September 19th, 2009

RIP Irving Kristol: founder of neoconservatism

Once again, we have the news that a well-known person has died. But this time it’s neither a movie star nor a singer, but the man who was widely known as the father of neoconservatism (and the actual father of Bill Kristol): Irving Kristol.

Here’s an idea of the huge influence Kristol the elder had on conservative thought in America:

A Trotskyist in the 1930s, Kristol would soon sour on socialism, break from liberalism after the rise of the New Left in the 1960s and in the 1970s commit the unthinkable — support the Republican Party, once as “foreign to me as attending a Catholic mass.”

He was a New York intellectual who left home, first politically, then physically, moving to Washington in 1988. He was a liberal “mugged by reality,” his turn to the right joined by countless others, including such future GOP Cabinet officials as Jeane Kirkpatrick and William Bennett and another neo-conservative founder, Norman Podhoretz.

He was a flagship in the network of think tanks, media outlets and corporations that helped make conservatism a reigning ideology for at least two decades, the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that Hillary Rodham Clinton would claim was out to get her husband.

“More than anyone alive, perhaps, Irving Kristol can take the credit for reversing the direction of American political culture,” liberal commentator Eric Alterman wrote in 1999.

Kristol’s history encompasses many of the characteristics of neoconservatism, a persuasion that’s gotten a lot of bad press in recent years. But bad press and controversy has been part of neoconservatism from the beginning; the Left doesn’t take kindly to apostates, especially ones as intelligent and vocal as Kristol was. As I wrote in my own early post on why I decided to call myself neo-neocon:

“Neocon” is used by critics as a code word for a lot of things, among them: imperialist, unrealistic dreamer, and scheming puppeteer (along with its subset, scheming evil Jewish puppeteer).

This tendency has only gotten more pronounced in the years since I wrote those words. But here, in some of his own words, is what Kristol (and most neocons), actually stood (and stand) for:

[from 1972] It seems to me that the politics of liberal reform, in recent years, shows many of the same characteristics as amateur poetry. It has been more concerned with the kind of symbolic action that gratifies the passions of the reformer rather than with the efficacy of the reforms themselves. Indeed, the outstanding characteristic of what we call “the New Politics” is precisely its insistence on the overwhelming importance of revealing, in the public realm, one’s intense feelings—we must “care,” we must “be concerned,” we must be “committed.” Unsurprisingly, this goes along with an immense indifference to consequences, to positive results or the lack thereof.

[from 1975] If the United States is to gain the respect of world opinion, it first has to demonstrate that it respects itself—its own institutions, its own way of life, the political and social philosophy that is the basis of its institutions and its way of life. Such a sense of self-respect and self-affirmation seems to be a missing element in our foreign policy.

[from 1980] The foreign policy of the United States ought to have as its central purpose a world order that has been shaped, to the largest degree possible, in accord with our national interests as a great power that is free, democratic and capitalist.

[from 1980] Our economic problems are not intractable…On the other hand, once the idea gets around that we are in a profound crisis and that only “drastic action” by Washington can save us—then it will be time to head for the storm cellars.

[from 1997] The world has yet to see a successful version of “trickle-up economics,” an egalitarian society in which the state ensures that the fruits of economic growth are universally and equally shared. The trouble with this idea—it is, of course, the socialist ideal—is that it does not produce those fruits in the first place. Economic growth is promoted by entrepreneurs and innovators, whose ambitions, when realized, create inequality. No one with any knowledge of human nature can expect such people not to want to be relatively rich, and if they are too long frustrated they will cease to be productive. Nor can the state substitute for them, because the state simply cannot engage in the “creative destruction” that is an essential aspect of innovation. The state cannot and should not be a risk-taking institution, since it is politically impossible for any state to cope with the inevitable bankruptcies associated with economic risk taking.

RIP, Irving Kristol, and condolences to his family.

