Neoconservatism’s Godfather

At one point in time I could have been considered something of an “expert” on Irving Kristol — he was the subject of my senior essay at Yale — so I thought I’d post a few reflections on his life’s work.

Irving Kristol was once labeled the “Godfather” of neoconservatism because of his role in shepherding ideas and cultivating idea-makers. He identifiied important thinkers dissatisfied or disillusioned with the reigning liberal othodoxies, encouraged and promoted them. This was part of his aim with The Public Interest, but it shaped so much more of his life’s work. It’s also easy to forget the role he played in planting the seeds of intellectual revolutions in various social sciences. As a consequence, his influence extended far beyond his own writings.

Somewhat ironically, while he has always been associated with “neoconservatism” — and was among the first to embrace the label (which had been coined by Michael Harrington as a pejorative) Kristol himself never quite fit the label. Most of those identified as neocons in the 1970s had migrated from Left to Right in the wake of the 1960s. Kristol’s journey, however, had begun far earlier. While many of those who would become neocon intellectuals still harbored socialist leanings in the 1950s and early 60s, Kristol did not. Indeed, his writing evinced a conservative disposition and cultural outlook as early as the late 1940s. Though he still considered himself a man of the Left, his concern for orthodoxy revealed his sympathy for the Right. Though he spent years seeking to develop and nurture a robustly anti-Communist Left (at Commentary and with the Congress for Cultural Freedom and Encounter), his disposition and outlook was profoundly conservative. Rereading some of his work from that time suggests he was already a man of the Right, even if he didn’t yet know it — at least that was the thesis of my thesis at Yale, an intellectual biography of Kristol covering the period through 1968.

I interviewed Kristol in 1990. He was cheerful, open, and engaging. One thing that struck me was his embrace of conservatism without ever having developed much sympathy for libertarianism. He was familiar with Hayek, but mostly as a cudgel to wield against Communism, and he had no sympathy for Frank Meyer’s “fusionist” project. Kristol told me he never really understood what Meyer was trying to do, and saw little reason to focus on the size and scope of government. Like too many conservatives, he had difficulty recognizing the difference between libertarianism and libertinism. It was a serious blind spot, to be sure, but it does not lessen the tremendous effect he had on public policy and political debate. 

Kristol was always a cheerful warrior in the battle of ideas. He never ducked a fight — and certainly started a few — but seemed consistently good-natured. He was a generalist whose interests extended far beyond the narrow confines of politics. His legacy will endure for years to come.

Jonathan H. Adler — Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in environmental, administrative, and constitutional law at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

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