The memoir by my husband introducing his last volume of essays in 1995, Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, opens with a typical Irving Kristol quip.
Is there such a thing as a “neo” gene? I ask that question because, looking back over a lifetime of my opinions, I am struck by the fact that they all qualify as “neo.” I have been a neo-Marxist, a neo-Trotskyist, a neo-socialist, a neoliberal, and finally a neoconservative. It seems that no ideology or philosophy has ever been able to encompass all of reality to my satisfaction. There was always a degree of detachment qualifying my commitment.
That memoir does not mention the earliest manifestation in print of that “neo” gene. Rummaging among old files shortly after his death in September 2009, I came upon a couple of small tattered magazines entitled Enquiry: A Journal of Independent Radical Thought. Started by my husband and some of our fellow exiles from Trotskyism, this was the first of several magazines he helped found. It lasted little more than two years, for a total of eight issues, by which time he and most of the other contributors were in the Army. (Later, when an enthusiastic young person came to him with an idea, he was likely to say, “Start a magazine.”) My penciled note on the cover of my copy of the first issue, dated November 1942, identifies the author of one of the articles, William Ferry, as Irving Kristol. (William Ferry was his “party name” in his brief Trotskyist period in college.) The other issue, dated April 1944, required no such identification; here the author was Irving Kristol.
Rereading those articles now is illuminating, both for what they tell us about his thinking in those early years and for what they portend about neoconservatism itself. “The Quality of Doubt” in the first issue is a review of W.H. Auden’s book of poetry The Double Man. It opens with the now-famous quotation from the poem, written on the eve of the war, about the 30s, that “low dishonest decade,” and goes on to describe the “growing doubts” and “undercurrent of questioning uncertainty” in Auden’s later poetry. Those doubts and uncertainty had an obvious political source, Auden’s disillusionment with Stalinism. But it is the poet’s pervasive moral tone, his sense of the “moral vacancy” of that troubled age, that impresses the reviewer—a “moral subtlety, receptivity, and sensitivity [that] is close to brilliant.”
“The Moral Critic,” in a later issue of Enquiry, a review of Lionel Trilling’s book about E. M. Forster, is almost entirely on Trilling, Forster entering late in the review almost as an afterthought. It is also less about Trilling’s book on Forster than about an earlier essay by him on T.S. Eliot’s Idea of a Christian Society, and more particularly about the critique of radicalism and liberalism that Trilling found in that essay, a critique he entirely shared. Abandoning their traditional moral vision by permitting means to prevail over ends and having a simplistic faith in their ability to change human nature, the radicals betrayed, Trilling wrote, “a kind of disgust with humanity as it is and a perfect faith in humanity as it is to be.” That attitude derived from a liberalism that was smug and self-righteous, preferring not to know that “the good will generates its own problems, that the love of humanity has its own vices and the love of truth its own insensibilities.” For Irving Kristol, this was the characteristic, and altogether commendable, mode of all of Trilling’s work, a “moral realism” that amounted to nothing less than a “brilliant and sustained, if sometimes impatient, exploration of the complexities of moral perfection and of the paths thereto.”
In 1942, when my husband wrote the first of these articles, he was all of 22 and two years out of college, where he had majored in history (after a brief foray in mathematics) and minored, so to speak (in the Trotskyist alcove at City College), in Marxism, post-Marxism, and anti-Marxism. He was now working as a machinist in the Brooklyn Navy Yard awaiting his induction into the Army—altogether an unlikely initiation, one might think, into the world of poetry and literary criticism. Yet even as a neo-Trotskyist, he had been more neo than most of his comrades. While he was engaging in disputes about the Marxist dialectic or the prospects of international revolution, he was also reading the fashionable “modernist” writers—his memoir mentions D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Franz Kafka—and was entering the New York intellectual world by way of Partisan Review, the preeminent “little magazine” of the time. It was in PR, in 1940, that he read Trilling’s essay on Eliot, the first of many of Trilling’s essays, which, he later recalled, “hit me with the force of a revelation.”
It is against this background that the founding of Enquiry (which may have been inspired, on a very much smaller scale, by Partisan Review) may be understood. Yet even then, and in that congenial circle, he was conspicuously a neo. The subtitle of Enquiry, “A Journal of Independent Radical Thought,” does not capture how “independent” he was, not only in regard to the writers he chose to write about (his were the only pieces in Enquiry on literary subjects), but also in his appreciation of the moral sensibility and complexity he found in them. Half a century later, in the preface to Neoconservatism, he expressed his surprise upon finding, in essays on a wide variety of subjects and written over a long span of time (the first essay in that volume dates from 1949), the “homogeneity of approach, the consistency of a certain cast of mind.” He would have been even more surprised had he reread those still earlier Enquiry articles, which might have been written, with only the smallest emendations, at any point in his career.
