Sure, we should all give “two (very qualified) cheers” for Irving Kristol (1920-2009), the tireless writer, political eminence grise, and longtime editor at Commentary, Encounter, The Public Interest, and The National Interest, who left this world last Friday.
Kristol was, on many levels, emblematic of a whole generation of American Jewish intellectuals. His journey, recounted in histories and his own “autobiographical” writings, began in the legendary “Alcove 1” at the City College of New York, whose Trotskyist inhabitants engaged in rancorous dialectics with the Stalinists of Alcove 2. This City College dynamic informed Kristol’s first decisive public stand after the war, as Kristol, and the rest of Alcove 1, denounced the “socialist perversion” of Stalin’s USSR and firmly backed NATO as well as a vigorous, interventionist variation on “containment.” And when it came to the prevailing Zeitgeist, post-Trotskyism, or whatever it was exactly that Kristol advocated, was somehow it: Alcove 1’s stalwarts, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Kristol among them, went on to fame and fortune; Alcove 2, which included Julius Rosenberg, was sent to the proverbial dustbin.
“Cold War Liberalism” pretty much sums up Kristol’s political philosophy throughout his entire adult life; the “neoconservative” moniker never indicated an actual conversion or apostasy so much as it served as a reminder that Kristol, and many others from Alcove 1, had begun voting Republican by the early ‘80s. The dissident Left had become the pragmatic center and eventually lionized and demonized as the ultra right-wing—a development that reveals far more about the political trajectory of the American nation than it does about Irving Kristol’s personal travails.
In his history of “the rise of the neocons,” Jacob Heilbrunn recounts a moment (a happy one, from my perspective) in 1990 when the ultra neocon “Committee for the Free World,” whose leadership included Kristol and his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, met and seriously considered that their movement might have just been rendered defunct by the collapse of the Evil Empire. The conference’s mood was reflected by its title, “Does the ‘West’ Still Exist?” (the “West,” of course, being defined by the Pentagon’s latest strategy memo and the tastes and mores of Manhattan’s Upper East Side). The ultimate outcome was much more ironic: the conservative movement and neoconservatism absorbed one another to the point that the two are today practically indistinguishable. The neocons’ “death” marked their greatest triumph, as Norman Podhoretz would observe at the close of the decade.
This aside, Kristol was one of the only neocons around who always called himself a neocon. And for this, he should be praised (the younger generation usually dismisses the term as either an insult or as anti-Semitic code.) Kristol also did dissident conservatives a great service by explicitly defining neoconservatism as a leftish dogma foisted upon the Right when it was least expecting it; in turn, the neocon ascendancy in the GOP and conservative movement was, in Kristol’s treatment, something on the lines of a high-jacking:
[T]he historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.
Is neoconservativism conservative or right-wing? Probably not. Is it American, Yes (and here I think Kristol speaks the truth).
That this new conservative politics is distinctly American is beyond doubt. There is nothing like neoconservatism in Europe, and most European conservatives are highly skeptical of its legitimacy. […]
Kristol’s discussion of neocon governance is also quite revealing, especially when it comes to what we’ve seen of the GOP and movement in and out of power:
Neocons do not like the concentration of services in the welfare state and are happy to study alternative ways of delivering these services. But they are impatient with the Hayekian notion that we are on “the road to serfdom.” Neocons do not feel that kind of alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed inevitable. …
People have always preferred strong government to weak government, although they certainly have no liking for anything that smacks of overly intrusive government. Neocons feel at home in today’s America to a degree that more traditional conservatives do not.
Instead of defining specific functions for government, Kristol instead theorizes much like Goldilocks—the state should be “strong” but not “intrusive,” juuust riiight. It’s no coincidence that contemporary neocons, and their conservative underlings, have been rendered intellectually incapacitated when it comes to opposing the growth of the state. This is a long-running trend, exemplified by Bill Kristol’s call in late September of ’08 for economic genius John McCain to return to Washington and “save the economy” with more bailouts, and, as Grant Havers points out, Irving Kristol’s critique of the “New Class” of sociologists and managers within the Great Society that left the New Deal expansion of government untouched. (Kristol fils, it’s worth noting, backed FDR and LBJ all the way, as he divulged to E.J. Dionne in Commonweal a decade ago.)
And Irving Kristol wasn’t just the godfather of George W. Bush’s “compassion” but of a long-term neocon power strategy. While many conservatives and movement types might have, at one point, genuinely wanted to cut government programs and departments, the neocons only wanted to place other neocons in positions of power. This elect, which understood the “unintended consequences” and valued patriotic (“hard”) military spending over liberal (“soft”) welfare, was well suited to high posts in the Pentagon and the Reagan and Bush administrations.
Robert Nisbet understood this well in 1986 (even though one must ignore his inaccurate labeling of the neocons as the “Far Right”):
The Far Right is less interested in Burkean immunities from government power than it is in putting a maximum of government power in the hands of those who cannot be trusted. It is control of power, rather than diminution of power that ranks high. Thus when Reagan was elected, conservatives hoped for the abolition of such government “monstrosities” as the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, and the two National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, all creations of the political Left. The Far Right in the Reagan phenomenon saw it differently, however; they saw it as an opportunity for retaining and enjoying the powers. And the Far Right prevailed.
