A Conversation With Irving Kristol - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
A Conversation With Irving Kristol

The following article was published in the May 1969 edition of The Alternative (as The American Spectator was then known).

Irving Kristol, co-editor of the Public Interest with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is one of those stalwart Liberals who answers the call to truth even when it entails disturbing the fustian of the Realm. Recently he has, through his persuasive prose, impaled more than a few of the Republic’s leading quacks. In Foreign Affairs he transfixed a whole genre of charlatans by defining the intellectual as “a man who speaks with general authority about a subject on which he has no particular competence.” Combining effrontery with obscenity he maculated the pages of the New Republic with a thoughtful essay endorsing Hubert Humphrey’s candidacy and but a few months later uttered the unmentionable: to wit, the country is moving to the right and the universities are a blight on education in America. The stars had fallen from the heavens, even Irving Howe expressed concern. Had Irving Kristol thrown in with the Albigensians?

We doubt it. Mr. Kristol still seeks the dilation of opportunity and a more bearable life for all. He is still a Liberal. But he is also a man possessing the intelligence and audacity to look for answers beyond the encumbrances of stylish ideology. It is not he but “the intellectuals” who have changed, making anti-intellectualism the sought after epithet of thinking men.

The Alternative greatly admires Mr. Kristol. We assume his life has its unpleasant moments such as when, in his kindness, he grants interviews to people like our editor, Mr. Tyrrell. But things could always be worse, we could have sent Nathan.

TYRRELL: Before the 1968 election, you said you saw the future of American politics as being “considerably less liberal than in past decades.” Do you still have this view and is Nixon the fulfillment of your vision? Or will things go farther to the right?

KRISTOL: Yes, I still have that view, though I wasn’t thinking specifically of Nixon or of this administration when I made that prediction. I was looking much further ahead. Basically, what I was trying to say was that any kind of militance — especially extralegal activity — on the part of the left in this country will certainly give rise to a corresponding reaction on the part of the public at large and the governmental authorities. In short I think it likely that even liberal administrations of the future are likely to be far less liberal than they have been in the past.

TYRRELL: Do you think a Wallace type has a chance of getting elected in 1972?

No, certainly not in 1972. I see no prospect of that whatsoever.

TYRRELL: You have remarked on the emergence of an “unreasonable revolution of Utopian expectations on the part of a significant minority.” Has that minority yet emerged and who constitutes it? How will it exist in the future?

KRISTOL: I was thinking, of course, primarily of students and some faculty on the campuses. These are people, who not only have had no political experience
— one really couldn’t expect them to have had political experience — but who have a singular unwillingness and uninterest in learning from past political experience and therefore have no sense of the limits of politics. They have no sense of the time that is needed to make constructive social change. They have no sense of the way in which human purposes go awry. These people demand instant improvement and of course you never do get instant improvement in real life. What was your other question?

Who are they exactly? SDS (Students for Democratic
Society) ?

KRISTOL: Well, not only SDS, although of course SDS is one of the groups. But I think you have a much larger group, of students and faculty both, who have an insistence that this country change in a radical way very, very quickly. Unfortunately they seem to have no method for changing the people who live in this country overnight in a very radical and quick way, and therefore I regard their plans as Utopian.

TYRRELL: Do you think it has to change radically?

KRISTOL: I don’t know whether it has to or not; I don’t think anyone really knows. Much of their dissatisfaction is mysterious to me. Some of their dissatisfaction I understand. This is not the most beautiful of all societies and this is not even the most civilized of all societies. On the other hand, it is what it is as a result of several hundred years of history. The people who live in it are what they are as a result of these hundreds of years of history. The notion that you can change things overnight strikes me as utterly fantastic.

TYRRELL: How are they going to exist in the future? Are Wallace types going to repress them?

