The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942-2009
By Irving Kristol
(Basic Books, 390 pp., $29.95)
Daniel Bell, now of blessed memory, used to enjoy recounting a piece of lore from the 1930s, back when New York was said to be the most interesting part of the Soviet Union. It was about the travails of a young member of the Revolutionary Workers League named Karl Mienov. When Mienov’s doctrinal differences with that small party became too great to bear, he split and formed his own cell, the Marxist Workers League. His party even launched a theoretical organ, called Spark. But the Marxist Workers League was no more unified than its predecessor, torn by raucous intramural debates about the merits of Trotskyism—and about Mienov. One comrade, a student named Stanford, took to the pages of Spark and bluntly stated, “I don’t like Mienov.” To which Mienov replied, “We can gauge Comrade Stanford’s sincerity, however, by the fact that rather than give out leaflets for the revolution, he prefers to study for exams at Brooklyn College.” Ideas of schism were airborne in those days. After the Stanford incident, the party splintered. The faithful remnant of Mienovites consisted of, well, Mienov. But, as Bell reported, he soon developed schizophrenia, and split with himself.
Bell had complete mastery over the intricacies of Marxian factionalism and scholasticism. His first book was a history of that world of messy sectarianism. By his adolescence, he knew enough about the Kronstadt atrocity to steer clear of the Trotskyist parties that attracted so many of his friends. One member of Bell’s crowd who did join a party was Irving Kristol, with whom he later co-founded what you might call the theoretical organ of neoconservatism, The Public Interest.
Where Bell looked back on his sojourn on the left with characteristic detachment, Kristol recalled his own with cheery nostalgia. Disdain for the left would become central to his worldview, but even then he hardly had a negative word to say about his time in the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL). Trotskyism was like a first girlfriend, he sighed. “The experience of love is so valuable it can never be entirely undone by the ultimate disenchantment.” Relative to some of his contemporaries, Kristol’s time on the left was brief and chaste. He claims that he exited Trotskyism at the age of twenty-two, with his wife Gertrude Himmelfarb—whom he first glimpsed at a party meeting in Bensonhurst—and “an excellent political education of a special kind.”
One unit of that curriculum covered the laws of faction formation and fusion that Bell described. In 1940, Kristol followed a sociology student named Philip Selznick out of the YPSL, then led by Kristol’s lifelong adversary, the dreaded other Irving, Irving Howe. Selznick adopted the party name Sherman. His followers called themselves Shermanites and launched an earnest journal called Enquiry, whose first cover is reprinted in Himmelfarb’s introduction to this posthumous collection of essays. If Kristol’s experience on the left was anything like the advanced graduate school for political pugilism that he described, he clearly learned a thing or two about breaking ranks.
Irving Kristol was the most important schismatic of his time. When Michael Harrington first proposed (if it was he who first proposed it) the label “neoconservative” as a term of derision to describe the increasingly right-wing tilt of certain New York-bred intellectuals, Kristol characteristically ran with it. Unlike most of the other targets of Harrington’s derision—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell—Kristol enthusiastically viewed himself as part of an ideological movement with the potential to transform the political system. This enthusiasm gap later proved to be extremely significant. Moynihan, Glazer, and Bell all declined to follow Kristol into the mainstream of conservatism. They all harbored serious qualms about that trajectory, although Kristol had a different view of their unwillingness to join him. “Neoconservative intellectuals are too snobbish to join the Republicans and the country club,” he sniped in 1980. Bell, for his part, complained to editors when their articles catalogued him on the neoconservative shelf.
But there is no doubting about where to place Kristol. This collection of essays follows Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea and Reflections of a Neoconservative: Looking Back, Looking Ahead. The old Marxist in Kristol still cared deeply about doctrinal labeling and understood the value in having his own party. His attachment to the term, however, was a bit self-conscious, and in truth it actually diminishes his achievement. He should be credited as much more than the leader of a breakaway faction.
Unlike William F. Buckley, he never hosted a TV show and did not spend much time fraternizing on the cocktail circuit or at the yacht club. He preferred to work in the intellectual equivalent of the smoke-filled room—they didn’t call him the “godfather of neoconservatism” for nothing. But while this relative lack of celebrity perhaps cost him conservative canonization, Kristol’s significance to the movement very nearly matches Buckley’s. The latter re-launched American conservatism in the 1950s, bringing the disparate forces of reaction and libertarianism under one anti-communist, anti-statist banner. But under Buckley’s leadership the movement remained raw, disorganized, apocalyptic-minded, delusional about the prospects of repealing the New Deal, and poised perennially to suffer Barry Goldwater’s fate. Kristol did more—as an ideologist and an institution builder—to solve the engineering problems that plagued Buckley’s contraption, and to burrow the tunnel through which conservatism entered its triumphal era.
