The Magazine

The Great Persuader

The wisdom and wit of Irving Kristol.

Feb 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 21 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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The Neoconservative Persuasion
Selected Essays, 1942-2009
by Irving Kristol
Basic Books, 416 pp., $29.95

Irving Kristol

Irving Kristol, 1976

Bettman / Corbis

This volume of 48 essays by Irving Kristol, drawn from a writing career that spanned nearly three score and ten years (1942 until 2009), is intended as much to reveal the author’s intellectual disposition as to illuminate the content of the neoconservative persuasion that Kristol founded. Selected and introduced by his wife Gertrude Himmelfarb, the collection provides a wealth of material, all but one essay previously uncollected, for forming an intellectual biography, even as the touching foreword by William Kristol offers revealing glimpses into his father’s personal character.

The portrait of an essayist as a young man begins in 1942 with a little gem on W. H. Auden written by one “William Ferry,” the party name our author assumed as a young Trotskyist. The essay appeared in the inaugural edition of Enquiry: A Journal of Independent Radical Thought, which the enterprising author, at a mere 22 years of age, helped to launch. Here is a first sign of one of the author’s most notable traits: He was an intellectual entrepreneur. Establishing new journals was to become almost a habit, as he would go on to play a central role in beginning three of the most important intellectual journals of the second half of the 20th century (Encounter, The Public Interest, and The National Interest). Where another celebrated editor, Horace Greeley, once offered the advice “Go West Young Man,” Kristol, in a kindred expression of rugged individualism, later dared others to “Start a Magazine.”

As much as our author’s political standpoint would change over the years, shifting from a variant of Marxism to a variant of liberalism before embracing a new variant of conservatism, it is the continuity of certain intellectual characteristics that Himmelfarb emphasizes. She labels the main trait, quoting some typical Kristolian irony, as the “neo-gene,” as if it were nature, not nurture, that explained the author’s subsequent development. In the family’s usage, “neo” does not mean “new,” still less “post,” but something more like independent, critical, slightly heterodox, or perhaps even skeptical—except that Kristol was also skeptical of skepticism. “The quality of doubt” (the subtitle of the Auden essay), while it is a constant companion of a thinking person, can also paralyze the actor in politics (think of Hamlet), so it cannot be a final standpoint:

To elevate doubt into a political program is distinctly impracticable, having the common consequences of accepting the status quo as a sure good contrasted to all kinds of future imaginable evils.

“Neo” politics involves both doubting and acting.

Readers of the Ferry essays of 1942-43 have an enormous challenge in front of them. The context out of which they spring—the world of New York intellectuals of the time-—is as inaccessible to us today as the world of Massachusetts Puritans in the 17th century. Was it possible, really, that so many thinkers, the crème de la crème of the intelligentsia, could, on the basis of what they deemed objective social science, follow a party line, and not only profess but believe in the coming wholesale transformation of the human being? (In one essay, Lionel Trilling is quoted summarizing Lenin’s pragmatic decision to “postpone the problem of what man is to become until such time as he might become anything he chose.”) The Puritan’s belief in the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God almost seems realistic by comparison. Ferry wrote against a backdrop in which some erstwhile party members were beginning to question their faith, even as others were rushing to defend the orthodoxy and trying to force the wavering back into the fold.

Our author’s intellectual DNA obviously rendered him constitutionally unfit for being an ideologue, and it was not very long before William Ferry became, and remained ever thereafter, Irving Kristol. In his first essay, which treats Lionel Trilling, Kristol sketched the core of his objection to Marxist doctrine:

At the bottom of at least popular Marxism there has always been a kind of disgust with humanity as it is and a perfect faith in humanity as it is to be. It is this simplistic faith in perfectibility .  .  . which forgives in advance inhumanity disguised as humanistic zeal.

Kristol rejected the idea of unlimited plasticity, insisting that there was something permanent in the character of human beings and in the structure of social processes. He expressed this theme at the time less by reference to the philosophical category of “nature” (that which remains unchanging) than to the theological category of sin. Not sin, of course, in the sense of the judgment of an angry God holding his charges above the flames in the pit below, but in the sense of an “awareness of a subsistent evil” in human beings and of the recognition of the fact (quoting Trilling) that “good will generates its own problems.” In starker terms of his own a few years later: “The horror that breathes into our faces is the realization that evil may come by doing good—not merely intending to do good, but doing it.”

Talk about the law of unintended consequences! Long before Kristol was lamenting the unfortunate results of well-meaning Great Society welfare programs on family structure, he was contemplating the vaster problem of some of the unforeseen and disquieting effects of Enlightenment thought and technology on modern civilization, such as the advent of atomic weaponry and mass demagogy. Yet what Kristol ultimately took away from these ruminations was not an attitude of despair—this was against his genes, too—but a sense of moderation. At least for social policy, he called for a scaling-down of social programs to match human beings as they are, not as some would like them to be, and for making such improvements as are possible, not for designing grand schemes based on changing the whole environment. Kristol cautioned against a liberal optimism that ignored the natural limitations of human beings and the recalcitrance of social structures: “What it comes down to is that our reformers simply cannot bring themselves to think realistically about human nature.”