16 Responses to “RIP Irving Kristol: founder of neoconservatism”

  1. Oblio Says:

    Kristol had a tremendous impact on me in the late ’70s. Things were dire and seemed hopeless, and suddenly I found a writer who made sense. You always got the impression that Kristol was in touch with the deep structures that caused the news, and I always admired that. He started bringing me over from the liberal side, though I didn’t complete the change until 1982.

    I know nothing of his family life, though I am sure his family must be grieving. On the basis of his public contribution, he was a Great Man.

  2. MikeLL Says:

    I once read that The Public Interest was one of the publications that Ronald Reagon read. Irving was the editor of that magazine. That was what got me interested in The Weekly Standard, his son’s magazine.

    RIP Mr. Kristrol. My condolences to the family.

  3. nyomythus Says:

    Well there was no reason for him to break with Liberalism — it was Socialism and the New Left that broke with Liberalism.

  4. logern Says:

    I prefer Sullivan’s write-up.

  5. rickl Says:

    There’s a good Belmont Club thread about Kristol, and about the Left’s vitriolic reaction to his death.

    (Belmont Club has been one of my favorite blogs for years. There are many good commenters there, but I’d like to take a moment to highlight one in particular, Walt. Within hours after a new thread is posted, he usually shows up with a poem that is always on topic, and often quite funny. He’s #17 in this thread.)

  6. J.L. Says:

    I have always admired the Neoconservatives, as that term was originally used. Nowadays, the term “neocon” has been tossed around by both left and right to mean all sorts of things. But the original use of the term “neoconservative” was in reference to a large number of intellectuals who had previously thought of themselves as liberal, but who moved to the right when “liberalism” was taken over by the leftists and socialists. Neoconservatives were a varied bunch… many actually didn’t even renounce all of their prior views… but found that “liberalism” as they had known it had ceased to exist. Often, their analyses were well honed toward critiquing certain excessive elements of liberalism (especially post 60s neo-leftist liberalism) rather than toward tearing apart the entire effort of 20th century progressivism.

    Although I came to understand politics at a point in time after the Neoconservatives made their shift “to the right” (I was born in 1970, and reached voting age in 1988), I often felt close to where the “neocons” stood. I often think that I, too, would have voted for, say, Harry S. Truman in 1948, or would have supported much of the goals of the civil rights movement of the 60s, or would have supported many of the labor reforms of the early 20th century… but would have found myself also moving right after the late 60s, when liberals lost sight of how truly evil Communism really was, or how precious American freedom was, or how important it was to make sure efforts at “helping” people actually have that practical effect and are not just simply “feel good” measures, or how practicality was more important than ideological rigidity.

    Thank you, Irving Kristol, for your courage in making the break with liberalism, and for the gift of insight which youve given to conservatism.

    R.I.P., Irving Kristol

  7. Adagny Says:

    Neo, baby, we’re all neocons now!

    Given that a good number of us here made the change, came home out of the darkness, all I can say is “thank-you”, to the real trail blazers, such as Irving, Podhoretz, Horowitz, etc., etc.

  8. Vieux Charles Says:

    I remember once, new to the military I argued that North Korea did indeed have the right to transport missile technology to Iran. I was young, idealistic, somewhat liberal – I was intellectually lazy, intellectually dishonest. I was an ass.

    I’ve never read anything from Mr. Kristol, but over the last decade I saw his influence. I saw the U.S. lean forward as it had never done before. I saw the success and I saw the failure. But, I always saw that the neoconservatives were quite unlike their liberal and protoconservative countrymen. They were neither intellectually lazy nor dishonest.

    The failure to discover WMD in Iran, I believe, struck a deep chord of shame within neoconservatives. They didn’t make up excuses, or revise history. They realized that at some level Saddam had fooled them and they were ashamed.

    Ask a liberal about Keynesian economics, or a traditional conservative about isolationism and you’ll get nonsense, revised warmed over baloney. Ask a true neoconservative about WMD in Iraq and they’ll look you straight in the eye and utter the quantum foundation of intellectual growth itself, “we were wrong”.