Kristol returned often to his youthful dalliance with the left. The power of apostasy, he correctly understood, lies in the constant telling and retelling of the conversion narrative. But his rendition of events did not make for a perfectly tidy up-from-socialism tale. He left the impression that he never truly believed deeply in either Trotskyism or liberalism. His membership in YPSL in particular comes across as a kind of accident of birth. He was simply a bright Jewish boy from interwar Brooklyn, which made leftism a matter of destiny, not conviction. Nor did he ever espouse any real feeling for affirmative government (or civil liberties) during the period that he supposedly inhabited liberalism. Thanks to this book, which includes a raft of previously uncollected pieces from his youth, we can better track Kristol’s political evolution. It quickly becomes clear that from the earliest age he possessed a deeply conservative temperament.
In later years Kristol liked to call himself a “neo-Orthodox” Jew. What made it “neo” was that his Orthodoxy consisted mainly of his high regard for Jews who followed the letter of the law much more closely than he did. The brand of Judaism that he learned as a boy hardly excited the mind or aspired toward intellectual sophistication. Kristol’s rabbi coached him to spit in the direction of churches he passed—instruction that seems to have backfired, given Kristol’s later apologetics for the Moral Majority. Despite the rote instruction, and his parents’ permission to abandon his Jewish studies after his bar mitzvah, Kristol notes proudly that he stuck with his yeshiva training for an extra six months. “There was something in me that made it impossible to become antireligious, or even nonreligious.”
There is a similar nice-Jewish-boy quality to his descriptions of his youth, which capture a deep desire to live the bourgeois life that his mature writing celebrated. After his highly mythologized Arguing the World years at City College—where his alcove in the cafeteria contained other soon-to-be-famous anti-communist intellectuals—the army drafted him into a unit filled with “thugs or near-thugs from places like Cicero (Al Capone’s old base).” His fellow soldiers were “inclined to loot, to rape, and to shoot prisoners of war.” Observing these animal instincts up close deeply disturbed Kristol. “My wartime experience,” he wrote, “did have the effect of dispelling any remnants of anti-authority sentiments (always weak, I now think) that were cluttering up my mind.” Within a decade, he began writing laudatory essays about the virtue of conformity.
After trailing his wife to Cambridge and Chicago as she pursued her graduate thesis (it later became a distinguished book) on Lord Acton, Kristol returned to New York to serve as a junior editor at Commentary and to join the buffet line at Partisan Review dinner parties. In this set, he did not stand out only for his bourgeois aspirations. Most New York Jewish intellectuals had emerged from the war without much attachment to their Jewishness. When the Contemporary Jewish Record convened a symposium on “American Literature and the Younger Generation of American Jews” in 1944, the younger generation responded icily. “I know of no writer in English,” Lionel Trilling wrote, “who has added a micromillimeter to his stature by ‘realizing his Jewishness,’ although I know of some who have curtailed their promise by trying to heighten their Jewish consciousness.” Clement Greenberg was harsher: “No people on earth are more correct, more staid, more provincial, more commonplace, more inexperienced.”
Kristol was different. Long before his contemporaries made their peace with their people, he enthusiastically threw himself into reading the Jewish intellectual tradition. As an editor at Commentary, encouraged by his brilliant and volatile boss, Elliot Cohen, he developed a rare specialty in commissioning and editing accessible pieces on theology. (Cohen’s heavy hand and manic style ultimately drove Kristol from Commentary. Cohen killed himself in 1959.) But Kristol’s interest in matters theological did not require much encouragement. He had witnessed the aftermath of the Holocaust as an infantryman in Europe, and this stirred him to think hard about theodicy. “The Messiah has not come, while the gas chambers have,” he wrote in 1949. Along with Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and a few others, he started a small study group of New York intellectuals to pore over Maimonides. And under his watch Commentary published important essays by Martin Buber, Mordecai Kaplan, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, as well as translations of Franz Rosenzweig.
