The Neocon Mask Removed
By Gertrude Himmelfarb (Ed.) and Irving Kristol (forward)
Eight years since the start of the Iraq War and two years into the Obama administration, it seems clear that neoconservatism has had its day in the sun. It made an astonishing rise from the peripheries of policy journals and polemical tracts to become, for a time, the dominant ideology of the White House. And now it’s retreated back to the redoubts of those magazines and opinion pages, most of its champions retired and spending their energy on justifying themselves in their memoirs.
The neoconservatism that held sway during the Bush presidency was defined by foreign policy that touted peace through military strength, with the utopian end of spreading democracy to nations beleaguered by totalitarian regimes. Though championed by neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz and William Kristol, the roots of this idea go as far back as the Wilson administration which, with the help of Walter Lippmann and the New Republic, cast the otherwise pointless First World War as the great moral crusade of the era that would replace monarchies with republics.
But even if this is the form of neoconservatism fated to be remembered by posterity, it’s worth recalling that the political creed was extremely different in its origins. The Neoconservative Persuasion, the new selection of essays by the late Irving Kristol, admirably reveals the fluid, adapting nature of neoconservatism in the half century when it was largely an ideological outlier. In a public intellectual climate dominated then and still now by the writing of George Orwell and Lippmann, Kristol seems altogether less literary and less prestigious in comparison. True, he was not a particularly creative writer, nor did he put on airs as a grand public philosopher, but what this collection does display is the work of someone simply searching for the best possible solutions to society’s problems. Such a pragmatic process would only later crescendo into an actually political identity; and then, when that neoconservative identity cohered, it was rapidly adopted by others, and Kristol’s contributions to it became more of an afterthought as time went on.
Irving Kristol’s contribution to intellectual life came through an endless stream of essays, articles, reviews, editorials and lectures. His legacy boasts no full-length classic like Theory of the Leisure Class or Democracy in America, just a slew of “little magazines” and some think tanks. “I was not a book writer,” Kristol writes in “An Autobiographical Memoir” (1995). “I did not have the patience and lacked the necessary intellectual rigor to bring my ideas into some kind of consistent thesis.” Nevertheless, over the course of his 89 years, those deadline pieces had a cumulative effect. Kristol was consistent in delivering clear arguments confined to a constricted word length that could be as searching and insightful as they were provocative.
Kristol was born into a working class family in Brooklyn, headed by a father who worked in the garment trade. As he would later write his family was “Orthodox Jewish, but only in observance—belief seemed to have nothing to do with it.” He went on to earn a BA in History at the City College of New York, though his time spent at the legendary alcoves with classmates such as Daniel Bell and Irving Howe. He came onto the scene as a brainy young man with a passion for social justice and a hatred of totalitarianism. This fervor found a home in the Trotskyist movement that was brewing in America and was trying to clean communism of its Stalinist influence. The fruits of this period can be seen in the articles the journal Enquiry, which he co-founded with other young Trotskyists in 1942, the first of many that Kristol would found and/or edit. The book’s first five essays are culled from this publication.
Though many of us would sooner forget much of what we’ve done in our early twenties, Kristol’s work of this period is crucial to understanding him; it defines the tone and character of all that follows. It bears the familiar marks of a young man trying to find his own critical authority (in Kristol’s case modeled off of Lionel Trilling), while also trying to grapple with the chaos of his age. By this time America had entered into World War II, Trotsky was dead, Stalin was the USSR, and the jackboot of fascism was stomping on Europe’s face. On the one hand this lead Kristol to write the scornful article “Other People’s Nerve,” in which he attacks pro-war philosopher Sidney Hook for waging “an abstract war against Hitler” that took attention away from the “reactionary crusade” being waged in Asia. On the other hand we find a wordy essay on the “moral critic,” assessing what Kristol would later call the “skeptical” liberalism of Lionel Trilling. Here the tone shifts from indignation to curiosity, finding interest in Trilling’s insights into the failings of moral abstraction, particularly in Trilling’s
disparagement of radical philosophers who imply that man, in his quality, in his kind, will be wholly changed by socialism in fine ways we cannot predict: man will be good, not as some men have been good, but good in new and unspecified fashions. At the bottom of at least popular Marxism there has been a kind of disgust of humanity as it is and a perfect faith in humanity as it is to be. It is this simplistic faith in perfectibility which cultivates the domineering arrogance of the self-righteous reformer, and which forgives in advance inhumanity disguised as humanistic zeal.
