Two Cheers For Irving Kristol

by Dennis Wrong | October 30, 1983

Reflections of a Neoconservative: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

by Irving Kristol

(Basic, 336 pp., $19.95)

If ten or so of the longer essays in this collection were to be published together under the name of a not particularly well-known professor, they would undoubtedly receive respectful attention. The author's stylistic fluency and elegance would be praised, as well as his command of the essay as a genre. The breadth of his interests—embracing cultural and moral concerns in the broad sense, political philosophy up to the close of the eighteenth century, and the place of economic thought and commercial activity itself in the larger scheme of things—would be remarked upon. His preference for old rather than new wisdom would certainly be noted and linked to his matter-of-factly conservative outlook, favoring stability over change, accepting the American Revolution but rejecting the French; he is fearful of the ideological passions unleashed by Utopian visions, of the vagaries and restless discontents of "intellectuals," yet appreciative of the basic good sense of ordinary human beings.

The strong influence of such antimodernist thinkers as Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt would be detected in several of the essays. So would the author's awareness of the fundamental conflict experienced by American conservatives between their nostalgic attraction to a stable pre-industrial social order and their recognition that acceptance of modem capitalism with its built-in drive to destroy tradition by promoting ceaseless material and technical transformations of daily life provides the only possible basis for a conservative politics. In this connection.the author refers both wistfully and hopefully to the mutual respect that Edmund Burke and Adam Smith felt for one another. One notices also his persistent tendency to speak approvingly of "commerce" and "commercial society," trade being of course as old as civilization, rather than of "technological progress" or "industrial society."

The author, however, is not a little-known academic but Irving Kristol, doyen of that intensely engaged political-intellectual movement known as "neoconservatism," regular columnist for The Wall Street Journal, consultant to a host of enterprises and foundations concerned with public policy, sometime adviser to Republican Presidents as well as to lesser politicians carrying that party's banners. The title of this collection, his third and largest, declares the presence of Kristol the partisan and publicist; also represented (especially in several essays reprinted from his first collection, now out of print) is Kristol the eighteenth-century moralist and the somewhat melancholy political philosopher "looking back" to the endangered eternal verities of Western civilization. That all these Kristols do not coexist in perfect congruity is something 1 suspect their creator knows full well.

Ten of the twenty-nine selections in this volume originally appeared as Wall Street journal columns; several more were speeches or contributions to symposia for the American Enterprise Institute, often called the "neoconservative think-tank." There are also two autobiographical memoirs recounting Kristol's intellectual and ideological journey and several pieces grouped under the heading "Religion and the Jews" that appeared in Commentary over thirty years ago, long before "neoconservatism" cbuld have existed even as a fugitive gleam in his eye. In short, this volume shows us, in contrast to Kristol's two previous collections, the "compleat Kristol."

Kristol expresses in the most recent piece in the book some disillusionment with the Reagan Administration. He complains that it increasingly resembles conventional Republican Administrations since the New Deal, despite the promise of something different and more dynamic aroused by Reagan's 1980 campaign. Kristol thinks that Reagan could have been another Theodore Roosevelt, for he shares TR's populist style and status as a political outsider. The likeness surely ends there; Roosevelt was a patrician fiaut bourgeois with a genuine contempt for vulgar moneygrubbing big businessmen—for just the kinds of people whose company Ronald Reagan seeks and cherishes. TR wanted to use the powers of the federal government against "the trusts"; Reagan promised to "get the government off our backs" and approved tax relief for the corporate rich. Roosevelt tried to enforce the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, about which Kristol writes dismissively in tones reminiscent of Thurman Arnold and the younger John Kenneth Galbraith. Kristol defends and upholds corporate capitalism in a Schumpeterian spirit quite free from the "folkloristic" myths belabored by Arnold back in the 1930s.

YET, as the title of his second collection of essays announced, Kristol is able to muster only "two cheers for capitalism." He finds little to excite the political imagination in the cautious, managerial, cost-benefit conscious ways of the businessmen in politics who have for so long dominated the Republican Party. "All those Republicans with the hearts and souls of accountants," he calls them. His disappointment with the Reagan Administration is certainly not based on its failure to mount a more determined assault on the welfare state, for he accepts both the welfare state's desirability and permanence—that is, after all, what the "neo" in neoconservatism originally stood for. Nor does Kristol make a fetish of the free market, seeing it as the fount of all liberty, and most other good things as well, in the fashion of Friedmanite economists.

The result is that, leaving aside foreign policy, the content as distinct from the style of the more aggressive ideological defense of "liberal capitalism" called for by Kristol remains far from clear. To his credit, he does not shrink from asserting that what he wants is a more forceful ideology, in contrast to so many conservatives who piously insist , that they have firm "principles" and that only the left is addicted to "ideology." Kristol wants to match "modern left-wing movements twhich] have the immense advantage of being ideological in their essence." He wants to break with the prevailing pattern that only produces "conservative government as a tedious if necessary interregnum during which the excesses of the left are tidied up," a cycle that is "the basic rhythm of politics in all democratic societies, and it is a rhythm that inexorably moves these societies leftward."

I confess to having a certain intellectual investment in the notion of a "rhythm of democratic politics," including the view that a leftward drift is inherent in it. I confess also that I have begun to have some doubts about the persistence in the more advanced Western democracies of the underlying social and economic circumstances that have helped sustain this rhythm in the past, doubts recently strengthened by the decline of the British Labour Party. On the other hand, as Karl Mannheim argued over half a century ago, conservatism inevitably becomes articulate as a counter-ideology, defending the realities of the way people actually live in opposition to the future-oriented proposals of left-wing reformers and radicals.

