I cannot claim to have known the late Irving Kristol very well. But each encounter was memorable, and none more so than the last, in May of 2009. It was at a crowded and noisy reception at the Warner Theater, prior to Leon Kass’ presentation of the annual Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Irving’s health had been gradually declining for a long time, and he was by then wheelchair-bound and sitting on the sidelines. But he would not have missed the occasion of his close friend’s important lecture and clearly was enjoying himself, even though he was nearly deaf.
He seemed to accept such symptoms of physical decline with remarkable equanimity, even humor. As his son Bill relates in his lovely foreword to The Neoconservative Persuasion, a posthumous selection of his essays, when Irving would lunch with his colleagues Irwin Stelzer and Charles Krauthammer, sometimes at the end of one of their debates he would advise them, “I can’t hear what you’re saying. So I make it up. And,” he added, smiling, “sometimes you disappoint me.”
I knew conversation with him on this occasion would not be easy and might end up disappointing us both. Still, I had a feeling the opportunity might never come again, and so I presumptuously knelt down at his side and spoke directly into his ear. He didn’t seem to mind in the least.
My question was as follows. Here we were now, four months into the Obama administration, far enough to see pretty clearly where the new president and his large congressional majorities intended to take the country: among other things, toward a greatly enlarged public sector with vastly expanded regulatory and administrative roles for the federal government in industry, energy production, education, banking, environmental protection, medical care, trade, and virtually every other important aspect of the economy.
For those of us who had lived through the tumults and frustrations of the seventies, a heyday of ineffective governance and economic torpor, such a litany of top-down, command-economy measures seemed like a return of the repressed, as if all the vital lessons of those dreadful years were being cast aside in favor of a mindless embrace of hoary statist delusions that had already amply proven their inadequacy. How, I wondered, did Irving feel about this development? Were we in fact going backward? Would we have to relearn the same lessons all over again?
“Of course we will!” he exclaimed without hesitation, smiling as ever, eyes flashing. “The younger generation never learns much from the past.” A pause, and then a more direct gaze. “But you hope it learns eventually.” And it struck me both then and now how perfectly these simple words distilled his outlook on life: skeptical, realistic, historically aware, unillusioned, and yet, despite it all, hopeful. I heard no hint of condemnation in his words, since he was speaking of all younger generations, very much including his own. He was stating a fact about the human condition, not hurling moral thunderbolts of disdain or prophetic admonition, and he spoke with a rueful smile, not a bitter snarl or sighing resignation or—least of all—anything remotely resembling despair.
He had long ago concluded that it was pointless to expect people to be better than they were and then to be angrily disappointed in them for failing to meet unrealistic expectations. He believed in the sobering and restraining importance of experience, both as a residuum of hard-won traditional knowledge and as the ultimate proving ground for the new and untested. And yet, notwithstanding his skepticism and his sense of life’s contingency, there also was an irrepressible buoyancy about him, a kind of animal vitality born of hopefulness that kept him in motion and engaged and curious. It impressed me that he said “we” will. He did not speak as if he were checking out any time soon. But he did imply rather strongly that the task facing us was going to be one of general moral renewal and not merely one of winning political battles.
All of these qualities of mind and character come shining through in The Neoconservative Persuasion, a collection of Kristol’s essays ranging across sixty-four years, most of them previously unpublished in book form, ranging from his early contributions to a forgotten magazine called Enquiry: A Journal of Independent Radical Thought to his valedictory words at the close of the career of his most important enterprise, the journal called The Public Interest. The range of subjects and authors he takes under consideration in these essays is staggering, from Tacitus to W. H. Auden, from supply-side economic theory to Jewish theology, from obscenity to the future of NATO, from Machiavelli to welfare reform.
Most astonishing of all is the high degree of pertinence that so many of these essays have for the present moment, despite the occasional or impermanent circumstances for which they were originally composed. Very few of them seem dated, and then only in very incidental and unimportant ways. They seem to have matured rather than aged.
