Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea
by Irving Kristol
Free Press. 493 pp. $25.00
Irving Kristol is still so visible and energetic a presence in American intellectual life that it is hard to believe he has been at the job for nearly 50 years. Starting out as a junior editor at COMMENTARY in the late 40’s, he went on to help found not only the late lamented Encounter in England but also, here at home, the Public Interest, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary, and the National Interest, which has just passed its tenth. He has never minded being referred to as the “godfather” of the neoconservative movement, and indeed, when the final balance sheet of his accomplishments is drawn up, it may well turn out that his practical leadership in that movement, and particularly his tireless and highly successful efforts at institution-building, will stand as his most enduring legacy.
Even so, the appearance of the present volume, a selection of 41 essays written between 1949 and 1995, reminds us that there is a wealth of lively and distinctive ideas behind all those practical consequences. As Kristol says again and again, ideas not only matter, they are “all-important.” The right ideas can animate constructive and virtuous action and make us feel “at home” in the world; the wrong ideas can do enormous damage, distorting our institutions and estranging us from reality itself.
Most of these essays have appeared in print before, some more than once; and many of them will be familiar to readers of COMMENTARY. But the justification for gathering and reprinting them becomes clear as one reads them seriatim. What emerges is a remarkable consistency of viewpoint over five decades, a consistency whose full extent may surprise even some of Kristol’s greatest admirers. In this sense, the term “autobiography” in the subtitle is slightly misleading, for it seems to promise an intellectual odyssey capped by a dramatic transformation. But there is no such odyssey, no such transformation—only (at most) a gradual drift of not all that many degrees. Even Kristol’s legendary Trotskyist phase as a college student in the 30’s seems, in his telling here, to have been little more than a lighthearted dabbling, whose chief effect on his life was that it enabled him to meet his future wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb.
The reflective and nuanced quality of his essays bears this out; they are calm and exploratory in tone, undogmatic, full of humanity, and without any trace of the fanaticism, bitterness, and other deformations so often associated with the “ex” mentality. If, as Kristol himself once put it, a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality, that definition seems singularly inapplicable to the godfather himself, who, far from having been mugged, seems to have had matters pretty much in hand all along, and has largely been about the business of refining and elaborating, rather than radically revising, his views of 50 years ago.
Let me give an example of what I mean. In the past year or so, Kristol has come under heavy fire from various quarters for his warm support of religious conservatives, and for his attacks on “the sterility of secular humanism.” Critics have expressed astonishment and dismay at this departure from what they conceive to be the liberal and decidedly secular founding spirit of the neoconservative movement. Yet as the essays in this book attest, Kristol, for one, has been preoccupied with questions of religious faith, and the inadequacy of the liberal and secular understanding of things, from the very beginning of his writing career.
Consider his essay “God and the Psychoanalysts,” originally published in COMMENTARY in 1949, which criticizes religious leaders for their failure to respond more confidently to psychoanalysis’s challenge to religion, and to understand that the truth claims of the two are mutually exclusive. If Freud asserted that religion was only a “mass obsessional neurosis,” religious authorities, in Kristol’s view, needed to counter that the Freudian concept of the unconscious represented “the toll paid to God and nature for the presumptive effort to have man’s conscious rationality prevail over all of existing reality.” As for Freud’s “final and tragic message”—that the truth was “with Reason and against God,” and that this was “a truth in which man probably cannot live”—suppose, Kristol wrote, “the truth is not with Freud and Reason, but with God”? That was a truth that could be lived in, for men would find their happiness “simply living in it, though it be a scandal to Reason.”
The respectful treatment of religious orthodoxy and the misgivings about the modern secularist world view expressed in “God and the Psychoanalysts” turned out to be no youthful anomaly. Instead, they became some of the most consistent themes of Kristol’s work. In an essay of 1972 on equality: “It is the death of God, not the emergence of any new social or economic trends, that haunts bourgeois society.” In a 1975 examination of capitalism and conservatism: “It is the decline in religious belief over the past 50 years” that has fueled the erosion of bourgeois virtues and the rise of the adversarial intellectual. In a 1979 lecture:
Go tell the young people that the message of the [Catholic] church is to wear sackcloth and ashes and to walk on nails to Rome, and they would do it. The church turned the wrong way. It went to modernity at the very moment when modernity was being challenged, when the secular gnostic impulse was already in the process of dissolution.
