Friday, January 3, 2014

Neoconservatism

The "Neoconservative" label has become almost meaningless as paleo-conservatives, libertarians, liberals, and those further left, almost universally use it as a term of abuse, giving it meanings far removed from its origins. Anti-Semites use it as code word for alleged nefarious Jewish influence. Some liberals identify it with supposed Machiavellian plots by the disciples of Leo Strauss. Almost all journalistic use of the term refers to a school of thought about foreign policy. My first encounter with the term came with Irving Kristol's essay collection, On the Democratic Idea In America (1972), and my impression then was that there was little "neo" about it — that it was perfectly compatible with the tradition Russell Kirk had described in The Conservative Mind and elsewhere. Kristol and his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, are identified with the origin of the term—which originated rather earlier than I had realized. From a very interesting account of their intellectual journey toward conservatism, "The Brooklyn Burkeans" by Jonathan Bronitsky:
[Kristol:] "[I]f I were to say what neo-conservatism is as an intellectual impulse, I'd say it's an effort to link these two conservative traditions represented on the one hand by Edmund Burke, on the other by Adam Smith." .... "In their own day, despite their markedly different casts of mind, Burke and Smith were united in affirming the two major propositions of the original Whig synthesis: (1) liberty is the most precious of political goods, and (2) civilization is the result of human action but not of human design." ....

"After 1789, politics ceased to be considered as the prudent management of men and circumstances, in order to become the 'realization of ideas,'" Kristol lamented in the Yale Review in 1958. "Political thinking became irredeemably ideological: an imposition of ideas on political life rather than an emergence of policy from living experience." ....

In the April 1944 issue of Enquiry...Kristol praised E.M. Forster's "moral realism" as a safeguard against the left's zealous faith in its own capacity to resolve society's ills. "Though dissatisfied, of course, with the ways of men," Kristol coolly noted, "it foresees no new virtues, but, at best, a healthier distribution of the old. It is non-eschatological, skeptical of proposed revisions of man's nature, interested in human beings as it finds them, content with the possibilities and limitations that are always with us." Forster's philosophy could, Kristol continued, temper the "facile moralism" of the "liberal state of mind...whose basis is snobbery, self-satisfaction, unimaginativeness." ....

In Commentary...he declared that Lincoln Steffens's infamous 1919 appraisal of the Soviet Union — "I have seen the Future and it works" — could also effectively function as the "epitaph...on the tombstone of 20th-century liberalism." ....

As a devotee of Edmund Burke, Kristol was aware that liberal democracy, like nearly every other political, cultural, and social tradition, was precisely that — a tradition. Consequently, liberal democracy had to be viewed as a unique, context-dependent manifestation of generations of trials and tribulations, and not as a good that could be easily exported. Kristol...objected to Western Cold War initiatives, from foreign aid to military intervention, which sought to transplant liberal ideals, institutions, and economics to corners of the world that had demonstrated little or no interest in them. "Most Europeans and Asians think that America is too narrowly-minded 'realistic' in its approach to foreign affairs," he told Oxford historian Heinz Koeppler in 1955. "I would argue the reverse proposition, saying that we are not realistic at all." Forty years later, Kristol confirmed: "I regarded the ideal of a 'world without war' as utopian, and 'making the world safe for democracy' a futile enterprise." ....

"The major intellectual effort of neo-conservatism," Kristol stated in 1977, "is to de-utopianize political thinking." It was an effort that, for him and for his wife, had begun in reaction to the fantastical promises of radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s, continued in response to the ascent of rationalism and "value-free" social science in the 1950s, and deepened in the wake of the technocratic surfeit of the Great Society in the 1960s. .... [more]