KRISTOL: Oh, I’m not really worried about the Wallace type. I mean I don’t see any specter of Neo-fascism on the American horizon. What I do see, however, is that if they insist on being militant and resorting to extralegal activities, they will probably be put down, not by Wallace, but even by a liberal administration.

You have stated that the church and the family have neglected transmitting moral authority and traditions. How has America, as you said, “progressively diminished the moral authority of all existing institutions?” Through the inclination of relativism?

KRISTOL: Well, that’s one part of it, yes. Let’s put it in its simplest terms. We did it because that’s what we set out to do. The modern spirit of critical inquiry as it developed, not only within the universities, but within the world of letters and within the world of journalism over the past eighty years, had as its purpose precisely that: the diminishing of the authority of existing institutions, and most especially of the family and of the schools and of the churches. If you go back to Jane Addams, who was a very sweet woman, and read her works you will find that she very expressedly declared that one of her purposes was to diminish the authority of the family and replace it by the authority of the social work profession and the state and so on. So that I don’t think this was entirely an accident — though, I do think a great many people didn’t realize what was happening. But there was a theory behind this, and the theory was that if you diminish these traditional authorities, a latent and hitherto repressed creativity and goodness and sweetness would flow from human beings. These people were Utopian (not particularly radical people, like John Dewey, Jane Addams, the entire progressive movement in academic studies the “new realism” in law, the “new history” and of course they contributed to the prevalence of relativism as philosophy. They really did feel that these authorities could be dispensed with, that if you got rid of them, human beings would live much fuller and happier and more contented lives without the benefits of external authority, that a sense of free community could flow from their innermost souls. It was a very attractive vision which is one of the reasons it had so much success. So that it’s a historical process (partly of course it’s a sociological process, I’ve not mentioned that; the fact that certain economic developments have made the family, as an economic unit, weaker than it once was). But basically I really do think this was a program of, one might almost say, the modern world, since very few people opposed it. It was the program of modern liberalism and even of much of modem conservatism. And no one expected it to have such cataclysmic consequences.

TYRRELL: Has it had unfortunate consequences?

KRISTOL: Obviously, yes. You know, John Dewey was against censorship and for freedom, but John Dewey, were he alive today, would be absolutely horrified at the things that are being done in the name of free creativity. This is not what he had in mind.

TYRRELL: In a recent New York Times article you said the church and family left it to schools to transmit values. Now the schools are neglecting this. Why is this undesirable? Aren’t our traditional values rather corrupt? Isn’t western civilization about to fall apart from exhaustion?

KRISTOL: Oh, I don’t know what that means. Civilizations have a way of not falling apart all that easily. Are our values corrupt? In a way they are. I don’t know that they’re more corrupt than the values of other civilizations, though I might even concede that in some senses they are. On the other hand, these are the values that regulate the way we live together. And even if they may be false in certain important respects, they simply can’t be shoved aside; people cannot live in a vacuum. False values are better than none. And until these values are amended and improved, we’ll have to cope with them as best we can.

TYRRELL: Do you agree with Frank Meyer when he says western civilization is superior to all other civilizations because it stresses the primacy of the individual? No other civilization places so much importance on the individual.

KRISTOL: Yes, I would agree with that. On the other hand, it has paid a price for this. And everyone is now becoming aware of the price, that western individualism does create tremendous strains upon the individual, and does produce tremendous strains within the community, and is corrosive of many of the things that even Frank Meyer would cherish. It is very hard to be for tradition, for instance, and at the same time to celebrate the unqualified virtues of individualism. On the whole I’m in sympathy with — I mean, as I say, being a product of western civilization — I’m irrevocably more individualist than, for instance, any Buddhist is likely to be. On the other hand, this civilization has created problems for itself.

TYRRELL: You once drew a distinction between the hippie and the new left. Do you still make that distinction or do you see a convergence in certain situations?

