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Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative
by michael novak
image, 336 pages, $24

Time seems to have mellowed Michael Novak, the well-known Catholic writer, theologian, and philosopher. In previous decades, he wrote that the neoconservatives who, like himself, had moved from the political left to right over the course of the 1960s and 1970s were motivated by “a powerful intellectual conviction that the left was wrong about virtually every big issue of our time: the Soviet Union, the North Vietnamese regime, economics, welfare, race, and moral questions such as abortion, amnesty, acid, and the sexual revolution.” 

Novak’s new memoir, published as the author celebrated his ­eightieth birthday this past September, contains no such searing indictments. It settles no scores, revisits only some of the old battles, and has kind words even for the Democrats’ most ­left-wing presidential nominee, George McGovern (“an extraordinarily decent man . . . . How could you not love the guy?”). It contains some wonderful scenes from ­Novak’s life, including an affectionate ­description of his encounter in graduate school with the French playwright and philosopher Gabriel Marcel, and a useful reflection on the realism of his intellectual role model, Reinhold Niebuhr.

He does not suffer from false modesty—he points out that his writing influenced both the founding manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society and Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. But the book’s restrictive focus means that he says little about other events or even long periods in his life: his dozen years in the seminaries of the Congregation of Holy Cross, or his appointments at places like Syracuse University and the Rockefeller ­Foundation, or his reception of one of the world’s most prestigious honors, the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.

Novak now professes himself discouraged by “the determination of so many to refuse to talk with those with whom they disagree,” and he calls for left and right to engage in respectful conversation, mutual understanding, and even some degree of compromise. If he has become more tolerant of his opponents, however, he has not softened his views in the least. His memoir is not a rethinking but a restatement of his neoconservatism.

Writing from Left to Right is not a traditional autobiography of the cradle-to-codger variety. Novak includes a few details about being the grandson of Slovak immigrants raised in central Pennsylvania and offers glimpses of his personal life, but ­mostly describes his ideo­logical ­hegira.

The story begins in ­January 1960, when the twenty-six-year-old Novak, having just abandoned his candidacy for the priesthood, relocates to New York to become a writer. In short order, young Novak publishes a novel, becomes a correspondent for left-leaning publications such as ­Har­per’s and Commonweal, works as a Democratic speechwriter, revels in John F. Kennedy’s election, and meets his future wife, Karen Laub. Even flunking his graduate exams in philosophy at Harvard proves a blessing, as it leads him to Rome to cover the Second Vatican Council, an ex­perience described in his influential 1964 account, The Open Church

Novak’s path toward radicalization began when, as a junior professor at Stanford University in 1965, he decided that America’s intervention in Vietnam was immoral and unjust, a conviction that intensified with his reporting trip to Saigon in the summer of 1967. Robert Kennedy’s assassination further distanced him from liberal reformism and resulted in his 1969 jeremiad, A Theology for Radical Politics, which declared that “the enemy in America, then, is the tyrannical and indifferent majority: the good people, the churchgoers, the typical Americans.” 

As a professor at the new experimental college of the State University of New York at Old Westbury, ­Novak confronted the New Left’s late-1960s pathologies, an experience that drove him to the right. The book reproduces a savagely funny short story ­Novak wrote about how the students’ hatred of authority, bourgeois norms, and intellect itself made teaching impossible. Some readers may think it unrealistic satire to portray a youth-worshipping professor proposing to give students their degrees on they day they matriculate in the belief that “they’ll do better work,” or an indignant student refusing to allow his independent study project to be graded because then “it wouldn’t be independent”—but such posturing was all too common at the time.

Novak’s work on Sargent ­Shriver’s political campaigns in the 1970s brought him face to face with average Americans, particularly white ethnic Catholics, and made him reevaluate his view that they were the “enemy.” His 1972 classic The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics was both a diagnosis of the group that later would be labeled the “Reagan Democrats” and an appreciation of their cultural values of family and faith. 

A “secular excommunication” from the intellectual left greeted his reappraisal of socialism’s failures, his criticism of Jimmy Carter’s economic and foreign policies, his embrace of supply-side economics, and the 1982 publication of his most famous book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Though he retained his Democratic registration, Novak became an ardent supporter of Ronald Reagan, who appointed him ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Novak’s neoconservative worldview triumphed, as he saw it, with the collapse of the Soviet empire and the successes of Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II.

Writing from Left to Right is an engaging read, but less satisfactory as an apologia pro vita sua. Part of the problem stems from Novak’s enviably prolific writing career. He publicly worked out his ideological course through nearly four dozen books and countless articles; in some ways he was a model for today’s bloggers. 

Perhaps Novak can’t be blamed for not wanting to reread the entirety of his massive output, but this memoir omits much that is essential to understanding his contributions and controversies. It contains scant mention of his excoriation of Marxist-­inflected Catholic liberation theology in Latin America in, for example, Will It Liberate?, published in 1986. Readers who want to know about his reconsideration of his youthful interpretation of Vatican II and his battles with feminism will have to seek out works such as 1985’s Confessions of a Catholic

There’s also little here about ­Novak’s critique of how liberalism came to reflect the interests of a New Class of educated professionals, or his rediscovery of the Whig tradition in British and American history, or his battles with the American bishops over their pronouncements on Catholic social teaching and the nuclear arms race. For a more discerning defense of the continuities in his transition from radicalism to neoconservatism, interested readers should look to his essay “Controversial Engagements,” published in First Things in April 1999.

Novak’s neoconservatism seems ill matched with the present moment. Events of the last decade and even recent months have at least complicated his case. 

The failures of George W. Bush’s Iraq War have soured Americans on direct overseas intervention to promote democracy and human rights, as Barack Obama discovered when he tried to muster support for military action against Syria. The Enron scandal and other examples of executive-suite malfeasance undercut Novak’s view that corporations “mirror the presence of God,” while the prolonged financial crisis that began in 2007 and 2008 called into question many of his supply-side assumptions.

From a longer perspective, exploding disability rolls and new evidence of declining social mobility in the United States pose a problem for his assertion that “Clinton’s welfare reform turned out to be an astonishingly happy and positive success.” The Republican Party’s record-low approval ratings, following the Tea Party–inspired government shutdown and brinksmanship over a national debt default, do not inspire confidence in his prediction that conservatism will be the wave of the future.

Novak had a test for judging the pronouncements of politicians and journalists about “Americans”: Did they take into account the views of people like his ­Uncle Emil, a profane but loyal Catholic, family man, ­patriot, FDR Democrat, and Bethlehem Steel worker? It seems fair to ask how his own views would fare under the same test. If Uncle Emil was ­alienated by the left’s cultural turn in the 1960s, would he therefore have been excited by deindustrialization and the demise of labor unions that ­accompanied globalization and supply-­side ­economics?

For thirty-six years, the congressman who represented Novak’s hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was John Murtha, an Irish Catholic Democrat who supported Obamacare and earmarks while opposing gun control, abortion, and the Iraq War. Murtha’s example, as well as polling data, suggests that the white ethnics Novak celebrates are critical of both the Democrats on culture and the Republicans on economics; his people would agree with Novak only up to a point.

Novak often uses a metaphor borrowed from Winston Churchill: In heavy seas, the wise helmsman will have to lean hard to both left and right to stay on course. But Novak, having pushed the rudder from port all the way to stern, seems content to simply leave it there and sail in circles. Those who seek to navigate today’s politics will find inspiration in the ­realism and independent thinking that led Novak to break with the left, but they may apply the same approach to his own position on the right.

Geoffrey Kabaservice is the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party.