Irving Kristol’s book reveals he’s no democrat with a lowercase “d” either.
In the epilogue to this collection of thirty essays, “When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness-Some Reflections on Capitalism and the ‘Free Society,'” Irving Kristol, at one time or another an editor for Commentary, Encounter, The Public Interest and Basic Books, and now also Henry Luce Professor of Urban Values at New York University, draws a strik-ingly familiar image of a capitalism which at one and the same time destroyed the stable social order that preceded it, and produced a kind of human liberation in that act of destruction. The “bourgeois citizen” who emerged from that great act of liberation was in many respects the most creative, the most productive, and the freest citizen of all time. But alas, something went wrong; the bourgeoisie was unable to create a lasting moral-ity. Merit is no longer conferred by hard work; capitalism has lost its early bourgeois virtue, become unlovely and unloved, and is in danger of losing its legitimacy. The men who organize the productive system we all benefit from are somehow unable to justify their position and activities in a believable manner.
But of course that image (repeated in several earlier essays) is familiar. We first en-countered it, much more poetically, in The Communist Manifesto, in those famous pas-sages in which Marx and Engels describe the glorious but ambiguous accomplishments of the bourgeoisie (“all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…”), and predict its loss of legitimacy and inevitable demise. At first we wonder why Kristol has bothered–especially as we notice that, in the Marxian context, his neoconservative denunciation of most recent attempts at liberal reform, scattered throughout this collection in various essays, seems equally unoriginal. After all, Socialists and other radical critics of capitalist society have claimed for more than a century that the piecemeal reform of capitalism is ultimately incompatible with the system’s effective functioning, so that a point of diminishing returns and thus crisis must necessarily be reached.
But Kristol is not merely repeating the conventional critical wisdom; far from it. On the contrary, like so many ex-Marxists turned conservative, he gives us a version of Marx that is like a reverse negative image, with every element of hope, every element of attachment to self-government and its possibilities, every thought of transcending capital-ism’s limitations through the united action of people themselves, eliminated. The result is not only a most peculiar kind of social analysis but also a major self-revelation that tells us everything we need to know about the real meaning of what has come to be called today’s new conservatism.
In a short space, the only possible way to convey the flavor and significance of Kristol’s thought (which is significant because he speaks in so many ways for the currently most prominent group of American intellectuals, who even have their own potential Presidential candidate in Senator Moynihan) is to consider at length a single essay which states his characteristic themes. The most revelatory of them all, perhaps, is one entitled “Utopianism, Ancient and Modern,” which begins with the perceptive argument that earlier utopias were meant only as dreams, and as such added to the dignity of human longing. Modern utopias, however, are essentially insane expressions of a desire to realize an unrealizable dream on earth. It is in what he does with this initial contrast that we find all of Kristol’s motifs coming together, and uncover the hidden face of his political philosophy.