Sunday, January 30, 2011

Paul Berman On a Book of Essays by Irving Krstol and On His Trajectory

Irving Kristol’s Brute Reason

Selected Essays, 1942-2009
By Irving Kristol
Edited by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Foreword by William Kristol.
390 pp. Basic Books. $29.95.

NYT/January 23, 2011

Irving Kristol, who died in 2009, is sometimes called the “godfather” or even “father” of neoconservatism, and the patriarchal honorific, like a well-worn hat, sits comfortably atop “The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942-2009.” The book is strictly a family enterprise. It has been lovingly edited by Kristol’s widow, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, and carries a prefatory funeral eulogy by their sorrowful son, the Republican journalist William Kristol.

Even the selection of essays reflects a uniquely familial degree of intimacy. Himmelfarb recounts in her introduction that while “rummaging among old files” after her husband’s death, she discovered tattered copies of a short-lived and wholly forgotten little magazine called Enquiry: A Journal of Independent Radical Thought.

Her husband and some of his young friends founded the magazine in 1942, the year of her marriage, and they kept it afloat for eight issues, until the young friends and Kristol himself disappeared into the Army. Himmelfarb has reproduced the cover of Vol. 1, No. 1 — austere, elegant, partly sans-serif in the 1940s style, 10 cents a copy — and the sight of the magazine does conjure an era.

Kristol in 1942 was just two years out of New York’s City College, working as a machinist in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and he still bore the marks of his student Trotskyism. Russian revolutionaries in the time of the czars used to adopt noms de guerre to outwit the police, and at City College in the 1930s, earnest young Trotskyists did the same. Irving Kristol renamed himself “William Ferry” (which, if I may add a detail, was an undergraduate in-joke aimed at one of American Trotskyism’s adult leaders, who, not being a college man himself, was unable to pronounce correctly the word “periphery”). And sure enough, at the foot of Enquiry’s inaugural cover, you can see the name “William Ferry” listed as the author of a piece on W. H. Auden.

Himmelfarb has reprinted the essay. It is bristly with words like “hypostasizing” — a commentary by a wisp of a lad who is trying in vain to appear as solid and august as Lionel Trilling, the literary critic. Still, the essay makes good reading, and this is precisely because young Kristol, in his boyish impressionability, was alive to the intellectual tremors of his own moment, which were huge.

Teenage Trotskyism, back in the ’30s, had rested on a series of firm beliefs and alarming realities. The student rebels noticed that at home in America, capitalism had pretty much collapsed, which made free-market conservatism or any other kind of conservatism out of the question. Europe had absolutely collapsed. Communism and the Soviet Union advertised themselves as the answer to everything. The young Trotskyists knew too much about Stalin to believe any such thing. Trotskyism’s big idea was to hold out for a better sort of revolutionary left, under the leadership of Leon Trotsky himself.

This did not seem altogether impossible, for a while. Then the Spanish Civil War turned out badly. The Spanish left went down to defeat. In 1940 Trotsky was assassinated. And revolutionary leftism retreated from the zones of plausibility to the zone of mere speculation.

Kristol’s essays in Enquiry magazine in the 1940s show that even so, he went on clinging to the speculative option, for a time. The philosopher Sidney Hook tried to persuade America’s antiwar intellectuals to come out in favor of American participation in World War II, which meant giving up on ultra-left-wing recriminations and fantasies.

Young Kristol, replying in one of the Enquiry essays reprinted here, instructed Hook that America was a force for imperialism and racism, engaged in “a completely reactionary crusade” against Japan. But Kristol himself seems to have recognized how ridiculous his sloganeering sounded.

Mostly in those early essays he showed a sophisticated comprehension of his own predicament, which was hopelessly complicated. Every single one of the grand certainties of the 1930s had disintegrated, which meant that for his own little circle of friends, a time of doubt had arrived. Unfortunately the ’40s were also, as Hook explained, a time for war — therefore no time to retreat into private rumination.

Kristol understood this. “The crisis in conscience is deep and enduring and any renewal of heart will have to accept it as a fellow-traveler,” wrote “William Ferry” in his essay on Auden, sounding very mature indeed. “On the other hand, to elevate doubt into a political program is distinctly impracticable.”

To be filled with gloomy doubt, and to go limping forward, even so, in search of practical solutions, perhaps even harboring some last shrunken hope for a better world, like a man cupping a match — this was the animating inspiration of Kristol’s generation of intellectuals in their postcollege years. They cultivated a spirit of ambivalence and modesty. They were alert to subtleties and nuances of life and the soul of a sort that might be addressed by literature, or even by a religious-minded literature, but not normally by politics.

Saul Bellow, five years older than Kristol, expressed the mood in “Dangling Man,” which describes a disillusioned young leftist in circumstances rather like Kristol’s, except in Chicago instead of Brooklyn. Bellow’s narrator says,

“This would probably be a condemned age. But . . . it might be a mistake to think of it in that way.”

