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.

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