The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942–2009
By Irving Kristol; Edited by Gertrude Himmelfarb; Foreword by William Kristol
(Basic Books, 390 pages, $29.95)
ALTHOUGH HE IS largely forgotten today, Albert Jay Nock is a major figure in the history of American conservatism. A splendid writer, Nock greatly influenced such conservative luminaries as William F. Buckley, Robert Nisbet, and Russell Kirk. But Nock didn’t think that American conservatism would ever become a popular movement. In a 1936 article called “Isaiah’s Job,” Nock has God order the prophet Isaiah to tell the people “what is wrong and why, and what is going to happen unless they have a change of heart and straighten up.” But then God adds, “I suppose perhaps I ought to tell you that it won’t do any good. The official class and their intelligentsia will turn up their noses at you, and the masses will not even listen…. You will probably be lucky if you get out with your life.”
The Neoconservative Persuasion, a collection of Irving Kristol’s essays spanning nearly seven decades, effectively demonstrates that Kristol was the anti-Nock of American conservatism. He believed that the official class, the intelligentsia, and the masses would all listen to the conservative message, if it were properly presented -- and he proceeded to do so with an incomparable combination of deep erudition and infectious high spirits. A Kristol sampler:
• “An ordinary American reads about a woman ‘performing artist’ who prances nude across the stage, with chocolate smeared over her body, and though he may lament the waste of chocolate or nudity, it does not occur to him that she is ‘making a statement,’ one that the ‘arts community’ takes seriously indeed.” (From “It’s Obscene but Is It Art?” 1995.)
• “The risk of being progressive is that there is always some new version of ‘progress’ which seeks to outgrow whatever was thought to be important by progressives a few years earlier.” (From “On the Political Stupidity of Jews,” 1999.)
• “I once remarked, semi-facetiously, that to be a neoconservative one had to be of a cheerful disposition, no matter how depressing the current outlook. In America all successful politics is the politics of hope, a mood not noticeable in traditional American conservatism. The way to win, in politics as in sports, is to think of yourself as a winner.” (From “American Conservatism: 1945–1995,” 1995.)
To say that Irving Kristol thought of himself as a winner is a gross understatement. His intellectual self-confidence was astounding. For example, a year or so after taking up the serious study of economics (when he was 56 years old, and had already made a name for himself as a leading public intellectual, a professor, and the editor of the Public Interest) Kristol concluded that conventional economic thought had it all wrong, and that some newfangled idea called “supply-side economics” was the way to go. So he published an article in the Public Interest by a young man named Jude Wanniski making the case for the “economics of growth.” Wanniski’s article caught the eye of a young editor at the Wall Street Journal named Robert Bartley, who proceeded to popularize it. The result, as everyone knows, is that supply-side economics became the hallmark of the Reagan administration, the basis of a prolonged economic recovery, and the precondition for a sustained American military buildup that eventually brought the mighty Soviet Union to its knees. Would all this have taken place had Irving Kristol not decided to study economics? Maybe yes, but then again, maybe no.
But it is primarily as a social and cultural critic that Kristol has made his most enduring contributions. Kristol was at the center -- the “godfather,” so to speak -- of an intellectual current of thought that has come to be known as “neoconservatism.” This “persuasion,” as Kristol called it, arose in response to the student revolution and the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s. Traditional conservatives tended to blame all of America’s ills on the growth of Big Government and the consequent decline of liberty -- but what did Big Government have to do with the rise of student-terrorists like William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn? To Kristol and other like-minded intellectuals, it seemed that the rot went much deeper, and had to do with the fundamental assumptions underlying liberalism itself. The far-reaching cultural and moral critique of liberalism developed by Kristol and a dozen or so other writers for the Public Interest, Commentary, and the Wall Street Journal is the essence of neoconservatism.
Because so many “neocons” were latecomers to the conservative cause, and also because some of their views were still suspiciously liberal (traditional conservatives, for example, hated the welfare state, which they blamed on FDR’s New Deal; neocons approved of the New Deal, but strongly opposed LBJ’s Great Society) they were not initially received into the conservative movement with open arms. But neoconservatives had two things going for them. First, religious and social conservatives were becoming increasingly prominent in the conservative movement, and neocons, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that many of them were Jews, had much more in common with the Christian newcomers than libertarian-minded conservatives.
MORE IMPORTANTLY, the leading political conservative in America, Ronald Reagan, had marked neocon tendencies himself. As Reagan wrote in his diary in January, 1982, “The press is trying to paint me as trying to undo the New Deal. I’m trying to undo the Great Society.” That’s exactly how the neocons saw it. Since they also shared his intransigent anti-Communism, and his commitment to supply-side economics, it’s not surprising that by the end of the Reagan presidency, neoconservatism had entered the conservative mainstream, leading Irving Kristol to observe (in 1995):
If the Republican Party today is less interested in the business community than in the pursuit of the happiness of ordinary folk, and if, as I think is the case, this has made the party more acceptable and appealing to the average American, then I believe the work of neoconservative intellectuals has contributed much to this change.
Of course, neoconservatism has evolved considerably since Irving Kristol wrote those words. Today’s neoconservatives (I’d prefer to call them neo-neo-conservatives, if it didn’t sound so silly) are mainly known for their ardent support for promoting democracy throughout the Middle East. How they can reconcile their stance with Kristol’s skeptical attitude toward democracy promotion (in his 1960 essay, “High, Low, and Modern,” Kristol argued that promoting democracy is futile absent such “dispositions of mind and character” as veneration for the rule of law, a sense of community, and a reliance on reason rather than passion -- dispositions notable by their absence from today’s Middle East) is a mystery to me. I don’t know what Kristol thought of today’s neocons, but I would like to believe that just as Karl Marx, disgusted by the antics of his followers, is supposed to have remarked toward the end of his life that “I am no Marxist,” so might Kristol have entertained some reservations about the current state of the movement he did so much to foster. But The Neoconservative Persuasion focuses on the writings of Irving Kristol, and not on those of his disciples.
In recognition of his contributions to the conservative movement, on July 9, 2002, President George W. Bush bestowed our nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, on Irving Kristol. “Irving Kristol is a wide-ranging thinker whose writings have helped transform America’s political landscape,” Bush said. “As young men, he and his fellow student radicals in City College’s ‘Alcove Number One’ devoted themselves to solving the ultimate problems of the human race. Today, Irving Kristol is still grappling with ultimate problems, and in thinking them through, he has vastly enlarged the conservative vision.” Which only goes to show that given the right sort of education -- early years in an Orthodox yeshiva, college years as a member of the Young People’s Socialist League, a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, and a lifelong immersion in the classics of Western philosophy and literature -- there’s no telling how far a working-class kid from Brooklyn can go.