Under political democracy based on universal suffrage, politics is necessarily ideological. Thus there cannot be any such thing as a permanent "end of ideology," and conservatives are inescapably drawn into the battle if they wish to be political men; they cannot just point and bow reverently in the direction of the institutions they wish to conserve.

Kristol seems fully aware of all this. Yet his bias reveals itself in his reluctance to concede that protests against the continuing deprivations and injustices suffered by large numbers of people are endowed with legitimacy by democracy; that they become the foundation of a politics of the left which is the source of movement in the system. Even granting Kristol's criticism that left-wing ideas can rigidify into ideological shibboleths severed from any connection to the actual values and interests of the groups in whose name they are asserted, left politics are never simply the reflection of the wrongheaded ideas of Utopian intellectuals.

Kristol himself was an active mocker and scoffer at conventional left-liberal prejudices back when he still thought of himself as a liberal, if a critical one, and long before the label "neoconservative" had even been coined by its enemies. I am not referring to his origins as an anti-Stalinist, shared as they are with others who have not followed his course, but to a skeptical and even provocative stance already in evidence when he was a junior editor of Commentary in the late 1940s. He remarks of this period: "1 had never in my life been to Washington, D.C; I had never seen a Congressman or Senator or high government official in the flesh; no agency of the American government had ever asked me for my opinion on anything." 1 cannot resist observing that these limitations, so amply overcome since. showed way back then. 1 remember arguing with Kristol about McCarthyism at the old Commentary offices in a loft on West 33rd Street. He was inclined to dismiss it as a specimen of uncouth and ephemeral demagoguery endemic to American politics and quite unworthy of the hostile attention lavished on it by liberal-left intellectuals. I agreed with him that McCarthyism was not a burgeoning fascist movement exploiting the "mass hysteria" of the American public. But through family associations with top people in the State Department and the diplomatic community in Washington where 1 had grown up, 1 was aware of the havoc wrought by Senator McCarthy in these circles: the pervasive anxiety, the unjustly ruined careers, even a few real and suspected suicides. Although I felt out-argued, I also thought that Kristol's judgment was too much in bondage to his quarrels with the New York liberal intellectual milieu in which he moved.

Kristol's iconoclastic role has been possible because of the existence since at least the 1930s of a left subculture centered in the better universities and in metropoiitan intellectual circles. Like all cultures, this one has provided its adherents with an entire set of unspoken presuppositions, ritual pieties and taboos, and pretensions to special virtue and insight into the nature of things, Despite their occupational commitment to critical (including self-critical) intelligence, many people live so comfortably enclosed within their basic assumptions that they are quite incapable of responding rationally when their beliefs are challenged. Criticism is like a knife cutting through soft butter; the critic is tempted to continual provocations and displays of derisive wit, to playing the game of ^ter le bourgeois in reverse, as it were. The young William Buckley was able to launch an instant career as a television debater back in the 1950s by deftly exposing the ignorance and seJfrighteousness of various official spokesmen for the liberalism of the day, (I still remember a hilarious program in 1952 on which he challenged two gentlemen wearing saucer-size Stevenson buttons to come up with the name of a single person whom Senator McCarthy had falsely charged with being a Communist. After hemming and hawing for what seemed like ten minutes, one of them mentioned General Marshall, enabling Buckley to point out that McCarthy had said that Marshall was stupid and therefore a dupe of the Communists rather than a Communist himself.)

This political culture was never pro-Communist in any meaningful sense, nor even committed to "socialism." Yet it was ruled by the sentiment that "left is where the heart is," and uneasy when confronted with principled and informed anti-Communism or sharply critical assessments of socialism as an ideal. Combining themes from Schumpeter and Trilling, Kristol claims that since the l%Os this left subculture has become the dominant ideology of a New Class based on the universities, the media, and the public service, a class which is locked in battle with the business community and the bourgeois ethos on which American society has always been based. From the vantage point of 1983 he appears to exaggerate. Moreover, 1 wonder whether the situation as he describes it is really as unique and historically unprecedented as he suggests. But even if it is, and his description is fully accurate, so what? Tension between the intelligentsia and the business world is evidence of genuine pluralism, and attests to the absence of that "unification of the elites" which Raymond Aron once saw as the hallmark of Soviet-style totalitarianism. One might wish that both the intellectuals and the businessmen were a bit more urbane and farsighted and recognized the value of mediators between them; but that is exactly Kristol's own present and self-chosen role, isn't it?

Still, though all primarily polemical orientations suffer from a certain narrowness, Kristoi's long past as a leftbaiter saves him from the excesses and obsessions of some of his fellow neoconservatives, who saw the light only in the past decade. Kristol is obviously able to maintain friendly personal relations with people who disagree with him politically, and even at his most provocative he is free of personal nastiness. These traits are indisputably lacking in several other prominent neoconservatives, who are mirror images of the leftist zealots against whom they initially directed so much of their polemical energy. Lately one observes writers for Commentary and The New Criterion displaying much venom toward firmly anti-Communist liberals and social democrats who have done little more than refuse to share the exacerbated sense of cultural and political crisis expressed by the editors and regular contributors to these journals. Kristoi's greater civility doubtless has roots in his character, but it surely owes something to the influence of the premodem philosophers of civilization, including Adam Smith, discussed in his longer essays.

 

 

 

 

Dennis Wrong, professor of sociology at New York University, is on the editorial board of Dissent and Partisan Review.

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