconservatism’s putative godfather—had brought the ideals of their youthful Trotzkyism up to date by transforming their world revolutionary socialist ideals into a toppling of dictatorships and replacing them with Western-style democracies. Of course, the apocalyptic communist nature of Trotzky’s dream hardly has anything in common with the Bush Doctrine, though there may be some superficial resemblances—i.e., in the global scope of their radically unlike goals.

Yet another theory of the origins of neo-conservatism is that it evolved—as per Tanenhaus—from a frenetic bunch of Trotzkyites who, in their move away from their former revolutionary leftism, came to espouse right wing doctrines as passionately as they once supported those of the left. But where the old Trotzkyism wished to overthrow predatory capitalism and transform the world into a classless society, the later neocons (or renegade leftists) now aspired to bring a greater measure of freedom—i.e., democracy—to peoples suffering long under tyrannical regimes. They viewed such regimes as not only inimical to the welfare of their own peoples, but as a palpable danger to those of their (democratic) neighbors. Tananhaus’s view is thus based either on the amateur psychology that ex-Trotzkyites are still paralyzed by their idée fixe—the wish to transform the world, through a global revolution, not brought about by the proletariat, but this time by the armed might of the United States. That of course is as simplistic as the flawed psychology that inspired the premise.

In his enthusiastic cast of his neo-conservative nets of “old Trotzkyites,” Tanenhaus sweeps into them former US ambassador to the UN, the late Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, and former Secretary of education William J. Bennett, neither of whom had any truck with Trotzkyism or left radicalism. Kirkpatrick was a former Democrat, and Bennett has never been anything but a long-time conservative. Norman Podhoretz, whom Tanenhaus names in his sweeping indictment, was a “Scoop” Jackson liberal.

In recent years “neocon” has lost its semi-neutral meaning and become so vulgarized that it has lost all resemblance to its original. Since the late 1990’s and well into the early years of this century, virtually every anti-conservative call-in to predominantly conservative radio talk shows (the more prominent being the usual suspects–Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’ Reilly, Sean Hannity)–will begin—and usually end—with the demonizing catch all “Bush neocons!” while rattling off a list of “Jews” beginning with old dependable Paul Wolfowitz—sometimes deliberately mispronounced as “WolfoVitz–and ending with a cohort of other “Jewish-sounding” names—Richard Perle, Elliot Abrams, the not-so obvious Douglas Feith, whose father was a Holocaust survivor.

That many on the left “sold out” to the right is common currency among leftists, and did so for a mess of financial and political potage. But a more credible reason was that those who turned Right did so because of the extremist tactics the left had begun to take during the Vietnam War—not just the left’s anti-war protests, but its support of the Viet Cong, for Mao Zedong and his “teachings.” and their wish, conscious or not, for a Viet Cong victory. Those ex-leftists and liberals who drifted Rightward, did not do so because they suddenly found themselves in synch with “conservative values”—i.e., free market economy, less intrusive big government, etc.—not at first—but because they increasingly found themselves sharing the outrage and horror normative conservatives like William F. Buckley, Jr. and old socialists like the late Sidney Hook recoiled from in their opposition to radical extremism—the takeover of classrooms and administration buildings in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, the bombings of government buildings and banks, (Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, now comfortably ensconced in academia and left-leaning law institutions, come to mind), the infamous case of arson at the Isla Vista branch of the Bank of America, the provoking of campus riots, the intimidation of older professors who did not agree with their more vocal and out-of-control students. The drift of moral realignment of old (i.e., former) leftists with conservatives—and traditional conservatism—would come later, not as Tanenhaus would have it, by an early ideological consanguinity, but by a shared concern for the ascendancy of (often violent) confrontations, over peaceful dialogue.

*         *          *

When Michael Harrington coined the term neoconservative, it had not yet acquired its semi-sinister (and later conspiratorial) resonances. Harrington himself did not appear to regard the neoconservative “movement” as anything other than an upstart version of traditional conservatism, annoying, perhaps, but certainly not sinister.

Those who casually toss around the term neocon today, use it as a catchall to delineate the “bad” or “evil” conservative as distinct from a “reasonable” John McCain to a less compliant Patrick J. Buchanan’s “pure”—actually isolationist—conservatism. Indeed, what Pat Buchanan shares with the “progressive” left is a mutual hatred of neoconservatives!

Beginning with Buchanan and other critics of Israel—or more precisely what such critics regarded as America’s blind support of the Jewish state—the label neoconservative cabal was characteristically Buchanan’s “improvement” over Michael Harrington’s original term. Buchanan’s use of it slowly began to take on anti-Semitic undertones. Many of these anti-neocon critics protested that they were not anti-Semitic, “only” anti-Zionist, and that criticism of Israel—or the U.S. support of Israel—should not be seen as engaged in out of a crypto-anti-Semitism. In the interest of fairness, we must concede that many critics of Israel, represent either one of two positions (or both): sympathy for the Palestinian cause—a Palestinian state—which includes severe condemnation of Israel’s “treatment” of Palestinians (though the terrorist violence that has provoked such treatment is glossed over or disregarded, or justified as “resistance”); or their sincere beliefs that America is too partial to Israel at the cost to America’s interests in the world, and not “fair enough” to the Arab/Palestinian cause…

