The First Neocon
The late Irving Kristol blazed a path from the labor left to the Reaganite right. But he never lost faith in the resilience of democracy—and the disfiguring effects of political rage.
In M emoirs of a Trotskyist, Irving Kristol, one of the most daring and provocative American intellectuals of the 20th century, recounted his years as a young radical at New York's City College. What he recalled most vividly weren't the seminars and lectures that made up his formal education, but rather the mostly playful—but occasionally very heated—arguments that took place among friends in Alcove No. 1, a small corner of the dark and dank college cafeteria that was home to the anti-Stalinist left.
For Kristol, neoconservatism was a persuasion, not an ideology, one that is as hopeful and forward-looking and cheerful as traditional conservatism is pessimistic and nostalgic and darkly foreboding.
Kristol's memories were strikingly unsentimental. Though he had great and obvious affection for his comrades, he hadn't forgotten the poverty and gloom that defined the New York of the 1930s, nor the idealism that inspired his radical politics. Indeed, Kristol never apologized for his left-wing past. He memorably compared joining a radical movement as a young man to falling in love: "The girl may turn out to be rotten, but the experience of falling in love is so valuable it can never be entirely undone by the ultimate disenchantment."
The political turmoil of that moment lent tremendous urgency to the task of getting an education: The men of Alcove No. 1 were keenly aware that the opportunity to learn and think and argue was a privilege, and that the fate of a world in crisis was in their hands. And though Kristol was known for his wit and his sense of irony, this moral seriousness stayed with him for the rest of his long life.
Kristol is best known as the first and most prominent of the neoconservatives. The term was first invented by democratic socialist Michael Harrington as a gentle jab at the ex-leftists who found themselves so appalled by the explosion of crime and disorder and political militancy of the late 1960s that they had reluctantly turned to the political right. Some of the early neoconservatives, like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ended their public careers as they started them, as New Deal liberals with a skeptical temperament. Others, like Kristol, moved steadily rightward, ultimately embracing the conservatism of Ronald Reagan as enthusiastically as they had once embraced the labor left. The conventional critique of the neoconservatives is that they went from an admirable empirically minded critique of the excesses of American left-liberalism to creating a blinkered right-wing ideology of their own, one that was as intolerant of dissent as the New Left.
Without wading too deeply into this broader controversy, it is very easy to demonstrate that this view fails to capture the subtlety of Kristol's own thinking.
Having started his intellectual life as Trotskyist, a partisan of an international workers' movement that transcended all parochial attachments, Kristol ended it as a patriot, a believer in the distinctive virtues of America's decidedly imperfect form of constitutional government and its roiling melting-pot culture. Yet Kristol was far from a chauvinist, and he was very attuned to our equally distinctive national pathologies—among them a distressing, and enduring, taste for easy answers. For Kristol, neoconservatism was a persuasion, not an ideology, one that is as hopeful and forward-looking and cheerful as traditional conservatism is pessimistic and nostalgic and darkly foreboding. Rather than condemn the growth of government, Kristol saw it as inevitable in a democratic society in which the needs and wants of the public are never fixed.
The important thing was to guard against an excessively intrusive government, one that would undermine the capacity for self-government.
Throughout his life, Kristol was a defender of the New Deal, and in particular of Social Security. The apocalyptic rhetoric of the tea-party movement is in an obvious sense sharply in tension with this neoconservative persuasion, embracing as it does the temperamental radicalism we once associated with the far left. Though I can't imagine Kristol was a supporter of Barack Obama—my guess is that he found the president troublingly naive and overambitious—he also believed in the resilience of American democracy and the disfiguring effects of political rage. If the American right wing ever recaptures the imagination of the public, it will do so by heeding the lessons of Irving Kristol.
Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.