Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Irving Kristol, RIP

“If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.” ~Winston Churchill

I’m trying to make a few remarks about Irving Kristol who passed away this past week. Kristol is one of the pre-eminent names in the neo-conservative movement. Some went so far as to call him the Godfather of Neoconservatism.

It should be noted that conservatism is not a homogeneous worldview. There are numerous subgroups within the conservative perspective, chief of these being neoconservatives, theoconservative and paleoconservatives. Pat Buchanan is representative of the latter, a view that desires to return to the Founding Fathers in all their Constitutional glory, to maintain or reinvigorate his interpretation of the worldview that was dominant during that time. Even the theoconservatives are split between the Neuhaus intellectuals and the report card politics of the Religious Right.

Irving Kristol was from neither of these camps. Rather, he was global in his thinking, and conservative by dint of having been immersed in liberal idealism he could not stomach the bi-products of these idealists, chiefly exemplified in Stalinism and later the Sixties radicalism of the New Left

Adam Bernstein’ s Washington Post obituary/tribute to Kristol began in this manner: Irving Kristol, 89, a forceful essayist, editor and university professor who became the leading architect of neoconservatism, which he called a political and intellectual movement for disaffected ex-liberals, like himself, who had been "mugged by reality," died Friday at Capital Hospice in Arlington County.

Kristol himself had been a Troskyite in his youth and a believer in the socialist dream. (I myself liked Leon Trotsky for a spell while in Junior High School because my first name is likewise Leon, which led me to do an essay on his life at the time.)

I find it interesting that many significant voices in the conservative movement were once liberal and socialists. Kristol and neoconservative Norman Podhoretz cited George Orwell’s disaffection with communism as a start point for this movement. (Much more can be said in that regard.) In point of fact, many people who came late to political awareness with regard to beltway politics had no idea that some of the leading conservative voices during the Reagan era, such as Jeanne Kirkpatrick and William J. Bennett, had once been liberals.

Citing Bernstein again, Mr. Kristol and many of his followers were dubbed neoconservatives. It was a term introduced by social critic Michael Harrington to describe the rightward turn of onetime liberals such as Mr. Kristol, whose extraordinary political odyssey had taken him from Depression-era socialist to anticommunist Cold Warrior and Vietnam War hawk.

Although Harrington's use of the term neoconservative was not intended as a compliment, Mr. Kristol embraced the name and became its widely accepted godfather. An Esquire magazine cover story on him in 1979 helped legitimize Mr. Kristol as the leader of a full-fledged movement, even as he downplayed the idea that such a formal faction existed.

Despite the move from left to write of many influential writers and thinkers this past century, the Churchill quote at the beginning of this article is not entirely accurate. There are writers and thinkers whose "mugging by reality" drove them right to left. I think here of David Brock, author of Blinded by the Right, who was a conservative insider during the Clinton years.

Essentially history is ever in the making. Whoever wields power at the moment has an opportunity to influence. That influence can attract or repel based on the consequences of actions and ideas. The part that Winston got right is that things do not forever remain the same, and neither do people.


ENNYMAN said...

I like Mona Charon's description in her remembrance:
"Though the term "neoconservative" has come to be associated with a muscular foreign policy... it began in the 1960s as a disparaging term for those liberals, led by Kristol and a few others, who were bent on doing something that made other liberals acutely uncomfortable: test whether their theories worked in the real world."

Pedro H. Albuquerque said...

There may be exceptions as you pointed out, but it's a really interesting phenomenon the fact
that it's much more common to see leftists that become libertarians or conservatives than the opposite. It normally coincides with becoming effectively learned instead of just "college instructed."

ENNYMAN said...

A couple other factors also bear upon this matter. Young people who have nothing to lose can afford to risk everything, but as working people gain assets, own homes, have families (as they get older) they tend toward conserving or protecting what they have and are less inclined to put all at risk.

The historical moment also has a bearing. It's hard to say what the future will bring, but there will alwys be some who react against whatever is going on and some who have developed personal life principles. But even these principles can be challenged by history and reality. For example, Jeanne Kirkpatrick in Dictators and Double Standards (a great essay by the way) did not believe that totalitarian governments could become democracies but that authoritarian ones could. (I believe this is one point she argued.) But after the Soviet Union fell, history proved her wrong... they held elections.

Freedom is a fragile thing, so it waits to be seen how all plays out, no matter what happens.