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An Anti-Intellectual Intellectual

Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea

by Irving Kristol
Free Press, 493 pp., $25.00


Irving Kristol belongs to a remarkable generation which came of age in the City College of New York just before the Second World War. Among his friends at the time were Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, a somewhat younger Nathan Glazer, and others who have made careers of distinction and influence. They were embryonic Jewish American intellectuals, who went to City College because it was the only college that would take them in or they could afford.

Kristol’s own career has been exemplary. He was born in Brooklyn into an Orthodox Jewish family. In City College, he joined up with the Trotskyists, stayed with them for three or four years, and at their meetings met his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, the more scholarly half of this formidable pair. He passes off this Trotskyist experience lightly but says that he learned a good deal from it and has “no regrets.” After he served in the army as an infantryman in Western Europe during World War II, they went to Cambridge, England, where his wife did research for her first book, on Lord Acton—an early example of how the Kristols have never been afraid to deal with almost any subject.

Then his career took off. He was hired at Commentary, where he stayed five years, ending as managing editor. It was at Commentary in 1952 that he found his own voice with a highly controversial article on Senator Joe McCarthy.1 After Commentary, thanks to the good offices of Sidney Hook, his “revered teacher,” he became executive director of the newly formed American Committee for Cultural Freedom, a job which lasted only about ten months, because the committee was too divided over several issues, including whether and how to oppose McCarthy. Kristol says that he did not fully agree with any of the factions and tried to mediate among them. In 1953, Kristol—with Stephen Spender as co-editor—was chosen to found Encounter, the new English-language magazine in London of the Europe-based Congress for Cultural Freedom. Hook again sponsored him. Kristol ran the magazine, with Spender getting contributions mainly from British authors. Kristol explains why he did not believe the rumors that the CIA was supporting Encounter and why “the idea of any secret editorial wire-pulling by the CIA was not only unthinkable, it was literally impossible.”

In London for the next five years, Kristol and Himmelfarb moved from some vestige of liberalism to more traditional conservatism. They came back to New York when Max Ascoli, the editor-in-chief and publisher of The Reporter, hired Kristol in 1958 as editor, at which he lasted about a year.2 Next, Kristol tried to write a book on “the evolution of American democracy.” This experience cured him of book writing, and he settled down thereafter to articles or essays. He spent the next ten years at a new publishing house, Basic Books, where he rose to be executive vice-president. But he did not feel that publishing was really his métier. He escaped from it by founding in 1965, with Daniel Bell (whom Kristol describes as “ever loyal to his right-wing social-democratic background”) as co-editor, another magazine, the quarterly The Public Interest, which has specialized in domestic affairs. The money came from a Wall Street investor, who contributed $10,000 to pay for the first year of publication. With the nomination of Senator George McGovern as the Democratic candidate in 1972, Kristol and his little group decided they were no longer liberals of any kind and that “the Democratic party no longer had room for the likes of us”—though it would be more accurate to say that they no longer had use for the Democratic Party.

After leaving Basic Books, Kristol spent the next eighteen years at New York University as the Henry Luce Professor of Urban Values, a post for which Sidney Hook lobbied, and then as John M. Olin Professor. By this time, “neoconservatism” had been born and given a name by the socialist leader Michael Harrington, who did not intend to do it a favor. Meanwhile, Kristol and those with similar views—he names Jeane Kirkpatrick, Michael Novak, and Ben Wattenberg—were given an institutional home in Washington at the American Enterprise Institute, a previously undistinguished right-wing think tank. In the 1970s, Kristol says that he saw for the first time “the basic political impotence of traditional conservatism,” especially as represented by the Ford administration. The new dispensation seems to have come, however, between 1968 and 1972; in 1968, Kristol supported Hubert Humphrey for President; in 1972, he came out for Richard Nixon. Neoconservatism was off and running, with Kristol its acknowledged “godfather.”

