The Great Persuader
The wisdom and wit of Irving Kristol.
Feb 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 21 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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.