Reflections of a Neoconservative: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

by Irving Kristol
Basic Books, 336 pp., $19.95

It is good to be merry and wise,
It is good to be honest and true,
It is best to be off with the old love,
Before you are on with the new.

So advises an old English song. Irving Kristol cannot be accused of not trying to do the “best.” His old loves were all firmly turned off before he embraced neoconservatism. In this engaging book of twenty-nine essays, presented as “reflections of a neoconservative,” the high marks are mostly reserved for neoconservatism, even though the history of old loves is figured with some frank nostalgia.

The book begins with a marvelously readable account of Kristol’s experiences as a Trotskyist at the City College of New York. Another essay, “Memoirs of a ‘Cold Warrior,’ ” provides an interesting discussion of Kristol’s years in waging what he still sees as “a just war,” particularly as a coeditor of Encounter (making the embarrassing discovery later that he “was unwittingly on the CIA payroll”). That battle, we learn, is no longer a major concern of Kristol’s. “My cold war,” he writes in that essay (originally published in 1968), “is largely over.” The conflict of Soviet interests with those of the United States “can make life dangerous and depressing,” but “it is no kind of special problem for intellectuals” (page 23). Precisely this concern with the special problems—and the special role—of intellectuals seems to motivate Kristol’s deep involvement in developing a neoconservative way of political thinking.

The development of neoconservatism as an approach is an important phenomenon in American political thinking, and neoconservatives have been described—not without reason—as “the men who are changing America’s politics.”1 There can be no doubt about the importance of Kristol’s position in the development of the neoconservative “persuasion”—to use an old-fashioned term that he himself prefers over the word “movement.” He is a leading exponent of that persuasion, and has outlined in a number of essays—many of them reproduced here—the contents and distinctive features of neoconservatism.

Many distinguished intellectuals are associated with the neoconservative persuasion. Kristol mentions the names of Daniel Bell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, Norman Podhoretz, Aaron Wildavsky, Samuel Huntington, Roger Starr, Seymour Martin Lipset, and James Q. Wilson. But he goes on to note that they “all shy away from the designation,” and some others, such as Robert Nisbet and Edward Banfield, call themselves simply “conservative.” But Kristol himself has had no great difficulty in accepting the designation “neoconservative” (a term originally coined, it appears, by Michael Harrington). Kristol speculates that he “may be the only living and self-confessed neoconservative, at large or in captivity” (page 74). The book jacket describes Kristol—a little ambiguously—as “the ‘godfather’ of neoconservatism,” which must be a reference to his willingness to name and foster the persuasion rather than to his style of persuading.

What is neoconservatism? It is, says Kristol, “a current of thought emerging out of the academic-intellectual world and provoked by disillusionment with contemporary liberalism” (pages 75-76). Kristol lists…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.