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Nothing Neo

Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea

by Irving Kristol

(The Free Press, 493 pp., $25)

Irving Kristol has been a formidable presence in American intellectual life for over forty years. After an early stint as an editor at Commentary, he helped to start three other influential magazines--Encounter, in 1953; The Public Interest, in 1965; and The National Interest, in 1985. A Trotskyist in his student days, Kristol has moved in stages to the right, first becoming a liberal anticommunist, then a conservative antiliberal. At one point in this evolution, in the early 1970s, he embraced the label "neoconservative," which the socialist Michael Harrington had introduced as a pejorative. Since then he has happily made himself so entirely synonymous with neoconservatism that he now offers his latest collection of essays as its, not his, "autobiography."

But a label is not necessarily evidence of a coherent philosophy, or of a living one. As Kristol himself acknowledges, neoconservatism has been swallowed by the larger conservative movement. And his own views have evolved far beyond what he and others originally conceived as neoconservatism. Several of his early collaborators at The Public Interest, notably Daniel Bell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, have long since parted ways. And well they might, considering the tone and the substance of Kristol's writing in recent years.

When neoconservatism first took shape in the late 1960s and 1970s, it seemed to be different from the older varieties of the American right. The Public Interest, and Kristol himself, accepted the New Deal, but rejected the political and cultural currents of the '60s. And even with respect to the policies of that era, their stance was meliorism, not repudiation. They presented themselves as defending the achievements of a capitalist civilization, often positively described as liberal and secular, from the assaults of a radicalized liberalism. Nearly all were from New York, most were Jewish, and they carried with them a sensibility that was urban and modern, even when arguing on behalf of moral and cultural standards that were traditional or, to use Kristol's preferred term, "bourgeois."

People who know neoconservatism only from that era might be surprised, therefore, to read Kristol's recent fulminations against "secular humanism" and his praise of Christian fundamentalism. Remembering the calm civility of his earlier essays, they might especially fasten on the following passage from an article, written in 1993, with which Kristol concludes his new book: "So far from having ended, my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos. . . . Now that the other `Cold War' is over, the real cold war has begun."

Neoconservatives used to reproach the left for drawing a false "moral equivalence" between the United States and the Soviet Union, but what is Kristol's equation of American liberalism and Soviet communism if not false and tendentious? Is he now waging war, even a cold war, against all those Americans, including many of his old friends, who continue to think of themselves as liberals? This kind of talk, like Patrick Buchanan's speech at the Republican convention in 1992, is not simply chilling, it is dangerous. If Americans of different persuasions are mortal enemies, then anything goes.

Those who thought that they understood neoconservatism might also be dumbfounded by the conclusion of Kristol's essay of 1991, "The Future of American Jewry," in which he welcomes a more "porous" relation between church and state "more like that which prevailed in the 19th century" and writes: "If America is going to become more Christian, Jews will have to adapt ... prudence can be relearned." In the past, he tells us, discrimination against Jews wasn't so bad: "It created hurdles, but not impossible barriers." Besides, in a more Christian America, there would be an upside for Jews: less intermarriage.

I am not sure how many Jews, or neoconservatives, share Kristol's warm feelings for the Christian right and would welcome America becoming a Christian nation where Jews would have to "relearn prudence." (Does this mean that Commentary would show Jews how to be less outspoken about their concerns and less overt in their religious practices?) In advising Jews to accept a Christian redefinition of American public life, Kristol may represent a fraction of Jewish opinion, but modern polling techniques are probably incapable of detecting such small quantities.

Perhaps the most revealing self-betrayal in these essays is Kristol's description of his embrace of supply-side economics: "I was not certain of its economic merits but quickly saw its political possibilities." You see, unlike traditional "nay-saying" balanced-budget conservative economics, supply-side economics "offered neoconservatism" a way to give the voters the goodies that they wanted. That supply-siderism could "offer" neoconservatism anything is a strange notion if one thinks of neoconservatism as a set of ideas, but not if one thinks of it as a partisan faction. In The Public Interest's recent thirtieth-anniversary issue, Kristol is also explicit about his own "cavalier attitude toward the budget deficit and other monetary or financial problems": "political effectiveness was the priority, not the accounting deficiencies of government."