This collection is welcome for another reason. Irving Kristol the writer has been consistently underestimated, and in two different ways. First, because he is often seen as more important for the institutions he built than for the things he wrote. He may well have seen himself in that same way, having concluded at the start of his career that all the most important innovations in modern intellectual history had come out of small, intently focused groups: circles, schools, salons, sects, metaphysical clubs, and the like. He realized that the task before him, which could be described as the defense of liberal society against its own excesses, would require the creation of something similar, an incubator and testing ground for the ideas that would become neoconservatism: a label for the distinctive intellectual “persuasion” that he will always be identified with.
“I decided that I wanted to create a salon,” he once told me, and that was just what he did. All the magazines he edited, most notably The Public Interest, and all the institutions he helped sustain, most notably the American Enterprise Institute, were that salon, an archipelago of gathering places where those who were like-minded, but not too like-minded, could have fruitful conversations and exchanges leading to enlivened inquiry and intellectual breakthroughs. It is not entirely surprising that emphasis on his achievements as an intellectual place maker should crowd out consideration of his own writing.
Kristol’s writings have been underestimated also because he was a man of ideas who had the ability to write simply, directly, and pithily about them. He had an uncanny ability to cut through the incidentals and accidentals of a matter, go right to its center of gravity, and grasp hold of it in clean, epigrammatic phrases. This is a rare and remarkable gift and yet one that is almost guaranteed to produce detractors in the world of ideas. He did not suffer from the academic’s addiction to parades of ever greater levels of complexity or to making arguments from authority while using jargon and willfully opaque verbiage. He weighed issues with great care and had a phenomenal ability to read and absorb and distill a wide range of often highly technical writing. But in the end, what he wrote was, like his words at the Warner Theater, often disarmingly direct, presented without qualifications or escape clauses, so much so that he often fooled those who confuse erudition with wisdom.
In addition, The Neoconservative Persuasion provides an excellent reminder, very badly needed, of the essential core of neoconservatism, a “persuasion” that has become so widely misunderstood, and sometimes willfully so, that a return to the original sources seems long overdue. Many on both the right and the left now dismiss it breezily as if it were nothing more than a crusading and neocolonial ideological commitment to the universal imposition of liberal democracy, particularly in the Middle East, heedless of the imperatives of culture and history. But for Irving Kristol, who in any event wrote mainly about domestic matters, it was always a vastly more complicated and nuanced thing.
In the beginning, he saw it not as a root-and-branch repudiation of liberalism in all its aspects but as a corrective to the destructive effects of liberalism run amok, an outlook that presumed the fundamental sobriety and humane good sense of a very moderate and culturally conservative form of liberalism. A neoconservative was, in the famous formulation, a liberal who had been “mugged by reality”—something that purer conservatives could not (and would not be likely to) claim for themselves. When Kristol and the late Daniel Bell started The Public Interest in 1965, they did so in reaction to the effects of bad political and social-scientific ideas that were taking their turn in the saddle of American political and intellectual life, such as the sentimentalization of poverty or the sensationalized fear of “automation.” But the project quickly grew beyond its origins. By the seventies, many of the overblown hopes of the postwar era, and particularly of the sixties, had come crashing down, in the form of chronic economic stagnation, swelling welfare rolls, endemic urban crime, and, on a deeper level even than these admittedly serious problems, a general loss of confidence in the American way of life and the American future, in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate. The steady increase in these pathologies, the ever expanding list of America’s economic, diplomatic, cultural, and spiritual woes, became The Public Interest’s bread-and-butter subject.
But The Public Interest and the neoconservatism it embodied were not merely a means of saving liberalism from itself, even if that motive contributed a great deal to their founding energies. They were also a modernizing and enlivening contribution to newly emerging, and as yet intellectually spotty and politically ineffectual, American conservatism, showing it how one might employ the tools and vocabularies of the social sciences to make conservative perspectives on social policy more widely persuasive. Both neoconservatives and traditional conservatives might deplore the ill effects of exploding rates of illegitimacy and single-parent families, facilitated by vastly misguided social policies; but it made a huge difference whether the opposition was expressed strictly in abstract philosophical or theological terms or in concrete and quantitative form, carefully correlating causes and effects, substituting numbers for impressions and statistics for anecdotes. In addition, neoconservatism, particularly as Irving Kristol practiced it, concerned itself with “the relation of our religious-moral traditions to the secular-rationalist culture that has been imposed upon them,” a concern that one sees consistently expressed over the entire span of Kristol’s long and productive writing career, beginning with his essays in the 1940s on subjects such as Auden, Ignazio Silone, and “the myth of the supra-human Jew.”