It is always difficult to know whether it is a student’s traits that lead him to select a mentor, or the mentor’s teachings that shape the traits of the student. Kristol’s case leaves the matter unresolved. The two figures Himmelfarb singles out as most important to Irving Kristol seem to have fit with and reinforced Kristol’s existing “neo” gene, but they also channeled that gene in unforeseeable directions. The first was the aforementioned Lionel Trilling, who in the 1940s helped Kristol to develop his view of moral realism. The other was Leo Strauss.

So much has recently been written about Leo Strauss, a great deal of which is ideologically driven nonsense, that the revelation of Strauss’s impact is bound to fuel further conspiratorial fantasies about the origins of the Iraq war. In vain will it be pointed out that Kristol first discovered Strauss in 1952, when George W. Bush was not yet seven years old and when Strauss was writing not about hidden WMDs but about esoteric teachings in Maimonides and Farabi.

The lesson that Kristol derived from Strauss was something arguably far more important than a political stance. A key tenet of the progressivist theoretical viewpoint of the time was that past thought was best understood as preparative of present thought—that although (or because) we today stand on the shoulders of past thinkers (thank you very much), we are in the privileged position of being able to look down on them. Strauss’s presentation of how to read old texts, and thus of what one could learn from them, challenged this premise, opening the door to an entirely new theoretical stance: “If in time the victory goes to Professor Strauss, he will have accomplished nothing less than a revolution in intellectual history, and most of us will—figuratively, at least—have to go back to school to learn the wisdom of the past that we thought we knew.” One can’t get much more “neo” than this.

Kristol’s intellectual encounter with Trilling and Strauss only begins to hint at the breadth of his intellectual interests in the decade from 1942-52, when he was writing mostly on literature, philosophy, and religion, not politics. For those of us (I count myself one) who until now had only known Irving Kristol the neoconservative writer, imagining that he must somehow have gone directly from wearing swaddling clothes to becoming a founding editor of The Public Interest, this volume is an eye-opener; and we can thank Gertrude Himmelfarb, by some uncanny fate nicknamed “Bea,” for serving, like Dante’s Beatrice, as our trustworthy guide. 

What is clear from these writings is that Irving Kristol was often thinking beyond politics, appreciating its limits. As he notes in his “Autobiographical Memoir,” he spent his first years at Commentary writing “only on philosophy, religion and occasionally on literature,” never on politics. (My own “quality of doubt” led me directly to the fine bibliography of Kristol’s work included in this volume, only to confirm this most surprising statement.) And yet, without having read most of the essays of this period, I still hazard the proposition that of the intellectuals writing at the time, Irving Kristol was at heart the most political of them all. For while so many others were applying their aesthetic or religious or philosophical premises to the political realm, treating it as if it were made in the image of these higher influences, Kristol was endeavoring to understand the political world as it was, on its own terms, making use of thought in these other domains to assist him in grasping the nature of politics.

Yet it was because Kristol appreciated the limits of politics that he also appreciated its depth. His explorations of other intellectual realms led him to see how powerfully they influenced and structured political life. The titles of so many of his essays, from “Capitalism, Socialism and Nihilism” to “Urban Civilization and Its Discontents” to “Utopianism, Ancient and Modern” illustrate the point. And contrary to what many claim about neoconservatism, usually for a political purpose of pitting an early and “pure” version of it against a later and “ideological” one, it was never limited to deploying genuine social science to unmask a politicized social science that promoted progressive objectives, important as this element was. Either Irving Kristol was the father of neoconservatism or he was not; and if he was, which all admit, then neoconservatism was from the first also about exploring the broad range of moral and intellectual factors that shape a liberal democracy. Neoconservatism sought to discover the ligature between culture and politics that would support and maintain a vital America. The term Kristol introduced to describe this task was “cultural statesmanship.”

And by what kind of thinking, carried out by what means and in what venues, could this task be accomplished? Here, I think, we come to the book’s title. “Persuasion” was not chosen haphazardly, but on the basis of a reflection, begun in an essay on Marvin Meyers’s The Jacksonian Persuasion, on how ideas in America insert themselves most effectively into political life and exercise influence. Kristol considered “the strange destiny of ideas” in American politics, concluding that “what is most American in American politics” is the transmission of ideas through a mode of thought that is neither as formal or rigid as an ideology nor as loose or general as an ethos. A persuasion so conceived must be able to speak in the grain of the democratic spirit of the country, and it must be supple enough to move and adapt to changes that are part of politics.

