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.”
This class, according to Kristol, was not much interested in money; it was “keenly interested in power.” It wanted “power redistributed to government” in which it would have “a major say.” Kristol asserted: “The simple truth is that the professional classes of our modern bureaucratized societies are engaged in a class struggle with the business community for status and power.” The new class wanted the job of “running our society.” The response of “bourgeois society” was feeble; it “seems incapable of explaining and justifying its inequalities and how they contribute to or are consistent with the common good.” The situation was so desperate that the top executives of large corporations “cannot drink a martini on the expense account without becoming a target of a ‘populist’ politician.”
He also associated the new class with millenarianism. This belief was “so powerful—one is tempted to say irresistible”—because it was associated with modern scientific rationalism and modern technology. In fact, he contended that fascism was a rebellion “against the tyranny—actual or prospective—of a radical-utopian rationalism”—a derivation that might seem to be a justification for fascism, though Kristol also thought that the connection was “exasperated and irrational.” The “collectivist imperative” was so strong that it even fed “on its own failures.” The “bourgeois citizen” was so endangered that he “now is on the verge of becoming an extinct species.”
From the “new class” Kristol went on to the new “class struggle.” He redefined the term to mean the struggle for status and power between the “professional class” and the “business community.” This new class was “persuaded that they can do a better job of running our society and feel entitled to have the opportunity.” But these “professional classes” did not originate their “ideological discontent”; they owed it to the “intellectuals—poets, novelists, painters, men of letters.” This threat from the professional classes and intellectuals was also opposed by ordinary working-class and lower-middle-class people, who were “basically loyal to the bourgeois order.” Still, the picture was neither “pretty nor hopeful.”
But there were glimmers of light in all the doom and gloom. At about the same time, Kristol offered to save capitalism in two ways. One was in the realm of ideas, which he declared were “all-important” (his italics). Ideas had brought about “the crisis of modernity,” which could be overcome only with “new ideas—or new versions of old ideas.” Ideas, he insisted, are what “rules the world.” Capitalism used to defend itself with “religion and the bourgeois ethos.” Without them, capitalism was “helpless before any moralistic assault.” In this way, Kristol opened the way for neoconservatism and offered to come to capitalism’s rescue by arming it with both new ideas and religion.
If Kristol contributed any new thought to the alleged crisis of conservatism, it was his stress on the importance of ideas in the salvation of capitalism. Kristol berated businessmen for their “indifference to culture” and “their placid philistinism.” They defended capitalism “in purely amoral terms” when what it needed was “moral and intellectual substance.” Unfortunately, “religion is now ineffectual” and “the bourgeois ethos oldfashioned.” In effect, his main prescription for rescuing capitalism was to breathe new life into the old religion and “prosaic bourgeois values.” In substance, there was not much more to Kristol’s brand of neoconservatism than these familiar homilies. Yet he advanced them with such certainty and bravado that they seemed to be far more exciting and original in the past than they do now.
Kristol’s reflections of the 1970s read oddly in the 1990s. Were capitalism and bourgeois society really so far gone even in the 1970s? By this time, the New Left was little more than a memory and the Vietnam War had been winding down. Were the intellectuals, professors, liberals, and Kristol’s sundry monsters really bent on taking power away from the corporations, businessmen, and the established order? Did they come so close to getting their way? After all, Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1972, and Kristol was soon thereafter invited to dinner at the White House.
Kristol’s ideological theses of the 1970s seem in retrospect to be little more than political fantasies. There never was such an almost irresistible drive for power by liberal intellectuals, and they never came close to achieving such an end. His words, reprinted now, seem like echoes of a mythological past.
Kristol has increasingly emphasized religion as a saving grace for endangered capitalist society. The problem here is that he is Jewish, and a more overtly religious America would probably be a more overtly Christian-fundamentalist America in its political repercussions. This discrepancy has not deterred Kristol, who has made religiosity a cornerstone of his goal to redeem capitalism.
Kristol’s own religion is something of a puzzle. In his autobiographical memoir, he tells us that his parents’ household was “Orthodox Jewish.” But, he adds immediately, his father went to synagogue only once a year, on the High Holidays, and “belief seemed to have nothing to do with it”; his mother never went but kept a strictly kosher household. How they could be considered Orthodox without regular attendance at the synagogue and observance of other Orthodox rituals he does not explain.
