Reflections of a Neoconservative: Looking Back, Looking Ahead
By Irving Kristol
Publisher: Basic Books
Review Author: Arthur F. McGovern
Irving Kristol is, in the judgment of critic Peter Steinfels, the “standard-bearer of neoconservatism.” Kristol merits this designation: he is an articulate writer, an insightful thinker, and a forceful defender of “democratic capitalism.”
The book is a compilation of 29 essays. The two initial essays “look back” at earlier days in Kristol’s career. The first recalls his college days as a Trotskyist at CCNY and his acquaintance with students who later became prominent intellectuals (Seymour M. Lipset, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Seymour Melman, and others). In a second essay, Kristol answers accusations about CIA support for Encounter magazine, which he edited in the 1950s. A believing though non-practicing Jew, Kristol concludes the book with a few essays on “religion and Jews” which date back to 1949-1951. But most of the essays were written in recent years and their purpose is to present Kristol’s convictions about politics, economics, and foreign policy.
Kristol notes two heritages that have shaped modern political thought: the French Enlightenment-Revolution and the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment (Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, et al.). Much of Kristol’s thought seems rooted in the sharp distinction he draws between these two contending heritages. He opposes the French tradition, which he sees as encouraging the state and intellectual elites to manage the economy, to impose values and preferences, and to control human behavior. He links this tradition in the present to Marxism, to social democracy in Western Europe, and to increasingly leftist tendencies among American liberals. He staunchly defends the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment for recognizing self-interest as a legitimate incentive, for stressing individual liberty, but also for recognizing the importance of morality, religion, and the family as needed foundations for a good society.
The American Revolution is seen by Kristol as an embodiment of the Anglo-Scottish tradition. He argues that American democracy was born as a capitalist democracy and that the destiny of democracy is closely intertwined with that of capitalism. Not surprisingly, Kristol views neoconservatism as the present-day representative of the Anglo-Scottish American tradition.
Kristol attacks all forms of socialism, whether utopian, Marxist, or social-democratic. But his strongest wrath is directed against intellectuals who are drawn to the French vision because it requires an intellectual elite to determine what people “really” want and need.
In short, Kristol sees the market economy of capitalism, integrally linked with democracy, as healthy and vastly superior to leftist alternatives. He recognizes that modern democratic capitalism needs “moral regeneration”; there has been an erosion of respect for moral values, religion, and family structures which once provided a balance to pure economic incentives. But Kristol’s greater concern lies with the failure of conservatism to win the “battle of ideas” against leftist ideas. “It is the ethos of capitalism that is in gross disrepair, not the economics of capitalism.”
Kristol’s essays are strongly polemical. They will please those who are looking for someone to champion American capitalism. They will not serve to convert readers like myself who, while recognizing the validity of some of his arguments, chafe at his efforts to reduce contending views to a simple dichotomy between good and evil. (While he distinguishes neoconservatism from more right-wing conservatism, none of his essays are directed against conservatism in any form. The closest Kristol comes to any criticism of corporations and business executives is that they have “neglected” ethical and public interest issues and thus left themselves defenseless. He makes sweeping generalizations and condemnations of Third World countries: “In order to be a Third World nation, one has to be anti-American”; “we make concession after concession to their unreasonable demands.” Are these words supposed to apply to U.S.-supported regimes in El Salvador, Chile, Brazil, and the Philippines?
Kristol weights his options with emotional connotations: He invests his arguments against American political liberalism with all the negative connotations of the French Revolution (with its reign of terror) and communist totalitarianism. On the other side he appeals to our national pride by investing capitalism with the wisdom and virtue of our founding fathers. “It is fair to say that the American democracy was born as a capitalist democracy.” But is it fair to say that? The capitalists of the industrial revolution were factory owners employing only hundreds of workers, whereas the founders of our nation were, for the most, part farmers (e.g., Washington, Jefferson) and shop owners (e.g., Franklin). Some 80 percent of white Americans owned their own land or trades prior to the Civil War. We did not begin as a nation of wage earners working for capitalist owners.
Are capitalists or capitalism to blame for any of the problems facing society? Kristol sees poverty and income distribution primarily as bogus issues created by leftist ideologues. He blames liberals for pornography — though one could certainly explain the selling of sex as the market economy at work, justified as giving the public what it wants. Kristol does recognize that the very success of capitalism has generated “self-centered hedonism,” increasing crime, drug addiction, etc. But he refuses to blame capitalism or the business community. Kristol offers, in short, a spirited, but quite one-sided, defense of capitalism.
©1984 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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