    I truly believe that neoconservativism is the only political philosophy that is shaped by reality rather than the other way around. It is pragmatic, not idealistic. It’s practitioners do their homework, apply logic and review metrics. They are intellectually hard working and intellectually honest. Perhaps this can be attributed to the person of the late Irving Kristol himself.

  9. bad haikumenter Says:

    Greatly relieved that
    Irving Kristol did not diss
    Bad Haiku

  10. MikeLL Says:


    Wow! That was a NASTY piece of work by Sullivan. Sheesh. But I guess that is what we have come to expect from a used up, petty, vindictive, and general POS like Andrew. Nothing but angry words. No facts. No examples. No nothing except anger and frustration . . .

    . . . until the very end where he tries to summon some kind words. Is he insane? And you agree with him?

  11. Judith L Says:

    I read Kristol only after I had made the journey from Left to Right, belatedly in 1988-1990. I read him voraciously for a time, because he expressed my thinking so clearly. I continue to identify myself as a Neo-con, because it’s the closest shorthand for how I got to where I am politically. R.I.P, Irving Kristol.

  12. J.L. Says:

    Aw geesh… I just read the post from Andrew Sullivan on his blog, linked to above.

    This is an example for how Neoconservatism has become a term loaded with various meanings it didn’t originally have. Sullivan is using it the same way most of the left now use it… as shorthand for “all those Republican meanies.”

    The most annoying thing about Sullivan is that he is now bashing the exact same policies which he fervently supported duing, say, 2003-2004. Then came that gay marriage debate and suddenly all conservatives and the Bush administration were the bad guys. And now he’s with Obama. I’m almost willing to place a bet as to when his new found hero betrays him and earns his rejection.

    I really used to respect Sullivans individualism, but it wears thin now that he’s chosen to be “an individual” on all sides of every argument. (I’m exaggerating a bit, but not much.)

  13. neo-neocon Says:

    J.L.: It’s not just the “annoying” thing about Sullivan. It’s the intellectually dishonest thing; he knows exactly who neocons are and what they actually advocate, and he chooses to speak to the lowest common denominator, people who don’t know what a neocon is and who throw the word around as though it meant “demon.”

    But one of the things that is motivating Sullivan to a great extent is exactly the fact that he once aligned himself with neocons. He is desperate to expunge that “stain” from his soul, and to curry favor with those who disapprove of neocons. That’s part of what motivates his vitriol against neocons; he must make sure liberals and the Left know he’s back on their side, which in his and their eyes makes him a good guy.

  14. Vieux Charles Says:

    Sullivan’s piece is as confusing as Sullivan is confused. Sullivan sees a linear tract from the neoconservativism of Irving Kristol to the libertarianism of Glenn Beck. In reality they’ve both coexisted within the Replublican Party all along.

    He refers to the “populist bile” of Beck as though it somehow sprung from the head of Irving Kristol himself. Far from it, Beck’s angst comes most deeply from a social outrage of liberal politics that is completely alien to neoconservatives.

    Sullivan’s was a weird piece, either intentionally dishonest or just indigenously devoid of thoughtfulness.

    How do people like Sullivan make a living? Is being gay, British, and well educated really so marketable that you need nothing else?

  15. neo-neocon Says:

    Vieux Charles: How does Sullivan make a living? He actually used to be a pretty good writer, at least on occasion. When I was first reading around in the blogosphere, his blog was one of my go to blogs. Then he went off the deep end.

  16. J.L. Says:

    Neo said:
    He actually used to be a pretty good writer, at least on occasion. When I was first reading around in the blogosphere, his blog was one of my go to blogs. Then he went off the deep end.

    That’s exactly my feeling. I actually said something very similar in a previous comment . (One correction on the prior comment… i meant “early ’00s” not ‘early ’90s”.)

    Being as libertarian as he is, I wonder how long he’s going to stay with this political alignment before he goes completely wacko.

About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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