The Impresario: On Irving Kristol

The Impresario: On Irving Kristol

Irving Kristol was wrong about most things. So why was he one of the most politically influential intellectuals of his generation?


Matisse said he wanted his art to have the effect of a good armchair on a tired businessman. Irving Kristol seems to have wanted his writing to have the effect of a good martini on a beleaguered corporate executive. The executive’s prejudices, widely scorned among the young and the educated in the 1960s and ’70s, when Kristol began offering this therapy, were eloquently reaffirmed; his feelings, wounded by impertinent criticism, were tenderly soothed; his conscience, feeble but occasionally troublesome, was expertly anesthetized. The executive’s gratitude knew no bounds; in return, he and his foundations showered their faithful servant with the money and favors that made Kristol so prominent a figure in American intellectual life.

Born in Brooklyn in 1920, Kristol attended City College in the 1930s. There he was part of an unusual cohort of left-wing students, avid readers of Trotsky and Partisan Review, an astonishing proportion of whom eventually became leading American intellectuals: Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, Seymour Martin Lipset and Kristol, among others. After college, Kristol tells us in the engaging “Autobiographical Memoir” included in The Neoconservative Persuasion, a recently published collection of his essays, he became an apprentice machinist but, alas, did not persevere. A stint in the Army had “the effect of dispelling any remnants of anti-authority sentiments” (along with his socialist ideals), because he thought his fellow GIs—representing the common man—were pretty poor stuff, while Army regulations were generally rational and fair. After World War II he followed his wife (now the eminent historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, who edited this collection) from one graduate program to another until they settled in New York and Kristol became an editor at Commentary.

At Commentary Kristol found himself in another stellar cohort, this time including legendary founding editor Elliot Cohen, renowned art critic Clement Greenberg and popular culture critics Robert Warshow and Richard Clurman. After a few years he moved on to become executive director of the American branch of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and then, in 1953, co-editor of the Congress’s London-based journal, Encounter. The Congress was secretly financed by the CIA. Kristol may not have known that and probably wouldn’t have cared. In any case, England seemed provincial after New York City, so in 1958 he returned to edit The Reporter, the project of a wealthy but imperious European émigré. Soon he found himself an executive at Basic Books.

Kristol had tried to write a book (on American democracy) but gave up: “I was not a book writer. I did not have the patience and I lacked the necessary intellectual rigor.” He also lacked the patience for book publishing and was eager to start another magazine. A rich ex–CIA agent turned investment banker Kristol knew from the Congress for Cultural Freedom agreed to finance The Public Interest, beginning in 1965. Critical of the Great Society, and particularly of the War on Poverty, The Public Interest attracted much support from the Wall Street Journal, the Olin, Bradley and Smith Richardson foundations, and the American Enterprise Institute. Before long Kristol was the field marshal of the business class’s long march through the institutions of New Deal liberalism.

* * *

Every ism has its truth. What was neoconservatism’s? The Public Interest’s critique of social policy had a dual thrust: assessment and explanation. The bottom line of the assessment was: the more active and interventionist the policy, the less successful. Social Security and Medicare, which simply mailed out checks, worked; more ambitious efforts, such as welfare, education reform, public housing, or juvenile delinquency and prisoner rehabilitation programs, did not. As the first sustained and scholarly review of postwar social policy in America, The Public Interest was a genuine public service.

The explanation offered for the failures discovered was another matter. It boiled down to: underreliance on markets and their incentives, and overreliance on efforts by a new, self-aggrandizing class of policy-makers and service professionals to change attitudes and behavior among the disadvantaged. There were nuggets of insight here, but hostility to the “new class”—a category soon expanded to include practically anyone critical of the status quo—eventually took on an independent ideological momentum. The possibility that most of the failed policies had been, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan acknowledged in a burst of candor (or perhaps sheer loquacity), “oversold and underfinanced” in the first place was not seriously considered.

Kristol, however, was not a writer known for challenging himself or his readers with painstaking discriminations. The typical Kristol essay was a relaxed affair—just what the tired businessman required. There are a few long pieces in The Neoconservative Persuasion, but most are around 2,000 words. First comes the liberal conventional wisdom, larded with scare quotes, about “root causes” or “participatory democracy” or “American imperialism” or “international law.” The liberal fantasy in question is refuted by a combination of one-liners, daringly commonsensical contrarianisms, historical allusions or statistical snippets. By way of conclusion, the deeper, perennial conservative wisdom is restated. It is all genial, effortless, tension-free. Never does Kristol struggle to find his way through some tangled thicket of arguments or to reconcile some apparently contradictory lessons of history. Never does he dive deep into a familiar (or unfamiliar) text, revealing unsuspected patterns, implications, ambiguities. Never does he bring before his readers a sustained procession of historical facts or economic statistics. He appears to write on cruise control.