Kristol the Trotskyist has, through Trilling, found moral realism, one which sees “good-and-evil” more often than “good versus evil” and “though dissatisfied … with the ways of men, it foresees no new virtues but, at best, a healthier redistribution of the old.” The ideological and the doubting Irving were born as twins, though one grew much earlier and much faster than the other.
That doubt expressed itself in novel ways. Ten years after founding Enquiry, Kristol was working at Commentary and publishing a slew of material that extended far beyond the radical plane. He spent an even greater amount of time ruminating on theological and philosophical subjects—it was here where he first wrote about his “skeptical conservative” hero Leo Strauss—but he didn’t look away from current events. One can say that Irving Kristol officially arrived not so much with neoconservatism but with “’Civil Liberties,’ 1952: A Study in Confusion,” an essay laying out the Cold War liberal case in favor of anti-Communism, if not McCarthyism. When conservative firebrands like Brent Bozell and Willmoore Kendall were ready to go to war with liberals over McCarthy, Kristol opted for the dry high road that almost undercuts the controversy over the issue. Reading Kristol weave his way through such an issue is fascinating. In this particular case he examines the records and opinions of various anti-anti-communist observers and in clear, measured sentences, aims and fires at their reasoning:
Professor [Henry Steele] Commager seems to be seduced by the insidious myth according to which Communism is a political trend continuous with liberalism and democratic socialism, only more impatient and inclined to the fanatical, only more “radical” than its companions who are not quite so “left.” It is a myth that Senator McCarthy, for his own ends, is happy to accept, since it allows him to tag a New Dealer as being by nature an embryonic Communist. Neither the Professor nor the Senator is concerned to see that the antithesis of “left” and “right” no longer suits the political realities; that measured by the ideals of the French or even Russian Revolution, Communism today is as counter-revolutionary as Louis XVI or Kolchak ever was; that if one wishes to defend the civil liberties of Communists (as the Senator does not), one must do so on the same grounds that one defends the civil liberties of Nazis and fascists—no more, no less
The essay was controversial for the simple fact that McCarthy was Kristol’s secondary target; McCarthy was crude and showy politician, yes, but that did not discount the threat Kristol saw in Communism. In rejecting McCarthy’s show trial tactics, but sharing the Senator’s animus towards Communism, Kristol felt he could speak for the silent majority of Americans: “… there is one thing the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing. And with some justification.”
Kristol’s concern was with the perceived liberal consensus holding that McCarthyism trumped Communism as a threat to democracy. The disdain for McCarthy’s demagoguery, as Kristol saw it, caused a lapse in judgment, in which liberals were “enchanted” rather than persuaded by the anti-McCarthy writings of Alan Barth or Commager.
He would go on to edit another magazine and branch out into new interests. With Encounter, a UK-based journal notorious for having been backed, however directly or indirectly, by the CIA, his anti-Communism intensified, but so did his intellectual depth with pieces on Machiavelli and Tacitus. His essay “High, Low, and Modern,” which appeared in the magazine in 1960, was another provocative piece, one that foresaw his next evolution into a culture warrior, and it did so in far more prickly language:
Someone has to be able to say, with assurance and a measure of authority, what is culture and what is not, what is decent and is not. There must be some group or class that is admittedly competent to decide—not without some error, but more wisely than anyone else—questions of moral and cultural value. Otherwise, a necessary and vital order in the life of a society will be lacking.