*          *         *

Commentary magazine may be said to be the flagship of the neo-conservative “movement.” In the years of Commentary’s growth in reader subscriptions, it rose from a little-known magazine devoted largely to issues of Jewish concern to a force on the national scene, when it began to publish articles on general subjects—the arts, the political scene—domestic and foreign—which appealed to a wider readership. In its early years from 1945 to the late 1950’s, when it was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, Commentary's political complexion was liberal, close to the Hubert Humphrey-“Scoop” Jackson wing of the Democratic Party. But that changed, after some years, under the editorship of Norman Podhoretz:

[When] I became editor. . .in 1960. . .I began by pushing [the magazine] to the Left. It was not until the late 60's that I “broke ranks” with the Left, and started moving toward the position which eventually came to be called neoconservatism.4

As the Vietnam crisis deepened, and the magazine grew more conservative, it became the target of bitter attacks from unreconstructed old Leftists and their more militant and younger—by a generation—New Left heirs. But in spite of the backlash from that quarter, the influence of the magazine would grow from its early, largely Jewish, readership to the more widely known magazine of its later years, when it would evolve into the formidable intellectual force in American cultural and political life it has since become. On the strength of her article that appeared in the November, 1979 issue of Commentary,5 President Ronald Reagan appointed Jeane Kirkpatrick U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. The American Jewish Committee’s sponsorship and funding lasted from 1945 until 1990. Since 1990, other than overhead, it has had to depend for its operating expenses on readers and periodic fund-raisings.

With the growing tensions of the Cold War, and most especially the Vietnam conflict, its political directions began to shift. Commentary’s drift to the right, though a traditionally moderate liberal reaction in its opposition to the violence and excesses of the anti-(Vietnam)-war movement, later merged with the more traditionally conservative free market philosophy. In its own evolution and self-searchings over the years, its contributors of the old left who had moved right came to view the socialist solution—larger government control, proliferation of bureaucratic regulations, and manipulation of the economy—as unworkable…quite simply traditional conservative principles

Beyond, Commentary had been an unfailing supporter of Israel. This has by no means been a blind-all-or-nothing support, for it opposed such “peace initiatives” as the Oslo Accords when it was overwhelmingly supported by a majority of the Israel public. But then so has the evangelical Christian Right supported Israel, though of course for its own theological reasons. But a beleaguered Israel cannot afford to reject a friend even if that support is in part due to a theology not shared by most Israeli Jews—or Israeli Arabs, for that matter.

Finally, it should be noted that, although many of Commentary’s contributors were former leftists, almost all were anti-communist, and for many of the same reasons held by the anti-communism of William J. Buckley’s National Review—Soviet communism’s totalitarian nature and its expansionism where it gained power, either by occupation or by proxy—the former Iron Curtain states: Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovalia, Romania, East Germany. Except that for those few ex-leftists who became Commentary’s most eloquent spokesmen against communism, that was no mere academic exercise; most had had intimate association with anti-communist leftists, among whom they moved, erstwhile comrades. Out of the conservative National Review “cabal,” came the only prominent—i.e., famous or infamous–ex-leftist to join its editorial board, Whittaker Chambers, late of the Hiss-Chambers espionage case. But then his was a rare and isolated example. One is left to wonder how Chambers would have looked upon the neoconservative movement in American politics. Would he have become a neocon and joined Commentary, or maintained his position as a traditional conservative, still a senior editor at Time magazine and contributing editor to National Review? As contributing editor to NR, Chambers viewed Senator Joseph McCarthy dimly and as a dangerous threat to the anti-communist struggle and to traditional conservatism. He felt that the senator was not so much a foe of the Left, but in an odd and ironic way, had given the communists a legitimacy, an object of misdirected sympathy from naïve liberals and victims of unjust “Cold War hysteria.”


[1] Partisan Review was originally published in 1934, and sponsored by the John Reed Clubs when the clubs were an appendage to the Communist Party, USA[1]. But the schism between the Stalinist dominated Party and its heretical “counter-revolutionary” Trotzkyist faction, led PR’s editors, William Phillips and Phillip Rahv, to break away from the Party, and in doing so, took the magazine with them. After suspending publication, from October, 1936 to December, 1937, the magazine was resurrected and its focus—apart from its anti-Stalinist leftism—was primarily literary. Toward the end of its tenure, its original leftist editorial position became so attenuated that it was scarcely distinguishable from such neo-conservative magazines like Commentary. Indeed, many of PR’s essayists also appeared in Commentary. And. in the earlier stages of both magazines most of their contributors were Jewish.

[2] A documentary on DVD features a number of “New York Intellectuals,” produced and released in 1998. A fascinating lookback of now aged ex-leftists  on their once-radical youth, though a few exceptions, like Irving Howe remained faithful to their youthful ideals. Howe founded the magazine Dissent  which carried on—and still does, though Howe is no longer alive—his socialist heritage.

[3] There is much in Orwell’s writings—his essays, the “London Letters,” that appeared in Partisan Reviewthat indicated a drift away from the Left and anticipated his becoming more conservative, if not a “Neo-Con”: and Arthur Koestler’s growing interest in paranormal phenomena and suicide. And, similarly, a diminishing of interest in the “infra-red” end of the political spectrum (See his Yogi and the Commissar [1948]). He committed suicide in 1983, due to terminal leuco-cancer and other complications that suggested a disillusionment with the younger Koestler’s leftism.

[4] Letter to me, SB.

[5] Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” Commentary Nov. 1979.


Sam Bluefarb is Prof. Emeritus, Los Angeles Harbor College.

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