This interest in religion had nothing to do with the recent triumph of Zionism. Israel’s socialistic ethos alienated Kristol. “Truth to tell,” he later recalled, “I found Israeli society, on the whole, quite exasperating.” He was not alone. In 1951, he received a copy of a letter from a Columbia student named Norman Podhoretz. This missive had circulated to Kristol by way of Cohen, who had received a copy from its original recipient, Lionel Trilling. The letter was an account of Podhoretz’s first visit to Israel. “I felt more at home in Athens!” he told Trilling. “They are, despite their really extraordinary accomplishments, a very unattractive people, the Israelis. They’re gratuitously surly and boorish.... They are too arrogant and too anxious to become a real honest-to-goodness New York of the East.” On the basis of Podhoretz’s chilly response to the Jewish state, Kristol recruited him to write for Commentary.
The same impulse that immersed him in theology also led him to the German Jewish émigré Leo Strauss. When Kristol first encountered Strauss, who was lecturing at the New School on the eve of his departure to the University of Chicago, he was hardly even a cult figure. Kristol’s discovery of Strauss induced an intellectual euphoria, still palpable forty-five years later when he described that moment: “the kind of intellectual shock that is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” Strauss, it turned out, had spent decades pursuing the same questions that were then just beginning to bestir Kristol. It was genuinely affecting for him to read Strauss’s elevation of Jewish texts—the works of Maimonides, Halevi, and Spinoza—to the Western canon, treating them with the highest seriousness. Strauss’s books and essays on these subjects were a glorious rebuke to Kristol’s friends who failed to find Judaism worthy of their modern intellectualism.
Strauss also happened to fixate on the political quandary that had begun to bother Kristol during the war: What was the source of social order? And was it strong enough to withstand the challenges that it now faced? From his reading of Strauss, Kristol came away armed with the makings for his central theory. The flimsy foundations of the liberal state horrified Strauss. When Western civilization embraced the unwavering rationalism of the Enlightenment, it also sowed the seeds of its own destruction. The West had eviscerated the basis for its moral code. It certainly was no longer grounded in religion—the rationalists had convinced a large swath of the public that divine revelation was a sham. These modern thinkers confidently justified social norms with logic and historical analysis. But Strauss worried that this type of thinking would devolve into relativism, leaving the liberal state defenseless in the face of challenges to its authority—just as it had in Germany. Strauss was not an ideologue, and he never tried to create a fully formed political program. But his writing suggested that religion—not because of its veracity, but because of its utility: Strauss, and also Kristol, was a good Machiavellian on this matter-provided the surest foundations for liberal democracy.
During the late 1960s, this more or less became Kristol’s analysis of the modern crisis. But he scrambled some of the terms. America’s liberal capitalist order, he fretted, was extremely precarious. It had thrived in the nineteenth century thanks to the country’s religiosity and bourgeois values, but Darwin and creeping secularism kicked away that religious feeling. And now capitalism was annihilating the bourgeois ethic on which it depended, by selling the counterculture to the masses and cultivating rampant consumerism. “From a dissenting culture to a counterculture,” he declared, “we have finally arrived at a nihilistic anticulture.” Only a dramatic re-moralization of the country could prevent it from following the path to nihilism.
This analysis did not point Kristol toward a Burkean conservatism of doubt. The prospect of a horrific crisis demanded a stridently positive program. This looming threat of nihilism made Kristol an early champion of the religious right and a devoted social conservative—criticizing the teaching of evolution as a “pseudo-scientific dogmatism,” pressing the case for the censorship of pornography, blaming AIDS victims for their condition. He called sexual liberation “a male scam.” “Easy, available sex is pleasing to men and debasing to women, who are used and abused in the process,” he wrote, to the ironic enthusiasm of some feminists. These pronouncements were not the product of opportunism, as some of his critics claimed. They were the product of anxiety. In his essay on pornography, Kristol claimed that “what is at stake is civilization and humanity, nothing less.” He meant it.
Irving Kristol did not have a full-scale book in him. He had difficulty stringing an idea along much past the six-thousand-word mark. But he was a natural essayist, and his appreciation for the essay form was such that he kept building new homes for it. He was a serial inventor of little magazines—starting with Enquiry, then co-founding Encounter, followed by The Public Interest and The National Interest. Encounter and The Public Interest deserve a special place in the history of the higher journalism.
