Sunday, September 20, 2009

Irving Kristol--Titan Of The Modern Conservative Movement

One of the two towering figures of modern conservative thought has passed away. Along with William F. Buckley, Irving Kristol laid the foundation for the movement which spurred Barry Goldwater and ultimately was instrumental in the election of Ronald Reagan. Buckley is by far the better-known of the two, but Kristol was every bit as influential in the early days of the movement, and in the subsequent development of conservative thought.

I was a young, new Left radical when I first started reading works by both Buckley and Kristol. I suppose it was my arrogant way of "knowing the enemy," but as I look back I realize that it was genuine admiration for thoughts that sank so deeply into my consciousness that I found the transition to conservatism far less painful than it might have been otherwise. I liked Buckley, even though he was the patrician who spoke in stentorian tones and wrote in a manner that required I keep a dictionary nearby at all times. But Kristol was a leftist, Marxist-influenced liberal who has been quoted unknowingly by many a Republican when he said that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. While Buckley was always a traditional conservative, Kristol did not come by it naturally.

Like other budding socialists, I never understood the liberal fondness for tolerating communists and communist dictatorships. Kristol started developing that aversion in the early 50s, and began attacking his fellow leftists for such foolish neutrality toward such destructive thought. Along with Norman Podhoretz (Kristol's successor as editor of Commentary magazine) and Father Richard John Neuhaus (a former Lutheran pastor and Catholic convert who founded First Things magazine), they began to coordinate efforts to get the word out about the destructiveness of liberal thinking. By the late 60s, their ongoing research and debates led them into full-blown rebellion against their former colleagues and allies.

Irving Kristol was the first "neoconservative" of national prominence. But at this point I want to make it very clear what that when that term was coined, it meant something quite simple. It meant nothing more or less than "former leftist/radical/liberal who has come to believe in the conservative view of politics." It was used solely to distinguish them from traditional conservatives such as William F. Buckley. It had practically none of the meanings which have subsequently come to attempt to describe modern conservatives. It was used solely for the purpose of saying "we agree on almost every detail with Buckley, but we have something additional to add to the discussion because we didn't come by it at birth."

So when I refer to Kristol as a neoconservative, I do so because it describes me as well, and he chose the term. Dismiss from your mind that we use the term "neoconservative" to mean aggressive, statist, big-government, compassionate conservatism. Kristol-type "neoconservatives" simply means "latecomers to the conservative table," not right-wing reactionaries. And though the left has added the sneering racial put-down of "Jewish," it is not a Jewish movement either. Like many movements, many of the leading intellectuals and loyal troops are Jewish, but that is a matter of academics, not ethnicity or religion (for example, leaders like the late Catholic convert Priest Neuhaus and unconverted Lutheran soldiers, like me).

My first realization that the neoconservative Kristol might have something to say to a liberal Democrat like me came during the Viet Nam War. Like me, he opposed it. He said: "The plain truth is that South Vietnam is barely capable of decent self-government under the best of conditions. It lacks the political traditions, the educated classes, the civic spirit that makes self-government workable. No amount of American aid, no amount of exhortation, no amount of good advice or military assistance can change this basic condition." We'll never know if he was right, because despite a string of victories culminating in the destruction of the Viet Cong and crippling of the Army of North Vietnamese Army, the liberal-left media, headed by Walter Cronkite, convinced America that "it could not win the war." And Viet Nam was left to its fate. Once again, the liberal tolerance of communism played its ugly part.

As a result of this line of thinking, he reluctantly supported the early Iraq War, but he had already split with the faction that most people today identify as "neocons," led by Charles Krauthammer, Joshua Muravchik, Paul Wolfowitz. and his own son, William Kristol (editor of the Weekly Standard). He believed their ideas were overly idealistic. He wanted to promote democracy world-wide, but didn't see it as America's role to impose democracy on unwilling and unready nations or regions. He saw some hope for Iraq, but saw Afghanistan merely as a barbaric country which needed full, quick and decisive American military action to cripple Al-Qaeda and the Taliban who supported them, but not a long-term commitment to stay around to develop democracy.

As a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kristol saw American strength as necessary to maintain and monitor a stable world without getting militarily trapped in enforcing a balance of power strategy which ceased to exist when the USSR was no longer a major player. But he was also acutely aware that it was important to be able to evolve conservative thought as world conditions changed. He joked near the end of his life that he had been a neoMarxist, a neoBolshevik, a neoMenshevik, a neoLiberal, and a neoConservative, and that by the time he died, he would probably have been several other neos. He was very careful to say that though he believed that America needed to maintain its military strength to be the world's shield against rogue war-making states, America should not be the world's policeman nor its overly-generous uncle.

