Drawing on his past as a Trotskyite, Irving Kristol states his case for capitalism–but cautiously.
Before he became a neoconservative, a label whose invention he attributes to Michael Harrington, Irving Kristol was a Trotskyite, a regular of Alcove No. 1 in the vast lunch-room of City College in the late 1930s. There his fellow debaters — Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Seymour Melman, Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset — educated Kristol and one another in daily intellectual combat. This suggests that Kristol above all belongs to that interesting breed, the New York intellectual community, whose members love a good fight and spare no effort to stir one up.
This collection, like its 1978 predecessor, Two Cheers for Democracy, allows its author to pronounce upon economics, politics, public morality and “Religion and the Jews” — four meditations on Jewish humor, religion and psychoanalysis, Albert Einstein, and religion and socialism variously dated 1949, 1951, 1950 and, presumably, the present. In “Pornography, Obscenity and the Case for Censorship,” Kristol takes typical pains to be dogmatic: “And lest there be any misunderstanding as to what I am saying, I will put it as bluntly as possible: If you care for the quality of life in our American democracy, then you have to be for censorship.” Really? Then there’s “Machiavelli and the Profanation of Politics” in which, in the course of an intriguing survey of Machiavelli’s shifting reputation over the centuries, Kristol quite unnecessarily asserts, “The scholarship on Machiavelli and his times has been voluminous, technically superb, and almost invariably misleading.”
This verdict exemplifies the almost casual claim to omniscience that is a second badge of membership in the New York intellectual community. A proper Commentary or New York Review of Books critique will make plain its author’s certainty that he or she knows more about the topic than anyone else and certainly could have written a better book than the miserable wretch under dissection. New York intellectuals prefer essays to books, possibly because the strain of prolonged brilliance is too much to be borne even by them. Finally, it doesn’t hurt in this community to be Jewish.
What, then, is the neoconservative ethos that threads through these mostly topical commentaries? In “Confessions of a True, Self-Confessed–Perhaps the Only ‘Neocon-servative,'” Kristol offers a convenient eight-point guide. Neoconservatism begins as an adverse reaction to the excesses of contemporary liberalism. In emotional style it is “antiromantic in substance and temperament.” Its philosophical roots are classical, ”ad-miring of Aristotle, respectful of Locke, distrustful of Rousseau.” To ward bourgeois society, neoconservatives harbor a “detached attachment.” For, “in the spirit of Tocqueville, neoconservatives do not think that liberal-democratic capitalism is the best of all imaginable worlds — only the best under the circumstances, of all possible worlds.” Propositions 5, 6 and 7 are, respectively, faith in a “predominantly market economy,” stress on the necessity of economic growth “not out of any enthusiasm for the material goods of this world, but because they seek economic growth as indispensable for social and political stability,” and advocacy of a frugal welfare state “that takes a degree of re-sponsibility for helping to shape the preferences that people exercise in a free market — to ‘elevate’ them if you will ” Finally, “Neoconservatives look upon family and religion as indispensable pillars of a decent society.”