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The flexible temperament
A review of The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942-2009 by Irving Kristol
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Irving Kristol was known as “the godfather” of neoconservatism, though the person who conferred that title upon him is lost in the fog of memory. One would not be surprised to learn the title was self-assigned, such were Kristol’s subtle and ironical ways. In any case, he was undoubtedly amused by the thought that a religious Jew should bear a designation consecrated in the Catholic Church or that a genial and avuncular figure such as himself should be honored with a title made famous in the popular culture by film about gangsters. The title also implies that he was only present at the christening of neoconservatism but played no paternal role in its creation, a political sleight-of-hand that reveals something important about a thinker who, though much appreciated, was nevertheless much underestimated.
This comes through clearly in The Neoconservative Persuasion, a new anthology of Kristol’s essays edited by the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, his wife and intellectual partner of seventy years, with a foreword by his son, William Kristol. This new volume contains forty-eight essays published between 1942 and 2006 on subjects ranging from literary criticism to political philosophy to foreign policy. Together, they provide a measure of the broad range of his interests. The volume is especially valuable because it makes available essays that were not contained in Reflections of a Neoconservtive (1983) and Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (1995), the two major collections of Kristol’s writings already in print. The book also contains a comprehensive bibliographical appendix of Kristol’s books and essays that will prove useful in the future to historians and students of his thought.
The collection is extemely effective in giving the reader a sense of Kristol’s intellectual development, from his early years as a socialist to his mature role as an intellectual leader of American conservatism. Kristol, as these essays reveal, was a precocious talent and already a mature essayist from the day he graduated from the City College of New York. Even in his earliest essays we find him wrestling with ideas that would later emerge as vital aspects of neoconservatism. At the tender age of twenty-two or twenty-three, Kristol expressed doubts about the extravagant promises of reform and revolution and proceeded on the conviction that political argument arises out of a foundation in culture.
In an early essay (1942) on Auden’s religious poetry, published under the pseudonym William Ferry (his underground “party name” as we are informed in the editor’s introduction), Kristol took issue with the left-wing faith that the “human problem” will eventually be solved by politics and technology. “Those who see the world of the future,” he wrote, “making tremendous forward leaps through the agency of technology and the applied sciences, or who believe in the complete spiritual regeneration in a majority of men, are deceiving themselves. The permeating fact of evil, both past and present, speaks differently.” In another of these early essays, again with reference to the Marxist faith, he observed that, “At the bottom of at least popular Marxism there has always been a kind of disgust with humanity as it is and a perfect faith in humanity as it is to be.” Both perspectives, as he saw it, were not only unrealistic but also dangerous in their implications for politics.
Because of his immersion in left-wing polemics, Kristol developed a talent for the biting essay that eviscerated political opponents. This was on display in a 1952 essay on Senator McCarthy and civil liberties, which contained a statement that critics have ever since used against him: “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.” Liberals responded to this statement with heated counterattacks, interpreting it as a sign that Kristol sided with the red-baiting senator when, in fact, he was exposing the political stupidity of liberals who defended Communists as dissenters and non-conformists, thereby blurring the lines between liberalism and Communism that they should have been at pains to highlight and accentuate. The liberals thereby fell into the trap that McCarthy set for them when he asserted that liberals and New Dealers operate on a continuum with Communists and are at bottom indistinguishable from them. McCarthy’s charge was false, as Kristol said, but liberals had no idea how to refute it. This is a remarkable essay, particularly for the relentless manner by which Kristol piles up arguments and examples to establish an irresistible conclusion.
Judging by the essays in this collection, the 1950s was a period of transition for Kristol. He began to develop that sense of detached realism characteristic of his later writing and which he introduced into neoconservative thought. The biting polemical essay described above disappears from his intellectual arsenal in favor of one that, instead of telling people that they are wrong, suggests rather that they do not know what they are doing.
Kristol’s encounter with Leo Strauss in 1952 may well have been the source of this transition in perspective. He reviewed Strauss’s book Persecution and the Art of Writing for Commentary at a time when hardly anyone inside or outside of the academy knew who Strauss was and some years before he provoked controversy among political scientists for his claim to view modern democracy through the lens of ancient philosophy. It is possible that Eliot Cohen, the editor of Commentary, assigned Strauss’s book for review in the belief that it might be of particular interest to Jewish readers because it addressed the writings of Moses Maimonides and Spinoza. In any case, judging by his careful and insightful review, Kristol was taken by Strauss’s argument that philosophers in the past concealed their most important arguments out of a fear of retribution from authorities, a fact that required readers of the modern time to search through these writings carefully for concealed messages revelatory of subversive designs. Kristol, acknowledging that Strauss wrote against the grain of modern thought, concluded that eventually Strauss might bring about “a revolution in intellectual history” that will cause most of us “to go back to school to learn the wisdom of the past that we thought we knew.”