Kristol’s City College mates, Irving Howe and Daniel Bell, spent the 1950s writing books in the shadow of that same idea, discouraged but averse to despair — Howe’s “Politics and the Novel”(on the corrosive effects of radical political movements on their own members, among other topics, as shown by Dostoyevsky and Hawthorne and other novelists), and Bell’s “Marxian Socialism in the United States”and “The End of Ideology” (on Marxism’s failure to take the measure of the modern world), not to mention nearly everything else those men went on to write.

The essays by Kristol from the 1940s and ’50s in this new, posthumous collection make me suppose that he, too, could have written a book like theirs, if he had set his mind to it. He took a philosophical interest in the mendacities and profundities of political rhetoric, and he took a historical interest in the American past, and it is easy to imagine that if he had allowed those interests to fertilize each other, his own 1940s inspiration might have blossomed eventually into something sturdier and more ambitious than a scattered set of slender magazine commentaries.

He did give book writing a try, but his patience gave out after three months. Then he decided, as he recounts in still another of the essays here, that his own talents pointed to editing and magazine writing. He and Bell founded another little magazine, The Public Interest, in 1965, which was designed to bring something of the 1940s skepticism, in a social science version, to questions of public policy in the United States. And the magazine prospered. Kristol was in good form.

He wrote a pretty shrewd analysis of student leftism in that same year called “What’s Bugging the Students?” from the standpoint of his own, by then middle-age generation.

Something happened to Kristol, though, or so it seems to me. Bell and Howe and some other people from that generation never did give up on their 1940s ambivalences — even if the student rebellions of the ’60s were aimed directly at them, which could not have been a pleasant experience.

In Himmelfarb’s interpretation, Kristol, too, faithfully clung to his earliest inspirations. “The Neoconservative Persuasion” persuades me otherwise. Kristol, to my eyes, looks a little like Norman Mailer, another 1940s personality who, in the course of the ’60s, decided to shuck off his old thoughtfulness in favor of something new — though of course Mailer, the hipster, defected to the counterculture, and Kristol, the square, took up the anti-counterculture.

Anti-counterculturalism relieved him of the burdens of uncertainty. “The Quality of Doubt” was the subtitle of his 1942 Auden essay. But the Irving Kristol who began to emerge in the 1970s exuded the quality of dogmatism, which he labeled “conservative.” Himmelfarb, in her introduction, cites with approval a Partisan Review commentary, included in the book, in which Kristol laid out several of his newly “conservative” dogmas.

He wrote:

“I have reached certain conclusions: that Jane Austen is a greater novelist than Proust or Joyce; that Raphael is a greater painter than Picasso; that T. S. Eliot’s later, Christian poetry is much superior to his earlier; that C. S. Lewis is a finer literary and cultural critic than Edmund Wilson; that Aristotle is more worthy of careful study than Marx; that we have more to learn from Tocqueville than from Max Weber; that Adam Smith makes a lot more economic sense than any economist since; that the Founders had a better understanding of democracy than any political scientists since; that . . . well, enough.”

Or more than enough.

List making is fun at parties. But Kristol in that passage lays out, with a peremptory air, an orthodoxy, sometimes on reasonable grounds (not even Karl Marx would dispute that Aristotle outranks Marx), sometimes on questionable grounds (suppose you wanted to read about the events of Marx’s lifetime — what good would Aristotle do you, then?), but always emphatically.

And, in this new spirit, he plunged into his magnum opus, which, instead of a book, was the constructing of something called “neoconservatism.”

This was intended to be a new kind of political inspiration, different from the old-fashioned Main Street, balance-the-budget, isolationist conservatism of the past, and different from the right-wing radicalism of people who used to read books like “The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil.” Readers who want to unravel the mystery of Kristol’s new idea will naturally turn to the title essay of the book, “The Neoconservative Persuasion,” from 2003, in which he summarizes his principles.

These turn out to be, in his presentation: a cheerful zest for economic growth; a comfortable acceptance of the large modern state, inherited from Franklin Roosevelt; a worried fear of moral and cultural decline; and no particular doctrine on foreign affairs, apart from a conviction that America’s power and prosperity require an active role in world events. (Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed.

They will ask, where are the Judeo-Satanic hidden goals? — and will go thumbing through Kristol’s book in vain.)

The book contains almost 50 essays, though, and apart from the handful of writings from the 1940s, and another handful, mostly admirable, from his phase as a cold war liberal and incipient political philosopher in the ’50s, the greatest number of those essays, if you put them together, add up to an extended tirade against American liberalism, which I think should figure as still another of neoconservatism’s principles — the largest and most energetic principle of all, judging by the evidence here.

The tirade rested on two main inspirations, neither of which can be dismissed out of hand. Kristol repeatedly argued that American liberalism, in its domestic programs, has relied on a parched and narrow vision of human nature, which attributes too much importance to material conditions and not enough to moral and religious considerations.

