Feb/Mar 2011

Keeper of the Faith

How Irving Kristol helped craft the neocon hard line

Jacob Heilbrunn


Neoconservatism has not become a term of opprobrium. It has always been one. The socialist leader Michael Harrington deployed it in the early 1970s to disparage the intellectual backsliders from liberalism, and the word gained a currency it has never lost. Earl Shorris later published a scathing critique of neoconservatism called Jews Without Mercy. As neocon founding father Irving Kristol, who died in 2009, observes in an essay now collected in The Neoconservative Persuasion, his early abandonment of liberalism and vote for Richard Nixon were seen by many of his peers as "the equivalent of a Jew ostentatiously eating pork on Yom Kippur. It was an act of self-excommunication."

But if Kristol voluntarily exiled himself from the precincts of Upper West Side liberalism, he also ended up creating his own sect with its own rituals, one that routinely anathematized its detractors and itself experienced numerous schisms over the decades. Among the most remarkable aspects of neoconservatism, in fact, has been the steady march of defectors from the movement, including Daniel Bell, Theodore Draper, Francis Fukuyama, Walter Laqueur, Mark Lilla, and Michael Lind. They all had one thing in common, which is that they were the intellectual cream of the crop. Left behind were the operators, pamphleteers, and plain hucksters who rose to prominence peddling various brands of moonshine under the benignant gaze of George W. Bush. Now that the movement has gone into its supernova, adherents are scrambling to recover some of its former power, encircling Sarah Palin with an eye toward serving as advisers to the GOP's putative crown princess. How did a movement that began as a sophisticated antidote to the excesses of 1960s liberalism end up serving as a water carrier for the most retrograde elements of the Christian right?

The essays and opinion pieces herein—culled by Kristol's widow, Gertrude Himmelfarb, herself a prominent historian of Victorian England and inveterate foe of the welfare state, from more than a half century of writings in magazines both little and big—provide some clues. In her introspective introduction, Himmelfarb suggests that Kristol's temperament—skeptical and questioning—meant that his views changed less than is often assumed, as he morphed from Trotskyist to liberal to neocon. But there may be more to it than that. Kristol was a kind and modest man. But he was also America's most dangerous intellectual.

Click to enlarge

Present at the neocon creation: Irving Kristol.

As he himself observed, Kristol considered his greatest influences to be the literary critic Lionel Trilling, a skeptical liberal (and the subject of a forthcoming book by Adam Kirsch), and the brilliant political philosopher Leo Strauss (satirized in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom), who cast a wary eye at modernity and saw himself as locked in mortal intellectual combat with Martin Heidegger. As with Goethe's Faust, there were two souls in Kristol's breast: one Trilling, the other Strauss. As Kristol became progressively more hostile to liberalism—to the point of explicitly declaring war on it once the cold war ended—Strauss's teachings won out.

Where Heidegger preached relativism, Strauss denounced it. He was hostile to modern liberalism, and particularly to its contingent view of political order—the idea that rights could, willy-nilly, be invented. Instead, he argued for a return to the ancients as the true and lasting source of wisdom for an elite that could guide the prince (the modern statesman) and steer, or even manipulate, the tempestuous outbursts of the vox populi. For Strauss, the problem of Athens versus Jerusalem—reason against revelation—couldn't be fully resolved. At best, religion was useful to divert and channel the passions of the vulgar multitude. And this became Kristol's credo. Reading Strauss's seminal work Persecution and the Art of Writing, which argued that the boldest philosophers had to write in a kind of hidden code to avoid the fate of Socrates, gave him, Kristol attested, "the kind of intellectual shock that is a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

The temptation to subject Kristol's own writings to a Straussian reading is almost irresistible. Properly decoded, they display their own internal consistency. Like Strauss, Kristol constantly decried the utopian projectors who seek to remake society (schools, the environment, the poor). As he put it, "The notion that you can come up with a master plan for social change and institute that plan and get the results that you really intended is to overlook the fact that the basic law of politics is that unanticipated consequences are always more important than the anticipated consequences of your actions." These are, of course, words that the Bush administration would have done well to ponder. Which is why the efforts of the successor generation of neocons to build a new Iraq are so wildly inconsistent with the original, gelid neocon dogma that provoked denunciations of unmerciful Jews.

