Irving Kristol was one of the most influential writers, editors, and political commentators of the last half of the twentieth century. His obituaries credited him “with helping to transform the political landscape of the United States in the late 20th century” (The Telegraph of London) and “defin[ing] modern conservatism and . . . setting the stage for the Reagan presidency” (The New York Times). His essays are remarkable for their wry wit, their lightly worn erudition, and their elegant accessibility. Kristol’s writings cover a remarkable range of topics—ranging from religion to democratic capitalism to American history and politics, and beyond—and do so in ways that are both topical and timeless, charming and bracing. Perhaps the best introduction to Kristol’s life and thought is the essay by his wife, the distinguished historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, which is to be found in the volume of Kristol’s essays published posthumously, The Neoconservative Persuasion. Other appreciations, by writers including James Q. Wilson, Wilfred McClay, James W. Ceaser, and Eric Cohen, are also worth reading. But what are most worth reading are Kristol’s own writings.
What follows here is an abridged and lightly edited version of the Himmelfarb introduction.
From the Introduction by Gertrude Himmelfarb
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.”)
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 thirties, 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 that he (and the reviewer) 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, he said, 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 sensibilities.” For the reviewer, 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.”
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. That religious neo gene emerged most conspicuously in Commentary a few years later. Kristol’s 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 not only from Jacques Maritain but also from 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.
It was in Commentary that yet another neo-ism revealed itself. As Trilling, the “skeptical liberal,” was the dominant influence upon 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 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 mind-set that informed their views of culture, religion, society, philosophy, and politics alike.
The “neo” disposition took on a more political and social 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” generates 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.”
For Kristol, 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, which he happily adopted for himself. Again, there were reminiscences of the past, as in the title he gave Two Cheers for Capitalism in 1978, recalling Forster’s “two cheers for democracy,” which he had 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.
In Kristol’s 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 by 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 upon an ethos, a culture, and—that enduring token of “American exceptionalism”—a religious disposition that made for a stable and decent society.
Much has been made of the consistency of tone in Kristol’s 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 hard-headed. 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 fail to appreciate the complicated realities of human nature and social action—realities, he insisted, that have to be confronted honestly and boldly.