KRISTOL: I honestly don’t know. I mean they’re obviously converging in some respects. The appearance of — I think they call themselves the Yippies — would seem to indicate that some people feel an amalgamation or a merger is possible. And in the abstract, there is no reason why it shouldn’t take place. I think there is one obstacle to a full-scale merger, which is that the new left, if it ever is really going to do anything politically, has to create a disciplined organization out of people who are “high” half the time, who don’t come to meetings on time, who are not responsible for the execution of small assignments and so on.

You mentioned, in the NEW YORK TIMES, that you felt the hippie was interested in moral ends. Can you explain that?

KRISTOL: Well, let me say this in favor of the hippies and even of the new left. They have done what our academic political thinkers have singularly failed to do over, the past eighty or ninety years. That is, they have challenged the values and the ends of bourgeois society. Not just pointing to its imperfections, but saying “Is this the kind of society we want to have?” And “Is this the kind of life we want to live?” Now these are the traditional problems of political philosophy. But they have not been discussed by political philosophers in any serious way within this century. Political philosophy has taken a completely different turn.

TYRRELL: Well, I’m reading a book by Richard Weaver right now. He certainly seems to be interested in the quality of life one leads.

KRISTOL: Yes, but Richard Weaver is a sport. He’s an exception. Hardly anyone in philosophy courses at a university reads Richard Weaver, except in a few places. He’s not regarded as an important American philosopher.


KRISTOL: Well because his whole approach to philosophy deals with problems that modern philosophy has abandoned. Modern philosophy is overwhelmingly analytical. It does not feel that it has any authority even to discuss the ends of man, the ends of society. It feels it has nothing to say about that. All it can do is criticize the way in which other people discuss the ends of society. Similarly political theory and political philosophy say they have no competence to discuss the ends of political society. All they can do is discuss the mechanisms whereby people reach whatever ends they assign to themselves. I therefore think it is true that a good deal of modern academic thinking, especially in the humanities and those social sciences which are closest to the humanities, I do think that these disciplines are not “relevant”, as the younger people say. These disciplines do not respond to the basic questions which any sensitive and intelligent young person wants to see discussed — not only wants to see discussed, but wants to discuss and explore for himself. And so I have a certain sympathy with the hippies and the new left because I do think that for the first time in many decades they are posing before this society some philosophical questions — real fundamental questions, which the academics have been avoiding very diligently now for quite a few decades.

Well this anticipates a later question of mine. It seems to me, that the young right has been asking these questions also, though they are not so darlingized for their utterances. Is there a convergence here of the left and the right, the young left and the young right?

KRISTOL: I think there’s a convergence of youth, yes. The young people of this country today are bored with a lot of the sterile academicism. Now mind you, I must be careful about this. So often when young people denounce their studies as “irrelevant,” very often that is simply an exercise in anti-intellectualism— that is, they don’t want to read Plato because he is very hard, and he lived a long time ago, and the meaning of what he said is not instantly obvious. And I certainly don’t want to pander to any such sentiments. On the other hand, there’s also no doubt that students, especially in the humanities, and especially in the so-called softer social sciences — areas which traditionally used to deal with the basic issues of human existence, human society and human life — find that these disciplines have abandoned that field. And the result is that the field has been invaded by all sorts of quackeries, all sorts of amateur philosophies. I think that, in this respect, young people both of left and of right have a very legitimate complaint.

TYRRELL: You don’t feel affluence plays that great a role?