Kristol remained very quiet during the course of the Iraq war, but wrote a statement of what he believed about the current state of conservatism and America's role in the world in The Neoconservative Persuasion. He wrote: "The United States [under the current administration], for better or worse, is the most powerful country in the world and that it will find opportunities to use that power, or create opportunities. Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from non-democratic forces, external or internal. That is why it was in our national interest to come to the defense of France and Britain in World War II. That is why we feel it necessary to defend Israel today, when its survival is threatened. No complicated geopolitical calculations of national interest are necessary. Behind all this is a fact: the incredible military superiority of the United State vis-a-vis the nations of the rest of the world, in any imaginable combination. This superiority was planned by no one, and even today there are many Americans who are in denial . . . The older, traditional elements in the Republican Party have difficulty coming to terms with this new reality in foreign affairs, just as they cannot reconcile economic conservatism with social and cultural conservatism. But by one of those accidents historians ponder, our current president [Bush] and his administration turn out to be quite at home in this new political environment, although it is clear they did not anticipate this role any more than their party as a whole did. As a result, neoconservatism, of a different strain from mine, began enjoying a second life, at a time when its obituaries were still being published." Irving, the liberals are still trying to write the conservative obituary.

The two men who were my early conservative mentors have gone, within less than a year of each other. There are many good writers and speakers today to carry on the cause, but we will not see the like of those two again any time soon. For me, the former radical, Irving Kristol's death is particularly poignant.

For those of you who would like to read some famous quotes of Kristol's, the Wall Street Journal has provided a good basic collection: Irving Kristol's Reality Principles

9 comments:

Joel Farnham said...

Nice job LawHawk.

I didn't know anything about Irving Kristol until he died.

I certainly didn't know he is one of the orginal conservatives.

Enlightening. Thank you.

StanH said...

Very nice Lawhawk, and heartfelt with strings to your own metamorphosis from barking moonbat to a neoconservative. Maybe you can fill that void, as a proud conservative writer?

LawHawkSF said...

JoelFarnham: You have plenty of company in not having heard of Irving Kristol. I didn't even mention his early and important involvement in the American Enterprise Institute. America has always been a moderate-conservative nation, even during the height of the Roosevelt creation of the modern government-dependency state. Kristol was among the very earliest to see this and recognize that very few writers and professors had defined American conservatism. His seminal writing came in the late 40s and early 50s, and caught the attention of a young Yale student named William F. Buckley.

AndrewPrice said...

Sounds like an interesting path. As a conservative, I am less than thrilled with the new neocons. But it doesn't sound like that's who he was.

LawHawkSF said...

StanH: Thanks for the sentiments. I probably had the same sensation that the generation of the late 1700s and early 1800s had as the Founding Fathers began to die. Most of them never met or even got near a Thomas Jefferson, but they all knew the words "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." And even if they didn't all understand all the rational and enlightenment arguments behind the writings of the Founders, they knew that they had wrought a unique change in the way people viewed their government and their own part in it.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: The liberals and the big-government faction of the Republican Party have distorted the original meaning of the word "neoconservative" that Kristol created. When Kristol took the word conservative and added "neo-" he was attempting to describe a new way of looking at the American conservative soul and giving it meaning. Long before his death, he became irritated with the old guard Republican party which had morphed into what most people call neocons today. He called them "statists with imperial tendencies, as likely to disregard the Constitution as their liberal brethren." His son William co-founded The Weekly Standard largely because Irving saw no place for him at the more traditionally conservative Commentary magazine.

LawHawkSF said...

Here is a good description of Kristol's use of the word "neoconservative" as late as the mid-eighties. He later said that Reagan's adoption of neoconservatism was later perverted by those who saw massive intervention overseas and government growth domestically as legitimate uses of government power to advance Reagan's far more limited agenda:

The administration of Ronald Reagan is a fascinating meld of two strands of conservative thinking. The first is a traditional conservatism that emphasizes the prudential management of both economic affairs and foreign policy.

"At least half the time, Mr. Reagan speaks and acts as such a traditional conservative. But he also, at critical moments, speaks and acts as a new kind of conservative—a "neoconservative." Neoconservatism is that strange creature, a future-oriented conservatism, stressing the economics of growth rather than of stability, the politics of hope rather than of preservation. It exudes a spirit of buoyant self-confidence rather than of grim defensiveness. It is this new kind of conservatism that marks this administration off from previous Republican administrations. It is neoconservatism that gave rise to supply-side economics and to what one may now call a "supply-side" foreign policy—i.e., a policy of action rather than reaction, as represented by the invasion of Grenada, the Strategic Defense Initiative and support for the contras in Nicaragua."

Republican Party--are you listening?

HamiltonsGhost said...

Lawhawk--I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who knew very little about Irving Kristol. I wonder how many people would never have made that leap from liberalism to conservatism without the thoughts and encouragement of a fine mind who had made the transition ahead of them. I also see how his "neo" fit into his admiration for Reagan's ability to take the dour nature of conservative thought and convert it into a dynamic new way of implementing his reforms (thanks to the link you provided to his "Reality Principles").

LawHawkSF said...

HamiltonsGhost: I was affected very much by it. Some of my friends and allies at Berkeley were also affected, but much earlier (such as David Horowitz). It also seems that the deeper they were in the left, the farther they went to the right. But that might just be my own perception of it.

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