Irving Kristol, 1920-2009

Irving Kristol died September 18. He was an American journalist and columnist who is regarded as the ‘godfather of neoconservatism’. He was 89 years old.


Kristol was the son of Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. He grew up in Brooklyn (New York City) and received a BA from the City College of New York back when City College was a real educational institution, not the radical socialist backwater that it is today.


Nonetheless, in his times Kristol became a communist Trotskyist and was involved with New York City intellectuals during his college years and beyond. He served in the 12th armored division in World War II as a combat infantryman.


Kristol was founder and editor at several prominent left-wing publications including Commentary magazine and Encounter; and executive vice president at Basic Books from 1961 to 1969. He was Henry Luce Professor of Urban Values at New York University from 1969 to 1987, and then founder of conservative publications like The Public Interest and The National Interest.


He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a fellow emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute. He contributed monthly columns to The Wall Street Journal from 1972 to 1997 and served on the council of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1972 to 1977.  


Kristol turned away from socialism as a reaction to the hardball tactics of 1960s radicals and their culture of social disorder, the failure of leftist economic policies, and the brutality and devastation of communist regimes. He was part of a movement made up of Democrats turned Republicans.


Wikipedia.org says that Kristol believed that:


Neoconservatism… is not an ideology but a “persuasion,” a way of thinking about politics rather than a compendium of principles and axioms. It is classical rather than romantic in temperament, and practical and antiutopian in policy. One of Kristol’s most celebrated quips defines a neoconservative as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”

That is an apt description since classical thinking is based in history, discernment, truth-seeking and experience, while romanticism is leftist thinking writ large – utopian, flowery, unrealistic, overblown and, in the end, too sweet for its own good, like a sappy story or a heroic  painting of a farm worker. Conservatism, Kristol believed, is practical and pragmatic.


The term ‘neoconservatism’ first was coined as a pejorative  in 1973 to describe intellectuals who had become disillusioned with liberalism like the Great Society welfare-state programs of Lyndon Johnson. In February 1979 Kristol appeared on the cover of Esquire magazine identified as “the godfather of the most powerful new political force in America – Neoconservatism.”


Ronald Reagan was elected president in November 1980.


Kristol wrote in The Weekly Standard in 2003 that “Nevertheless, they (Republican politicians) cannot be blind to the fact that neoconservative policies, reaching out beyond the traditional political and financial base, have helped make the very idea of political conservatism more acceptable to a majority of American voters. Nor has it passed official notice that it is the neoconservative public policies, not the traditional Republican ones, that result in popular Republican presidencies.”


Kristol and other neocons believed ultimately in market capitalism as the only source for a truly free society, because “it works… in a material sense” in improving the conditions of people; and second that it is “congenial to a large measure of personal liberty.” But Kristol was critical in that capitalism does not meet man’s “existential human needs”.


Yet he did not point out that it is the freedom and prosperity of capitalism that produces the overall social progress that allows some members of the society to explore art, spirituality and transcendental scholarly concerns. Poor nations are too obsessed with mere survival for such endeavors as sculpture and philosophy.


He also wrote: “Neocons are familiar with intellectual history and aware that it is only in the last two centuries that democracy has become a respectable option among political thinkers. In earlier times, democracy meant an inherently turbulent political regime, with the ’have-nots’ and the ‘haves’ engaged in a perpetual and utterly destructive class struggle. It was only the prospect of economic growth in which everyone prospered, if not equally or simultaneously, that gave modern democracies their legitimacy and durability.


Here are some other bright quotes from Kristol about his new brand of neoconservatism:


“I have observed over the years that the unanticipated consequences of social action are always more important, and usually less agreeable, than the intended consequences.”


“It requires strength of character to act upon one’s ideas; it requires no less strength of character to resist being seduced by them.”


“Young people, especially, are looking for religion so desperately that they are inventing new ones. They should not have to invent new ones; the old religions are pretty good.”


“An intellectual may be defined as a man who speaks with general authority about a subject on which he has no particular competence.”


“The liberal paradigm of regulation and license has led to a society where an 18-year-old girl has the right to public fornication in a pornographic movie — but only if she is paid the minimum wage.”


“The enemy of liberal capitalism today is not so much socialism as nihilism.”


Kristol was the husband of critic and historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. One of his sons is William Kristol, an editor of The Weekly Standard.


Vice president Dick Cheney and president George W. Bush both admired Kristol. Bush  awarded Kristol a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002 and praised him as “a wide-ranging thinker whose writings have helped transform America’s political landscape.”


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