Kristol did not see himself as writing for the ages, and neither did he see neoconservatism as a permanent addition to the intellectual firmament. Instead, he saw it as a passing and generational phenomenon, claiming in his essay “An Autobiographical Memoir” (1995) that neoconservatism had by then been “pretty much absorbed into a larger, more comprehensive conservatism,” no longer warranting identification as something separate and distinct. He may or may not have been right about this. There may be a case to be made for the continuing distinctiveness of the neoconservative persuasion, which rests far more comfortably in the lap of modernity than does the older conservatism, being more accepting (for example) of the principle of equality, or of the mild regulation of the market economy, and accepting, if only because they have become “facts on the ground,” the necessity for many reforms (such as Social Security) that traditionalist conservatives had routinely anathematized. As one familiar formulation has it, neoconservatism accepts the New Deal but rejects the Great Society—or, to put it more precisely, it insists on pointing out the latter’s unintended but inevitable consequences. Neoconservatism could have been a much-needed Dutch uncle—a Jewish Dutch uncle—to American liberalism. But too many liberals insisted, and still insist, on seeing those two reform movements as sequential expressions of the same thing, and insist on judging social policies by their benign intent rather than their lamentable effects. Neoconservatism’s merger with conservatism may seem inevitable, but it really wasn’t.
In any event, one must remember that it was in the shadow of events eerily similar in many ways to those of our own times that neoconservatism took shape, both in Irving Kristol’s imagination and as a movement to counter and correct the collapse of national morale and to introduce sober second thoughts about the inherent limitations of the liberal-progressive project. Such reconsiderations led to a keen awareness of the limits of social policy, the failures of consolidated national-scale command economies, and the hubris and folly entailed in the progressive movement’s embrace of a rationally engineered national society governed by accredited experts. Neoconservatism exposed the futility of social initiatives that consistently failed to take account of the needs and flaws of human nature, failed to acknowledge the wisdom of traditional and customary forms, and failed to acknowledge the need for strong and independent mediating institutions—families, churches, neighborhood organizations, wards, townships, and other organizations of every shape and size—to provide a firm basis for vibrant community life and for the cultivation of civic virtues. In the realms of social welfare and criminal justice, liberalism failed to set forth a realistic structure of incentives and sanctions that addressed human nature as it really exists and that could thereby make the practice of “ordered liberty” something more than an empty slogan.
Neoconservatism was a key expression of this chastened intellectual mood, and the essays in this volume are both trenchant and prescient in that regard. “What we call[ed] the ‘neoconservative’ impulse,” Kristol wrote in 1978, was “a disillusionment with, and disengagement from,” the kind of massive, national-scale social reforms that treat human beings as social aggregates rather than as individuals with souls and motivations. The creation of a welfare state that had set aside those realities had brought much unnecessary pain and social dysfunction on every level of human life. “By now it is obvious to all who wish to see,” Kristol argued later in “The Welfare State’s Spiritual Crisis,” “that we are experiencing a profound crisis of the welfare state”—and then he went on to provide an absolutely spot-on analysis of the various crises: financial, social, and, “the deepest crisis of all,” spiritual, a crisis arising out of “the way the souls of the citizenry are formed and shaped by the welfare state,” and ending in an undermining of “the legitimacy of the state itself.”