With the progress of the 1960s, one starts to see where Kristol was trying to go later with the neoconservative label. With the rise of the student movement and the less than exemplary effects of the Great Society, Kristol found himself not only at odds with radical leftism, but also with mainstream liberalism. His views formed out of an odd pairing of policy wonkery and ideology. He was at once a realist combating the excesses of social democracy and a reactionary warning of the decline of western civilization at the hands of McGovern voters. He founded with Daniel Bell The Public Interest which published the early work of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James Q. Wilson, Charles Krauthammer, David Brooks and Francis Fukuyama, all of whom would, in one way or another, be attached to neoconservatism, though they would become more compartmentalized than Kristol. Moynihan and Wilson would echo Kristol’s domestic concerns while Krauthammer and Fukuyama concerned themselves with foreign policy.
Published around the same time in the Atlantic Monthly was “What’s Bugging the Students?” which, although offering some of his more simplistic assessments (“They’re bored”), contains some insights a merely doctrinaire thinker would not have been capable of:
One of the unforeseen consequences of the welfare state is that it leaves so little room for personal idealism; another is that it mutes the challenge of self-definition. All this is but another way of saying that it satisfies the anxieties of the middle-aged while stifling the creative energies of the young … It is not, perhaps, too much to say that mass picketing on the campus is one of the last, convulsive twitches of a slowly expiring American individualism.
While he became a cheerleader for supply-side economics and capitalism as a whole, he only offered two cheers, as the title of one of his collections stated. Like his colleague Daniel Bell—who himself passed away in January of this year—Kristol had reservations about the partnering of social and fiscal conservatism, and voiced openly not only his continued sympathy for the New Deal, but his disdain for the profit motive as a virtue.
Over time the ideological variations turning over in Kristol’s mind found themselves becoming components rather than mere attitudes or beliefs. His views began to harden, and suddenly, having ceased shifting and evolving, it was possible to relegate him to an ideology. The word neoconservatism was coined at this time, by the socialist writer Michael Harrington, in order to criticize Kristol, who was voicing the ideas that define his brand.
Yet Kristol’s original, and loudly marketed, neoconservatism seems almost alien to the ideas espoused by modern neocons and disparaged by their detractors. It was, for Kristol, a more realistic countermeasure against the well-meaning but, in his mind, failed liberal programs of the 1960s and the more dubious radical cultural movements that developed alongside them. This did not resemble, at least early on, the more cynical realism of, say, Kissinger; Kristol’s fervor as a moral writer was very much a consistent asset. With every good provocative argument worth propounding there were just as many at-risk virtues worth defending. Kristol’s realistic approach to domestic policy attempted to make concrete those moral abstractions which Kristol put forth as necessary correctives to the relativist antics of the student left and related subcultures. Whether or not he believed in them himself hardly mattered: these were, in his mind, tools for preserving American society.
Much of Kristol’s later period found himself either reminiscing about his past achievements or defending that “unanimous” tenant of neoconservatism, traditional values, liberation from which would cause one “to experience the vertigo and despair of nihilism.” Paired with the other neoconservative dynamo Norman Podhoretz, Kristol initiated the great pushback against the counterculture, enabling some of the crudest stereotypes that haunt conservatism today. Kristol burned much of his intellectual fuel at this time despairing over the fact that young people attend church less and rock concerts more, getting culture warriors like William Bennett into public service (Bennett won the spoils of the National Endowment for the Humanities after a contentious battle over it against supporters of Southern agrarian Mel Bradford), and promoting the socio-political value of the Judeo-Christian traditions. “The religious conservatives,” he writes in “Taking Religious Conservatives Seriously,” “are too numerous to be shunted aside, and their numbers are growing, as is their influence. They’re going to be the very core of an emerging American conservatism.” Kristol found that Christian conservatives were better suited to neoconservatives who, despite being “more concerned with criticizing liberalism than with criticizing ‘statism’,” were concerned with the “corruption” of the “souls” of welfare recipients rather than welfare’s waste of tax-payer money. Kristol’s overall vision of neoconservatism, then, was not one entirely interested in defending liberal democracy from terrorists, but rather from “traditional” conservatives whom he thought to be more libertarian and “secular” than they themselves admitted for focusing too much on the cause of economic freedom.