How the neocons’ strategy would dovetail with GOP politics is obvious (and is treated definitively by Paul Gottfried in his two books on the movement (the latter of which includes the paragraph quoted above.))
Kristol is also worth remembering for the many pertinent questions his career brings up about culture, propaganda, and state power—and “unintended consequences,” those things the neocons made their careers studying at the Public Interest
As it was revealed in the mid-‘60s, throughout the 25 years following the Second World War, the CIA was engaged in funding a variety of artistic and journalistic movements, all under the strained rationale of fighting the Soviets “on the cultural front.” Perhaps the most unusual of these schemes was the CIA’s sponsorship of abstract art, and Abstract Expressionism in particular, as, somehow, America’s alternative to Soviet art (which at the time was associated with Socialist Realism and not, of course, the abstract and expressionist avant-garde that dominated Bolshevik/Soviet painting and sculpture up until the mid-‘30s.) Nelson Rockefeller, who funneled a great deal of the CIA money through his Foundation, told his clueless comrades in Langley that Abstract Expressionism was “free-enterprise” art—and thus must be funded by the state! (Rockefeller’s side interests in the United Nations and the “No Growth,” population-reduction advocacy Club of Rome—not to mention his back-room dealings with the CIA—might lead one to question his devotion to “free-enterprise.”)
The CIA’s gift to world journalism was the “anti-Soviet Left”: committed progressives, often times former Communists, who, for whatever reason, turned against Stalin and were likely to support a NATO presence in Western Europe and defend America against gauchiste critics—as Bill Kauffman described them, the kind of people who’d demand that America wage war against The God That Failed. The CIA’s “Council on Cultural Freedom” didn’t fund only hacks; Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, and Isaiah Berlin all received funds. Also getting laundered moolah was Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol, then the editors of the Pax Americana-lauding Encounter magazine.
The episode proves, among other things, that the CIA wasn’t exactly the hotbed of natavist reaction and Anglo-Saxon elitism depicted in films like The Good Shepherd (remember, “[WASPs own] the United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.”). As Frances Stonor Saunders recounts, “Back at CIA headquarters in Washington, Encounter was regarded proudly as a ‘flagship,’ an effective vehicle for advancing the arguments for a pax Americana.” It even became a calling card for CIA agents.
Arranging a meeting with Ben Sonnenberg, a rich young wanderer who worked for the CIA in the mid-1950s, an agent told him, “I’ll be carrying a copy of Encounter, so you’ll know who I am.” Josselson, the CIA agent who headed the Congress for Cultural Freedom, referred to it as “our greatest asset”. In agency-speak an “asset” was “any resource at the disposition of the agency for use in an operational or support role.”
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These polite James Bonds of the liberal Left thought they were funding the minds who’d convert the acolytes of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty to “Americanism”; the unintended consequence was crucial early support for those who’d 40 years on be known as the “Far Right” of the Republican Party and who, in alliance with Southern evangelical Christians, would advocate for aggressive wars across the planet.
In looking back on all this, it’d be nifty to say that the neocons are like LSD—invented by CIA (the difference being that Kristol and Co. have proven far more culturally damaging.) But sadly, such an argument would be wrong.
The CIA funding was probably indispensable in the early years; however, the idea that the neocons wouldn’t have risen to dominance within American conservatism on their own is highly dubious
When in the 1980s, Pat Buchanan wrote about how the conservative “dog” must shake off the neoconservative “fleas” (who had concluded they were steering the beast), he was sadly mistaken. Pat underestimated the neocons’ access to funding, their spiritedness in banding together in mutual defense and promotion, and, most of all, the utter spinelessness of movement conservatives.
Pat also underestimated the uniquely “American” quality of neoconservatism, which Kristol described in his famous essay on his “persuasion.” Neocons were always well suited to flourish in a postwar America that, after subjecting Western and Central Europe to military and dollar hegemony, could prop up a consumer lifestyle as a kind of unalienable right. Personal prosperity became equated (somehow) with America having military bases all over the world. It’s rather easy to see how in such a situation Americans would fall in love with conservatives who told them that they represented the zenith of “freedom,” “democracy,” and general goodness.
More difficult to articulate, though none the less important, is a certain American Puritan foundation myth (which the neocons have consciously latched onto of late) of the American people as “chosen,” their land as a Second Jerusalem, and their task that of spreading this Good News across the world. The urbane and mostly Jewish neocons’ alliance with evangelical “Christian Zionist” is a grotesque spectacle, to be sure, but it certainly couldn’t have lasted as long as it has without a strong theological foundation. Put simply, Americans might have been tempted to invent the neocons, if the CIA hadn’t done so already.
Irving Kristol conceived of his country’s identity as “ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear,” and argued that the U.S. would thus “inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns.” One wonders whether at the end Kristol grasped that his beloved Superpower was quickly going the way of the Evil Empire of old.
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