SOURCE: August Pollak
[Editor’s note: The Weekly Standard is reporting that Irving Kristol died. As our bio of him from earlier this year reported, he was a powerful and formative influence on the discourse of the political right.]
Irving Kristol, “the godfather of neoconservatism,” is one of the last of the old guard that spearheaded 40 years of conservative backlash. Alongside National Review founder William F. Buckley and free-market exemplar Milton Friedman, Kristol was a patriarch of the conservative intelligentsia. His erstwhile allies have now passed away, and he has largely ceded the political stage to his son, former New York Times columnist and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, but his powerful influence still has an impact on political discourse today.
Renowned sociologist and cultural critic Daniel Bell once said, “Whenever I read about neoconservatism, I think, ‘That isn’t neoconservatism; it’s just Irving.’” While neoconservative ideology has always been more complicated than Bell’s pithy statement implies, it does indicate how deeply Kristol’s life became intertwined with the movement he came to typify. He was always at the forefront of his cadre’s intellectual shift to the right. From Trotskyite communists to full-blown Reaganite Republican converts, Kristol led the charge.
Kristol was born in Brooklyn in 1920 to impoverished Jewish immigrant parents. He began his dextral pilgrimage at the City College of New York in Alcove No. 1 of the cafeteria in 1936. The Alcove was the rallying point for campus leftists who didn’t buy Stalin’s granddad-of-the-revolution image but still believed the overthrow of capitalism was desirable if not imminent. Alcove No. 1 hosted an ecumenical gathering of anti-Stalinist leftists, but the Trotskyites defined the group, exhaustively indulging themselves in internecine debates over the minutiae of Marxism.
Decades later, as a cantankerous counterrevolutionary, Kristol still held Alcove No. 1 in warm regard. “Joining a radical movement when one is young is very much like falling in love when one is young. The girl may turn out to be rotten, but the experience of love is so valuable it can never be entirely undone by the ultimate disenchantment.”
Kristol was drafted in 1944, and he served in both France and Germany. His time abroad purged Kristol of his socialistic alignments. During the fevered early years of the 1950s, he subscribed to a form of anti-communist liberalism in which anticommunism took precedence over liberalism. Kristol contributed to the poisonous McCarthyite atmosphere by accusing liberals of being indelibly tainted by communism. He claimed in his essay “‘Civil Liberties,’ 1952—A Study In Confusion,” “that a generation of reformers who gave this country a new deal [are] in retrospect stained with the guilt of having lent aid and comfort to Stalinist tyranny.”
Kristol’s dissatisfaction with the staid liberalism of the ’50s did not bode well for his reception of the next decade’s reborn radicalism. Kristol wasn’t thrilled with the war in Vietnam, but he was much more concerned with the cultural war at home and the expansion of the Great Society. He warned of an emergent “New Class” of public sector bureaucrats and intellectuals, who had abandoned, in his eyes, traditional American values. Portending contemporary myths of “the liberal media” and baseless accusations of socialism, Kristol saw their insidious influence in the media, the educational system, the public health system, and the welfare state. These forces were propelling the United States toward an economy "so stringently regulated in detail as to fulfill many of the traditional anticapitalist aspirations of the Left.”
Such pronouncements lent an esoteric sheen to the right’s claims of a vast left-wing conspiracy. In the National Review, Jonah Goldberg once conveyed Buckley’s argument that the neocons’s principal gift to the Goldwater-Reagan Revolution “derived from their ability to incorporate the language and methods of the social sciences into the conservative cause”, effectively sprucing up the moralistic incantations of the Old Right. In further pursuit of this goal, Kristol founded the now defunct policy-oriented quarterly The Public Interest. The publication was meant to be a corrective to what he declaimed as the overly ideological social science exemplified by Michael Harrington’s The Other America, the book that kick-started Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. But Kristol did not defend all the right’s sacred cows: he wanted a limited welfare state, a goal that unfortunately was always subservient to his foreign policy and ideological considerations.