In a 1991 essay:
There really is such a thing as secular humanism. . . . [It teaches that] the universe is bereft of transcendental meaning, it has no inherent teleology, and it is within the power of humanity to comprehend natural phenomena and to control and manipulate them so as to improve the human estate. [But that view has now begun to] collapse. . . . Secular humanism is brain dead even as its heart continues to pump energy into all of our institutions.
Kristol’s religious tendencies are (to use his distinction) rabbinical rather than prophetic. In calling himself “neo-orthodox,” he means to indicate that it is not the secular outlook per se but rather its unchallenged dominance, unchecked by orthodoxy’s profound sense of moral accountability and limitation, that represents such a potent threat to our civilization. And that is the key to Kristol’s approach to social and political thought in general. He is not a peddler of monisms, miracle elixirs, or master concepts. He is a meliorist, accomplished in the art of tradeoffs, who knows that in a fallen world the best is nearly always the enemy of the good, that nothing is free, and nothing is so absolutely good as to obviate the need for a countervailing check.
Kristol is also, of course, a strong defender of capitalism as an incalculable force for the betterment of man’s material well-being. But he is in no way an uncritical apologist for it, and he has harsh words for those who fall prey to what he regards as libertarian or economistic fallacies. Many of the essays in these pages wrestle with the pathologies and discontents inevitably generated by a successful capitalist economy, and some of the most interesting pages deal with the spiritual emptiness and “thinness” that capitalism imposes upon human relations. But in the end, his endorsement comes down on the side of the bird in hand. “Capitalism has its costs,” he acknowledged in 1976, “but to hope to eliminate all of these costs while preserving all its benefits is surely a utopian fantasy.” Such a qualified perspective differs markedly from the position taken by enthusiasts and antagonists alike.
One finds similar nuance in Kristol’s treatment of democracy. He is amazed (and rightly so) that modern American historians seem unable to see democracy as a problematic ideal—that is to say, as an ideal that entails certain characteristic problems. This inability is particularly ironic in light of the Framers’ own suspicion of democracy, and their efforts to check and contain the destructive tendencies of popular government. In some quarters today, the sober recognition that democracy is not inherently perfect, or at least tending in that direction, almost seems to constitute an act of treason. For Kristol, however, a high regard for democracy must not blind us to the fact that it too needs to be checked and refined by countervailing forces—and that the countervailing forces also need to be countered. Indeed, he has welcomed the current surge of populist politics and sentiment as a healthy antidote to the pernicious influence of arrogant and decadent elites.
Yet he is hardly complacent about the survival of bourgeois democratic institutions. Capitalism, liberalism, and democracy established themselves in America, he writes, upon the “low but solid” foundation of self-interest, and accepted a “weak consensus” that extends not to the definition of happiness but only to the procedural means by which governments allow individuals’ varied pursuits of happiness to go forward. Such a “weak consensus” proved enormously liberating to individual creativity and aspiration, but it has been pointedly unable to offer a principle of moral cohesion upon which society can be ordered. Hence, for Kristol, the central importance of religion, and hence, too, his alarm at the prospect of our having nearly exhausted the inherited capital of our religious traditions.
In this respect as in many others one senses something in these essays of the spirit of Tocqueville, another writer caught in that precarious moment when one age gives way to another, and highly attuned to the art of political problematics. Although there was much about the coming democratic order of America that was not to Tocqueville’s liking, he did not attempt to rebuke or stop it. Instead, he sought to rescue it from its own excesses by strengthening the institutions that might stand as a bulwark against the tendency toward anarchic individualism, privatism, and materialism to which democracies would be prone. Principal among these institutions was that of religion.
Perhaps, then, there is another sense in which Kristol deserves the appellation of “godfather.” Ever since the appearance of Mario Puzo’s book of that title, there has been a tendency to think of a godfather as nothing but a power broker. But in the word’s original meaning, a godfather is one who sponsors a child at baptism and thereafter is expected to take a leading role in his spiritual instruction within the community of faith. To be sure, there is something odd in crediting this “neo-orthodox,” nonobservant Jew with a status so closely associated with Christian practice. But Kristol may have turned out to be just the right kind of godfather for an intellectual and political movement, neo-conservatism, that began its life without much regard for spiritual things.
In the process of seeking to preserve the genuine achievements of modernity, many of us, neoconservative or not, have come to acknowledge modernity’s manifold failures and sicknesses—only to find that Irving Kristol has already been saying such things for a long time, and saying as well that our view of political and social life, and the moral calculus by which we shape our individual and social lives, derive from what we believe about ultimate matters. Slowly but surely, the rest of us are catching up with him.