In 1967, the slick New Left magazine Ramparts revealed that the CIA had secretly bankrolled Encounter to influence the contours of liberal anti-communism. (Kristol, and his co-editor Stephen Spender, denied any firm knowledge of their benefactor in Langley: “the idea of any secret editorial wire-pulling by the CIA was not only unthinkable, it was literally impossible,” Kristol wrote.) But Encounter was some of the best money that the Agency ever spent. The journal, published out of London, was an unlikely coupling of the New York intelligentsia with their English counterparts—an exhilarating intermarriage of intellectual cultures. I am not sure that any magazine has ever been quite so good as the early Encounter, with its essays by Mary McCarthy and Nancy Mitford, Lionel Trilling and Isaiah Berlin, Edmund Wilson and Cyril Connolly. In his typically selfeffacing manner, Kristol heaped credit upon Spender for the achievement. One might be inclined to believe that he played a minimal role, but then he repeated the feat (in a very different form) with The Public Interest. Anyway, Spender complained vociferously to his friends about being shunned by his co-editor.
Encounter was the highest expression of cold war liberalism, and The Public Interest was its last gasp. The magazine had been founded in the end-of-ideology spirit of the liberal consensus. Moynihan had even suggested to Kristol and Bell that they name their new journal Consensus. Instead they titled their journal after it—and founded it explicitly as a reflection of Progressive faith in the power of social science, applied disinterestedly, to create better policy. The first issue of the magazine featured a breathless essay by Moynihan about the imminent potential for reform to “put an end to the ‘animal miseries’ and stupid controversies that afflict most peoples.”
Even amid this triumphalism, there were strong hints in the early issues of how the 1960s would discomfit liberalism. Many of the articles described the rise of a new social stratum—a class of professionals, who by dint of their expertise now wielded enormous power in the administrative state and the broader society. There was a sense that this class might have acquired too much authority, and with it the arrogance that follows from such a monopoly on knowledge. For former Trotskyists, this debate had rich antecedents in their polemics against Stalin’s bureaucratic state.
This brand of critique intensely interested Kristol. In the second issue of the magazine, he published an essay called “The Troublesome Intellectuals,” which predicted that the intelligentsia would prove susceptible to the appeal of radicalism. As the protests at the universities escalated, Kristol pressed the case against intellectuals with considerable anger. What outraged him was not the substance of all that the student radicals proclaimed—he hardly defended the Vietnam war—but their style. The counterculture hated America, even when they said that they wanted to hold the country to its highest ideals, and they took sadistic pleasure in recklessly shredding social conventions. Kristol insisted (Allan Bloom later made a second career out of this notion) that they were latter-day Nietzscheans sending the country on the road to nihilism—the very scenario that Strauss had feared.
Not only were there troubling signs of the liberal intelligentsia succumbing to radicalism, but liberals were also building a state rife with doctrinaire policy excesses, ignoring cultural constraints and stepping far beyond the policies suggested by the best social science. Nearly every issue of The Public Interest contained devastating essays about the failure of yet another well-intentioned liberal program. These excesses heightened Kristol’s skepticism about the entire project of reform. Within five years of the debut issue of The Public Interest, Moynihan had recanted his earlier predictions about the possibilities of technocracy.
Kristol took the sum of The Public Interest’s concerns—the rise of the professionals, the excesses of the New Left, the overreach of the Great Society—and turned them into a unified theory of social decay, a theory of what he called the “new class,” a term borrowed from the Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas. These were the “beneficiaries of postwar mass higher education, scientists, lawyers, city planners, social workers ... public health doctors, etc.—a substantial number of whom find their careers in the expanding public sector rather than the private,” Kristol explained. “Though they continue to speak the language of ‘progressive reform,’ in actuality they are acting upon a hidden agenda: to propel the nation from that modified version of capitalism we call ‘the welfare state’ toward an economic system so stringently regulated in detail as to fulfill many of the traditional anticapitalist aspirations of the Left.”
Elite-bashing was the political fashion of the day, thanks to Spiro Agnew and George Wallace. But the import of Kristol’s analysis resided both with its author and its texture. Here was a liberal—or a man on his transition from liberalism—alleging that his old comrades were wielding a “hidden agenda,” and that the claim of disinterestedness was actually a ruse to justify their seizure of power. Who could be a more authoritative source than this latter-day Whittaker Chambers, driven to tattling by all the depravities he witnessed?
