The godfather of America's neocons has died, but it is too soon to bury his movement.
The death of Irving Kristol on 18 September 2009 at the age of 89 has
stilled the most powerful and effective voice of the first generation
of neo-conservatism. The term was used (with pejorative intent) by the
leftwing writer-activist Michael Harrington in 1973, but came to be embraced by Irving Kristol and many of his followers. Kristol - the "godfather"
of a movement that included such diverse figures as Nathan Glazer,
Seymour Martin Lipset, and James Q Wilson - leaves a complex legacy of
political influence and intellectual achievement, mixed with a degree of confusion about where exactly neo-conservatism now stands.
The social and biographical roots and evolution of the first generation
of neo-conservatives is well documented in such studies as Jacob
Heilbrunn's authoritative book They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons (Anchor
Books, 2009). Those who came to earn the sobriquet began as a group of
(predominantly) Trotskyist graduate students at City College, New York
in the fevered political atmosphere of the late 1930s. Their early
leftism and anti-Stalinism gave their opposition to communism a
particular twist when this became the defining political attitude of
the American political establishment in the cold-war years.
Several of the founding group would never cease to identify themselves as Democrats. Their trajectory
was however marked by an overall move to the right, characterised in
Kristol's famous phrase as the experience of "liberals mugged by
reality". The essence of the neo-conservatism that bound them - and won
more and more adherents as the American political right sought a new
intellectual foundation in the 1960s and 1970s - continues to be
heatedly debated; it can be broadly characterised as an ideology that
fused market economics, social traditionalism, and aggressive democratic interventionism against chosen authoritarian adversaries.
A figure of influence
The neo-conservative mindset
may have been forged in the context of the global politics of the
1930s-1950s, but the first major journal co-founded by Kristol was
mainly focused on domestic politics: The Public Interest, which began publication in 1965. Its foreign-policy counterpart, The National Interest, followed only in 1985.
The Public Interest, an enterprise in which Kristol was joined by the renowned sociologist Daniel Bell
(who would never fully embrace neo-conservatism), was at the outset a
politically broad-based publication featuring both conservative and
liberal authors. It published accessible social-scientific analyses of
the relevant policy-issues of the day, with a particular emphasis on
welfare. The basic intellectual framework was a kind of conservative
liberalism: the goals conservative, the means to achieve them quite
liberal. This generation appeared to be seeking a blueprint for a
"conservative welfare state" (as one of Kristol's prominent essays was
titled); opponents on the right would label it "big-government
The Public Interest in its early years encompassed a range of
political positions, and tended to be quite cautious in its
recommendations. It exhibited a high degree of trust in social science
(in sharp contrast to traditional conservatism); at the same time
authors were aware of the complexities of human relations and society, and avoided overly strong and simplistic conclusions. All this was much less the case with The National Interest,
which from the start pursued a more rigorous anti-communist agenda and
published a more ideologically cohesive set of authors.
Irving Kristol's prodigious work went far beyond founding and/or editing these influential magazines - and others, such as the London-based journal Encounter (which survived exposure of its funding by the CIA). He also revitalised and transformed existing organisations, such as the publisher Basic Books and the American Enterprise Institute think-tank, making them bastions of neo-conservatism.
Kristol's enormous influence
on the American political landscape includes many elements:
intellectual, financial, institutional, and personal. Indeed, the
successor generation of neo-conservatives consists of many children of the first. Irving's own son (with Gertrude Himmelfarb, the influential historian of Victorian England) is William (Bill) Kristol, founder and editor of The Weekly Standard; the pattern is echoed in the editorship of Commentary by John Podhoretz, the son of the influential neo-conservatives Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter.
There are obvious continuities between the two generations of
neo-conservatism. But there are also four clear and substantial
differences in their priorities and positions:
* the children, unlike their parents, have never been on the left
* this second generation might still feel (as a result of lingering
cultural, ideological and religious tensions) somewhat at an angle to
the broader conservative movement; but it has become entrenched in the
American right in general, and the Republican Party in particular. Its
publications - notably The Weekly Standard - tend to be uniformly rightwing and overwhelmingly partisan
* the successor generation is predominantly, if far from exclusively,
focused on foreign affairs (in part perhaps as a result of its parents'
success in the domestic arena, in part reflecting the greater problems
for American power in the new era)
* the second generation lacks the caution of the first. Irving Kristol, for example, remained sceptical
about seeking "regime change" as a United States foreign-policy goal, a
crucial idea for contemporary "neocons" and one that came to inform the
policies of the George W Bush administration.
Thus the modern neo-conservative movement has in a sense strayed from
its originating outlook and priorities - though this was also true of
Irving Kristol himself, who became increasingly partisan in later
decades (to the extent of aligning with the religious right). In any
event, Kristol and his contemporaries' achievement
is considerable; it could be said with only a touch of exaggeration
that while their foreign-policy agenda has been to a degree tainted by
their offspring, their domestic agenda has become established at the heart of American politics and society.
Indeed, while many commentators have identified the Ronald Reagan era as the highpoint of neo-conservative power (notwithstanding contemporary criticism of the "feelgood president"
from the ideological right), there is a case for arguing that Bill
Clinton's administrations in the 1990s were a closer fit with the
formative neo-conservative agenda of conservative liberalism. More
generally, virtually all administrations since Reagan's have based
their domestic agenda on the key values of initial neo-conservatism:
including a strong belief in the market coupled with a conservative
welfare state, as forces that together are expected to regulate
socio-economic change and socio-cultural manners.
This bipartisan consensus appears today to be assailed by a
pincer-attack from the moderately statist Barack Obama administration
and the emerging anti-statist coalition represented by the "tea-party"
movement. It is tempting to read into current events the demise of
conservatism as such, let alone its more radical variants (as does Sam
Tanenhaus's The Death of Conservatism
[Random House, 2009]). But the pressures of economic crisis and
unsettling social change are as likely to revivify as to bury it.
Indeed the neo-conservative infrastructure remains strong outside of
the current structures of power, and its central propositions continue
to have great purchase on the inside. Neo-conservatism's greatest exponent has passed away, but it is far too early for any obituaries of the movement and the ideas that Irving Kristol pioneered.
Cas Mudde is associate professor in political science at the University of Antwerp, and (from June 2009 - May 2010) a visiting fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies of the University of Notre Dame. His books include Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2007) This article has been
republished from openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence.