Jeremy Rozansky, "Three Cheers," Counterpoint, Winter 2011. (A review of The Neoconservative Persuasion by Irving Kristol.)
“I myself have accepted the term, perhaps, because, having been named Irving, I am relatively indifferent to baptismal caprice.” So said Irving Kristol of having been called a “neoconservative.” Initially used as an insult for a class of ex-leftist, Jewish intellectuals, the label stuck, in part because of its unintentional accuracy and in part because of Kristol’s wry acceptance. The quote reveals something else about Irving Kristol: that he was a happy warrior, armed with brutal charm and a practical wit.
This is the Kristol one sees again and again in the pages of an impressive posthumous collection of his works The Neoconservative Persuasion. What is, perhaps, most striking at the outset is how highlights from the life’s work of a man who is known for having split from his youthful Trotskyism and eventually become an intellectual giant for American conservatives, can show a series of sentiments and concerns that stay constant from youth to old age. Kristol’s wife, Gertrude “Bea” Himmelfarb and his son, William, found an eclectic range of articles, all but one never before published in a Kristol volume. Each is an intentional inclusion, and it becomes clear that Kristol’s dexterity stretches across the same foundation.
Kristol’s body of work became both the template of the neoconservative narrative and the greatest contribution to the neoconservative scripture. He came to be known as the godfather of neoconservatism. Shaped by the debates in Alcove 1 at City College of New York (Alcove 1 was for the Trotskyites, Alcove 2 belonged to the Stalinists), Kristol was active in the New York scene of predominantly Jewish intellectuals. By the time Kristol came back from the armed forces in World War Two, he had largely given up his Trotskyism. As an editor and writer for many magazines and quarterlies, Kristol showed an unpredictability that is especially well preserved in this collection. Like the other neoconservatives, Kristol turned against the left over the campus rebellions, the too-often pale or nonexistent anti-communism, and the excesses of the civil rights movement—busing and affirmative action—that contradicted the cause of equality. Watching the descent of the cities into vice and chaos also instigated a powerful critique of the welfare state by men like Kristol. All four issues and others feature prominently in any grouping of Kristol’s work.
The collection is called The Neoconservative Persuasion, because it is not clear how else to label neoconservatism. It is certainly not an ideology as it is too incomplete and has no discernible doctrine. It is called a strain, the most important (and first indigenous) strain in contemporary American conservatism, but it is too independent for that. It is not a movement—where are the rallies? It is best thought of as a persuasion, a multivalenced tendency or disposition centered on a few key points such as using social science while understanding its limits, holding the culture to moral as well as realistic expectations, cheering on capitalism while scolding its overenthusiastic supporters, and others. Kristol called it a persuasion based on historian Marvin Meyers’ definition. A persuasion, in this sense, “manifests itself over time, but erratically, and [its] meaning we clearly glimpse only in retrospect.”
The Neoconservative Persuasionis a retrospective. The collection begins with a review of W. H. Auden from a magazine Kristol founded after college called Enquiry (which was modeled after Partisan Review) and concludes with his capstone essay in the last issue of his five-decade, public policy quarterly The Public Interest. The essays, forty-eight in total, are grouped by topics.
In the “Memoirs” section that ends the book, Kristol has his “An Autobiographical Memoir” originally written for Neoconservatism: An Autobiography of an Idea, a book tantamount to a more focused first volume to The Neoconservative Persuasion. “An Autobiographical Memoir” is a helpful introduction for those who have never read Kristol or know little of him. In it, he identifies two main influences on his thought: Lionel Trilling and Leo Strauss. The first topic of the collection comprises five essays of literary criticism from Enquiry. Here we see Trilling’s die imprinted on Kristol. An essay from 1944 inspired by Trilling, “The Moral Critic,” discusses the Left’s failure to concern itself with morality as an end and failure to see humans as they are. To reconcile these tendencies, Kristol speaks of what E. M. Forster called “moral realism.” Kristol defines it thus:
Moral realism is aware of the paradoxical quirks of morality; it knows that good-and-evil are more often to be found than good versus evil. Though dissatisfied, of course, with the ways of men, it forsees no new virtues, but, at best, a healthier distribution of the old. It is not eschatological, skeptical of proposed revisions of man’s nature, interested in human beings as it finds them, content with the possibilities and limitations that are always with us.
This sounds an awful lot like Burkean conservatism. Later down the page, we can see just how much this sensibility stuck with Kristol. Forster sums up his politics as “So two cheers for Democracy; there is no reason to give three.” To this, Kristol responds, “And so it is with politics, reform, revolution, war, social planning—what were once unquestioned goods now call forth two well meaning cheers.” Kristol, of course, used this very image in his most famous work, Two Cheers for Capitalism in which he gave a defense of capitalism while admitting its imperfections. Even in 1944, Kristol could only give anything two cheers, not the usual three. This sensibility, this skepticism, this mature understanding that with the good comes the bad, and this realism to accept it would, more than any other persuasion, define Kristol’s career.
Perhaps this is best supplemented by the next section, called “Ancients and Moderns.” Here are a few essays that reflect the way in which Strauss influenced Kristol. The most staggering of the bunch is a review of Strauss’ Persecution and the Art of Writing, a strange, complicated book on how to read the Medieval political philosophers. The book preceded Strauss’ later fame and far preceded Strauss’ later, undeserved, infamy. In the review, Kristol correctly identifies the possibility of Leo Strauss. “[I]f in time the victory goes to Professor Strauss, he will have accomplished nothing less than a revolution in intellectual history.” While the neoconservative revolution is not the same as the possible Straussian revolution herein mentioned, Strauss is seen in Kristol’s long intellectual view and willingness to criticize modernity, at times, at its amoral roots.
The next few sections show a Kristol more concerned with practical politics and matters of public policy than before. “Democracy in America” features his moral-sociological criticisms of the Great Society, and a controversial essay on McCarthyism that helped drive the left away from him for the simple fact that he did not describe the left as mere victims. “The Culture and Counterculture” samples Kristol’s responses to the 1960s’ shock to American mores. “Vice and Virtue in Las Vegas” and “It’s Obscene but Is It Art?” are fun, but also deceptively wise and measured. “Capitalism, Conservatism, and Neoconservatism” locates the heart of Kristol’s neoconservatism: the critique and defense of capitalism in moral, not mathematical, argument. Following these is “Foreign Policy and Ideology,” an overlooked part of Kristol’s corpus that effectively assaults both liberal internationalism and isolationism.
The penultimate section focuses on the Jewish writings of Irving Kristol. Kristol admits in “An Autobiographical Memoir” that, even as a Trotskyist, when he read the King James Version of The Bible “and was immediately persuaded that the Book of Genesis was, in some nonliteral sense, true.” Having been, as he says, neo-Marxist, neo-Trotskyite, neo-socialist, neo-liberal, and eventually neoconservative, he locates the source of all these neos in a permanent attachment to “neo-orthodox” religious views. While often hesitant to practice and theologically unsure as modern men so often are, Kristol’s neo-orthodoxy prevents him from endorsing the oft-arrogant and misguided modernization of Judaism. In a 1948 essay “How Basic is ‘Basic Judaism’?” Kristol takes on an emblematic modernizer, Rabbi Milton Steinberg, a follower of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s efforts to “reconstruct” Judaism as a sociological instrument. The problem with Steinberg is that “[h]is is a religion of the good deed and the good community, in a time when the quality of the good deed is anything but self-evident, and the good community is only a dream of something that might have existed. It strikes me—and I say this with no disingenuousness—as considerably too good for us.” It is an intellectually hollow religion, unable to face up to the moral complexity of Rabbinic Judaism. It takes a Judaism already insufficient to the questions of modernity and makes it more insufficient so as to avoid the question entirely. In the style of moral realism, Kristol desires that Judaism be able to deal with modern man as he is, without emasculating its ethical sense in favor of the theories of John Dewey.
His later Jewish writings stem from this desire. The essays after this focus on the odd habit of Jewish support for liberal causes. Kristol effectively outlines how the political working of the Jewish establishment is not, in fact, good for the Jews. But a sense pervades several of the essays that the source of this problem is the same as the problem in the Steinberg review. Jews have replaced sincere intellectual reflection on the ethical texts with a simple, progressive ethic akin to secular humanism. They cannot address the modern challenges to Judaism, especially its particularism, without awarding victory to modernity in a universalistic uniquely modern form called “Prophetic Judaism” that is solely interested in political utopianism. On this, Kristol is more subtle than I have been, but more biting as well. The Jews, Kristol later says, need a genuine, indigenous tradition of political thought to challenge this absurd importation. I believe this will be among the accomplishments of the next few generations of neoconservative heirs like The Shalem Center in Israel and others in the United States.
Neoconservatism: An Autobiography of an Idea, which has many essays of similar themes. But that book is about Kristol the neoconservative, whereas this one is much more intimate, showing us Kristol the thinking man. Perhaps the intimacy is a result of the eulogy delivered by Bill and the broad, but not breathy introduction by his wife, Bea. Of Bea we are reminded that Daniel Bell, Kristol’s collaborator on The Public Interest, once called Irving and Bea’s marriage “the best of [his] generation.” The Neoconservative Persuasion is a portrait of the enduring sentiments and ideas of Irving Kristol, as chosen by Bea. It is therefore not only a collection of statements about humans and their politics, but a gift from wife to husband. It is a sampling of human intellectual possibilities with its powerful, considered prose on many matters of consequence. It is also the meditations of man with most admirable sentiments: love of family, love of country, and two cheers for just about everything else.
Reprinted with permission from Counterpoint and the author.