Kristol's contempt for liberals extended to the foreign-policy front: As early as 1952 in Commentary, he condemned them for insufficient ardor in attacking Communists and said that the average Joe knew that, whatever his vulgarities, Senator Joseph McCarthy had the right stuff. In the 1970s, Kristol attacked what he famously dubbed the "new class" of bureaucrats, environmentalists, and professors who sought to restrict the free-enterprise system and personal freedoms. It was the tumult of the 1960s that prompted the neocons to form their own counter-counterculture. As Midge Decter put it in a book dedicated to her children, it was time to "man the lifeboats!" as a sea of radical decadence arose around them and threatened to swamp the bourgeois virtues.

Kristol, in contrast to many neocons, mostly maintained his wry, urbane tone. He consistently emphasized that neoconservatism was distinct from traditional conservatism. In 1976, he stated, "Neoconservatism is not at all hostile to the idea of a welfare state, but it is critical of the Great Society version of this welfare state." In other words, neocons did not seek to abolish, but rather to reform, welfare-state liberalism. To the end of his life, Kristol would maintain that this was a key distinction between neoconservatism and older-style Herbert Hoover conservatism.

But it wasn't true. Kristol's embrace of supply-side economics, on the one hand, and the Christian right, on the other, marked the demise of what might be termed the true neoconservative faith, which was to criticize, but not to repudiate outright, liberalism. Kristol's language became increasingly reckless and intemperate. The caution of Trilling was cast aside. The temptation of Strauss won out. Kristol's watchword became what was most politically useful. Supply-side economics was a sleight-of-hand maneuver to convince the electorate that tax cuts were really in the interest of the middle class, not simply the rich, because the cuts more than paid for themselves. Meanwhile, Christian foot soldiers were supposed to function as Israel's closest allies. Jews, Kristol announced, would just have to suck it up if the Christian right became dominant and exercise "prudence."

This was, and remains, hair-raising stuff. In performing these feats of prestidigitation, Kristol laid claim to becoming one of the most politically influential intellectuals of the postwar era. We are, you could say, living on Mr. Kristol's planet. It has become impossible for President Obama to contemplate raising, or, to put it more precisely, returning to slightly higher, taxes on the wealthy. When it comes to Israel, Obama doesn't have a prayer of creating a peace process, lest he trigger an uproar in Congress. Above all, Kristol's chief accomplishment may have been to provide a patina of intellectual justification for demonizing the very word liberal. As he put it in an essay entitled "The Right Stuff," "To bring contemporary liberalism into disrepute—its simplistic views of human nature, its utopian social philosophy, its secularist animus against religion—is no small achievement."

By 1995, the Republican Party itself was too timorous for Kristol. The Gingrich revolution was sputtering out. And so Kristol looked toward a new, unabashedly right-wing populist movement to seize the day. As Sam Tanenhaus notes in the epilogue to The Death of Conservatism, Kristol demanded nothing less than the appearance of a fresh "popular movement" that would "walk away" from the GOP if it refused to stop flirting with moderation. Kristol, in other words, was prophesying the rise of the Tea Party, no doubt in hopes that the neocons could co-opt it.

Whether the neocons will be submerged in the GOP's current and relentless march to the right or will be able to commandeer it is another matter. But perhaps they have violated the fundamental Straussian tenet of shunning public exposure and operating in the background. They now stand exposed, refugees from the Bush administration, trumpeting their doctrines in the pages of the Weekly Standard, which is edited by Kristol's son, William, and elsewhere, a caste that is now a permanent part of the Washington establishment. That is Kristol's accomplishment as well.

But even as the movement searches for a new identity, it's hard not to wonder whether, following Strauss, Kristol himself had his own hidden message. Were his denunciations of liberalism in fact covert pleas on its behalf? Was he really attacking the Christian right as he denounced it? Did he, underneath, just want to rock 'n' roll? That will be for future generations to decipher, as they survey the smoldering political terrain left behind by the current generation of neocons.

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at the National Interest and author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons (Doubleday, 2008).

Advertisement