Such an essay was drawing out the specific implications of the deeper political realities Kristol had already masterfully depicted in his essay “Republican Virtue versus Servile Institutions” (1974), in which he argued that the former could not possibly survive the establishment of the latter. “That it is possible to corrupt a citizenry—or for a citizenry to corrupt itself—is something the Founders understood,” wrote Kristol, “but which we seem to have forgotten.” Such words disclosed a concern with the moral implications of the ways we choose to be governed. One of the chief ways we risk corrupting our institutions and ourselves is by allowing our institutions to become “servile”—that is, completely unable to make significant moral demands on the public they serve. This is fatal to republican self-governance, because republicanism cannot exist without a strong normative dimension, without an ideal of human excellence to which we seek to conform ourselves in the process of self-governing. Without a normative moral conception of the self, there can be no self-government and no full and genuine human flourishing.
Kristol saw this specter looming in the increasingly influential “democratic dogma” that “the very idea of helping people to shape themselves in a certain way is both presumptuous and superfluous,” a view that eventuates in making us “diminished persons.” Then he went on to add the following:
It will be said that even to suggest such a hypothesis shows a remarkable lack of faith in the American common people. I would halfheartedly deny that accusation. I do indeed have faith in the common people, only I don’t have very much faith in them. Nor is there anything snobbish or, as we now say, “elitist” about such a statement. I include myself among those common people and, knowing myself as I do, I would say that anyone who constructed a political system based on unlimited faith in my good character was someone with a fondness for high-risk enterprises.
Such a statement reflects not only Kristol’s sense of humor but also the balance he sought between skepticism and hope: skepticism about the perfectibility of human nature, hope that it can sometimes be improved in real but incremental ways.
He also had a remarkably balanced view of populist movements, arguing that, while populism could endanger our democratic order, it also could correct that order’s defects, which often arose from “the intellectual influence and the entrepreneurial politics of our democratic elites”—a formulation that could not be more apt in describing both the prospects and the perils of the current populist mood.
Kristol’s concern with the shaping of the soul of man under the influence of various regimes was reflected also in his interest in the insights of ancient political philosophy, and particularly in Leo Strauss’ efforts to recover those insights. Through his reading of Strauss, Kristol came to believe that the most profound thinkers of antiquity might offer us essential insights that their modern would-be supplanters had neglected or ignored, much to our collective loss. As he put it in a 1954 essay on Machiavelli and the highly limited sense of “realism” that, with his value-neutral managerial ethos, he had introduced into political thought:
Since Machiavelli, a dimension has been amputated from man’s political existence. The operation was a success; but there are stitches and scars, inevitably. . . . Those riddles one finds in Machiavelli, those ambiguities and ironies—they mark the points where, the soul having been cut away, we are troubled with the illusion that “something” is still there.
The greatest of illusions, however, was the belief that this “something,” the lingering moral reflexes that had been informed by premodern philosophical and religious commitments and on whose basis the civilization we enjoy had been erected, could be so easily dispensed with. We struggle with the same dilemmas today, and perhaps flail at them even more ineffectually, having gone much farther down the road in the intervening six decades in the direction of banishing public religious expression and general moral standards in our public life, all in the name of tolerant liberal nonjudgmentalism.
Such developments never sat well with Kristol, who described himself as having a “theotropic” sensibility, a respectful orientation toward the divine and the transcendent, from an early age. He was, of course, always more neo-orthodox than orthodox in his beliefs, and his essay on the concept of “basic Judaism” shows him struggling, as so many other thoughtful modern Jews do, to extract what is enduring and imperishable in the Jewish understanding of life: “groping to establish rapport with the Jewish tradition, standing at the synagogue door.” Essays like this one provide little support for the idea that Kristol believed religion was to be praised only for its social utility, as “a good thing for other people to have.” Such a view might well be identified with other neoconservatives, but not legitimately with Irving Kristol himself.
There are, as one would expect, several essays in the book on Jews and Judaism, some reflecting Kristol’s religious interests—the need, for example, to sustain in Jewish identity a religious element and not merely a cultural one—others his political ones, exploring the relations of modern American Jews with a pluralistic American society that has given them an uncommonly large, though not unlimited, berth. These essays too show remarkable staying power, particularly the provocatively titled “On the Political Stupidity of the Jews,” his own exploration of the familiar puzzle of American Jews’ fierce, visceral, but in many ways irrational and self-defeating commitment to liberalism, and his suggestions for a possible way forward in that regard—an effort to formulate a sound and well-grounded tradition of specifically Jewish political thought.