Kristol’s breezy certainty, moreover, is a thing to be envied. His ideological comrade Joseph Epstein wrote wonderingly of Kristol: “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.” In The Neoconservatives (1979)—still the definitive treatment—Peter Steinfels skeptically remarked on “the frequent appearance of ‘always,’ ‘all,’ ‘ever,’ ‘whole,’ ‘only’” (I would add “of course”) in Kristol’s prose:

Indeed, as soon as Kristol announces something as obvious (“Obviously, socialism is an ‘elitist’ movement”) or the plain truth (“The plain truth is that it is these [liberal, individualist] ideals themselves that are being rejected” by the dissident young) or the simple truth (“The simple truth is that the professional classes…are engaged in a class struggle with the business community for status and power”), one immediately suspects that the matter is not obvious or plain or simple at all. As soon as he announces something as demonstrably the case—“the proposition (demonstrably true) that the salaries of professors compare favorably with the salaries of bank executives”; “It is a demonstrable fact that in all modern, bourgeois societies, the distribution of income is also along a bell-shaped curve”—one suspects that the matter is either undemonstrable or demonstrably false.

* * *

Kristol led the attack on the “new class.” Fundamentally, he charged, liberal and radical intellectuals were an antidemocratic elite seeking to impose their “ideals” on the sensible, materialistic majority. They did this by capturing the state, expanding its powers and interfering everywhere. “This movement, which seeks to end the sovereignty over our civilization of the common man, must begin by seeking the death of ‘economic man,’ because it is in the marketplace that this sovereignty is most firmly established.” Keynesian fiscal policy, the consumer protection movement and the environmental movement were all aspects of this “reactionary revulsion against modernity,” against “the kind of civilization that common men create when they are given the power.”

Among the many problems with this theory, three are worth mentioning. First, the assumption of consumer—or any kind of popular—sovereignty in the marketplace. On the contrary, the creation of needs and the management of demand are essential to the functioning of a mature capitalist economy. Second, the assumption that demands for reform will never originate among, or strike roots in, a democratic majority. Third, the assumption that government is the natural antagonist of business. This was hardly true in the 1960s and ’70s; since then the reverse has been so completely and obviously true that only a helpless addiction to Fox News could persuade anyone otherwise. But these objections were beside the point: the “new class” theory did wonders for ruling-class morale. Like so many other right-wing myths—efficient markets, expansionary austerity, Soviet expansionism, the clash of civilizations—the identification of progressive reform as the project of a scheming, undemocratic elite has proved to be an ideological zombie, impossible to kill.

It is important, in passing, to distinguish the neoconservatives’ critique of intellectuals as a new class from the far deeper and richer contemporaneous critique developed by Christopher Lasch. In Haven in a Heartless World (1977), The Culture of Narcissism (1979) and The Minimal Self (1984), Lasch traced the evolution of a new set of social occupations called forth by the rise of mass production and industrial organization. The new workforce had to be educated; for that very reason, its autonomy and initiative had to be curbed. The varieties of social control exercised by industrial relations specialists, social workers, psychotherapists, educators, public relations and advertising personnel, and numerous other professionals formed, in Lasch’s account, a synergy of epic proportions. But Lasch’s analysis revealed a profound tension between democracy and corporate dominance, so neoconservatives paid him no attention.

Though Kristol jeered at the supposed idealism of the “new class,” he was an energetic preacher of public virtue, notably in “Republican Virtue versus Servile Institutions” (1974). Our wise founders, unintimidated by “democratic dogma,” doubted the people’s “innate capacity for self-government.” They were concerned about what they called “luxury” and we would call affluence—not about the effect of affluence on affluent people’s characters but about the effect of the desire for affluence on ordinary people’s characters. They conceived of republicanism as “something which involves our making painful demands upon ourselves” and of republican virtue as “self-control,” a willingness to “subordinate one’s own special interests to the public interest,” particularly when it came to “expressions of material grievances.”

The founders’ stern admonition to the public to practice self-restraint has gone by the board—nowadays we can scarcely even comprehend it, Kristol scoffs:

Dostoevsky predicted, in The Brothers Karamazov, that when the anti-Christ came, he would have inscribed on his banner: “First feed people, and then ask them to be virtuous.” We have improved on that slogan to the extent of adding decent housing, good schools, free medical care, and adequate public transportation as necessary preconditions of virtue.

Consider (as Kristol did not) what this sally implies. If we are justified in demanding virtue—“self-control” and self-denial—from people who do not yet enjoy sufficient food, decent housing, good schools, free (or any) medical care and adequate public transportation, then what painful sacrifices for the common good are we justified in demanding of those who enjoy not merely all these basic goods in superabundance but also riches beyond the dreams of avarice: that is, the 1 percent of the American population who receive 24 percent of the national income and own 40 percent of the national wealth? Colossal sacrifices, beyond a doubt. A serious moralist would treat this question as central to any discussion of public virtue. It never seems to have occurred to Kristol.

“Human Nature and Social Reform” (1978) diagnosed the alleged failure of most social reform in the 1960s and ’70s. Kristol’s diagnosis turned on the distinction between “opportunity programs,” like tuition subsidies for night school, which build on existing motivations for self-advancement or on proven traditional motivators like religion or family; and “environmental programs,” like welfare or prison reform, which “enable us (in theory) to change everyone’s motivations for the better, through the practical exercise of our unadulterated compassion, our universal benevolence, our gentle paternalistic authority.” The former always succeed; the latter always fail. The reason is obvious to everyone but liberal intellectuals: “Our reformers simply cannot bring themselves to think realistically about human nature. They believe it to be not only originally good, but also incorruptible; hence the liberal tolerance for pornography.”

Does this analysis hold water? Kristol acknowledged “one important exception”: those who are unavoidably dependent—“the old, the halt, the blind, the infirm.” Programs that “throw money” (though not “too much money”) at such people are “perfectly appropriate.” This grudging exception seems to me nonetheless large enough to drive a tank through. For children, too, are unavoidably dependent, and the environment we collectively provide them (or fail to provide them) will shape their later motivations just as much as will their genetic endowment (which is what “human nature” means, if it means anything). In fact, environments shape everyone’s motivations, including those of juvenile delinquents, repeat criminals and welfare cheats, Kristol’s prime exhibits of the failure of social reform. Perhaps the most salient feature of the environment in each of these cases, as Michael Harrington pointed out in a reply to Kristol, is the lack of a unionized, full-employment economy. No doubt many people are simply bad eggs, as Kristol is happy to remind us. But the lack of decent employment prospects helps, in many cases, to turn bad eggs into criminals. Full employment constrains profits, however, so attention must be deflected elsewhere, preferably in a metaphysical direction. In debates about social reform (before we decided, as a society, to more or less give up on the whole project), “human nature” was usually the first and last resort of scoundrels. Kristol worked that dodge relentlessly.

It is in foreign policy that neoconservatism has done the most damage to America and the world, with the least intellectual authority. Neoconservatives prided themselves on their moral realism and geopolitical astuteness. But their views—especially Kristol’s—on communism and the cold war were superficial and crudely partisan. Kristol became notorious for an essay in Commentary, “‘Civil Liberties,’ 1952.” There he argued that because communism was (unlike, say, the State Department and CIA under the Dulles brothers) “a conspiracy to subvert every social and political order it does not dominate,” there could be no question of “complete civil liberties for everyone.” All that Communist Party members and their sympathizers could hope for was some recognition of “the expediency in particular circumstances of allowing them the right to be what they are.”

Himmelfarb bravely and usefully includes this essay in The Neoconservative Persuasion. It certainly deserves all the opprobrium it has attracted over the years. Kristol’s guiding principle—that a mass political organization may be declared an illegal conspiracy to overthrow the government by force without its having either advocated or attempted the overthrow of the government by force, and that any or all of its members may therefore be denied “complete civil liberties”—is as invidious as it is illogical. Rhetorically, the essay is impressive: a masterly guide to assuming a pose of tough-mindedness while courageously confronting “liberal pieties.” But if your liberal pieties are shaken by Kristol’s illiberal blasphemies, they must have been pretty shaky to begin with.

Kristol’s view of the cold war was equally judicious and fair-minded. The Soviet Union was an “immoral, brutal, expansionist power”; it had always been and—given the nature of the regime—could be nothing else. For the United States, on the other hand, “realpolitik…is unthinkable”: “every American administration in our history has felt compelled…to use our influence” to promote “individual rights as the foundation of a just regime and a good society.” This benevolence was part of our nature, “the very grain of our political ethos.” Kristol’s superior grasp of the opposing essences of our side and their side made it unnecessary to consider evidence that might have complicated the picture: e.g., American use of atomic weapons at the end of World War II in an attempt to gain leverage over the USSR in negotiating the postwar settlement; American insistence on rearming Germany as part of a hostile military alliance, rather than acceding to Soviet proposals for a neutralized and disarmed Central Europe; and American military intervention or political interference in Western Europe and former European colonies whenever popular movements challenged governments subservient to the United States. “The United States,” Kristol wrote in 2003, “will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces, external or internal.” This, after the US-supported overthrow of democratically elected regimes in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, Indonesia in 1965, Chile in 1973 and Argentina in 1976. One admires his brazenness.

