Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Mugged by Reality

Irving Kristol positioned himself as a hard-headed realist willing to buck liberal pieties, but do his unsentimental pronouncements, collected in a new volume, stand the test of time?

Adam Kirsch
January 25, 2011
Irving Kristol in 1976.(Bettmann/Corbis)
Irving Kristol in 1976.(Bettmann/Corbis)

Irving Kristol, the so-called godfather of neoconservatism, who died in 2009, has some claim to being the most influential intellectual of the last 50 years. In The Neoconservative Persuasion (Basic Books, $29.95), a newly published selection of dozens of his uncollected essays, Kristol takes mischievous pleasure in confessing that the secret to his success was “a formula … devised by Lenin”: “First you publish a theoretical organ, then you proceed to books and pamphlets, and finally you publish a newspaper. Once you have a newspaper that can apply the theories developed in more sophisticated publications to day-to-day politics, you are in business.”

No one mastered these techniques of persuasion better than Kristol. You can follow the progress he describes in the pages of The Neoconservative Persuasion itself. The earliest pieces gathered here come from a tiny magazine Kristol launched in 1942, Enquiry: A Journal of Independent Radical Thought. The “independence” was from the official Communist line, and it signaled the anti-Communist direction his thinking would continue to take. It also suggests the quality that Kristol described, in An Autobiographical Memoir, as having “a ‘neo’ gene”: “I have been a neo-Marxist, a neo-Trotskyist, a neo-socialist, a neo-liberal, and finally a neoconservative. It seems that no ideology or philosophy has ever been able to encompass all of reality to my satisfaction. There was always a degree of detachment qualifying my commitment.”

That succession of “neos” can be mapped onto Kristol’s career as a writer and editor. In the 1940s and 1950s, he worked at Commentary and Encounter, both liberal anti-Communist journals. In the 1960s he launched The Public Interest, the original neoconservative magazine, dedicated to challenging the assumptions of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Finally he became a key voice on the very conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, during the height of its influence in the Reagan years.

The irony, which Kristol relishes, is that his “Leninist” path carried him ever further to the right. It was to capture this evolution that he coined the term “neoconservative,” the ambiguous label with which Kristol became so closely identified. (This is the third of his books to use the word in the title.) To anyone who followed political and foreign policy debates during the George W. Bush years, however, that term took on an ominous coloration. To put it crudely, after September 11, 2001, “neoconservative” often became a code word meaning “Jewish warmongers.” It was common for critics of the Iraq War to blame it on a “cabal” of neoconservative advisers in the Bush Administration, all of whom happened to be Jewish—Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Douglas Feith were the most frequently named.

The idea that a secretive group of powerful, behind-the-scenes Jews were running American foreign policy became an article of faith to many on the American, and especially the European, left—people either indifferent to the anti-Semitic tropes in this discourse or those who positively relished them. A common corollary to this idea was the belief that the neoconservatives were acting under the influence of Leo Strauss, a German-Jewish political philosopher who fled the Nazis and spent his last decades teaching at the University of Chicago. Strauss, according to the caricature, was an elitist enemy of democracy, whose thought encouraged the “neocons” (some of whom, like Wolfowitz, had been his students) to lie the country into war.

It is not surprising that, in the wake of these developments, the label neoconservative has been abandoned by most of those who used to claim it. Naturally, readers will turn to The Neoconservative Persuasion for enlightenment: What did the “godfather” of neoconservatism think of the ugly turn the term took in the last few years? But while the subtitle of the book promises “Selected Essays, 1942-2009,” it turns out that very few of these pieces date from the last decade of Kristol’s life. Perhaps this is only to be expected—after all, Kristol was already in his eighties when George W. Bush became president.

The one place where Kristol indirectly addresses the connection of neoconservatism with the Iraq War is in the 2003 op-ed that gives the book its title. And his main reaction is, surprisingly enough, surprise that any connection has been drawn: “And then, of, course, there is foreign policy, the area of American politics where neoconservatism has recently been the focus of media attention. This is surprising since there is no set of neoconservative beliefs concerning foreign policy.” Instead, Kristol says, there are at most a few neoconservative principles or intuitions: that American power should not be subordinated to “world government” or “international institutions”; that America’s national interest requires global engagement, not isolationism; and that “the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from non-democratic forces.”

It was a little disingenuous for Kristol to deny that there is such a thing as a neoconservative foreign policy. After all, one of the eight sections of The Neoconservative Persuasion is titled “Foreign Policy and Ideology.” All but one of the essays in that group, however, were written during the Cold War, and it is fair to say that if neoconservatism—or Kristol himself—had a diplomatic philosophy, it was one totally shaped by America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union, with only limited application to the post-Cold War world.

Essentially, Kristol believed that America’s struggle with the USSR was the criterion by which everything else had to be judged. Anything that could hurt the United States or benefit the USSR was wrong, no matter how right it might seem on the surface. Perhaps the most uncompromising essay in the book is “ ‘Human Rights’: The Hidden Agenda,” in which Kristol totally rejects the idea of making human rights an American foreign-policy priority, as Jimmy Carter had done. His reason is that, if regimes are judged by human rights standards alone, many American allies—he is thinking particularly of right-wing regimes in South America—would come out quite badly. Rather than pick our alliances based on moral purity, Kristol writes, America should look to the differences between “authoritarian governments” and “totalitarian regimes.” The first—like, say, Pinochet’s Chile—may eventually evolve into democracies, and they pose no threat to America. The latter, like the Soviet Union, are inherently dangerous and must be opposed at all costs.

