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Irving's Whodunit

An exploration of cause and effect.

12:00 AM, Oct 9, 1995 • By WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY
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In the substantial introduction to his collection, Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (Free Press, 493 pages, $30), Irving Kristol ticks off ambient felicities. He ends by remarking happily the political faith of those who surround him. "My son and daughter, and son-in-law and daughter-in-law, along with dozens of young 'interns' who have worked at The Public Interest over the past thirty years, are now all conservatives without adjectival modification."


That is a tremendous statement in political taxonomy, on the order of the excommunication of Trotsky from the communist movement, as presided over by Moscow; except of course that Mr. Kristol moves in the opposite, ecumenical direction -- toward amalgamation, away from schism. Neos are now just plain cons. There are men and women on the right who will frown on this self-designation by the godfather of neoconservatism, perhaps even accusing him of cooptation of the conservative cause. But one wonders exactly what arguments they will advance. Is there an Albigensian heresy in Irving's credo?


Irving Kristol is not stylistically inclined to declamation (he would not have done well as amanuensis on Mt. Sinai). He can write, "What, exactly, is neoconservatism anyway?" and answer, "I would say it is more a descriptive term than a prescriptive one. It describes the erosion of liberal faith among a relatively small but talented and articulate group of scholars and intellectuals." Yes, but an erosion of faith doesn't midwife any complementary view. An attenuation of Marxist faith, even to the breaking point, does not describe what it is that the sometime Marxist now embraces, let alone particular articles of his new faith. And yet in the 500 pages of this book, questions of every kind are pondered -- questions philosophical, cultural, and political. Meditation is done and what passes for conclusions are reached, or adumbrated. And the reader is as satisfied as if he had read through a catechism. It is, so to speak, all there -- in its own way.


We are reminded of the 5-year-old girl sitting down to draw. "Mother, what does God look like?" "Nobody knows, dear." "Well, they will now."


Early in any discussion of work by Irving Kristol, mention needs to be made of the way in which he writes. In the 20-page introductory section, he gives us much of the narrative of his "idea." There are notes on his childhood; he takes us through his marriage to his celebrated wife, rather absentmindedly touching on their platonic affair with Trotskyism. We learn that he served in the infantry during the war, went then with his wife Gertrude Himmelfarb ("Bea") to Oxford where both did graduate work, then back to New York, on the junior staff of Commentary magazine. From there to Encounter in London, then to the Reporter in New York. After that, The Public Interest and The National Interest in New York and Washington.


Through it all he wrote what would seem incessantly, but not at length. "I was not a book writer," he notes. "I did not have the patience and I lacked the necessary intellectual rigor to bring my ideas into some kind of consistent thesis." This self-effacement doesn't work -- the reader of Neoconservatism will find a dozen essays that might have been expanded into books, and they serve to remind us how many books could profitably have been shrunk into long essays, Kristol-length.


To celebrate Kristol's 75th birthday, a Festschrift was done, The Neoconservative Imagination (AEI Press, 249 pages, $ 12.95). It is edited by Christopher DeMuth and Kristol's son, William (the editor and publisher of this magazine). The volume gives 42 pages of bibliography. In sequence, Books, Essays, Newspaper Articles, Reviews, Interviews, Symposiums, and Letters. While in London as a young scholar and journalist, he read John Crowe Ransom's God Without Thunder. "The style was lucid, straightforward, unpretentious, but brightened with flashes of irony and wit," Kristol writes, exactly describing his own style.


In his engaging introduction, Kristol takes us back to the early postwar years. Communism was (geopolitically) triumphant. Great Britain was in the hands of socialists, and when Churchill resumed office he did not resume power. The emaciation of bourgeois England was all but complete: the empire gone, the Soviet empire unchallenged, the socialized industries untouchable, taxation confiscatory. It was a period of great loneliness for restive dissenters from left/liberal orthodoxy.