To my knowledge, the late Irving Kristol was the only self-admitted neoconservative in existence. With his death, at the age of 89, does this mean the species is extinct? Far from it. In spite of the odd tendency of neoconservatives to deny their ideological heritage, there is no escaping it. The title of Kristol’s 1999 book pinpoints the problem: Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea.
Neoconservatism, the successful promotion of which Kristol devoted a good part of his life to, is biography at least as much as ideology. It is the story of the so-called New York intellectuals, who spent their misbegotten youth as Trotskyists, penning furious polemics against U.S. imperialism, but mostly against each other – and some of whom, including the ex-Trotskyist Kristol, wound up in the pay of the CIA, writing for Encounter and its French and Italian equivalents. (For a fascinating account of the neocon-CIA convergence, see Christopher Lasch’s essay on the Congress of Cultural Freedom, a CIA front that nurtured Kristol in the early days of the Cold War.)
In his 1977 essay, "Memoirs of a Trotskyist," Kristol describes the denizens of Alcove No. 1 at New York’s City College – the favorite hangout of the anti-Stalinist leftists on campus, including Irving Howe, Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and, indeed, an entire generation of social scientists who later became prominent in academia. Here was the birthplace what we know today as the neoconservative movement, an intellectual tendency in modern American politics that has had an outsized impact on the nation, especially our foreign policy.
The intellectual odyssey of the neoconservatives is too well-known to go into here at length: the story has been told, especially by the participants, time and again. They even made a movie out of it, in which Kristol played a starring role. As a dedicated Trotskyist on the eve of World War II, young Kristol was caught up in the internecine feuds that consumed the movement and ultimately ripped it into two then three factions. The question was how to respond to the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the occupation of Europe by the twin totalitarian powers. The side Kristol chose propelled him on an intellectual journey, along with his friends and cohorts, that would take him to the heights of power in the inner councils of the very capitalist class he was once pledged to overthrow.
The debate that broke out in the Socialist Workers Party, the main Trotskyist group in the U.S. at the time, pitted the "orthodox" Trotskyists, led by Trotsky and James P. Cannon – who considered the Soviet Union a "workers state," because property was collectivized – against the revisionists, led by Max Shachtman and James Burnham, who held that the USSR had morphed into "bureaucratic collectivism," a new form of class society based on collectivized property forms, and was no longer worth defending. The movement split, with the Shachtmanite minority going its own way. Kristol went with them, and this was just the beginning of multiple defections.
A few months after the setting up of Shachtman’s group, the Workers Party, Burnham, a professor of philosophy at New York University, resigned. He was well on his way to repudiating Marxism altogether. Burnham took a few party members with him, as was usual in these splits, among them Kristol, who became the editor of the "theoretical journal" of the "Shermanites," who described themselves as "revolutionary anti-Bolsheviks." In the pages of Enquiry, Kristol attacked Sidney Hook for his pro-war stance, yet Professor Hook was just ahead of his time. Soon enough, Kristol and the rest of the Alcove No. 1 gang would follow Hook down the same path, not merely reconciling themselves to what they used to denounce as "imperialism," but becoming its most fervent cheerleaders.
In his "Memoirs" essay, Kristol explicitly gives thanks for the training provided by the Trotskyist movement as the ideal school for an intellectual entrepreneur such as himself. The scholasticism, the organizational discipline, the single-minded devotion to ideas as weapons of combat: all were good preparation for the task that lay ahead of him, which was nothing less than taking over the conservative movement and the Republican Party – and finally, with the election of George W. Bush, taking the White House.
Kristol became known as the "godfather" of neoconservatism, and for a very good reason. He was the quintessential organizer and spark plug of the movement, which took on various organizational forms over the years, and which he best summed up as a "persuasion." The autobiographical details of the various neoconservative intellectuals vary with temperament and circumstance: James Burnham went to work for the CIA and later signed on at National Review, along with several other ex-Communists of one sort or another. Others stayed on the Left but tempered their former radicalism with an emphasis on anti-Stalinism. Shachtman, for example, wound up supporting the Vietnam War while remaining faithful to the doctrine of socialism. His followers found their champion in Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, whose centrist liberalism on domestic issues and ferocious militarism perfectly embodied the ideological parameters of the neoconservative persuasion. Jackson’s aides – Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Elliott Abrams – became the core group that would later have an outsized influence on the course of American foreign policy.