Kristol also was constantly thinking about the Jewish relationship with Christianity, from the early (and highly sympathetic) explorations of Auden and Eliot and a fascinating and learned essay on the Christian imaginative construction of Jews as both a suprahuman people in covenant with God and a subhuman people in league with the Devil, to more-contemporary treatments of the problem (much overblown, in his view) of observing, or enduring, Christmas.
Kristol’s view of Christianity tended to be warm, though on pragmatic rather than theological grounds. He applauded the Christian religious revival of the last quarter of the twentieth century, regarding it as an antidote to militant secularism and “postmodern paganism.” On equally pragmatic grounds, he was among the first Jewish intellectuals to insist that American Jews needed to overcome their aversion to conservative evangelical Protestants and to recognize that this group stood among Israel’s staunchest allies and the best friends of the Jews. Such a position caused an uproar of controversy in the American Jewish community, to which he reacted with his placid and unflappable confidence. Needless to say, he was prescient in this regard, and his advice seems just as relevant as ever, with the rise to power of a very liberal American president who has wrought unprecedented tensions and created feelings of unprecedented distance between the United States and the state of Israel. There are even signs, though one would be foolish to read too much into them, that some American Jews may finally be willing to recognize the wisdom of Kristol’s advice in this regard.
And as for foreign policy, in this volume’s six essays in that category, one sees very little crusading zeal and a great deal of what can only be called prudential realism. “Conflicts That Can’t Be Resolved” contains his analysis of the “peace process” in the Middle East circa 1997, which is, shockingly, remarkably similar to the situation today; and in “‘Human Rights’: The Hidden Agenda” he describes the many ways in which that glittering term is used in deplorable bad faith, serving to disguise an entirely different, and less than idealistic, set of motives, reflected, for example, in the bald assertion of a moral equivalence between imperfect capitalist democracies and murderous totalitarian regimes.
His essay “What’s Wrong with NATO?” (1983) could have been cribbed from by retiring Secretary of Defense Robert Gates or his predecessor, while doubling as a reflection on the difference between republican virtue and individual servility:
If we have learned anything from the NATO experience of the last thirty years, it is the rediscovery of an old truth: dependency corrupts and absolute dependency corrupts absolutely. To the degree that Europe has been dependent upon the United States, the European will has been corrupted and European political vitality has diminished. A reconstructed NATO could reverse that process. But it would have to be an all-European NATO, with the United States an ally but not a member. . . .
Such a European alliance might regain its self-respect, a feeling of control over its own national destinies, and, above all, it might recapture the spirit of nationalism that is indispensable to any successful foreign policy.
We may have learned all of this in 1983, but surely it needs to be learned again.
The NATO essay points again to the fact that, whether the issue under discussion is welfare policy or foreign policy, what we consistently find in the work of Irving Kristol is a consideration of public life and governing from the standpoint of the individual soul—and, by the same token, a consideration of the need to foster the right kinds of virtues in individual souls in order for the most desirable regimes to be successful. That is one of the reasons his work remains so amazingly relevant to the present moment, since we do not really know how to foster moral excellence through the institutions of our public and collective life. If we cannot recover the moral basis of our common life, we will soon find ourselves without a common life at all.
“In the end,” he wrote in 1974, “the only authentic criterion for judging any economic or political system, or any set of social institutions, is this: what kind of people emerge from them?” In asking such a question, he offered us a perspective that cuts against both the statist liberalism that is now in power and the anti-statist libertarianism that asserts itself as statism’s only principled alternative.
There is, after all, another alternative, one that is far more than a mere mean between these two extremes. Those of us who think that, while the role of the polity should be strictly limited, that role includes a responsibility to foster the virtues of active and self-governing citizens and not merely to defend their liberty, will find in Irving Kristol a great and welcome ally.
Wilfred M. McClay is the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a member of First Things’ advisory council.