Kristol himself received no Jewish instruction at home; his parents did not seem to care very much about his own observance. Like many Jewish boys of the time, he went through the ritual of bar mitzvah but “had not the faintest interest” in his Jewish studies. Indeed, he did not think of himself as religious. Nevertheless, he writes: “I was a nonobservant Jew, but not a nonreligious one.” He called himself a “neo-orthodox Jew” who is “nonpracticing or nonobservant” but, “in principle, very sympathetic to the spirit of orthodoxy.”
Thus Kristol’s own religiosity seems to inhere more in the spirit than in the act. No Orthodox Jew would regard mere “sympathy” enough to qualify as Orthodoxy. Yet Kristol has always shown a decided preference for the old rather than the new in religious practice. He once advised all religions, especially the Catholic Church, against “surrendering to the spirit of modernity.” Then came this strange, categorical assurance: “Young people do not want to hear that the church is becoming modern. Go tell the young people that the message of the church is to wear sackcloth and ashes and to walk on nails to Rome, and they would do it.”
Did Kristol really mean it? It is sometimes difficult to tell. In this case, he went on to advise the churches that young people were looking for religion so desperately that they were inventing new ones. “They should not have to invent new ones,” he chided, “the old religions are pretty good.” New ones, he added, were being invented because the churches had “capitulated to modernity.” But why, if the old religions were pretty good, did the Church find it necessary to capitulate to modernity and young people to rebel against it? These questions did not seem to interest him.
Elsewhere, Kristol did not think that the old religions were “pretty good.” On the contrary, he called for breathing new life “into the older, now largely comatose, religious orthodoxies.” If they were largely comatose, there must have been reasons why they fell into such a condition, and reviving comatose institutions is a daunting task, hardly calculated to inspire young people to throw over their latest enthusiasms. Kristol is a utopian of the past in combat with utopians of the future.
In this field, Kristol has a way of making astonishing statements. He tells us that he wonders why the Old Testament was incorporated into Christian scripture. He did “some desultory reading” and came up with the following revelation:
They [the church fathers] needed the Old Testament for certain key statements that are not found in the New Testament, or at least are not found there in an emphatic way, such as that when God created the world, he saw that “it was good.” That is an Old Testament doctrine. It became a Christian doctrine, and it is crucial to any orthodoxy in contrast to gnosticism, which says that no one knows who created the world—a demiurge or whatever—but that the world is certainly bad.
This version would lead a reader to believe that Christianity did not incorporate the Old Testament in its doctrine until “church fathers” came along and found that they needed bits and pieces of the Old Testament. This is, of course, historical nonsense. Christianity arose as a dissident Jewish sect which from the outset was rooted in the Old Testament. Jesus cited the Old Testament. The “church fathers” did not later need “certain key statements” from the Old Testament to insert into Christian doctrine; the Old Testament was always an integral part of Christian doctrine.
In advice on “The Future of American Jewry,” Kristol laments the rise of “secular humanism” and, in his most apocalyptic vein, sees “the end of a major phase of American Jewish history, and of the history of Western civilization itself.” Finally, however, he decides that secular humanism is “brain dead” and on the way out. He comes forth as an upholder of the old religion and wants individuals “to look respectfully, even reverentially, on the moral traditions of their forefathers.” With religion allegedly making a comeback, he asks: “How will Jews react?” His answer is in part:
One does get the impression that many American Jews would rather see Judaism vanish through intermarriage than hear the President say something nice about Jesus Christ. But this instinctive response is likely to be irrelevant. If America is going to become more Christian, Jews will have to adapt. That adaptation may involve changes in Jewish attitudes toward such matters as school prayer and the like; it would also surely imply a greater sensitivity to Christian feelings than has been evident in certain Jewish organizations in recent years.
The first sentence in this passage is an example of Kristol’s tendency to make statements which one does not know whether to take seriously. His appeal for Jewish “adaptation” and “greater sensitivity” to a “revived Christianity” is something else. If history is any guide, a more politicized and militant Christianity may threaten the Constitution’s separation of church and state, and just how Jews would adapt to such a Christian order is not clear. What is clear is Kristol’s receptivity to almost any kind of religious orthodoxy, whether Christian or Jewish.
In 1984, in an article on “The Political Dilemma of American Jews,” not reprinted here, Kristol dealt with the challenge of an extreme religious orthodoxy. In a discussion of the revival of right-wing Protestant fundamentalism in the form of the Moral Majority, he pointed out that the most surprising thing about it was its “strongly pro-Israel” point of view. Yet the response of American Jews was “so muffled and embarrassed” that the Moral Majority’s support of Israel might “wither and die on the vine.” Kristol implied that American Jews should recognize and reward the Moral Majority’s pro-Israel attitude by coming closer to it on “social issues,” such as school prayer, abortion, and the relation of church and state in general. He also implied that Jews should accept a change in “the ‘proper’ relations of state and religion in the United States.”7
Thus Kristol raised the question whether American Jewry should consider itself to be an appendage of Israel and whether it should accept a “Christianization” of the American polity. In both cases, he implied that he was willing to go rather far in doing so. Neoconservatism has always had an adventurist streak, and never more so than in this venture into religious politics.