It’s true, Kristol acknowledges, that a torture victim in Chile has suffered just as much as a torture victim in Russia. But, he writes, “the perspective of the victim, whether in war or peace, is the stuff of which poetry (or perhaps theology) is made, not politics, and certainly not foreign policy.” This is probably the single sentence in The Neoconservative Persuasion that best captures Kristol’s entire worldview. Concern for victims—of war, of torture, of poverty, and of racism—is all well and good, but finally Kristol regards it as sentimentality. What really matters is power, and it would be suicidal for Americans to give up power in the name of sentiment.

For Americans, and also for Jews, Kristol famously joked that a neoconservative was a liberal who got mugged by reality, and the trajectory of his own thought was always in the direction of disillusionment. Over the decades covered in The Neoconservative Persuasion, the reader sees Kristol losing patience with liberalism, modern art, the welfare state, blacks and the civil rights movement, feminism, and gay rights. In each case, his initial sympathy or at least respect gives way to a disgusted sense that all these movements have gone too far, until the word “liberal” itself became a kind of imprecation to Kristol (as it did in American politics generally). By the time he wrote the essay “The Way We Were,” in 1995, he had given in to simple nostalgia: In his childhood, Kristol writes, “the reason there were no ‘troubled’ schools is that ‘trouble’ was not tolerated.”

But nothing in The Neoconservative Persuasion makes Kristol lose patience like the Jews. You can see it happening even in the titles of his essays: “The Political Dilemma of American Jews” (1984) gives way to “Why Religion Is Good for the Jews” (1994) and finally “On the Political Stupidity of the Jews” (1999). The stupidity Kristol has in mind can be summed up in the question his fellow neoconservative Norman Podhoretz asked in the title of a recent book: Why Are Jews Liberals? For it is unmistakable that, in every one of the movements Kristol deplores—modern art, civil rights, feminism, and so on—Jews have been enthusiastic supporters.

Once upon a time, Kristol grants, it may have been sensible for Jews to support liberal and progressive causes, “given the historic attitude of the European Right toward Jews.” But the same calculus of power and interest that he employs in foreign policy leads Kristol to conclude that Jewish interests now lie with the right, especially the Christian Right. Evangelical Christians are strong supporters of Israel; yet Jews, he complains, continue to pointlessly antagonize them by insisting so strongly on the separation of Church and State. Conversely, he argued several times in the 1980s, Jews continue to sympathize politically with African-Americans, even as black anti-Semitism and anti-Zionsim rise. In short, Kristol finds it absurd that Jews refuse to ask whether “a given turn of events or policy is ‘good for the Jews’ ”: “to ask that question in the United States today in Jewish circles is to invite a mixture of ridicule and indignation.”

Here, as so often in The Neoconsevrative Persuasion, Kristol seems to me to be right in part and wrong in greater and more significant part. Yes, Jews should be confident and realistic enough to ask what is in their best interest—just as Americans should apply the same standard to domestic and world politics. In each of these areas, we should not be afraid to identify our enemies as enemies and to oppose institutions and policies that sound virtuous but are actually harmful—one of Kristol’s favorite examples is the United Nations. The single best essay in the book, “The Myth of the Supra-Human Jew,” demonstrates the dangers involved in imagining Judaism as “a divinely intoxicated form of liberalism.” (That essay was written in 1947, and it is notable that Kristol’s most sophisticated and penetrating work was written in the 1940s and 1950s, before he became settled in his beliefs and began to write mainly op-eds: Op-eds are interventions, not explorations.)

But is it true, as Kristol believes, that American Jews would be better off in a more conservative, more Christianized polity—or, at the very least, that, since such a polity is certain to come, we had better reconcile ourselves to it? Is it true that an American foreign policy committed to human rights is shackled and enfeebled? Is it true that black and Jewish aspirations are now opposed? In his essays of the 1980s and 1990s, Kristol said all these things quite confidently. Yet despite the red/blue divide, the Moral Majority has not become a majority in America. In fact, contrary to the central premise of Kristol’s social thought, the most religious parts of America are now the parts most afflicted by divorce and teen pregnancy, while the most secular parts of America are the least afflicted.

Many of Kristol’s other premises have also been proved wrong. After the fall of the USSR, the American commitment to human rights led not to self-doubt and paralysis but to a more vigorous and interventionist foreign policy—in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and even Iraq. (Not to mention the fact, slighted by Kristol, that the human rights movement played a major role in bringing down the Soviet empire.) In a 1984 essay, Kristol lamented that “Jesse Jackson [is] the political leader of American blacks,” and that Jackson “stands for black nationalism”—indeed, he writes about Jackson as if he were Louis Farrakhan.

But a quarter-century later, the political leader of American blacks is the political leader of America, Barack Obama, and the main charge against him from the left is that he is too committed to consensus-building. Finally, Kristol saw the gay-rights movement as a sign of American decadence, part of the Sixties assault on bourgeois values; today, the major gay-rights issues are the right to serve in the military and the right to get married. In each case, Kristol’s hard-headed realism turned out to be a poor guide to reality. Perhaps the inveterate Jewish tendency to care about “the perspective of the victim” has something to be said for it after all.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.