His memoir emphasizes another aspect of the neo gene—his abiding interest in and respect for religion. This, too, is evident in those early articles, in his praise of the “religiosity of tone” in Auden’s poems and, in the Trilling essay, of the “religio-ethical tone” of such other critics of radicalism as Jacques Maritain, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Christopher Dawson. Another essay, “A Christian Experiment,” is a sympathetic although not uncritical account of a novel by Ignazio Silone about the hero’s evolution from “revolutionary Marxian politics to a libertarian revolutionary Christianity.” And “Other People’s Nerve” is, among other things, a rebuke to Sidney Hook for dismissing too cavalierly the religious “heretics” who were defecting from the “scientific” irreligion of the left.
That religious neo gene emerged most conspicuously in Commentary a few years later. His first article, in September 1947 (the very month he came on the staff), “The Myth of the Supra-Human Jew,” is a learned exploration of the idea, for good and bad, of “the chosen people,” quoting from not only Jacques Maritain but also Raïssa Maritain and such other French theologians as Léon Bloy, Ernest Renan, and Charles Péguy—not the usual authorities cited in Commentary (or even Partisan Review). His next article, four months later, was on more familiar terrain. “How Basic Is ‘Basic Judaism’?” is a critique of a conception of Judaism so “basic” as to deny, he thought, the very essence of Judaism. Other essays followed, on Christianity as well as Judaism. Because he was the only editor interested in religion—this in a Jewish magazine—he became the de facto religious editor. But here, too, as his memoir testifies, his neo gene prevailed, for he was then, as he remained, “a nonobservant Jew, but not a nonreligious one”—indeed, a “neo-orthodox” Jew.
It was in Commentary that yet another neo-ism revealed itself. As Trilling, the “skeptical liberal,” was the dominant influence on him in the 1940s, so Leo Strauss, the “skeptical conservative,” was in the 1950s. And as Trilling’s essays had struck him as a “revelation,” so Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing, in 1952, produced “the kind of intellectual shock that is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” In both cases, what impressed him was not so much their political views (which were more implicit than overt) but the mindset that informed their discourses upon culture, religion, society, philosophy, and politics alike. His review of Persecution and the Art of Writing focuses on Maimonides as the exemplar of Strauss’s major themes: the relation of the esoteric and the exoteric, of reason and revelation, of philosophy and the polity. It concludes by commending Strauss for accomplishing “nothing less than a revolution in intellectual history” by recalling us to the “wisdom of the past.”
The English journal Encounter, founded with Stephen Spender the following year, displayed a breadth of interest and receptivity to ideas that transcended party, class, and national lines. An important intellectual and political force in the Cold War period—an antidote to the Communism that was still attracting many liberals as well as radicals—it served as a model for similar magazines on the Continent and abroad. It was also an education for Irving Kristol, introducing him to a culture and polity different from but agreeably congruent with that of America. He returned to the States in 1958, first as the editor of the Reporter and then at the publishing house Basic Books, with an enriched sense of the Anglo-American tradition and historic “relationship.”
The neo disposition took on a more political and economic character with the founding in 1965 of the Public Interest, co-edited first with Daniel Bell and then with Nathan Glazer. The “quality of doubt,” the “questioning,” “uncertainty,” and “sharp, cynical analysis” that had been so provocative in Auden’s poetry reappear, more prosaically, in a journal that was ever doubting, questioning, and sharply, even cynically, analytic of social policies and reformers. So, too, Trilling’s observations about the simplistic, self-righteous liberals who do not know that “good will” and “love of humanity” generate their own problems and vices are echoed in the Public Interest’s repeated invocation of the principle of “unanticipated consequences.” And Trilling’s critique of the liberal reformers of his generation was all too applicable to a later generation of reformers, chastised in the Public Interest, who were intent upon waging a “War on Poverty” in the name of “the Great Society.”