For much of his career, Kristol has been an anti-intellectual intellectual. He has taken the greatest pleasure in denouncing intellectuals whose places he wanted taken by other intellectuals—like himself.
A piece on “American Intellectuals and Foreign Policy” of 1967 gave him an opportunity to deal with the Vietnam War, against which intellectuals were allegedly in the forefront. Kristol never asked whether the war was worth fighting and how it could be brought to a successful conclusion. He was not interested in why so many intellectuals opposed the war. Instead, he presented a number of abstract propositions about the alleged opposition of intellectuals to any foreign policy. He generalized: “No modern nation has ever constructed a foreign policy that was acceptable to its intellectuals.” In true Kristolean fashion. no evidence was offered to back up this pronouncement. Was it true of the German intellectuals in Hitler’s time? Was it true of Soviet intellectuals in Stalin’s time? Was it true of British intellectuals, when Churchill called them to struggle against Hitler’s Germany? It was obviously a highly questionable premise. We do not actually know what all intellectuals have thought about foreign policy in all modern nations. Most intellectuals most of the time probably do not think enough about foreign policy to oppose or support it; they generally care about other things. If they opposed the Vietnam War, they had reasons for it. But Kristol was not interested in the reasons; he cared only about making generalizations about all intellectuals in all modern nations in order to avoid coping with the issues raised by the Vietnam War.
Kristol was mainly interested in convicting intellectuals of holding back the “imperial power” of the United States. Except for the Vietnam War, about whose costs and rationality he was complacent, he would have had difficulty pointing to any exercise of that power which intellectuals had actually been able to check.
Instead, he concocted a theory that academics had taken over the “political metaphysics,” status, and prerogatives of the American intellectual. This “new class” of academics had already won control of campus activities and was sure to move into “politics proper—including elections.” Kristol ended lugubriously by saying that the intellectuals “are bemused by dreams of power without responsibility, even as they complain of moral responsibility without power.”
Kristol’s next barrage against the intellectuals was aimed at their culture. He lamented the fact that American culture had taken an unprecedented turn; it was “at odds with the values and ideals” of the country’s “commercial civilization.” Intellectuals rejected bourgeois society for three reasons—it was “very boring”; it deprived them “of the status that they naturally feel themselves entitled to”; and it “is always likely to reflect the appetites and preferences of common men and women.” After arguing that modernism in the arts was fundamentally anti-bourgeois, Kristol asserted that “the spiritual base of bourgeois society” was sick. He concluded: “It is the ethos of capitalism that is in gross disrepair, not the economics of capitalism—which is, indeed, its saving grace. But salvation through this grace will not suffice.” In all his work, Kristol needs a dragon to slay, and he sees even in modernist artists a mortal danger to capitalist civilization.
In a later essay, Kristol again located that danger in the culture, not in the economy, of bourgeois society. He reiterated his belief that “ordinary people” were satisfied under capitalism but that “intellectuals and artists” subverted the system with their discontents and fantasies. Young people had carried through a “cultural revolution” and had taken over Hollywood and television. But not to worry—the “common people” have not yet succumbed to “the lunacies of its intellectuals and artists.” A capitalist future may be safeguarded if we can reverse the intellectual trends and return to “traditional moral certainties.”
It never seems to have entered Kristol’s mind that the reason why bourgeois society does not fear the excesses and vagaries of intellectuals and artists is that these have little political or economic effect on the society as a whole. For him, culture comes first, and any aberrant culture threatens bourgeois society at its heart. He forgets that his “common people” are the chief consumers of the products of Hollywood and television, industries that might well collapse if they had to live by the patronage of intellectuals.
At the very time that Kristol was issuing his anathemas against intellectuals, two empirical studies were made of the values and politics of American intellectuals. From interviews in 1970, Charles Kadushin’s The American Intellectual Elite found that less than half of its respondents wanted to get out of the Vietnam War immediately, most were opposed to Black Power, and an overwhelming majority were hostile to the New Left. In a survey of professors in 1975, Everett Carll Ladd, Jr., and Seymour Martin Lipset came to these conclusions:
American academics constitute the most politically liberal occupational group in the United States but [are] far from being a hotbed of radicalism…. They manifest values, expectations, orientations to government, moods, and concerns that broadly reflect those of the American public…. Most faculty members are far from supporting demands for basic changes in the society…. Most of them, like most of their fellow citizens, support the prevailing economic and political order.8
These studies, whatever their short-comings, were so far from supporting Kristol’s claims that they deserved some attention from him; he never referred to them. By making “the intellectuals” into a unitary class, Kristol first invented and then condemned them.
