‘Neoconservatism’—the word has about it something of the mustiness of what constitutes antiquity in the contemporary political discourse in which blogs and Twitter posts make the 24-hour news cycle seem practically medieval. After all, it is now a decade and more ago since the United States and its “coalition of the willing” embarked upon the invasion of Iraq, an experiment in interventionist foreign policy (to put it tactfully) that now appears to be one of the great follies (should that be “disasters”?) of the still young century, at least if one chooses to judge the matter by the initial justification: to secure the “weapons of mass destruction” Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was alleged to have.
Does all this seem so 2003? Yes, it does. But if we’re casting our collective memory back, we may as well recall that both prior to and after the invasion, during the early years of the American and other occupation of Iraq, both sympathetic and unsympathetic media invoked “neoconservative philosophy” and, in more sinister fashion,” a “neoconservative cabal” to describe the ideological convictions that informed an action that seemed completely at odds with the non-interventionist, indeed isolationist, policies that have so long been, avowedly at least, a mainstay of traditional American conservatism.
What were “they” up to, these “neoconservatives”? Who, exactly, were they? Answers were inexact and often conspiratorial—sometimes tinged with anti-Semitism. Basically, a “neoconservative”—or in an abbreviation popular among critical press “neocon”—was a political operator, either observer or participant, who brought a sophisticated, cosmopolitan intellect to bear on both domestic and international issues in contrast to the purportedly intuitive, provincial perspective of traditional conservatives. But instead of embracing liberalism and its tenets, neocons endorsed the mainstays of conservative thought—religious faith, family values, a strong military—but in support of an agenda that often seemed at odds with the values and interests of that tradition. Is not the term itself an uneasy alliance of radical prefix and a stodgy noun?
All of this may seem an unlikely (and lengthy) prologue to the subject of this review of The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays 1942-2009 by Irving Kristol. After all, the author—at least as represented by this collection—addressed the Iraq War as but one subject among many others. This in contrast to the emphatic, indeed, vociferous justification of the Iraq War in the pages of The Weekly Standard by William Kristol, author of the foreword to this volume and Irving Kristol’s son. The brief fame, or notoriety if one prefers, of the term is a shabby legacy for a very smart, often eloquent, impressively substantial, and broadly catholic intellectual project. Not, however, a legacy that is completely undeserved. More on that in a bit.
In his early 20s Kristol, the son of Jewish immigrants in New York, had a brief flirtation with Trotskyist communism, which is to say (though Kristol does not state it exactly) a strain of communist thought that so often appeals to high-minded and intellectually-inclined young people, or at least did in the early and middle decades of the 20th century. Apparently, this flirtation lasted an uneasy couple of years and included some half-hearted attendance at salons and party meetings. This relatively small impulse toward leftist political thought provided, however, the initial momentum for a sustained, indeed lifelong, oscillation of the pendulum of sentiment in the opposite direction. Among other things, then, the “neo” in neoconservatism indexes the trajectory of a life from leftist inclination to an entrenched skepticism of so-called progressive politics.
Indeed, The Neoconservative Persuasion is basically the account of a life—this despite the fact that only the last several essays are grouped under the heading “Memoirs”. The collection as a whole is memoir of a kind, a decades (and decades long) series of installments in the record of a brilliant mind turning its powerful focus to myriad subjects. A mind, it bears noting however, that didn’t do much changing. What’s perhaps most remarkable here is the fact that, with the exception of some very early literary criticism that is sometimes so abstract as to be incomprehensible, the Irving Kristol of, say, 1948 sounds almost exactly the same as the Irving Kristol of 2004, both in terms of prose and politics. Throughout, one sees (and admires) writing that is at once beautiful and cogent, balanced and rigorous. Throughout, there is a skepticism toward political and social orthodoxies that is provocative in a way that mere skepticism so often is not.
For example, Kristol neatly punctures the sanctimonious but unreflective admiration that institutions and individuals like the United Nations and Jesse Jackson, for example, with sharp and deftly deployed arguments. One is reminded everywhere in this volume of just how ignorant is the sometimes reflexive equation of “conservatism” with “small-mindedness”—at least in some circles. Kristol seems to have been able to hold forth on almost any and every topic with erudition, wit, and eloquence: the economy, racial relations, relations between Jews and Christians, the relation between Jews and African-Americans, Israel, modernist literature, the United States national budget, and on.
The price though, when one looks a little deeper, is a certain unevenness. On some subjects Kristol wrote with obvious, even overwhelming, knowledge; on others he was fond of writing authoritatively without much reference to evidence, with the exception of personal anecdote. This is problematic. Presumably, anyone who has had experiences that diverge from Kristol’s would have equal claim to justification of his or her beliefs. For example, in a reflection on religious tolerance Kristol makes the expansive claim that, “In general, minority opinion was always respected, but majority opinion always received the greater deference… [this arrangement] required a great deal of inherited wisdom and common sense, on the part of the majority and on the part of the minority.”
Kristol then goes on to describe exemplary episodes from his own youth to illustrate the principle, acknowledging that they are anecdotal but never acknowledging that very different experience might give rise to very different convictions. Indeed, modestly, self-effacingly, and charmingly candidly, Kristol repeatedly notes that his political and intellectual allegiances were born of an inexplicable, intrinsic conservatism of spirit and mind: “With such a bourgeois character, one I seem to have been born with, it is not surprising that, shortly before [my] twenty-second birthday, I [and Kristol’s wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb] had left the Trotskyists…” Kristol then graciously insists that strong differences of ideological persuasion have not been a barrier to close and lifelong friendships.
Here we enter into an essential division of the self that, perhaps, has larger political implications. After all, as he notes, if there is such a thing as a neoconservative tradition, it finds one of its sources in the political philosophy of Leo Strauss, whose essential conviction is this, according to Kristol:
“[Strauss] was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and the political order, and that the popularization of and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil, and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion, with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences.”
In one form or another, Strauss’ conviction is everywhere evidenced in this collection and in the life it recounts. Kristol claimed to be deeply religious, but not observant. He praises the wisdom of the common man, but seems to have run in circles almost exclusively constituted of an intellectual elite. He was conservative, but does not seem to have had much truck with the popular conservatism that he so often extolled. If this seems an unkind observation, the collection invites it. A sympathetic reading would offer that great thinkers are not simple thinkers but, rather, complex, multitudinous, occasionally self-contradictory. An unsympathetic reading would offer that a kind of hypocrisy runs through this volume. Readers will have to decide for themselves, though this reviewer tends more to the former than the latter.
So, to end where we began. The title of this volume explicitly stakes Kristol’s legacy to the vexed term, ‘neoconservative’. Perhaps Kristol’s enthusiasm for Strauss’s thinking, and particularly the division of humanity into the privileged knowers and the ignorant masses, and his own habit of reserving for himself a complex ambivalence while celebrating in the majority an unreflective embrace of tradition and authority, for their own good, should cast a long shadow over a collection that is often luminous with intelligence.