One infers from Kristol’s later writings on Machiavelli, the ancient Greeks and Romans, Adam Smith, and the American Founders that this is exactly what he did—that is, he began to look for a perspective on contemporary politics in the writings of philosophers who originally shaped our thinking about authority, religion, freedom, and popular government. Machiavelli, in particular, was a subject of great interest to Kristol because of his unsparing realism regarding political power and authority.
In an essay in Encounter (1954), Kristol argued (much like Strauss) that, in The Prince, Machiavelli brought about a revolution in political thought by removing political authority “from the shadows of sanctity that had always enveloped it.” Kristol would argue elsewhere, much as the philosophers of antiquity had, that what is important about any form of government, including capitalism and democracy, is the kind of people and citizens it produces. Under the sway of secular liberalism, Americans were learning to claim their rights and express their freedom, albeit at the expense of the virtues of duty, discipline, and responsibility required to maintain the vitality of popular institutions. Kristol’s defense of religion in the public square, his critiques of contemporary social policy, and even his “two cheers for capitalism” derive from a conviction that virtue is a condition for freedom.
Kristol’s intellectual contribution was to bring these fundamental ideas into contemporary debates about politics and public policy through his writings in outlets like the Wall Street Journal and his editorship of The Public Interest, the magazine he created in 1965 in partnership with Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer. The magazine was born (as Kristol recounts the story) out of a general disquiet among liberal friends of the welfare state that the enterprise was being taken off track by the belief that the poor could escape their condition by “fighting city hall” and winning political power. This strategy was bound to fail, as Kristol and his colleagues saw, because they knew from experience that the path out of poverty was through education and work and not through politics. The idea that welfare, or any other public benefit, is a “right” unaccompanied by reciprocal obligations was bound to discourage work, encourage dependency, and strip the welfare state of any capacity to promote virtue and morality as conditions of assistance.
Kristol was, of course, quite right about this as developments soon proved, though the arguments presented in The Public Interest did little to persuade liberals to change course. Instead, as time passed, the modest-looking but intellectually powerful quarterly found a different audience among conservatives, moderates, and former liberals who, as Kristol said, had been “mugged by reality” and had learned that their abstract nostrums produced the very reverse of what they had intended. Neoconservatism developed as a skeptical “persuasion” or a “temperament” between 1965 and 1975 as liberalism continued on its counter-cultural course and traditional conservatives failed to offer up an alternative that had a hope of winning popular support. Neoconservatism thus offered a middle way between liberals who were in the process of discrediting the welfare state and conservatives who wanted to dismantle it. In the end the neoconservative critique may have checked some of the unwanted excesses of social policy but failed in its effort to infuse the welfare state with that much needed sense of virtue.
In his reflections about his work at The Public Interest, Kristol offered some advice to conservatives that they would do well to heed today. He urged them, at some point during the 1970s, “to stop moaning about the welfare state, ‘the road to serfdom,’ the death of free enterprise, and the iniquities of the income tax, and address the realities of the conservative situation.” While there was little hope that the welfare state could be dismantled or the income tax repealed, there was every chance that taxes could be reduced to spur growth, the corrupting aspects of the welfare state could be peeled back, and American influence abroad could be restored. Conservatives became a commanding force in American politics when they abandoned lost or abstract causes and followed Kristol’s advice to “leave their ghettos” and apply their principles to real controversies.
With the publication of this collection, all of Irving Kristol’s major essays are now available to the public and to future generations in readily accessible form. Such availability is well justified with regard to a writer who was the most influential political essayist of the last century, a worthy American rival even to the best British essayists of the pre- and postwar eras, and one of the few writers of our time whose works are likely to be consulted a century hence for their insights into the permanent problems of politics.
The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942–2009, by Irving Kristol, edited by Gertrude Himmelfarb; Basic Books, 390 pages, $29.95.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 March 2011, on page 68
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