Kristol’s late-life cultural criticism is largely forgettable; a cynicism crept into his writing that went beyond mere skepticism, as in the case of the title essay from 2006: “[T]he political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican Party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy” (emphasis added). At an earlier time, even at his most egregious, Irving played the part of the ironic observer; here he is little more than a neoconservative publicist.
The best reading, then, from his later period is not in his partisan polemics but in the three autobiographical essays concluding The Neoconservative Persuasion. It is also notable that Kristol did not deviate from the essay form even here. Whereas a majority of Norman Podhoretz’s books concern the ways he has pissed off his former friends, Kristol keeps to what he does best, teasing out his interior and exterior life without much indulgence. More than any of the other pieces in the collection—with the possible exception of some of the Enquiry essays—Kristol writes these essays as though he was trying to gain some understanding himself, attempting to assess on his own terms the variations in his career as a man of ideas.
The most thoroughgoing assessment is found in “Autobiographical Memoir,” a sprawling essay written in 1995 for Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, which recounts Kristol’s life from his early upbringing to that time. It drops names, to be sure – not ones that we’d be immediately aware of (Robert Warshow, Elliott Cohen, Malcolm Muggeridge, etc.) but who are nonetheless paid homage for their personal quirks and influence on the author. He recalled when art critic Clement Greenberg “offer[ed] to acquire for me a large Jackson Pollock painting for $10,000,” but declined because “I didn’t have ten thousand dollars, we didn’t have space in our apartment for so large a painting, and I didn’t like (still don’t like) ‘abstract expressionist’ art.” Amidst these recollections, though, are more important reflections on the various states of his mind. In particular, he zeroes in on the “neo” prefix and how it always seemed to latch onto him. “Even as a socialist,” he wrote, “I had more respect for ‘tradition-bound’ religion than for a modernized or liberalized one … I was a nonobservant Jew, but not a nonreligious one. Hence the ‘neo’ in my [neo-Orthodox] religious orientation.”
Unlike many of his peers, including his son and his wife, Kristol’s formal education did not go beyond the undergraduate level. Though every bit as intellectually inclined as they were and are, Kristol never seemed to be the classroom type or, as former CCNY classmate and later Public Interest co-editor Nathan Glazer surmised, the footnoting type. He was a man with his own curriculum, and reading over the essays one gets the impression that his primary audience is himself. This gives the essays a far more profound dimension than they would otherwise have as mere arguments with the world. Few intellectual journalists had much interest in examining Leo Strauss or Tacitus. Kristol was never a student of Strauss outside of attending a few lectures, but in reading and writing about Persecution and the Art of Writing, Kristol found value in the Great Books that he may not have found in a classroom:
It is [Strauss’s] thesis that few, if any, of the Great Books in philosophy and political philosophy written before the French Revolution inaugurated the era of journalism can simply be “read,” no matter how vigorously the student (or the instructor) is exhorted to do so and no matter how earnestly he applies himself. They have to be studied, and in a special way…
Read as a clue into the workings of neoconservatism (which in 1952 had not even been conceived) and Straussianism, this is sinister and misleading, but read as a personal reflection from Kristol’s interpretation of a fascinating book, it is a testament to his dedication to ideas and to enlightenment itself (though not to be confused with the Enlightenment – referred to by Strauss as the “Obfuscation”).
The conclusions he came to at given times may not resonate with certain readers (I personally disagree with Kristol on his views about civil liberties, for instance). But once the neoconservative mask is removed (indeed, the preferred title for this collection, in my view, would be The Quality of Doubt, from another essay in the collection) we have an individual and impressively engaged writer, and a complicated one at that. In the process of removing ideological partitions, he did the same with the partitions in political writing. The Neoconservative Persuasion does a service of presenting us with an Irving Kristol unbound from the declining form of the ideology he helped to found.
Chris R. Morgan is the editor of Biopsy magazine.