In 1987, the Kristols moved from New York to Washington. The geographical change had political implications. It put Kristol closer to the center of policy-making in the United States and shifted his interests more to economics and foreign policy. He is now the publisher of a foreign-affairs magazine, The National Interest. One of their two children, William, has become a political maker and shaker in Republican politics in his own right, having worked for Dan Quayle and having recently launched a new conservative magazine. The Kristol family marches on.

This, in broad outline, has been the trajectory of Irving Kristol from a poor Jewish family in Brooklyn to fame and influence in Washington. It somewhat resembles the rise of Henry Kissinger from immigrant to Secretary of State. Both cases show how much opportunity there has been in the United States after the Second World War for careers that had been all but unthinkable for Jews in earlier periods.

Most of Kristol’s professional experience has thus been in journalism and editing. But he was a journalist in whom there was an ideological essayist striving to break out. This gives his work a peculiar duality. Some of it is written with a journalistic bustle and timeliness; but much of it also seeks to deal with deep and almost timeless questions.


Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea is a peculiar book. It is made up of forty-one pieces, some four pages long, one about forty pages, together with an opening autobiographical memoir, written for this volume in his seventy-fifth year, from which I have taken most of the information about Kristol’s career. One article was written as long ago as 1949, one as recently as 1995. This is the fourth of Kristol’s collections of articles and essays. But buyers of Kristol’s previous collections should beware.

About two thirds of the articles in the present collection were previously published in three books now out of print.3 Kristol has made a habit of recycling his books. Of the 486 pages in the new book, 249 pages, or about half, were first published in the 1970s. Only 10 pages were published in the 1980s, and 77 pages in the 1990s.

As a result, most of this volume takes us back to the formative period of neoconservatism in the 1970s or earlier. Kristol himself is not sure how much in these pages he still believes in. As he admits, he “wouldn’t know how” to “smooth out” the “differences of emphasis, even occasional contradictions, to be found in these writings.” Nevertheless, he has been surprised and even impressed by “the consistency of a certain cast of mind” in this collection.

Readers may discover “a certain cast of mind,” but it would be hard to find here the “autobiography” of the idea of neoconservatism. The articles may be taken as examples of the “idea,” but there is little in them to suggest an “autobiography.” Except for a few remarks in Kristol’s memoir, the origins, development, and influence of neoconservatism must be sought elsewhere or has still to be written. 4

Neoconservatism has always been an amorphous, ambiguous conception. Its elusiveness has been most recently suggested by Kristol: “Neoconservatism differed in many important respects from traditional conservatism, but had no program of its own…. The substance of any specific agenda may not have much to do with neoconservatism, but the moving spirit does.”5 In his third collection, Kristol had included an article half-humorously entitled “Confessions of a True, Self-Confessed—Perhaps the Only—’Neoconservative,’ ” which at least tried to tell what neoconservatism was, but this latest volume hardly tries to do the same thing. In the older article, Kristol asserted that “I do think there really is such a thing as neoconservatism” but it was not a “movement”; it was only “an impulse that ripples through the intellectual world,” a “persuasion” or “mode of thought” but not “a school of thought.” He then listed eight distinctive but rather abstractly described features, such as its “antiromanticism,” its “premodern” political philosophy, and its “detached attachment” to “bourgeois society and the bourgeois ethos.”6 One gathered that neoconservatism favored capitalism—but with “detached attachment,” or, as Kristol put it in the title of his second collection, Two Cheers for Capitalism.

Not much has changed since then. In his new autobiographical memoir, Kristol still describes neoconservatism as an “impulse” or “persuasion” and a “generational phenomenon.” Its major contribution has allegedly been to enlarge conservatism to include “moral philosophy, political philosophy, and even religious thought.” It has provided an “intellectual dimension” to traditional conservatism. It has adopted “supply-side economics.” This catalog tells something about Kristol’s brand of neoconservatism, but it does not necessarily fit other proponents of the “impulse.”

