The Spectacle Blog

The Neocons Are Right (or Left?) Back Where They Belong

By on 9.5.13 | 12:32PM

Over at the American Conservative, Kelley Vlahos writes that the “Neocons are back,” and they’re flocking to the left over the matter of Syria. Kelley’s correct—the neocon hold on the Republican Party has slipped, giving way to a rejuvenated non-interventionist vanguard.

Kelley traces an excellent history of the movement's contemporary manifestation, beginning with Bill Kristol’s "now defunct" Project for a New American Century. However—and I imagine Kelley would agree—a lengthier look back at the movement shows its home on the left offers a comfortably collectivist fit, having emerged from the Soviet-side of the political spectrum. (FYI…I wrote at length about this topic back in 2011.)

Consider the movement’s advent amidst the cultural upheaval that threatened the perceived stability of the American society during the 1960’s and 1970’s. At the time, many founding neoconservatives bore the pedigree of former liberals. Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer had allied with the Trotsky left from the late 1930’s through the Second World War, and thereafter. As Norman Podhoretz in his "eulogy" for the movement delivered in 1996, “Certainly a goodly number of the people who came to be known as neoconservatives had formerly been liberals […] the best known example was Kristol, himself, who had gone through a Trotskyist phase in his youth […] while a substantial number of those latter day Trotskyists, known as Shachtmanites, drifted closer to the neoconservatives in the late 1960s and 1970s.” This wing of the movement carried with it an implicit critique of capitalism that recognized a perceived crisis.[1] 

From their perspective, “capitalism – salutary as it was with respect to the efficient allocation of goods and services and unparalleled as a means for the advancement of people’s material property [...] – required something neither contained within nor perpetuated by its system of market economics.”[2] Drawing heavily on Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, capitalism, for the neoconservative, required a virtuous foundation. Absent appropriate habits of character, the system could not flourish.

That being said, neoconservatives insisted upon a differentiation between the desired equality for opportunity and the desire for an equality of results. It has been understood by neoconservatives that democracy’s turbulence, epitomized by the liberal market economy framework given the natural existence of “haves” and “have-nots,” is quelled by the prospect of economic growth, “in which everyone prospered, if not equally or simultaneously.”[3] This latter statement exemplifies the emphasis placed upon the virtuous repository of the liberal democratic, capitalist system. And the neoconservatives believed it was a system worth defending.

The movement began to mature intellectually due to its vehement disapproval of popular anti-American sentiment on home soil, and a blatant condemnation of any government decision that might soften military muscle. As Irving Kristol famously noted, a neoconservative is merely “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”[4] The neoconservatives maintained a coarse discussion with postwar political liberals who seemed to have lost the will to fight abroad or suitably defend American norms at home.

Meanwhile, neoconservatism developed an integral global sophistication with roots planted firmly in the cavernous international perspective of Trotsky, and his protégé, Max Shactman, who later argued fervently against the real world implementation of Soviet communism. This sense of anti-communism morphed into an undeviating policy imperative, as many promising members of the neoconservative movement found work with one of the Soviet Union’s most steadfast opponents in the United States, Senator Henry Jackson.

In other words, and to make a long story short, neocons' present-day liberal leanings suggest they’re coming home to roost. Hat’s off to Kelley for pointing out they’re merely homeward bound, and beware “conservatives” who overemphasize their enthusiasm for power projection.



[1] For example, please see Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism,” (New York: Basic Books, 1978).

[2] Todd Lindberg. “Neoconservatism’s Liberal Origins,” ed. Peter Berkowitz. (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2004)

[3] Irving Kristol, “The Neoconservative Persuasion,” The Weekly Standard, Vol. 8, No. 47, August 25, 2003.

[4] Ibid

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