Kristol’s theory was not especially rigorous. Daniel Bell, who wrote a seminal book about the rise of the knowledge industry, called the new class a “muddled concept”—the mentality that Kristol condemned could not plausibly be pinned on the demographic group that he described. But what the theory lacked in analytical precision, it made up for with its political potency. With the “new class,” Kristol damningly lumped together the New Left (those boomers who had gone to college), the Old Left (those anticapitalists), and establishment liberals (those communists masquerading as straight-ahead Keynesians). Kristol had famously engaged in a similar mash-up many years earlier. In 1952, at the height of McCarthyism, he had written an essay in Commentary questioning the anti-communist bona fides of liberals who raised a ruckus about the Wisconsin senator’s tactics. The essay culminated in three sentences that became instantly notorious: “For there is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he, like them, is unequivocally antiCommunist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing. And with some justification.” Had Kristol more carefully calibrated his argument and bashed liberals for refusing to acknowledge the evil of communism and the extent of its American infiltration, he would have been on safer ground. But he went further, implying that liberals who protested on behalf of civil liberties were themselves communist apologists. Decades later, his theory of the new class reprised the same broad-brush accusation against disingenuous liberals and raised the same alarms about their crucial role in subversion.
But the power of the new class went beyond its validation of anti-elitist rhetoric. Kristol’s theory intended to explode the epistemological foundations of American liberalism. The co-founder of The Public Interest was now arguing that there was no such thing as “the public interest.” When liberals presented themselves as defenders of objective social science and champions of universal principles such as equality, they were dissimulating. What they really meant was that they intended to win power by waging a class war against business.
This argument attacked the core of the liberal consensus. In the aftermath of the war, the American elite had embraced the rise of the new class because it shared the ideal of disinterestedness, as John B. Judis documented in The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of the Public Trust. The cold war had demanded a cooperative pursuit of the national interest, and experts had acquired the trust of the elites to direct such an agenda. This ideal of disinterestedness was the reason that the Ford Foundation—the reactionary who had endowed it notwithstanding—came to fund experimental social policy; it was why conciliatory groups such as the Business Advisory Council and the Committee for Economic Development represented business interests in Washington. This bygone world is so far from our present reality that it is almost impossible to conjure—thanks, in no small measure, to Kristol.
Businessmen, Kristol proclaimed flatly, were philistines. He said this as their friend, not as their foe. He wanted them to see that they had failed to understand that they had been deceived into supporting institutions which were contrary to both their narrow business interests and the future of capitalism. In the face of the assault of the new class, they ineffectually defended capitalism “in purely amoral terms” when the mission demanded “moral and intellectual substance.” To provide this substance, business needed to cultivate a new cadre of intellectuals. By placing such emphasis on the intelligentsia, Kristol was explicitly harkening back to his own education on the left. “What communists call the theoretical organs always end up through a filtering process influencing a lot of people who don’t even know they’re being influenced,” he said. “In the end, ideas rule the world because even interests are defined by ideas.” He was right.
In the thirty years following his departure from Trotskyism, up through the early 1970s, Kristol refused to acknowledge the full extent of his conservatism. The emerging conservative movement meant nothing to him. He had hardly anything to say, one way or the other, about National Review or Goldwater. Instead he mechanically cursed the “ideological barrenness of the liberal and conservative creeds,” placing himself smack in the unattached middle of the matrix.
His resistance to the right was, in large measure, sociological. Voting for Nixon, he joked, was “the equivalent of a Jew ostentatiously eating pork on Yom Kippur.” He simply could not identify with the movement—or its constituencies, those Southern revanchists, Ayn Rand freaks, pre-Vatican II Catholics, or Roosevelt-loathing WASPs. His intimate circle had loudly announced its allergy to the new conservatism. In the mid-’50s, with McCarthyism lingering, Bell had rounded up many of their mutual friends to contribute to a volume of essays called The New American Right. To one degree or another, the contributors painted a devastating portrait of conservatives suffering from diagnosable psychological maladies. Richard Hofstadter described the “dense and massive irrationality” of the right.
The 1960s softened this hostility. Still, as late as 1968, Kristol’s sympathies remained with liberal anti-communism. In the pages of this magazine, he endorsed Hubert Humphrey. But the right sensed the opportunity to claim a prized apostate. At the urging of Moynihan, the Nixon White House set out to recruit him, extending highly flattering summons for meetings and dinners. He even pondered taking a job in the administration. But finally he needed no such blandishment to make his final break: the nomination of George McGovern, he argued, represented the surrender of the Democratic Party to the New Left. While the offer to work for Nixon never arrived, he accepted a column in The Wall Street Journal, the ideal space for him to urge CEOs to fund the battle of ideas against the new class.