The historical scene has changed so drastically from the 1970s to the 1990s that much of Kristol’s book seems to come out of a bygone era. The scant material from the 1990s is written differently and concerns different kinds of problems. Many of the older pieces are lengthy, essayistic, and abstract; the newer ones are short, contemporary, and journalistic, many reprinted from the Op-Ed pages of The Wall Street Journal. The distribution is so one-sided in favor of the 1970s that it appears Kristol wishes to be represented by his essays of twenty or more years ago. In effect, we have one larger book out of Kristol’s past and a much smaller one of more recent vintage.

The result is that this collection gives the reader an opportunity to see how well Kristol’s older work has stood the passage of time. In the 1970s, he was largely moved by two kinds of personal and political influences. One was his own past adherence to socialism and liberalism; both come in for almost obsessive denunciations. The other was the concurrent experience of the still troubling Vietnam War and the rise of the New Left. These influences helped to form the immediate background of Kristol’s ideological essays.

I have chosen three strands of his thought as examples of his “cast of mind.” All come from the 1970s, when Kristol worked out the main ideas that are still representative of him, if their dominance in his new collection is any sign of how he wishes to be remembered.

One of Kristol’s main ideas was that of the “new class.” The term had been used by Milovan Djilas for the Soviet and Communist bureaucracy. Kristol applied it to “a goodly proportion of those college-educated people” who make up the “scientists, teachers and educational administrators, journalists and others in the communication industries, psychologists, social workers, those lawyers and doctors who make their careers in the expanding public sector, city planners, the staffs of the larger foundations, the upper levels of the government bureaucracy, and so on.” These people represent a “quite numerous,” “indispensable,” and “disproportionately powerful class.” They “do not ‘control’ the media, they are the media—just as they are our educational system, our public health and welfare system, and much else.”

  1. 1

    Kristol’s article in Commentary of March 1952 would need an extended discussion to be fully comprehensible in 1995. Kristol himself now admits that “perhaps I didn’t express these thoughts with the clarity they needed.” In retrospect, it is fair to say that neither side expressed its thoughts with the necessary clarity. Kristol’s piece was taken at the time by outraged liberals to be a defense of McCarthy; it was not. The main casus belli was a passage: “For there is one thing that 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.” But Kristol had previously referred to Senator McCarthy as a “vulgar demagogue” and later to “Senator McCarthy’s irresponsible declamations.” Kristol also distinguished “between liberalism (which is solicitous of freedom) and McCarthyism (which is not.” He now says: “My unforgivable sin, I subsequently realized, was in not being hysterical about McCarthy, whom I assumed to be a transient, ugly phenomenon with no political future.” In the circumstances of 1952 he might have been forgiven for having been “hysterical” about denouncing McCarthy.

  2. 2

    At this point, Kristol makes a minor error involving me. He says that “the editor of that magazine—I think it was Theodore Draper—had just left” and Ascoli was seeking a replacement. In fact, I followed Kristol, whose predecessor was another Theodore—Theodore White. Kristol had come to see me previously to ask my advice about taking the job on The Reporter. I told him what I knew about it, which did not discourage him. In any case, Kristol lasted a year, and then I followed him. I lasted less than six months, after which Ascoli never again tried to fill the post. My memory of Ascoli is similar to that of Kristol; Ascoli ran the magazine as if it were an old Italian principality, not a modern American publication.

  3. 3

    On the Democratic Idea in America (1972); Two Cheers for Capitalism (1978); Reflections of a Neoconservative (1983).

  4. 4

    There is a now dated book by Peter Steinfels, The Neoconservatives (Simon and Schuster, 1979). Kristol considered it to be “a polemic disguised as a report and ‘fair’ commentary” (Reflections of a Neoconservative, Basic Books, 1983, p. 74). The most recent book is The Rise of Neoconservatism by John Ehrman (Yale University Press, 1995). It deals mainly with foreign affairs and makes Jeane Kirkpatrick and Daniel Patrick Moynihan more prominent than Kristol.

  5. 5

    The Public Interest (Fall 1995), p. 81.

  6. 6

    Reflections of a Neoconservative, pp. 73–77.

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