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The Interested Man

Up from the Alcove with Irving Kristol.

When Irving Kristol joined the new magazine Commentary, he distinguished himself from the other editors--Clement Greenberg, part-time then, Robert Warshow, and me. First, he had an interest in politics, real politics, electoral politics, and not just the politics of left-wing anti-Stalinists, mulling over what was living and what was dead in Marxism, the fate of socialism, the future of capitalism, communist influence in the intellectual world--no mean issues, but hardly ones to affect who won and who lost an election. So Irving discovered the wonderful political reporter and analyst Sam Lubell in the pages of The Saturday Evening Post, persuaded him to write for Commentary, and made me an enthusiast for his books, now hardly noted (although Sam Tanenhaus’s recently published The Death of Conservatism uses one of Lubell’s central theses as a guiding theme). None of the rest of us had ever read or noticed The Saturday Evening Post.

And second, Irving was interested in theology and religion and in theologians--Protestant and Catholic theologians, to be sure (Reinhold Niebuhr and Jacques Maritain, and there were others). But he then decided--it had occurred to none of the rest of us--that he ought to know more about Judaism, and he was able to recruit me to join a Talmud study class, for which we found a willing junior faculty member of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The class met only briefly, but its initiation was something that could not have been expected from any of the other editors.

I think back to these early days because it seems to me that Irving was all of a piece, almost from the beginning. No comment on his passing has failed to mention the young Trotskyist of Alcove 1 at ccny. But what other young ex-Trotskyist of 1943 would have been interested in reviewing Lionel Trilling’s E.M. Forster, and in going back to Trilling’s 1940 Partisan Review essay on T.S. Eliot’s Idea of a Christian Society? In that review in Enquiry--“a journal of independent radical thought,” actually an organ of ex-Trotskyists--Irving tells us that Trilling “subjected the liberal-socialist ideology to a vigorous and pointed chiding.” He quotes Trilling’s criticism of the idea that “man, in his quality, in his kind, will be wholly changed by socialism in fine ways that we cannot predict: man will be good, not as some men have been good, but in new and unspecified fashions.” Socialism and radicalism, in this view, expect too much from politics, from reform, from, indeed, revolution--they will not, cannot change man in his essential qualities. The “moral realism,” Irving writes, of Forster and Trilling is better: “It foresees no new virtues. … It is non-eschatological, skeptical of proposed revisions of man’s nature, content with the possibilities and limitations that are always with us.”

Irving quotes approvingly Forster’s “two cheers for democracy: One because it admits variety, and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough.” That is all that any political ideal warrants.

That was 1943, and 66 years of writing, magazine editing (Encounter, The Reporter, The Public Interest), magazine founding, stimulating young writers, and promoting liberal capitalism followed. But it was always only “two cheers for capitalism,” despite his columns in The Wall Street Journal and his close involvement with the American Enterprise Institute. As early as 1970, Irving was in complete agreement with Daniel Bell, his co-founder and co-editor at The Public Interest, on “the cultural contradictions of capitalism,” on how capitalism inevitably undermines itself. Irving wrote that capitalism had pledged three things: affluence, individual liberty, and “the promise that … the individual could satisfy his instinct for self-perfection--for leading a virtuous life that satisfied his spirit (or, as one used to say, his soul)--and that the free exercise of such individual virtue would aggregate into a just society. . . . It was only when [this] third promise … was subverted by the dynamics of capitalism itself, as it strove to fulfill the other two--affluence and liberty--that the bourgeois order came, in the minds of the young especially, to possess a questionable legitimacy.”

No one has put it better. Irving later noted that “bourgeois society was living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy, and that once this capital was depleted, bourgeois society would find its legitimacy ever more questionable.” And so his tolerance and sympathy for religion, the more orthodox and traditional the better. That was questionable, and rubbed many (including me) the wrong way. In the latter days of The Public Interest, there were too many articles on how public policy could help promote marriage and stem the decline of the traditional family. Following the disciplinary tendencies of most sociologists, who simply project an ongoing change into the future, I thought neither traditional religion nor the family could resist the onslaught of commercial society.

Irving found the limitation of The Public Interest to domestic affairs confining and founded The National Interest, recruiting the wonderful Owen Harries from Australia to edit it and hoping it would provide a platform for a more realistic (I think that is the term he favored) approach to foreign policy. Oddly enough, such an approach was in contradiction with what came be known as “neoconservative” foreign policy: Irving was skeptical early on about imposing or promoting democracy in South Korea or Vietnam (he was wrong about South Korea), and, undoubtedly, he would have been equally skeptical about its prospects in Iraq and Afghanistan. The term “neoconservatism” was hijacked. In its early application, in the 1970s, it referred to the growing caution and skepticism among a group of liberals about the effects of social programs. It was later applied to a vigorous and expansionist democracy-promoting military and foreign policy, especially in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There was some reason to the hijacking--after all, a second generation of “neoconservatives,” some of it literally second-generation, was promoting this policy. But some of us who were labeled early as neoconservatives, a characterization not of our choosing, such as Daniel P. Moynihan, Daniel Bell, and myself, found it astonishing and unsettling.

I think Irving himself was a realist and cautious on these matters, in the style of Walter Lippmann, whom he admired. We did not often speak of foreign affairs, but I recall a discussion about Israel, in the days when I was active in a dovish group that argued in favor of giving up the territories for peace. Irving was skeptical about Arab hostility: It would never be reduced. But that means war forever, I said. And Irving responded, Yup, it’s war forever. This was the kind of direct and unmodulated response which often came from him, and which he could also deliver insouciantly to contributors whose articles he thought were just not good enough.

His views could make enemies, but he never let them interfere with friendship on his part, which to him transcended political disagreements. His ironic and skeptical and pragmatic temperament did not permit a disagreement to overwhelm a personal relationship. He had a remarkable capacity for responding to young people, and, as I have skimmed the remembrances of him, I have seen several by (now well-known) writers who were surprised by their invitations to meet him and to contribute to the magazine. His office at The Public Interest consisted of Irving in one corner and a group of junior editors and interns scattered around him, with intermittent discussion on articles arrived, coming, hoped for, on their virtues and defects, generally illuminated by a long view and one with deep roots in political philosophy. He was a remarkable educator, and his students are everywhere--alas, mostly on the right. I regret that, but we were friends.