Kristol quickly assumed an outsize role in directing the movement that he had joined. His calls for a new business-friendly intelligentsia found a receptive audience. Former Treasury Secretary William Simon, who had assumed control of the massive John M. Olin Foundation, was among the most eager of his new disciples. Using the millions at his disposal, Simon executed Kristol’s strategy, with Kristol whispering in his ear, founding a phalanx of think tanks, magazines, and institutes, and providing the seed money for the likes of Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza. When describing his role in creating this new network, Kristol humbly claimed that “I am a liaison to some degree between intellectuals and the business community.” Jude Wanniski, the right-wing economist and a beneficiary of Kristol-directed largesse, better captured the reality: “Irving is the invisible hand.”
This new network had confirmed Kristol’s theoretical pronouncements about what he called the “all important” role of ideas. Before the rise of this counter-establishment, liberals had wielded academic studies and expert opinion as the justifications for their program. But now conservatives could swaddle their agenda in the same white-paper wrapping, thanks to these new institutions. When liberals complained that, say, pollution posed a public health crisis and demanded new regulations, conservatives could now wave their own studies showing the opposite. The quality of the evidence and the reasoning was another matter; but politically speaking, these conservative studies could provide cover for the business lobbies, muddying the press coverage and providing a basis for congressmen to explain why their votes squared with the interests of their campaign contributors. Kristol had, in effect, taken the principled skepticism of The Public Interest and inverted it: if social science was so susceptible to ideological infiltration, then why not practice social science as an instrument of ideological warfare? He was fighting fire with fire.
The most daring counterestablishment attacks came in economics. Keynesianism had been enshrined as the barely challenged mainstream of the profession. Kristol did not know much about the details, but he knew the pernicious mentality that governed the social sciences. “I decided with the greatest reluctance that ‘neoconservatism’ could not blandly leave the economy to the economists and that I personally had to become economically literate,” he wrote. The results of his foray were an object lesson in dilettantism gone awry. He funded the work of The Wall Street Journal’s Wanniski, who had only recently begun writing on the subject himself. The result of their collaboration was supply-side economics—the theory that cutting taxes, particularly those of upperincome earners, would simultaneously expand the economy, tamp down inflation, and even increase government revenue. “I was not certain of its economic merits,” Kristol later recalled, “but quickly saw its political possibilities.” It was a characteristic remark.
Strangely, for a man who celebrated the bourgeois virtues of temperance and prudence, Kristol liked supply-side theory because it allowed Republicans to transcend the stodginess of old-fashioned budget balancing. “Republican economics was then in truth a dismal science,” he remarked, “explaining to the populace, parent-like, why the good things in life that they wanted were all too expensive.” So supply-side economics substituted the dismal science with a form of mysticism, a theory of infinite growth. Years later he would concede his “own rather cavalier attitude towards the budget deficit and other money or fiscal problems.” He admitted that “political effectiveness was the priority, not the accounting deficiencies of government.”
But if the substance of the policy did not turn out as expected, the politics succeeded splendidly. Kristol had steered conservatism away from the shackles of rigid libertarianism. He advocated a “conservative welfare state.” By this, he meant that conservatives needed to abandon their futile case against the New Deal and refocus their attention on the Great Society. Middle America had come to enjoy its Social Security checks, but it could be roused to backlash against programs it perceived as transferring its hard-earned monies to the undeserving poor. Similarly, the right had struggled to overcome the unspeakably bad optics of advocating upper-income tax cuts, but supply-side economics had recast those old arguments. In sum, Kristol had reformulated the conservative agenda to better legitimize its long war on the state—paving the way for a generation of electoral successes.
The ideology that Kristol created has almost nothing to do with neoconservatism’s present meaning. His version of neoconservatism—with its emphasis on social and cultural matters—has vanished, or rather it defeated its intramural rivals. While there are a handful of domestic policy intellectuals who describe themselves as neoconservative—perhaps because of their affinity for Kristol-their identification with the movement is more the product of nostalgia and self-image than a substantive difference with the mainstream of the movement. Now neoconservatism is almost exclusively invoked as a description of foreign policy views—views that Kristol did not exactly hold. While he believed fervently in American power, Kristol never wanted it used on behalf of such squishy abstractions as democracy and human rights. He called himself a “neo-realist” and dismissed the human rights agenda as a leftist ploy for undermining capitalism. Kristol’s heirs turned away from this view in the 1990s, as he more or less retired from his leadership chair. Some have tried to insert him into the debates over the Iraq war—either as a progenitor of the war or as evidence of how badly his movement has strayed from the anti-utopian prudence of its founder. Both of these debaters’ points have hardly any relationship to his writings or to the substance of his legacy.