His argument drew on the old 1940s instinct to look to literature and even to religion for insights — to think about the soul, and not just about dollars and social structures. Thinking about some nonmaterial factors led, in the pages of The Public Interest, to shrewd criticisms of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and various faddish social reform projects of the big foundations.

Then again, the habit of adverting to spiritual questions and the soul allowed Kristol, as the years advanced, to speak ever more warmly, though not always convincingly, about evangelical Christian movements as a preferable alternative to government-sponsored social reform.

Still, the largest of his inspirations was an insistent nostalgia for the America of his own youth — even if, in the title essay, he explicitly repudiated anything of the sort. But who in the world of sophisticated thinkers does not repudiate nostalgia?

And who does not end up yearning, even so, for various Golden Ages of yore? Kristol’s yearnings were relentless, though. In his picture of American life, the virtues of long ago invariably seem more virtuous than the virtues of the present, and even the vices of the past turn out to be roguishly preferable to vices of more recent times.

America as a whole used to be more public spirited. In New York City, “street crime was practically unheard of.” Religious sermons used to be more challenging; trade unions less selfish; schools, untroubled. “In general, the political handling of controversial religious and moral issues in the United States prior to World War II was a triumph of reasoned experience over abstract dogmatism” — a sentence from an essay provocatively called “On the Political Stupidity of the Jews” (whose stupidity consists, it would seem, of failing to agree with Kristol that life in America was better back in the days when anti-Semitism was still an acceptable ­prejudice).

On the side of vice, Las Vegas used to be more attractively seedy than it later became. And the arts have steadily declined, morally speaking, ever since the 19th century. (The superiority of T. S. Eliot’s later poetry to his earlier poetry appears to be an anomaly.) “The feminization of social policy” has undermined the previously superior, “masculine” welfare state. The decline of Greek and Latin instruction seems to him catastrophic: “Future historians may yet decide that one of the crucial events of our century, perhaps decisive for its cultural and political destiny, was the gradual dissolution and abandonment of the study of the classics as the core of the school curriculum.”

The passion that he brought to these arguments seems to have left him, at times, a little unhinged, such that, like a desperate man fending off a mob, he ends up hurling everything in sight at the hated liberals. In an essay called, slightly paranoically, “ ‘Human Rights’: The Hidden Agenda,” from 1986-87, he presents the human rights movement as a cryptofriend of Communism, dedicated to weakening America — from which you would never guess that, in 1989, the human rights movement’s closest allies in Eastern Europe would end up leading the pro-­American revolutions that overthrew Communism.

Still another essay deplores “the secular, social democratic” notion of the welfare state in the 20th century, which, upon being put into effect, strikes him as potentially “the saddest of political tragedies in our tragic century” — though he adds, by way of nuance (as if troubled by the absurdity of what he had just written), “not the bloodiest, of course, but merely the saddest.”

There is sometimes a charm in Kristol’s prose, once he had gotten past his pompous Lionel Trilling period — a wry, man-of-the-people modesty, nicely joined with a genuine talent for summarizing ideas. Then again, he tried to capitalize on his Everyman sonority by claiming to speak on behalf of “the majority of Americans” or even “the overwhelming majority of Americans,” and sometimes “the American people” altogether, which, to my mind, undercuts the charm. In the course of an otherwise intelligent essay about Communism and McCarthyism as long ago as 1952, he wrote: “For there is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy; he, like them, is unequivocally anti-­Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing.”

The remark is one of Kristol’s most famous, if only because his enemies have been quoting it back at him for almost 60 years. The habit of invoking the American people served him well, even so. Some of the more talented leaders of the Republican Party eventually cocked an ear in his direction, in search of oratorical and political and programmatic possibilities. And the alliance was formed.

Himmelfarb has thoughtfully filled “The Neoconservative Persuasion” with pieces that, with one exception, have not appeared in previous collections. The subtitle, “Selected Essays,” might lead readers to suppose that here must surely be Kristol’s Greatest Hits — the best and most popular of his essays. But Kristol himself gathered together his Greatest Hits in an anthology in 1995 called “Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea.”

The new book ought to be regarded, instead, as a Volume 2. It is faithful to his ideas and their evolution. And it offers an opportunity to evaluate his abilities as an essayist — his achievements as a thinker and writer within the little world known as the “New York intellectuals.” The achievements do not seem to me large. Kristol was not a Trilling, a Hook, a Howe or a Bell. For that matter, he never produced anything as substantial as his wife’s scholarly meditations on English history.

But it is true that unlike any of those other talented people, Kristol, with his tirades and simplicities, helped found a political movement. And under the name of “neoconservatism,” his movement invigorated the party of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and, for better and for worse, wreaked enormous changes on America and the world.

Paul Berman is the author, most recently, of “The Flight of the Intellectuals.”

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