This mode of thought—questioning, skeptical, ironic, yet “cheerfully pessimistic,” as he said—soon evolved into “neoconservatism,” a label invented by others as a pejorative term that he happily adopted for himself. Again, there were reminiscences of the past, as in the title he gave his volume Two Cheers for Capitalism in 1978, recalling Forster’s “two cheers for democracy,” cited in his essay on Trilling. He now made this a defining principle of neoconservatism, three cheers being too utopian for any human venture, including capitalism. So, too, the “moral realism” he had admired in Trilling was now identified, by himself and others, with neoconservatism, not only with respect to domestic affairs but foreign affairs as well—as exhibited in yet another journal founded (but not edited) by him in 1985, the National Interest. Ten years later, an essay in the Festschrift dedicated to him was entitled “Irving Kristol’s Moral Realism.” It is fitting that that essay should have been written by the co-founder of Enquiry, Philip Selznick, although it is unlikely that Selznick recalled the provenance of that phrase half a century earlier.
In his later years, he wrote less about literature, religion, and philosophy and more about politics, economics, and foreign affairs, not as separate disciplines but as parts of a whole, imbued with a common purpose and disposition. Thus he reminded economists of the political and ethical dimensions of their subject—“political economy,” as Adam Smith (himself a professor of moral philosophy) had termed it. He urged politicians to embrace a “new economics,” supply-side economics, which would invigorate the polity and society as well as the economy. He cautioned statesmen and foreign policy experts to be wary of the simplicities and ideologies that pervert the best-intentioned policies and subvert the national interest. And he advised all of them that the success of their endeavors depends on an ethos, a culture, and—that enduring token of “American exceptionalism”—a religious disposition that make for a stable and decent society.
Yet even as the focus of his writings shifted, his old interests persisted. In 1984, in a symposium in Partisan Review on the question of how his cultural and political views had changed in the past decades, he recalled the problem that had always vexed that journal: how to reconcile its radical or liberal politics with an admiration for modernist literature that was often politically reactionary (most notably in the case of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound). He himself had no such problem. His cultural views, he assured his old friends, had evolved in happy congruence with his political views.
Meanwhile, for myself, I have reached certain conclusions: that Jane Austen is a greater novelist than Proust or Joyce; that Raphael is a greater painter than Picasso; that T.S. Eliot’s later, Christian poetry is much superior to his earlier; that C.S. Lewis is a finer literary and cultural critic than Edmund Wilson; that Aristotle is more worthy of careful study than Marx; that we have more to learn from Tocqueville than from Max Weber; that Adam Smith makes a lot more economic sense than any economist since; that the Founding Fathers had a better understanding of democracy than any political scientist since; that. . . . Well, enough. As I said at the outset, I have become conservative, and whatever ambiguities attach to that term, it should be obvious what it does not mean.
He might have recalled, as he did in his memoir, a remark by Leo Strauss: that a young man might think Dostoyevsky the greatest novelist, but in maturity he should give that plaudit to Jane Austen.
The title of the posthumous book of my husband’s essays, The Neoconservative Persuasion, which is now being published, comes with the authority of the author, who used it as the title of his last essay on the subject, in 2003. He then referred in passing to a book he had reviewed almost half a century earlier, The Jacksonian Persuasion, by the historian (and his good friend) Marvin Meyers. The final paragraph of that review has a special pertinence to his own work.
The word “persuasion,” which he [Meyers] defines as “a half-formulated moral perspective involving emotional commitment,” hits off exactly the strange destiny of ideas in American politics. Parties do not have anything so formal as an ideology, but they do—and must—profess something more explicit than a general ethos. “Persuasion” is a most apt term for what in fact issues from this predicament.
“Persuasion” is also a “most apt term” for neoconservatism. If neoconservatism is not, as he repeatedly insisted, a movement or an ideology, let alone a party, it is something more—a “moral perspective” deriving from a broad spectrum of ideas, beliefs, and sentiments that inform politics, to be sure, but also culture, religion, economics, and much else. (The cover of a pamphlet of his much-reprinted essay “Adam Smith and the Spirit of Capitalism” bears his handwritten notation “The Bourgeois Persuasion,” an allusion to the ethical dimension of Smith’s political economy.) Over the years, he used other terms to characterize neoconservatism: “imagination,” “disposition,” “tendency,” “impulse,” “cast of mind,” “spirit,” even “instinct.” The Festschrift published in 1995 on the occasion of his 75th birthday bears the title The Neoconservative Imagination. Finally, he himself settled on “persuasion.”
Much has been made of the consistency of tone in his writings—bold and speculative but never dogmatic or academic, always personal, witty, ironic. That tone is not only a matter of style; it suggests a distinctive intellectual sensibility—skeptical, commonsensible, eclectic, and at the same time strong-minded and hardheaded. It is a double-edged scalpel that he wielded against the “terrible simplifiers” of his generation, the utopians of the left and the dogmatists of the right, both of whom failed to appreciate the complicated realities of human nature and social action—realities, he insisted, that had to be confronted honestly and boldly.