As a mature writer, Kristol inhabited two distinct modes. He thought of himself as a public philosopher. His essays operated on an abstract level far above the orbit of wonks—they borrowed insights from sociology but never aspired to sociological rigor. They often traveled across far-flung subjects, from German philosophy to Thomas Paine to Andy Warhol to the ephemera of contemporary politics. For better or for worse, he would make his case by issuing categorical judgments, without expending much effort to provide bolstering evidence. Nathan Glazer titled his contribution to one Festschrift “A Man Without Footnotes.” At his best, this liberated Kristol to render broad judgments about history, politics, and life—the timeless questions of philosophy, which genuinely animated him. Sometimes his essayistic speculations yielded profound insights about the limits of reason and institutions. Criticizing Milton Friedman in 1970, he worried about a society that was “the mere aggregation of selfish aims”: “In such a blind and accidental arithmetic, the sum floats free from the addenda, and its legitimacy is infinitely questionable.” And he explained the limits of meritocracy thusly: “Life has its ups and downs; so do history and economics; and men who can claim legitimacy via performance are going to have to spend an awful lot of time and energy explaining why things are not going as well as they ought to.”
But he also played the part of the counter-establishment pundit, the ideological provocateur, and in that role his pronouncements feel significantly less monumental. As he assumed his place as the “godfather” of a movement, bromides increasingly displaced his fine judgments, and his essays lost the vitality that came with his struggle to define a new politics. His thinking calcified into aphorism, and the aphorisms were often caricatures of ideas designed to rally the troops. He felt comfortable quipping, “It is the selfimposed assignment of neoconservatism to explain to the American people why they are right, and to the intellectuals why they are wrong.”
In this latter mode, Kristol would interrupt elegant essays and permit himself an unpleasant belch of partisan sarcasm. “Many American Jews would rather see Judaism vanish ... than hear the President say something nice about Jesus Christ,” he weirdly grumbled. In a single broad stroke he might diagnose the educated classes as suffering “infantile rejection” or judge American Jews guilty of “political stupidity.” The popularity of Fiddler on the Roof was evidence of the mass demand for order and tradition. And what was wrong with the Mideast peace process? It was based on social science—more specifically, the spurious academic theory of conflict resolution. It was the foreign policy of the new class. For the less interesting Kristol, everything finally added up.
As he became a fervent Republican, the flaws in his analysis became ever more apparent. For all his clever turns of phrase, he could not convincingly mesh his cultural conservatism with the capitalist market he fetishized. He knew full well that capitalism coarsened and corrupted culture for the sake of profit. This was a central theme of his friend Daniel Bell—and the reason he recoiled at the success of, gasp, the Beatles. It was also the reason that Kristol titled one of his masterworks Two Cheers for Capitalism. But while he intellectually understood the necessity of restraining his market enthusiasm, his policy prescriptions showed no trace of such reserve. In the end he gave up trying to reconcile the conflicting tenets of his ideology and simply closed his eyes to the cultural consequences of capitalism.
Of course, this enemy of the intellectuals was an intellectual to his core. More than any intellectual of his era, he reshaped the spirit of his time. He pushed certain ideas—as an essayist and an impresario—from the fringes of obscure think tanks into the mainstream. By insisting on the government’s role in promoting virtue, and by treating liberals as agents of stealth radicalism, he created the conditions for the culture war of the 1990s and the climate that culminated in welfare reform. Even Bill Clinton, as well as the editors of this magazine, came to accept some of these tenets, and to agree upon the necessity of bucking up the bourgeois values.
We are still living in the world of total ideological combat that Irving Kristol created (or re-created, since it was also the world into which he was born) in the course of renovating conservatism—where every shred of academic research, and the epistemological underpinnings of that research, is fiercely contested and happily politicized. He was the intellectual who ended the end-of-ideology, who knocked the expert off the throne from which he had governed for nearly half a century. In the course of his departure from liberalism, he dealt it a blow from which it has yet to fully recover.
Franklin Foer is editor-at-large at The New Republic. This article originally ran in the April 7, 2011, issue of the magazine.