KRISTOL: I think affluence does play a role, but in certain special ways. I don’t think what you call affluence has corrupted the soul of the average American because the average American just isn’t that affluent. After all, when a man’s annual income moves from $6000 to $8000, this does not permit him to live like a lord or a king. And the difference is not of an order that is likely to greatly affect his moral values. When we talk in the mass, these are the kinds of changes w e are talking about; that is, the movement towards affluence among the mass of Americans has been relatively small as far as its affects on daily living is concerned. Instead of living in an apartment you live in a house. But the house, after all, is not a lavish thing — I mean, most Americans live in quite modest houses. And, as I say, moving from $6000 a year to $8000 a year or from $7000 a year to $10,000 a year (which is almost a 50 % increase) does not transform a person’s values. But where affluence has played a role, a very important role, is among young people. It is the young people in our society today who are far, far more affluent than young people ever were. And affluent not only in the sense that they have more pocket money, but that they have control over resources. For instance, the whole transformation of the mass media that we have been witnessing in the past ten years or fifteen years is to a very large extent a response to the affluence of young people. These people are consumers. The record industry sells its products to young people; television orients itself more and more to young spenders. The affluence of young people has, I think, had a tremendous effect upon our entire culture, much more so than the affluence of the average American, or even of the rich American.

TYRRELL: George Nathan says it is unhealthy for a state to suffer liberalism’s domination of education, communication and national policy. The proper role of the liberal is to snipe at the society from the periphery as he does.

KRISTOL: I don’t agree with that. But then, you see Nathan like Mencken —

TYRRELL: No this is a different Nathan.

KRISTOL: Oh , this not George Jean Nathan? Which Nathan is this?

TYRRELL: This is one who writes for T H E ALTERNATIVE.

KRISTOL: I’ve never heard of him. I’m sorry, should I have?

TYRRELL: No, no, no.

KRISTOL: Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you meant George Jean Nathan. God. No, well, we’ll wipe that out. This traditional notion of what a liberal should do strikes me as wrong. Indeed it is the traditional notion of what a liberal has done and most liberals unfortunately have done that. I don’t think it’s very helpful for society to have its best brains deciding beforehand that all they’re going to do is sit on the sidelines and throw rocks. I really see no justification for such a proposal. If a single individual, for personal reasons, feels that he must sit on the sidelines and throw rocks, all right. But to urge this and prescribe this for a large body of people strikes me as absurd. I feel, for instance, that that kind of liberalism itself has been a corrupter of modern values.

TYRRELL: Are you disturbed by the growth of the new left, and if so what aspect of it?

KRISTOL: Yes, of course I’m disturbed by the growth of the new left. Mainly I’m disturbed by two things. First, its rather mindless commitment to confrontation
and violence. I think this is going to be self-defeating for them and is going to create a great deal of damage to all of us. I’m also alarmed at what I can only call the intellectual infantilism of the new left. Obviously, it is not surprising that some young people should be radical. And I personally have no objections to a young man wanting to become a radical if he feels the need for radical change. But I don’t think anyone, young or old, has the right to be mindless. I think they must analyze the causes of the condition they seek to cure and the consequences of the cures they recommend. And what alarms me about the new left is that it is the politics of expressionism. Everyone is far more interested in the kind of posture he strikes than in a program that would have some effect upon society.

Is the new left really that new? Where did it come from?

KRISTOL: Well, what is new about the new left is its identification of a political mythology with a generational mythology. The major difference between the new left and the old left is that the new left is a left of young people. The old left had young people in it, but it was an adult movement — led by adults, defined by adults, organized by adults, with a program written by adults. What really is new about the new left is not any particular ideology — the fact is that it is somewhat more anarchist and less bolshevik, that doesn’t matter, we’ve had anarchist movements in the past. What is distinctive about the new left is that it is a generational movement as well as a political movement.

TYRRELL: But it’s led by older people like Marcuse. Marcuse almost programs it, it seems, and Paul Goodman and Mailer . . .

KRISTOL: It has its gurus, obviously, older gurus — any movement will. But I think it is true that the generational quality of this movement is just as important as its political beliefs.

TYRRELL: Is it more sophisticated than the old left?

KRISTOL: No, I think it’s less sophisticated than the old left, precisely because it is a movement of young people.

TYRRELL: Is it more open, as Howard Zinn says?

KRISTOL: Yes and no. It’s more open in the sense that it has no fixed, carefully thought through ideology. It’s less open in that it doesn’t think seriously about ideological issues at all.

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