Irving Kristol didn’t coin the term ‘neoconservative’ but he was the first person to run with it. Although it was originally intended as an insult towards those alleged to have abandoned their initial ‘liberalism’, Kristol wasn’t bothered with quibbling. ‘It usually makes no sense… to argue over nomenclature,’ he once said. ‘If you can, you take what people call you and run with it.’ Besides, ‘having been named Irving, I am relatively indifferent to baptismal caprice’.
Some of the best qualities of Kristol — who died last week — can be gleaned from such casual phrases. His lightness of spirit, his acceptance that there are things you can do nothing about, and his keenness to sweep aside the peripheral and get on to the important things.
With his 70-year marriage to the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, and via their son William Kristol, he was, like other first-generation neoconservatives, the father of a neoconservative dynasty. But pre-eminent among a generation of extraordinary thinkers, he radiated the good-humoured and benign qualities expected of a godfather. Generous and encouraging, he was also assiduous in helping generations of thinkers with whom he sympathised.
Born in Brooklyn in 1920, the son of a rag-trader, Kristol made his own way through the American century. In New York he tried out Marxism and then Trotskyism. After serving as a staff sergeant in the armoured infantry during the second world war, he took up the post of managing editor at Commentary magazine. From there he began his career at the heart of American intellectual life at magazines including Encounter, The Public Interest (which he founded) and The National Interest, a career which would last more than half a century. He also began his own political journey.
Witnessing postwar America slipping into moral relativism, and the failure of the country’s institutions to stand against those who wished to destroy them, he certainly migrated — although he disputed whether it was him or the world around him that had moved. Becoming a neoconservative in the 1960s did not require a leap, he once pointed out: ‘All you had to do was stand in place.’ ‘A neoconservative,’ he famously explained, ‘is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.’
As such, he embodied as well as defined the neoconservative tendency (as he called it: it was never a school or doctrine). Amused by the reality that had mugged his liberal certainties, he was also roused to anger. And he had a particularly useful weapon in his intellectual armoury. Having been of the left, he knew how his new opponents thought — and why.
Amazed at the reaction to communism by so-called liberals, he wrote in 1954: ‘Communism today rules one third of the human race, and may soon rule more. It is the most powerful existing institution which opposes such changes and reforms as liberalism proposes. Why, then, should not liberals, and liberals especially, fear and hate it?’ It was a question that those who listened to Kristol would go on to ask again as events unfolded.
His brand of what has been called ‘moral realism’ was at its best when applied to economics in Two Cheers for Capitalism and in his prolific writings on welfare. His skill lay not only in his ability to turn a memorable phrase but in his skill at overturning accepted dogma. Of the liberal obsession with ‘equality’ he once wrote: ‘Rich men are fine, poor men are fine, so long as they are decent human beings. I do not like equality. I do not like it in sports, in the arts, or in economics. I just don’t like it in this world.’
In 2005 I wrote a chapter on Kristol in a book on neoconservatism. Shortly afterwards, a letter from Kristol arrived which expressed, among other things, gratitude and surprise that a Brit had treated his views on supply-side economics respectfully. The following year, at a dinner in Washington, I found myself placed between him and his wife. As is the American way, I had hardly sat down when my hosts announced that I would be taking questions after the first course. One of the first questions came from a journalist. ‘How exactly would you define neoconservatism?’ he asked me. Slightly exasperated, I said that as the man who had invented it was sitting to my left, I’d rather hear what he had to say.
It was as though a critic had requested that I interpret a piece by Mozart while the man himself sat interestedly at my side. I turned the question over to him, and watching Irving and Gertrude, both in their late eighties, talking ideas over provided a master-class in intellectual precision as well as in grace and decency.
At the heart of Kristol’s world-view was the simple realisation that ideas matter — and that when the ideas go bad the world goes bad with them. It had happened several times in Kristol’s lifetime, and he had seen the consequences. It was his self-appointed task — and one he carried out with considerable success — to try to prevent them going wrong again.
Kristol captured neoconservatism and, in his personal attitude, epitomised it. He once wrote that ‘the trouble with American conservatism is that it lacks a naturally cheerful, optimistic disposition. Not only does it lack one, it regards signs of one as evidence of unsoundness [and] irresponsibility.’ Of conservatism’s tendency towards nostalgia, he wrote: ‘Nostalgia is one of the legitimate, and certainly one of the most enduring, of human emotions; but the politics of nostalgia is at best distracting, at worst pernicious.’
He stood outside conservatism and outside liberalism. But for more than half a century he remained at the centre of a culture which valued intellectuals in its politics.
‘Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a neo-something,’ Kristol lately reflected. ‘A neo-Marxist, a neo-Trotskyist, a neo-liberal, a neo-conservative; 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.’
That’s it. Always neo. Always with dash. Never nothing.
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