Politics & Policy

The Neoconservative Invention

No new kid on the block.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part two in a series on neoconservatism. You can read part one here.

The word “neoconservative” was coined by Michael Harrington and the editors of Dissent to describe their old friends who’d moved to the right. It was an insult, along the lines of “running dog” or “fellow traveler.” Or perhaps the “neo” was intended to conjure “neo-Nazi,” the only other political label to sport the prefix. As Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the most-respected social scientists of the 20th century and an original neocon wrote, the term “was invented as an invidious label to undermine political opponents, most of whom have been unhappy with being so described.”

But the important thing to remember is that the term described a process which the Left considered intellectual betrayal, not a distinct ideology. Anyway, the first neoconservatives, according to the accepted oral history, were the former Trotskyist college students who hung out in a u-shaped stall called Alcove #1 next to the cafeteria at City College in the mid-1930s. The documentary Arguing the World famously focused on four of them: Irving Kristol (father of Bill), Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe (who recruited Irving to the Trotskyist cause), and Daniel Bell. But there were quite a few others, including Seymour Martin Lipset, Melvin Lasky, and Albert Wohlstetter. The much larger group of Communist students were the gang over at Alcove #2, which included Julius Rosenberg. The Alcove #1 guys considered themselves anti-Stalinist dissidents (Bell, considered himself pretty much anti-everything). Kristol explained that he learned to think and theorize from the Trotskyites, primarily from the works of James Burnham, Max Schachtman, and Trotsky himself. It is this dissident intellectualism, many have noted, which drove the Alcove #1 guys to the right over the years.

Obviously, even this story muddies the waters since Howe was never any kind of conservative. His rightward migration went little further than from A to B, becoming a democratic socialist. How conservative Bell and Nathan Glazer ever became is a subject for debate at a coffeehouse or faculty lounge. It’s certainly true that Bell rejected the neocon label (quitting The Public Interest after only one year as coeditor) and that Glazer wore it more lightly than Irving Kristol. But the story of nascent Trotskyism leading to the neoconservative movement some 40 years later has always given extra luster and irony to the tale. Some on the so-called paleo-right invest these roots with a great deal of meaning even today, claiming that Trotsky remains the guiding influence of neocons even for people who’ve probably never read a word of Trotsky’s writings and were never themselves leftists or liberals, let alone Communists.

While it might be fun to wade deep into the weeds to demonstrate the ludicrousness of this assertion, let me just say that of the scores of famous neocons I’ve met, none of them have ever expressed any fondness for Trotsky. He’s never quoted as an authority in neocon op-eds or journals, and he’s never invoked — save in jokes — in neocon debates or conferences. Still, there are some important points to make about this version of history. First, the folks who became known as neoconservatives may have been liberals who’d been “mugged by reality” (Irving Kristol’s famous definition of a neocon), but most never called themselves neoconservatives, never studied Trotsky — let alone embraced his “theory of permanent revolution” — and many considered themselves honest liberals who stuck to their principles on civil rights as the Democratic party spun off into self-parody in the 1970s. Also, a few, such as Robert Nisbet and Bill Bennett, simply accepted the term conservative.

Indeed, as late as 1979, Irving Kristol — invariably described as the “Godfather of Neoconservatism” — wrote an ironically titled essay “Confessions of a True, Self-Confessed ‘Neoconservative.’” The essay was written largely in response to an antagonistic book written by a “democratic socialist” named Peter Steinfels (now with the New York Times), lamenting that these new conservatives were dangerously invigorating the Right. Kristol embraced the label, despite the pejorative intent behind it. “I myself have accepted the term,” Kristol wrote, “perhaps because, having been named Irving, I am relatively indifferent to baptismal caprice. But I may be the only living self-confessed neoconservative, at large or in captivity.”

With this context in mind, to call neoconservatism a coherent “movement” of any kind ignores the fact that such transformations tend to be intensely individualistic. “When two neoconservatives meet they are more likely to argue with one another than to confer or conspire,” Irving Kristol wrote in 1979. And no neoconservative has ever contradicted James Q. Wilson’s assertion that neocons have no common “manifesto, credo, religion, flag, anthem or secret handshake.” This holds even truer today. The idea that, say, Hilton Kramer, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, Richard Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and Jeanne Kirkpatrick all receive orders from some central Comintern or politburo — as Pat Buchanan is so fond of suggesting — is bizarre enough. The idea that they are all consulting in lockstep the collected works of Leon Trotsky is simply hysterical.

Moreover, the transformative impact of the neocons has always been exaggerated. Yes, it’s true that the neocons contributed new blood and new ideas to conservatism, but their chief contribution, as William F. Buckley has argued, derived from their ability to incorporate the language and methods of the social sciences into the conservative cause. It was not so much that the neocons had dramatically new opinions about the evils of the Soviet Union or the rise of secular humanism or — to a lesser extent — the threat of an overweening welfare state, it was that they employed new arguments using the still-respected language of social science which remained the lingua franca of the liberal Left. For example, “The law of unintended consequences” so widely hailed as an incandescently brilliant neocon formulation is really just a fancy restatement of fundamental Burkean conservatism. But when nice Jewish intellectuals and respected academics are simply repeating what other conservatives had said before them, the elite liberal media tends to pay attention.