Kristol’s pronouncements about international law were likewise simultaneously self-assured and fact-free. As expressed in the United Nations Charter, international law was an absurdity, “one vast fiction”; a fiction, moreover, that has been “abused callously, or ignored ruthlessly, by those nations that, unlike the Western democracies, never took it seriously in the first place.” Alas, whoever else may have taken the United Nations seriously from its inception, the United States certainly did not, consistently ignoring near-unanimous General Assembly resolutions on disarmament, terrorism, South Africa, the Cuba embargo and an Israeli-Palestinian political settlement, among other issues, and amassing far more Security Council vetoes since 1967 than any other country.

* * *

Reared on Partisan Review, the neoconservatives naturally took a keen and pugnacious interest in contemporary culture. But while the intellectuals of the 1930s and ’40s were usually concerned about defending avant-garde art and literature against the indifference or hostility of bourgeois society, the neoconservatives were more often concerned about defending bourgeois society against what they perceived as the condescension or contempt of the avant-garde. The root of the problem, as usual for conservatives, was the Enlightenment and the death of God. “The deeper one explores into the self, without any transcendental frame of reference,” Kristol wrote, “the clearer it becomes that nothing is there.” Hence “utopian rationalism” (in the form of socialism) and “utopian romanticism” (the counterculture, including feminism, gay liberation, drugs, loud music and other perverse forms of self-expression) “have, between them, established their hegemony as adversary cultures over the modern consciousness and the modern sensibility.” If everything is permitted, nihilism ensues. Recoiling from this prospect, neoconservatives have discovered the “paradoxical truth that otherworldly religions are more capable of providing authoritative guidance for life in this world than are secular religions.” Are any of these very convenient “otherworldly religions” true? Kristol did not say.

Unbelieving conservatives from Plato to Kristol have lamented the political consequences of other people’s unbelief. It’s an old number, now played out. It is possible to respect those who doggedly defend one or another traditional, supernatural religion, in all its theological rigor; likewise, those who bravely attempt to stammer out the first terms of a new (or recover the lost fragments of an old) nonsupernatural religion, well aware that they will probably sound foolish. But those who merely want the rest of us to accept discipline and obey authority, whatever we believe (they don’t really care), deserve no respect. For all his hand-wringing about the dwindling of “the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion,” Kristol never gave any indication of what he thought the truth about ultimate matters might really be. He cared about order, not truth.

Kristol was not wrong about everything. In “What Is a ‘Neoconservative’?” (1976), he allowed that “neoconservatism is not at all hostile to the idea of a welfare state,” including “some form of national health insurance,” and that freedom requires only the “right to become unequal (within limits) in wealth…or influence.” A “ruthless dismantling of the welfare state,” he wrote in another essay the following year, is “unthinkable.” Who knows why he never repeated these concessions to decency in subsequent decades, when his allies were in power and proceeded to ignore them? Perhaps he forgot he’d made them.

He also, on rare occasions, hit the polemical bull’s-eye, wittily skewering left-liberal confusions, as in this 1980 speech to foundation executives:

Everyone is concerned about youth unemployment in the ghetto, as I am, and I have been involved with various foundations and government as well, over the years, in trying to do something about it. It’s astonishing how little has been accomplished. The reason so little has been accomplished is that no one was satisfied with doing a little; everyone wanted to do a lot. For instance, it is a scandal in this country that vocational education is in the condition it’s in. It is absolutely absurd. Can you imagine a United States of America where there is a shortage of automobile mechanics, and yet there are “unemployable” kids in the ghetto who can strip an automobile in four minutes flat? But when you try to get a program of vocational education going—and I’ve tried very hard with various foundations—they say “No! No! We don’t want to train these kids to be automobile mechanics. We want to train them to be doctors, to be surgeons.”

Let’s be reasonable. Not everyone can be a doctor or a surgeon. Some people are going to end up as automobile mechanics. Automobile mechanics have a pretty good career. They make a great deal of money, most of it honestly. But the fact is that it has been impossible to get the resources for so limited a goal.

If this is true, it is a far more valuable criticism of political correctness than all of Hilton Kramer’s and Roger Kimball’s endless fulminations on the subject.

But about most things, Kristol was wrong. He was wrong about the cold war, civil liberties, the “new class,” the counterculture, social policy, foreign policy, supply-side economics, religion and civic virtue. And yet he was perhaps the most politically influential intellectual of his generation. What explains this seeming paradox? Sincerely, eloquently, and with an aplomb unruffled by a whisper of self-doubt, Kristol told the rich and powerful exactly what they wanted to hear. They rewarded him in overflowing measure, supporting his ideas, projects and protégés on a scale unprecedented in American intellectual history. Kristol thought he had left Marxism behind with his youth. But his subsequent career perfectly illustrates Marx’s apothegm: “In every era, the ideas of the rulers are the ruling ideas.

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