Irving Kristol, RIP

I first came across the work of Irving Kristol, who died yesterday, in a Carlton second-hand bookshop in 1983 or 1984. His book Two Cheers for Capitalism offered fewer cheers than I thought warranted in my youthful Friedmanite enthusiasm. But it was two more cheers than most books in Carlton second-hand bookstores offered capitalism, so I bought it.

It was the start of a long intellectual interest in neoconservatism, peaking in 1989 when it became the subject of my honours thesis. Though I remained a classical liberal, I was interested in the cultural questions raised by neoconservatives and those on fringes of neoconservatism (perhaps summed up in the title of a book by Kristol’s friend Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism). I was also interested in the neoconservatives as intellectuals.

Most of the neocons were product of the amazingly fertile intellectual world of mid-20th century New York Jews. Indeed, Kristol was one of an extraordinary number of them who went to City College in the 1930s, the Ivy League universities not yet being ready for very bright working and lower-middle class Jews. These include Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, Irving Howe, Nathan Glazer, Philip Selznik, David Landes and Kenneth Arrow.

Kristol became a Trotskyist at City College (not a ‘Trotskyite’ he points out, a term used by their Stalinist rivals). Though he left the Trotskyists in his early 20s – in a classic Trotskyist move he was expelled for ‘having the ideological impudence to resign’– he did not regret this phase of his life. During an otherwise futile effort to recruit Brooklyn blacks to the socialist cause he met the future historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, who became his wife. And the intense debates and wide reading of their circle were an excellent intellectual education. (He tells the story of this part of his life in ‘Memoirs of a Trotskyist’ in Reflections of a Neoconservative and in ‘An Autobiographical Memoir’ in Neoconservatism: Autobiography of an Idea.)

Kristol subsequently became a strong anti-communist, co-editing with Stephen Spender the British anti-communist intellectual and literary magazine Encounter (it was a very upmarket version of Quadrant). His memoirs suggest that his time in Britain in the 1950s gave him his first real encounter with conservatives. I don’t think British conservatism influenced neoconservatism – it was a very American phenomenon – but that it took a trip to a foreign country for Kristol to mix with conservatives shows how ‘neo’ it was to him. When neoconservatism emerged as an intellectual force in the 1970s, it did so largely independently of existing American conservatism. None of the key figures had any background in the American conservative movement. It was the cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s that made them conservatives.

Kristol is often called the ‘godfather’ of neoconservatism. This is a fair description for a couple of reasons. He was a very able populariser of ideas. Much of his essay writing is high journalism, showing wide reading but always comprehensible to a broad audience. Just as importantly, he got on easily with others and was a formidable networker. This made him an effective political entrepreneur, founding or co-founding two important magazines (The Public Interest and The National Interest) and promoting the careers of numerous others. It was perhaps too why he had so many lucky breaks early in his career. He was the kind of person other people wanted to help.

Neoconservatism, by Kristol’s own account, died before him. In a mid-1990s essay he remarked that it was a generational phenomenon, and has now merged into the broader conservative political culture. Second-generation neo-cons (literally, in the case of Kristol and Himmelfarb’s son Bill) had never been Trotskyists and were familiar with conservative ideas from an early age.

Many would think Kristol premature in declaring neoconservatism over – that it lived on with disastrous consequences in Iraq. Neoconservatives were particularly blamed for the idea that it was possible to export democracy to the Arab world. In my honours thesis, I argued that the idea of ‘democratic globalism’ was a tension in neoconservative thought.

Articles in neocon magazines did argue for the spread of democracy throughout the world. But neoconservative thought as a whole suggested otherwise. Domestically, they argued that even in the US there is a need to actively create the kind of person who can function in a liberal democratic market society; that there is an important cultural as well as economic and political dimension to the success of such societies. From that perspective, the Arab world is a distinctly unpromising place for any kind of free society.

It is ironic that neoconservatism stands condemned for an idea that its original leading figures rejected. But Kristol, a careful reader of intellectual and political history, knew that unexpected outcomes were a possibility. In 1995, he said he thought that neoconservatism had been a success in helping to enliven American conservatism and reshape American politics. He added:

I am well aware that the unanticipated consequences of ideas and acts are often very different from what was originally intended. That, I would say, is the basic conservative axiom, and it applies to conservatives as well as liberals and radicals.

Indeed. Irving Kristol, RIP.

5 thoughts on “Irving Kristol, RIP

  1. Kristol became a Trotskyist at City College (not a ‘Trotskyite’ he points out, a term used by their Stalinist rivals).

    Interesting that he went there too. These days you only have to show proof of life to “gain” admission to CUNY. In Kristol’s day it was the uni of choice for not so rich really smart Jewish kids and in fact at one stage boasted a large number of Nobel prize winners.

    And terrific Obit.


  2. “These days you only have to show proof of life to “gain” admission to CUNY.”

    This is an exaggeration. You have to have graduated from high school.


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