These two tendencies, however, soon met up and reemerged as the Cold War progressed into semi-hotness. The neoconservative movement has always been focused on foreign policy, although Kristol’s journal, The Public Interest, was concerned with domestic policy, seeking to ameliorate the rampant liberalism of the Great Society with a dose of hard-headed realism. The main goal of the neoconservatives during the Cold War era was the elimination, by military means, of their old nemeses, the Stalinists.
Kristol’s role in this was to provide the organizational and – more importantly – the financial framework for the nascent neoconservative ascendancy on the Right. He somehow managed to persuade the old conservative money – the heirs of fortunes that had once supported the "isolationist" America First Committee and opposed the "reforms" of the New Deal tooth and nail – to modify its opposition to the welfare-warfare state, accepting "two cheers for capitalism" instead of three and completely abandoning the old right-wing anti-interventionism of Robert A. Taft and the America Firsters for the Burnhamite vision of a new world war, as outlined in the Fifties tome The Struggle for the World, which advocated a nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union.
This Strangelovian mindset permeated neoconservative circles in the Cold War years, but the collapse of the Soviet Union took them by surprise. At first, they excoriated Ronald Reagan, their former hero, for welcoming Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to make concessions: the whole thing was a trap, they said, and the Soviets would soon resume their dastardly ways. When the Soviet empire collapsed, it left a void at the center of a movement that was, in very large part, autobiographical. All these embittered ex-commies and renegade Trotskyists had nothing to direct their considerable ire at, and the post-Soviet era saw them largely dormant. Kristol and Co. kept busy, however, filling the rather large intellectual vacuum that constituted the "mainstream" conservative movement and kicking William F. Buckley upstairs at his own magazine, where he descended from time to time to utter an irrelevant homily.
At this point, the neocons held the organizational and financial reins of the American Right in their hands, and by the time George W. Bush was on his way to the White House, they had managed to inveigle themselves into the inner councils of the administration’s foreign policy team. They arrived with a firm commitment to a vastly increased military budget and an expansive foreign policy of "democracy-promotion" – by force of arms if need be. They were perfectly positioned, when the 9/11 terrorist attacked occurred, to take full advantage of the power persistence and providence had delivered into their hands. Their agenda had been set out years ago by Kristol’s son, William, in an essay co-authored with Robert Kagan, "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," in which they summed up the goal of U.S. foreign policy in a single evocative phrase: "benevolent global hegemony." 9/11 provided the perfect context in which to launch a war to implement the neoconservative dream of world conquest. The results are all around us – in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and beyond.
It’s funny, but to describe someone as a neoconservative is practically considered a hate crime in certain quarters – in neoconservative quarters, that is. The reason is that many of the original neocons were Jewish, and one major doctrinal pillar of the persuasion is fealty to Israel and its perceived interests. To call out the neocons, to even describe them as such, is therefore evidence of "anti-Semitism," as Jonah Goldberg once complained. Of course, now that conservatives are complaining that all opposition to President Obama’s policies is being caricatured as "racist," the neocons can hardly take this tack.
In any case, the lasting legacy of Irving Kristol is that he was instrumental in turning the conservative movement away from its radical anti-statism and toward an almost exclusive concentration on the moral imperative of an aggressively interventionist foreign policy. His followers and epigones, who carry on the work in his wake, are the warmongers at the Weekly Standard and the Limbaugh-Hannity know-nothing Right, which sees every recognition of the limitations of American power – government power – as a "betrayal." This is surely a most unconservative – even anti-conservative – vision, a form of radicalism that resembles nothing so much as Trotskyism-turned-inside-out.
One of the big differences between Stalin and Trotsky was the former’s conception of "socialism in one country" – the idea that communism could survive only in the Soviet Union and its satellites, without inciting a world revolution. Trotsky, sticking to the orthodox Marxist-Leninist position, held that a world revolution was imperative, or else the Soviet Union was doomed to fail, encircled as it was by the hostile, capitalist West.
What the neocons did was simply switch allegiances from the old Soviet Union to the United States, taking their hotheaded Trotskyist temperament with them – and finally aspiring to lead a world revolution with the United States government at its head. When George W. Bush announced the launching of what he called a "global democratic revolution," he was merely echoing the neo-Trotskyist rhetoric of his closest advisers and the intellectual movement from which they sprang.
The prospects of that revolution grow dimmer by the day, but the idea lives on, as does neoconservatism. In the age of Obama, it takes on new forms – as I explained in my last column – but the essence remains the same: war, war, and yet more war, as far as the eye can see. That, in brief, is the program of the neoconservatives, and Kristol’s legacy for the ages.