And so did a few older conservatives. Hardly immune to the petty jealousies and ego-driven conflicts that plague every other political-intellectual enterprise, the rise of the neocons drove some conservatives to grumble. And when some of the now-admitted neocons around Commentary gained influence in the Reagan administration, a few marginal conservatives grew angry as the pie of intellectual jobs and funding got re-sliced in the neocons’ favor. One might argue that because conservatives have so few posts at elite universities and jobs in government, funding from foundations takes on greater significance than would seem rational to outsiders. Or one might say that such conflicts are the natural product of an ideological movement achieving majority status. Just as political parties tend to become fratricidal when they lose the luxury and discipline of minority status, intellectual movements undergo growing pains when they take in productive immigrants.

The conservative losers became a distinct faction when Ronald Reagan passed over the University of Dallas historian Mel Bradford in favor of Bill Bennett for the chairmanship of the National Endowment of the Humanities. As David Frum recently argued, the White House was put off by Bradford because 1981 was hardly a conducive year for Ronald Reagan to appoint an academic who had some decidedly un-P.C. things to say about the Civil War (many of the losers sunk themselves by refusing to let go of their lead-weight ideas about the Civil War and Jim Crow). Regardless, however the White House reached its decision, the losers — now beginning to call themselves “paleoconservatives” — believed the move was orchestrated by a cabal, comprised mostly of clever liberal Jews and faux conservatives.

It’s odd that such an event could be the catalyst for the creation an entire theology of grievance and outrage by the paleos. But pettiness, intellectual and personal, often drives politics. So, the more successful the neos became, the more bitter the paleos became. Pat Buchanan summarized not only the attitude but also the grace of the paleo “movement” when he wrote of the neos: “Like the fleas who conclude they are steering the dog, their relationship to the movement has always been parasitical.”

Today, “paleoconservatism” has become the real “neoconservatism,” in that it is literally the newest form of conservatism out there, resembling very little the conservatism of William F. Buckley or Barry Goldwater or the rank-and-file of the Republican party. An even funnier irony is that in many respects paleoconservatism is more left wing than what we call neoconservatism. The reason this is funny is that so many self-described paleos view themselves as “further to the Right” than those they label neocons. But they need to explain why Pat Buchanan’s public policies sound so liberal.

For example, Patrick Buchanan complains that “compassionate conservatism” was a rip-off of his “conservatism of the heart.” “I may charge him with plagiarism,” Buchanan declared. Buchanan now favors caps on executive salaries, expansion of Medicare benefits, and high trade barriers. He fumes about the excesses of Wall Street and the free market. He writes in The Great Betrayal: “Better the occasional sins of a government acting out of the spirit of charity than the constant omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” That could easily come from It Takes A Village. Indeed, Buchanan’s policies on immigration and culture and his support affirmative-action quotas for non-Jewish whites amount to what my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru calls “identity politics for white people.” As for the lefty under- and over-tones of his foreign policy, David Frum has dealt with that in detail too.

The opinions of the paleos matter if for no other reason than that they’ve largely been appropriated by the hard Left — Eric Alterman, Edward Said, The Nation — and increasingly by liberals like Michael Lind, Joshua Micah Marshall, Chris Matthews, Maureen Dowd, and Paul Krugman who shape popular perception through the elite media. All of these writers harp on a repeated theme, a small group of mostly Jewish intellectuals are manipulating a conservative president, the Republican party, and the American people for the sake of Israel and an ideological crusade. They don’t all cite Trotsky’s “theory of permanent revolution,” but they all suggest the same thing. “What I fear is the neoconservatives,” Matthews told an audience at Brown University. “They want to fight the North Koreans again. Iran. Iraq. Syria. Libya.” Before long, “they’ll go after China.” Dowd: “Everyone thinks the Bush diplomacy on Iraq is a wreck. It isn’t. It’s a success because it was never meant to succeed.” Marshall: “Ever since the neocons burst upon the public policy scene 30 years ago, their movement has been a marriage of moral idealism, military assertiveness, and deception.”

Eric Alterman writes, “the war has put Jews in the showcase as never before. Its primary intellectual architects — Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle…and Douglas J. Feith… — are all Jewish neoconservatives. So, too, are many of its prominent media cheerleaders, including William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and Marty Peretz. Joe Lieberman, the nation’s most conspicuous Jewish politician, has been an avid booster.” More Matthews, this time on Hardball: “Is there a neoconservative crowd operating within the Bush administration advancing the objectives of the neoconservative movement?” And: Why is President Bush “buying this neoconservative case for…war…This doesn’t seem like an American kind of foreign policy.” This isn’t much different from Buchanan’s much pithier references to “(Ariel) Sharon and the neoconservative War Party.”




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