An application of this “theory” comes in Kristol’s treatment of some of the new strands of conservative populism that he encountered along the way, and which he accepted and welcomed into the conservative movement. Kristol would not brook being lectured to by thinkers feigning a concern for conservatism and shedding crocodile tears over its fall from a dignified version limited to quoting maxims from Edmund Burke. This group of salon intellectuals, still active today, would, in the name of “saving” conservatism, exclude from it people of faith because they are too religious, entrepreneurs because they wish to make too much money, and middle Americans because they are too patriotic. While Kristol acknowledged the dangers of populism, he also saw that it can be a “corrective to the defects .  .  . often arising from the intellectual influence .  .  . of our democratic elites.” Calling attention to a new fact of modern political life, he noted that the “people were conservative and the educated elites that governed them were ideological elites, always busy provoking disorder and discontent in the name of some utopian goal.”

William Ferry, the genteel (and gentile) named Trotskyist, might not have been much interested in religious questions, but Irving Kristol surely was. Religion is the most important theme running through this collection, the focus of more essays than any other topic. Irving Kristol was not just a Jewish intellectual, but an intellectual who wrote about Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish Problem (Jews in relation to Christianity). He also discusses Christianity, especially American Protestantism and the foundational place of its covenantal theology alongside natural rights philosophy in the founding of the American republic.

Kristol’s early essays on Judaism, written in the shadow of the Holocaust, contain some remarkable reflections on the long history of Jewish-Christian relations from the Middle Ages. His most original contribution, however, comes in his treatment of American Jews. He is the first to have had the insight and courage, for a Jew, to argue that, in America, the Jewish problem is a Jewish problem; Jews, by his account, have failed in thinking through clearly their own situation and determining how best to navigate some of the challenges they now face. His provocatively titled essay “On the Political Stupidity of the Jews” (1999) is only one of many that calls on fellow Jews to stop talking about them and start thinking about us. If ever (to mix Athens and Jerusalem) there is such a thing as a Jewish “gadfly,” prodding and challenging his community at every turn, it was Irving Kristol.

Kristol’s main critique is focused on the unreflective attachment of most Jews to the left. Strange as it sounds, this criticism is the furthest thing from a partisan plea—indeed, in his first statement of this theme (1948), he was still very much on the left. Kristol found the equation of Judaism with leftist political measures a perversion of the Jewish religion. Was one of the goals of Judaism, he asked, to be that “it permits its believers to read The New Republic with untroubled soul?” The silly pride and suffocating self-satisfaction that so many Jews experienced in voting and thinking left, as if these acts fulfill a divine “command” to do good, are obviously attitudes that did not die out in the 1940s; they were still going strong in 2008, in the ritual cleansing of bumpers before applying the sacred Obama-Biden stickers. Quite apart from such religious scruples, Kristol went on in our time to criticize Jews’ political judgment in joining all too readily in disparaging evangelical Christianity and looking obsessively for signs of bigotry in every conservative religious organization or social movement. While Kristol knew full well that religious enthusiasm in the past was often accompanied with danger to Jews, he began asking American Jews in the 1980s to wake up to the “new world” in America, in which “Christians wish to be more Christian without necessarily being anti-Semitic.” Parallel to this development has been the equally important fact, growing increasingly apparent, that a new form of hostility to Jews and Israel is far more likely to emanate from secular sources.

The power of Kristol’s critique of this myopia in the American Jewish community is almost enough to lead one to despair, were it not for the fact that the history of the Jewish people has so often seemed to defy the lost cause. And so it is no mere fantasy to predict that the seed Irving Kristol planted here will become one of his greatest legacies. Although Kristol was himself cool toward the prophets—their expressions of messianic transformation reminded him too much of the Marxist science of the New Man—it is still fitting to cite Zechariah in his behalf: “The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit.”

There is a strange term, “public intellectual,” that enjoys much currency today, especially among those who like to claim the label for themselves. It refers to anyone who trades in ideas and holds forth in public, which, with the advent of blogging, is a much less exclusive group than it used to be. If there is to be any real distinction left to the term, it is best to consider adopting a less populist understanding and confine it to thinkers who have directly articulated or codified a major “public philosophy” or “persuasion” that has influenced the course of development in American politics.

Of public intellectuals so conceived, there have been only a handful: George Bancroft, whose famous History of the United States and orations sketched out much of the Jacksonian persuasion; John Dewey and Herbert Croly, the tandem who promoted progressivism; William F. Buckley, who helped revive conservatism; and Irving Kristol, father of the neoconservative persuasion. A comparison among these remarkable figures would obviously merit a study in its own right. So far as literary form is concerned, Kristol, unlike the others, never authored a full-length book; he stands out from this group by the extraordinary quality of his essays, which is a medium in which few other Americans were his equal. As for the overall character of thought, all of these men, being engaged in political commentary for a long period, shifted ground at points over their careers. Kristol, with his reflection on the idea of a “persuasion,” was perhaps the least preoccupied with pure doctrine, seeking instead to keep the door of the conservative movement open to new influences and forms, while at the same time holding fast to core principles like cherishing the nation and respecting the limits of human nature.

Some of the schools will no doubt find his approach too eclectic, but the gene he implanted in his intellectual stepchildren has served the conservative cause and the nation very well.

James W. Ceaser is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and author, most recently, of Designing a Polity.

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