But what exactly does supply-side economics have to do with neoconservatism as an "idea"? Could it be the devotion of supply-siders to the gold standard? Critics who were skeptical of the excesses of the 1960s might have been equally skeptical of the effusions of the 1980s. There would have been some consistency, and integrity, in that. But with "political possibilities" as Kristol's priority, what neoconservatism became in his hands had little to do with principle and much to do with strategy.

No doubt, as he claims, he saw the possibilities in the Christian conservatives, and quickly, too. The urge to cement an alliance with them has been so strong that he has become--the phrase applies exactly--a fellow traveler of the Christian right. Neoconservatives have been unrelenting in their criticism of bogus science, or at least science they disagree with. In 1986, however, in a column in The New York Times not reprinted in this collection, Kristol suggested that evolution was only, after all, a hypothesis--indeed, one with lots of problems--and therefore, "As things now stand, the religious fundamentalists are not far off the mark when they assert that evolution, as generally taught, has an unwarranted anti-religious edge to it." In other words, in the debate over creationism and evolution, it was biology teachers who had a lot of apologizing to do. This is a classic fellow traveler apology--shifting the onus of responsibility to the other side. Perhaps one reason why Jews remain liberal is that they know liberals will at least uphold the values of education, scientific inquiry and the separation of church and state, whereas of Kristol and the conservatives they know no such thing.

Kristol's book throws doubt on the coherence of his neoconservatism in other ways. Consider the relation between Kristol's views on social policy twenty years ago and today, when he is basking in the glow of the Republican ascendancy in Washington. Of course, we are all entitled to change our minds, but those who offer the world an autobiography may be expected to explain such changes, or at least to acknowledge them. In a 1976 essay reprinted here, Kristol wonders what might have happened if the money spent on antipoverty programs had been used for "just two universal reforms"--child allowances and "some form of national health insurance," which might have started small but like Social Security eventually grown large. "We would all--including the poor among us--feel that we were making progress, and making progress together, rather than at the expense of one another," he observes in a passage that would get liberal heads nodding today.

This support for expansive, universal social policy is scarcely Kristol's position now. Elsewhere in his book, Kristol claims not only to have anticipated the current Republican revolution, but also to have laid the intellectual foundations for it; and yet this Congress is hardly pursuing the social, not to mention budgetary, policies that he used to praise. But he pays no mind to the difference.

Kristol's elision of this turnabout is altogether typical. The book opens with an autobiographical sketch describing his life in the world of ideas as he changed from neo-Marxist to neoliberal to neoconservative. Yet he remembers only that his views were right at every point and that he was earlier than others to see the illusions of the positions that he abandoned. He seems never to have experienced any crisis of belief, as if it were all as easy as changing overcoats. And therefore he leaves the impression that the views he successively abandoned were never deeply held in the first place.

Which brings us to what many might take to be Kristol's central concerns--his views of religion and morals, the subject of many essays in this book, so important that he has reprinted most from earlier collections. Throughout, Kristol airily dismisses liberal moral philosophy with a wave of his hand as hopelessly contradictory. Yet what are we to make of his own personal ideas? In his autobiographical introduction, Kristol describes himself as "neo-orthodox" in his religious views, adding that he is "a nonobservant Jew, but not a nonreligious one." Now, to be a nonobservant orthodox Jew is a contradiction in terms. And, ironically, in an essay reprinted here, Kristol writes that "orthodoxies have known forever that virtue is a practical, existential discipline, not simply a matter of faith"--a strange comment for someone who has already confided that he does not practice his faith. He goes on to condemn "secular humanism"--a term redolent with irony here, since Kristol's admired teacher Sidney Hook was the epitome of a secular humanist--for discarding "the very idea of tradition" and thus creating "moral anarchy." But why does Kristol put "neo" before "orthodox" in his own self-description, except to escape from the authority of the tradition that is, he says, his own? His position is a hopeless muddle.

So what is neoconservatism, or what was it? Kristol is one of those few enterprising intellectuals who have so successfully identified themselves with an "ism" that they confuse their personal impulses, alliances and maneuvers with the elaboration of a coherent view of the world. If neoconservatism no longer exists, it is partly because Kristol failed to uphold it consistently himself, while keeping possession of the brand name and thereby, so to speak, confusing the market. In the end, he has lapsed into a conservatism that has nothing "neo" about it. He has dissolved his schismatic "tendency" for the greater good of a larger political movement. A Marxist would appreciate that.

Paul Starr is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor of sociology at Princeton University.