The irony is that if all the intellectuals were so far gone, it is hard to see how Kristol could have hoped to organize a corps of neoconservative intellectuals. He could only have hoped to do so because in fact intellectuals do not operate as a class, and fashions in thought change.
What is most distinctive about Kristol’s brand of neoconservatism? I say “Kristol’s brand,” because the other neoconservatives have had other concerns and it is not easy to tell what has bound them all together.
In 1973, when Kristol was still fighting the New Left, he diagnosed the ills of “Capitalism, Socialism, and Nihilism.” He found that all three were spiritually sick. Socialism had been discredited; modern bourgeois society was infected with “libertine tendencies”; the New Left was the carrier of “nihilism.” Yet there was hope, because he discovered in both capitalist and socialist societies a “nostalgia for an order.” Kristol himself thus contributed the best word for his political and cultural outlooks—“nostalgia.” This theme runs through almost all that Kristol has written.
In another essay, Kristol used a somewhat different phrase for his favorite social remedy. He observed that “liberal capitalism survives and staggers on.” It staggers, because it used to depend on the Judeo-Christian tradition for its moral underpinnings and no longer does so. The question he asked was whether it was possible “to restore the spiritual base of bourgeois society to something approaching a healthy condition.” His answer was that it was necessary “to turn back the clock of history.” Nostalgia and turning back the clock of history were his signposts to the future.
In 1976, Kristol helped to celebrate the bicentennial of the American Revolution with an essay entitled “The American Revolution as a Successful Revolution.” His main point was that the Founders believed that mankind, including the Americans, was tinged with “a degree of depravity,” as James Madison once put it. Therefore, it was necessary to protect the young Republic from the passions of mobs and masses by means of checks and balances. The Founders wanted “mild government” with limited responsibilities on the part of the national government together with a “solid bedrock” of local self-government. But “we have progressively forgotten what kind of system it is and why it works as well as it does.” The implication is that we should go back to the republican prudence of the Founders, who would not have recognized the present democratic system’s appeal to “people’s prejudices and passions.” Again, Kristol’s historical lesson was a return to the past.
The longest and most ambitious essay in this book is entitled “Adam Smith and the Spirit of Capitalism.” It discusses Smith’s place in the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment and the much debated connection between Smith’s two great works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations, ending with Kristol’s criticism of the latter. Kristol reproaches Smith for having set forth “the idea of business as a morally indifferent activity” and for having emphasized that the bourgeois individual was “a self-interested and self-seeking creature.” In Kristol’s view every system of economic theory “must have, at its base, moral presuppositions,” and “the causes of economic prosperity are not themselves economic phenomena.” These causes are cultural, as for kristol all human activities are basically cultural.
At this point, Kristol turns around and praises Smith in contrast with contemporary economists. Smith, says Kristol, understood that “religious and political traditions were bound to affect, in a powerful and pervasive way, their economic performance.” Modern economic thought, however, reduces man “to the status of a naked individual who was the sum of his individual appetites.” In the end, Smith and the American Founding Fathers, who agreed with him, were right, and it behooves modern economists to return to their point of view. Whatever may be said of Kristol’s lengthy and discursive exposition, the lesson is again a form of return.9
Thus a question arises: What is neo about Kristol’s neoconservatism? The term “neo” implies that something new is being added to conservatism. In fact, however, Kristol is almost always proposing something old. He is an advocate of nostalgia, of turning the clock back, of returning to the past.
It is difficult to imagine that Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan found him useful because they had carefully read his articles and had agreed with them. What was most serviceable about Kristol was what he was against, not what he was for. He was obsessively against liberalism and socialism, battering them in one article after another. Of these two, socialism stirs him up the most. Liberals should be called “socialists” or “neosocialists,” because they allegedly wish to enlarge the scope of governmental authority indefinitely. He even expends much indignation against “liberal capitalism” or the “liberal-bourgeois society,” not merely capitalism.
