Irving Kristol's Neo-Conservatism: Selected Essays 1949-1995

5 posts / 0 new
Last post
George Victor
Irving Kristol's Neo-Conservatism: Selected Essays 1949-1995


George Victor

A perusal of the essays to date:


In 1976, the late Irving Kristol was busy explaining to Republicans why they were in the political dumps. The father of neo-conservatism (a title he proudly advanced in the preface to Neo-Conservatism: Selected Essays 1949-1995, suggested that Republicans should advance a "conservative welfare state (in which)...wherever possible, people should be allowed to keep their own money - rather than having it transferred (via taxes) to the state - on conditiion that they put it to certain defined uses.  Thus, the Republican party should be demanding that the individual's  medical insurance premiums be made tax-deductible. It should be insisting that individuals ought to be free to make additional contributions to their Social Security or pension funds, that all such contributions should be tax-deductible...."   Reading this leaves one with an eerie feeling, watching Wee Jimmy Flaherty at work, re-fashioning the Canadian welfare state along these lines this winter, adding a pension scheme that depends on individual contributions...from individuals able to make those contributions.  

As Kristol observed in an earlier (1970) essay, the "basic idea" behind the thinking of the founding fathers was that the "pursuit of self-interest was the most reliable of human motivations on which to build a political system," while marrying "civic virtues" with an overall concern for the "common good." That he was not ready to extend a theoretical (or real) hand to the commons, however, is explained in an essay recalling his brief army experience, shoulder to shoulder with conscripts from his home in Chicago (coming from the same precincts as former members of the Capone mob, he notes). The one-time Trotskyist was giving up political ideas that depended on rallying the workers just about the time he was required to bunk with some of the tougher variety. He clearly did not have the capacity of Studs Terkel,an earlier University of Chicago alumnus, to empathise with the commons.

After years of editing a CIA-sponsored magazine in early Cold War London, Kristol returned to an America about to experience the 1960s.  It was to be a turning point for Kristol, who could finish his 1970 essay on the new "urban civilization and its discontents" saying: "The challenge to our urban democracy is to evolve a set of values and a conception of democracy that can function as the equivalent of the republican morality of yeateryear (my note...this continues to be the beginning of time for conservatism).  This is our fundamental urban problem. Or, in the immortal words of Pogo: 'I have seen the enemy and they is us'."  

I'll never forgive Kristol for this misuse of Pogo's words, their political perversion, coined in the early years of America's reaction to the "menace" of communism...much like the treatment of people of Islamic faith by today's conservative.   In another 1970 essay, Kristol trashes "American historians and the Democratic Idea,"  concluding that historians have been victim to a "tyrannical vulgarization of the democratic idea," by ignoring the appearance of a "mass man" that is nothing more than " Plato's tyrant."  

Kristol's political philosophy, the groundwork for neo-conservatism, is entirely dependent on ideas. One does not find the work of his materialist fellows, beavering at the same time at the University of Chicago to produce the economic theories that were so fundamentally important in allowing the purely ideational to take hold. And I could find no single reference to Freidman, or concession to the importance of economics in the re-working of his democracy. 

The marriage of neo-conservatism and the Republican party was consumated in 1972 with the nomination of Senator George McGovern, an isolationist and a candidate of the New Left (which) signified that the Democratic party was not hospitable to any degree of neoconservatism. Only a few of us drew the obvious conclusion that we would have to try to find a home in the Republican party, which had always been an alient political entity, so far as we were concerned. But with every passing year our numbers grew."  

Kristol does admit to being entirely beholden to Leo Strauss, whose classes in the classics at Chicago set him on course to requiring a return to the beginnings of theory on natural right, and Plato. And sure enough, there in Leo Strauss's Natural Right and History, the chapter on "Natural Right and Historical Approach," we find a fundamentalist describing the desecration of the study of history: "Historicism can therefore be described as a much more extreme form of modern this-worldliness than the French radicalism of the eighteenth century had been."   For Strauss - and his Straussian school - you can't beat Ancient Greek thought for its objectivity in defining timeless principles, etc. 

However, it became very clear in Dubya's time that lessons in economics perhaps should have been paired with the theory of conservative welfare to ensure that the budget was even close to balanced...did not depend on what George senior was to dub "voodoo economics."

This book came to me through interlibrary, out of Windsor Public Library.  I'm going to see if it's available in paperback somewhere close.       

N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture

It's not Greek thought in general but one side of Ancient Greek thought leading to Plato that these neo cons link to. On the other side stands our heroes: Democritus, Aristotle, and even Heraclitus.

George Victor

Yes. But as another conservative figure points out in The Closing of the American Mind, the vast majority of people will be kept from reading any of it with the trashing of history and the elevation of relativism to a science.

Allan Bloom - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In 1987, Saul Bellow wrote the Preface to The Closing of the American Mind...

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Interesting, George. Thanks for this summary.