The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942-2009, Irving Kristol, Basic Books, 416 pages

By Noah Millman

What is a neoconservative?

From the etymology of the word, it should refer either to someone who has newly become conservative—having been born a little liberal—or to someone who has revised conservatism into something new, without causing it thereby to cease to be conservative. It should, perhaps, refer to a political perspective that takes il Gattopardo’s maxim, “everything must change so that everything can remain the same,” very much to heart and to whatever lengths necessary.

But the Leopard was a member of the old order. The original neoconservatives, though they may have come to appreciate and ultimately defend the old order, came originally from the other side—indeed, from radicalism. Yet the term does not refer to the experience of political conversion; one can, apparently, be born a little neoconservative. (And with Bill Kristol’s children in their twenties, we are on the brink of the third generation of hereditary neoconservatism.) Moreover, many of the original neoconservatives claim to find a high degree of continuity in their own thinking from their earlier liberal or even radical left-wing days.

Irving Kristol, godfather of the neoconservative movement and, indeed, the man who claimed to be the only self-acknowledged neoconservative in existence—the term was invented by a critic, intended to be pejorative—was famously unwilling to define the word. But in a late essay, he harkened back to a book review he wrote more than 50 years ago to dredge up, if not a definition, then at least a proper taxonomy. Neoconservatism was not an ideology, nor was it the result of a personal conversion experience. It was a “persuasion”:

The word ‘persuasion’ … [Professor Meyers] defines as ‘a half-formulated moral perspective involving emotional commitment,’ [which] 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.

The quote is from a 1958 review of a book on the rise of Jacksonian democracy, a piece included in the recently published posthumous collection, The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942-2009. This is not the first collection of Kristol’s essays, and the inclusions were selected by his widow, Gertrude Himmelfarb. The book is a kind of monument, raised by her on his behalf, intended, presumably, to give us a complete picture of the man rather than an anthology of his most important work. But the line between the man and the movement, particularly a movement organized around a sensibility or “persuasion,” cannot be very sharp, and Kristol, who titled the collection of his works that he organized himself Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, would seem to agree. If we are to try to answer my initial question, then, this new volume would not seem a terrible place to start.

In 1976 Kristol asked, “What is a ‘Neoconservative’?” and answered, in so many words, someone who wants to make liberalism work. Someone with a preference for incorporating market mechanisms into regulatory policy rather than operating by bureaucratic fiat. With a hostility to the erstwhile “counterculture” and a preference for art or “quality.” Who believes in providing equality of opportunity rather than mandating equality of result. And who holds to a conviction that a world hostile to American values will also be hostile to American interests. He concludes the essay: “if the political spectrum moved rightward and we should become ‘neoliberal’ tomorrow, I could accept that, too. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be too surprised if just that happened.”

And that is, in fact, what happened. Some version of the above convictions were clearly manifest in the policies of the last Democratic administration, as they are in the policies of the current one as well. Yet neoconservatism hasn’t turned into neoliberalism, and hasn’t gone away. Were there further goals to be achieved?

Perhaps not. In 2003, in the title essay of this volume, he asked again what neoconservatives might be, and answered: they are “hopeful, not lugubrious; forward-looking, not nostalgic; cheerful, not grim or dyspeptic.” They favor lower taxes and economic growth but don’t fret too much about the size or scope of the state as such. They are comfortable in modernity but also happy to see religion promoted because religion in turn promotes moral behavior. And, interestingly, they claim to have no specific foreign-policy beliefs other than patriotism, the need to know enemies from friends, and a recognition that America has global interests. This litany is so anodyne that one wonders how apple pie was left off.

And then this, from 1995: “Neoconservatism … had no program of its own. Basically, it wanted the Republican Party to cease playing defensive politics, to be forward-looking rather than backward-looking … the substance of any specific agenda may not have much to do with neoconservatism, but the moving spirit does.”

It is astonishing for a man who said that “what rules the world is idea” to admit, in so many words, that his own “persuasion” didn’t involve a set of ideas at all but rather a vague emotional orientation. In the essays about economic policy—the heart of the Reagan revolution—Kristol is quite frank about not caring whether or not the Laffer Curve is actually operative at the tax rates that then prevailed, even brags that there were no economists at The Public Interest in its heyday. But he could tell that supply-side economics was the coming thing, and that it pointed upward, not downward, was optimistic, not pessimistic. He might as easily have said, “neoconservatives don’t believe anything in particular, but we really adored President Reagan because he was a right-wing leader with a temperament that reminded us of FDR.”

In popular discourse in 2011, of course, a neoconservative means something rather more specific: a certain kind of nationalist-hegemonist, who believes every potential threat should be snuffed out vigorously before being given a chance to grow (or die a natural death) and who finds readiness for war and even war itself to be morally improving. But there is scant evidence from this collection, in early or late essays, that Kristol considered himself to be one of these.

There are six essays on foreign policy included in the collection, the most recent from the mid-1990s—nothing from the post-9-11 era. None of them bear any resemblance to the kinds of belligerent tracts that his son’s magazine, The Weekly Standard, published with regularity. The last three essays are not terribly interesting, offering standard right-wing critiques of international law, human-rights law, and the Oslo peace process; they evince a suspicion of any agreement or principle that would bind the United States, or Israel, or any other “friendly” country, but there are no insights to be had into the particularity of his persuasion. The earlier essays, though containing some interesting material, are not necessarily neoconservative in the contemporary sense.

In a 1973 essay, Kristol presciently argued that the end of the draft and the establishment of a professional standing army would make it easier for future presidents to intervene militarily in foreign conflicts, quite the opposite of the intentions of the Vietnam War’s opponents, who supported abolishing conscription. He does not make clear whether he himself approves or disapproves of this new latitude—but the reader senses a subterranean concern for the health of the Republic, as if he recalled the Founders’ distrust of standing armies.

More interesting still, in a 1983 essay on NATO, Kristol recognized that mutually assured destruction made the American warfighting doctrine of the time—calling for first use of nuclear weapons to defend Europe against a conventional Soviet invasion—not credible, and therefore not an effective deterrent. The only way to deter a Soviet conventional attack would be for Europe to have conventional superiority, which could only be provided by the Europeans themselves, and which they were unlikely to build so long as America, through NATO, promised to defend them. These are insights indeed—but where do they go? Where are the articles from the 1990s decrying NATO expansion—or, alternatively, arguing forthrightly that enlarging NATO is no longer about deterring anybody but the Europeans themselves, from developing an independent military capability?

And then there is one other article, from 1973, about Israel. Entitled “Notes on the Yom Kippur War,” it does not, in fact, contain notes on the war—about its progress, conduct, causes or likely effects, or lessons to be learned about how Israel might avoid getting into such a position in the future. Rather, the notes are on Kristol’s emotional reaction:

Why am I so deeply affected? I am not an Orthodox Jew, and only barely an observant one. I am not a Zionist, and I did not find my two visits to Israel to be particularly exhilarating experiences. Truth to tell, I found Israeli society, on the whole, quite exasperating. … Still, I care desperately. I think it is because I sense, deep down, that what happens to Israel will be decisive for Jewish history, and for the kinds of lives my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be leading.

I suspect he was right about that—that what happens to Israel will be decisive for Jewish history—but conquest by Arab armies is not the only thing that could happen. Israel has not been attacked by an Arab army since 1973, but a great deal has happened to the country. Strange that someone who cares so desperately about Israel’s survival would not be terribly engaged by its life.

But then this is a thread that runs through the whole volume, whether the subject is economics or politics or foreign policy or culture or what-have-you. An engagement with the world, yes—but as from outside of it.

This is most notable with respect to cultural matters. In a 1984 essay, “Reflections of a Neoconservative,” Kristol asked, “How have my literary, cultural, and political views changed over the past decades?” and answered:

for myself, I have reached certain conclusions: that Jane Austen is a greater novelist than Proust or Joyce; Raphael is a greater painter than Picasso; T.S. Eliot’s later, Christian poetry is much superior to his earlier; C.S. Lewis is a finer literary and cultural critic than Edmund Wilson; Aristotle is more worthy of careful study than Marx; we have more to learn from Tocqueville than from Max Weber; Adam Smith makes a lot more economic sense than any economist since; the Founders had a better understanding of democracy than any political scientist since; that. … Well, enough.

Enough, indeed. These are not reflections; these are not even views; this is updating your Facebook “likes.”

Whereas the very early essays attempt to grapple with specific works of criticism, or with actual cultural phenomena, there is a calcification that sets in surprisingly early. The surrounding culture is condemned in general terms—degenerate, licentious, etc.—but not truly engaged. Kristol raises his head to decry art that offends his sensibilities—say, the work of Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe that caused such a fuss back in the 1980s—but one searches in vain for a defense of any work being produced today, in virtually any medium, or even for an introduction to a curmudgeonly critic whose sensibilities he found valuable as a guide.

Kristol engages neither the culture he condemns nor the various conservative counter-cultures that have cropped up in an effort to insulate their members from the larger society. (Kristol talks often about “getting along” with religious conservatives, but one senses he is talking about pow-wows with their leaders, not experiencing life in their communities.) One wonders, what did he and his friends talk about over cocktails?

When Kristol looked to disparage the varieties of conservatism that came before his, he often refers to “pessimism” but even more to “nostalgia” or being “backward-looking.” But the Kristol who comes through in these pages is emphatically backward-looking, a man animated more than anything by nostalgia for the Truman administration. An age when discovering who one’s enemies really were—Stalinists and their agents—was the order of the day. When the Berlin Airlift buried the ghost of Munich. When being a good liberal meant supporting an end to segregation, not ignoring the fulminations of Reverend Farrakhan. (Remember him, and when Jewish leaders from Ed Koch to, apparently, Irving Kristol considered him an existential threat? I almost didn’t.) And in culture, the golden age of middlebrow seriousness—Great Books for everyone.

There are worse ages to be nostalgic for, no doubt. But nostalgia, as Kristol surely knew because he said so often enough, is a thin basis for a political program.

It is a particularly poor basis for raising a next generation of leadership—or, for that matter, followership. Making first-hand nostalgia a basis for one’s understanding of the world is perhaps tragic. But finding that basis in second-hand nostalgia is farcical. My father can go around saying he’s still voting for Scoop Jackson—and he does—and that just tells us what was his formative political experience. But if I go through high school carrying a copy of Homage to Catalonia and lamenting that I’m too young to fight for Spain—which I did—I’m just behaving like a character in a Wes Anderson movie.

April 2011 coverSo what are young conservatives—or liberals or political agnostics—who read this book going to get out of it?

What they will learn, and it is a terrible thing, is that the questions that we ask in our youth—in our twenties—may be the only ones we ever really ask. Kristol, from the very beginning, is asking himself only a handful of questions. Stalinism having been rejected as abhorrent, is there a coherent left? How can a democratic society be made virtuous? (He seems from the beginning to be more interested in this question than in how it may be made prosperous, or free, or equal.) And what did being Jewish mean to a man in the modern age—given that it clearly did mean something to him, from the first, and given that fidelity either to Jewish tradition or to Jewish nationalism was not what it meant?

That is terrible enough: that we will spend the rest of our lives asking the same few questions from our twenties over and over. But if the bulk of the book is any indication, the greater risk is that we will think we have answered them.

Noah Millman blogs at theamericanscene.com.

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