Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea by Irving Kristol. The Free Press, 493 pp., $25.00.
December 17, 1995        

Someone (Shaw or Russell, I think) once defined the duty of the political intellectual as: “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” In recent decades neoconservatives have assumed a new mission: to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. To be fair, it is actually the self-designated spokesmen for the afflicted -- i.e., liberal intellectuals, or the “new class”-- whom neoconservatives claim to afflict. Still, that’s not much comfort to the afflicted, who have no other spokesmen.

The patriarch of this once small, now large band is Irving Kristol. A former editor at Commentary and Basic Books, a founding editor of Encounter and The Public Interest publisher of The National Interest, member of the Wall Street Journal’s Board of Contributors, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Henry Luce Professor of Urban Values and John M. Olin Professor at New York University, counselor to foundations, corporations, and Republican politicians -- Kristol is a prophet with plenty of honors.

Most of Kristol’s best-known writings are reprinted in Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea. Why “neo-” conservatism? What’s new about it? “Conservative political theory” is, in one sense, an oxymoron. Conservatism is, in this sense, not merely the absence of theory, but the repudiation of theory. After all, theory is supposed to guide, or at least to explain, practice. But as Kristol notes, “that the unanticipated consequences of ideas and acts are often very different from what was originally intended” -- i.e., that prediction, control, or even rigorous explanation are impossible in politics -- is “the basic conservative axiom.” Therefore, harrumphs the (paleo—)conservative, away with all theories. We will muddle through, as we always have. This is the attitude John Stuart Mill had in mind when he remarked that in every society, conservatives tend to be “the stupid party.”

Neoconservatives are plainly not stupid or allergic to ideas. On the contrary, nearly all of them began as doctrinaire leftists or liberals. But the crimes of Stalin sapped their socialist faith; and confronted with the New Left and the counterculture of the 1960s, Kristol writes, “we discovered that traditional ‘bourgeois’ values were what we had believed in all along, had indeed simply taken for granted.” Socialist collectivism leads to totalitarian tyranny; liberal individualism leads to moral anarchy -- on this the old conservatives and the new conservatives agreed. But the new ones were not content to harrumph; they have argued back.

Kristol’s extraordinary polemical success derives from three characteristics: his writing is witty, plausible, and superficial. This last characteristic is perhaps the most striking. Breezy assertion is Kristol’s forte. He provides few historical facts or economic statistics, practically no citations (maybe a dozen in a 500-page book), little extended exposition or analysis. Fellow neoconservative Joseph Epstein once described Kristol as “commanding in tone, supremely confident about subjects that are elsewhere held to be still in the flux of controversy, assuming always that anyone who thinks differently is perverse or inept.” About the “ideological’ discourse of liberal intellectuals, Kristol has written: “It always seems to go deeper, point further, aspire higher. Its bland disregard of opposing fact, its very pretentiousness, sometimes even its very smug self—assurance, can give it a readability and literary attractiveness that a more matter-of-fact and more truthful essay does not often instantly achieve.” Yet this, it seems to me, is the typical Kristol essay in a nutshell.

Still, there is that kernel of plausibility. It is true that, so far, every large, prosperous, democratic society has been a capitalist one. It is true that every society calling itself “socialist” has been, on the whole, an economic and moral disaster. It is true that no society can flourish, perhaps even survive, without cultivating the “bourgeois” virtues: self-reliance, self-restraint, diligence, prudence, fidelity, honesty, thrift. It is true that one -- arguably the main -- agency for fostering these and other virtues has, so far, been organized religion. It is true that public policy has unintended consequences, and that bureaucrats are not invariably less shortsighted and self-interested than businessmen. All these truths Kristol and other neoconservatives have insisted upon. They have even, so to speak, rubbed liberals’ and leftists’ noses in these truths, which is not a bad thing.

Neoconservatism rarely, however, tells more than half the truth, and usually less than that. For one thing: by far the most important fact about American politics, past and present, is the disproportionate influence of organized, concentrated economic power -- in a word, money -- over public policy. Whatever the validity of neconservative arguments about tax policy, regulatory policy, environmental policy, welfare policy, or foreign policy, they have only a marginal influence on Republican or Democratic politicians. Campaign contributions -- or conversely, the threat of well-financed opposition --are immeasurably more influential. About this inconvenient truth neoconservatives have had virtually nothing to say. There is not a word on the subject in Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea.

Neoconservatives have also been thunderingly silent about the corrosive effects of the “free market,” and the accompanying commodification of everything, on the virtues and traditions they claim to uphold. Kristol, to his credit, has shown some awareness of this question (above all in his finest essay, “When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness,” not included in the present collection). But he has not pursued it, preferring to remind his readers endlessly of the blessings of capitalism and the dangers of utopianism.

Another of Kristol’s best essays (“Pornography, Obscenity, and and the Case for Censorship”) begins: “Being frustrated is disagreeable, but the real disasters in life begin when you get what you want.” One can only hope that, flush from their dark victory in 1994, Kristol’s neoconservative disciples will take this admonition to heart.