Kristol almost always attacks “socialism,” making little or no distinction between communism and socialism or even social democracy. Yet in the years that he was writing, two European Socialist parties came to power—the British Labour Party from 1964 to 1979 (except for four years in the early 1970s) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany in 1969. Sweden had had forty-four years of Socialist governments until 1976. Portugal’s Socialist leader, Mario Soares, became Prime Minister in 1976, and his party went in and out of government coalitions for almost twenty years. Since 1974, the Italian Socialists have taken part in coalition governments or have headed the government. The French Socialists took over the government in 1981, and the Spanish Socialists in 1982.
All these parties and leaders might be charged with all sorts of sins of omission and commission, including, in some countries, personal corruption, often the same kind of corruption as that of their opponents. But they cannot be accused of the “coercion” that Kristol attributes to them. He writes that
democratic socialists, when elected to office, discover that to collectivize economic life you have to coerce all sorts of other institutions (e.g., the trade unions, the media, the educational system) and limit individual freedom in all sorts of ways (e.g., freedom to travel, freedom to “drop out” from the world of work, freedom to choose the kind of education one prefers) if a “planned society” is to function efficiently. When “democratic socialist” governments show reluctance to take such actions, they are pushed into doing so by the “left wings” of their “movements,” who feel betrayed by the distance that still exists between the reality they experience and the socialist ideal which still enchants them. Something like this is now happening in all the European social-democratic parties and in a country like India.
No coercion of this type was imposed by the European social-democratic governments. Coercive social democracy is another political fantasy concocted by Kristol. Among the first victims of the Soviet Communists were the Russian Socialists, who were almost the only uncompromising critics of the Soviet Union in the 1920s. One of Lenin’s most important and most savage works of 1918 was written against “the Renegade kautsky,” referring to the leading Socialist theorist, Karl Kautsky. Yet Kristol repeatedly and without qualification denounces “socialism,” and makes the rare distinction in the above passage only to allege that democratic socialists are also exponents of economic and social coercion.
Some of Kristol’s persuasiveness may be owed to his prose style. It is spare, direct, and supremely confident. He ranges far more widely than most journalists though he never penetrates as deeply as most historians. It may well be that essays which seemed provocative in the 1970s have lost their plausibility in the 1990s.
It is hard to say what the future will make of neoconservatism and Irving Kristol’s part in it. He now says that neoconservatism has come to an end. He claims that “neoconservatism today is an integral part of the new language of conservatives politics” and that the neoconservatives’ sons and daughters “are now all conservatives without adjectival modification.” In his latest autobiographical effort, Kristol says that “the merger of neoconservatism and traditional conservatism underway since the election of Ronald Reagan is largely complete.”10 He recently told an interviewer: “I do not think there really is such a thing as neoconservatism.”11 A recent review in Commentary, long a neoconservative organ, mentions five prominent neoconservatives—but Kristol is not among them.12
So Kristol’s neoconservatism has ended with a whimper. After all his efforts to remake conservatism, he now says that his chief political converts have been Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, the only politicians whom he praises. Thus has conservatism remade him.
November 2, 1995
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. ↩
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. ↩
On the Democratic Idea in America (1972); Two Cheers for Capitalism (1978); Reflections of a Neoconservative (1983). ↩
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. ↩
The Public Interest (Fall 1995), p. 81. ↩
Reflections of a Neoconservative, pp. 73–77. ↩
A decade later. Norman Podhoretz followed the same line. In his essay “In the Matter of Pat Robertson” in Commentary of August 1995, Podhoretz admitted that “a very strong case” had been made for Robertson’s anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, Podhoretz noted, Robertson has been “one of the staunchest defenders of Israel in America.” Finally, Podhoretz says “flat out” that “in my view Robertson’s support for Israel trumps the anti-Semitic pedigree of his ideas about the secret history of the dream of a new world order.” ↩
A summary of these studies may be found in Peter Steinfels, The Neoconservatives, pp. 200–210. ↩
Later, Kristol was not so kind to Adam Smith. In an article published in 1982, “The Cultural Revolution and the Capitalist Future,” Kristol wrote; “Adam Smith himself, though a creative genius in economic thought, was something of a philistine, believing that cultural attitudes and opinions, like religious ones, were matters of personal taste about which reasonable men would not and should not get particularly excited. For two centuries now, Western civilization has been haunted by this stupendous error of judgment…” And again: “In a sense, it is all Adam Smith’s fault. That amiable, decent genius simply could not imagine a world in which traditional moral certainties could be effectively challenged and repudiated.” ↩
The Public Interest (Fall 1995), p. 90 ↩
John Ehrman, The Rise of Neoconservatism, p. 46. ↩
Arch Puddington, Commentary, August 1995, p. 62. ↩