By the mid-‘70s Kristol and his cohorts completely abandoned any pretense toward liberalism, and finally coalesced into a coherent group, which Harrington dubbed “the neoconservatives.” During this period Kristol built contacts among prominent conservative political and corporate figures and proposed a nationalist unilateralist basis for American foreign policy, which roughly meant the United States should pursue its national self-interest without regard for foot-dragging European allies.
In 1978, he joined the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and gained influence among several other right-wing think tanks. In the late ‘70s he summarized his involvement, “I raise money for conservative think-tanks. I am a liaison to some degree between the intellectuals and the business community.” His influence peddling paid off. When Reagan came to power, several neoconservatives were appointed to powerful positions in the administration, where they routinely exaggerated the Soviet threat and advocated the commitment of American forces abroad, heedless of international opinion.
Kristol broke ranks with his protégés following the Cold War, rejecting the notion that it was America’s duty to make the world safe for democracy, although the rest of the movement, including the neocons we know today, demanded a moral crusade against the remaining authoritarians. Kristol applauded President George H.W. Bush’s use of military force in the first Gulf War during the early ‘90s, but he passionately denounced the multilateral nature of the invasion. He specifically decried the decision to run every military decision by the Security Council. Instead, Kristol continued to champion the seemingly oxymoronic isolationist interventionalism stance he recommended during the Reagan years.
By the ‘90s his influence was waning as his son’s star power rose (William was chief-of-staff to Dan Quayle during the first Bush presidency), but Kristol’s two most ominous contributions to American politics had already made their impact. The first, isolationist interventionalism or nationalist unilateralism, gained credence under the second Bush administration and culminated in the disastrous, bloody, and unpopular Iraq War.
The second is Kristol’s conception of the noble lie—the idea of a fallacy propagated by the enlightened elite who must guide the benighted masses towards lofty goals they may not be ready to understand. Critics tend to grossly exaggerate the far left roots of neoconservatism, but this is one key tenent of Marxist thought that may have shaded later manifestations of Kristol’s thinking. The Leninist idea of a vanguard party, a disciplined group of intellectuals that would instill a revolutionary ethic in the undisciplined working-class, was a much debated idea during the 1930s. As Kristol put it, “[t]he elite was us—the ‘happy few’ who had been chosen by History to guide our fellow creatures toward a secular redemption.” The idea of an enlightened elite class of intellectuals steering the docile masses toward a common good would resurface throughout Kristol’s life, and by extension throughout the neoconservative movement.
"There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people," Kristol said in one interview. "There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work." This has led Kristol and many other neocons to a bizarre embrace of anti-Darwinism because they fear that evolution subverts religious belief, which they view as fundamental to an orderly society. In Kristol’s view, the possible lack of a deity is one of those truths that are only appropriate for highly educated adults. The same ethos could be seen, retrospectively, during the run up to the second invasion of Iraq, when you couldn’t turn on the TV or open a magazine without neoconservatives arguing that war was imperative because of weapons of mass destruction and connections to 9/11. These allegations later proved to be nothing but more noble lies. The truth that Iraq posed no overt threat to the United States was deemed inappropriate for those of us not of Kristol’s intellectual vanguard.
In his own words
“The [United Nations] is a ridiculous institution. It was stupid to begin with and it’s still stupid.”
–The Neoconservative Mind, by Gary J. Dorrien, 1993.
“[L]arge nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns. Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces, external or internal … 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.”
–one of Irving Kristol’s last written testaments, The Weekly Standard, 2003.
“If the president goes to the American people and wraps himself in the American flag and lets Congress wrap itself in the white flag of surrender, the president will win….The American people had never heard of Grenada. There was no reason why they should have. The reason we gave for the intervention—the risk to American medical students there—was phony but the reaction of the American people was absolutely and overwhelmingly favorable. They had no idea what was going on, but they backed the president. They always will.”
–arguing for more executive branch power, from The Fettered Presidency published by the American Enterprise Institute, 1989.
"Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a neo-something: a neo-Marxist, a neo-Trotskyist, a neo-liberal, a neoconservative; in religion a neo-orthodox even while I was a neo-Trotskyist and a neo-Marxist. I’m going to end up a neo- that’s all, neo dash nothing."
–see video below
Jake Blumgart is an Editorial Intern at Campus Progress.