In Memoriam: Irving Kristol (1920–2009)
Today we received the sad news of the passing of Irving Kristol. Known as the “godfather” of neoconservatism, the author and longtime editor of The Public Interest was a remarkably influential force in American politics and conservative thought. Requiescat in pace.
The following profile of Mr. Kristol was originally published in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (ISI Books, 2006).
Irving Kristol was the major intellectual inspiration, and remains one of the most influential voices, of the phenomenon labeled “neoconservatism.” In contrast to many others who were described by this term, Kristol accepted it for himself, and as much as any individual in the 1970s and 1980s he helped give substance to it.
Kristol embodied the classic model of the neoconservative. He was born in Brooklyn and grew up in a poor Jewish family from Eastern Europe. At the City College of New York he identified with the Trotskyist wing of the radical students and professors, in opposition to the Stalinist Communist Party loyalists. Here began his deep roots with the “New York Intellectuals,” many of whom, like him, would gravitate toward conservatism in later years.
Kristol fought in Europe during the Second World War and married the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. Kristol’s growing alienation from the Left was clearly visible in the early 1950s when he refused to join the vociferous attacks on Joseph McCarthy. From 1947 to 1952, as managing editor of Commentary, Kristol strove to alert readers to the dangers of communism. In 1953, in London, he started Encounter magazine with Stephen Spender under the sponsorship of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a liberal anticommunist organization sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency. His place in neoconservatism was fully evident by 1965 when, with Daniel Bell, he began publication of the Public Interest. This journal utilized empirical studies in the social sciences to deflate the ambitious political programs and reformist social agenda of the Great Society initiatives. It addressed such subjects as urban renewal, housing, taxation, and education. The Public Interest deliberately avoided questions of foreign policy because of the controversy surrounding the Vietnam War at the time, but in 1985 Kristol cofounded the journal National Interest to address foreign affairs. In 1972 and afterward he was a contributing editor to the Wall Street Journal.
Although Kristol’s political views had for some time been shifting away from liberalism, it was in 1972 that he first acquired the title “neoconservative.” For many years a loyalist of the Democratic Party, Kristol broke ranks when it chose George McGovern as its presidential nominee. Unwilling to endorse McGovern’s foreign policy, Kristol voted Republican, creating a stir in liberal circles. Kristol was not alone, of course, in his movement away from the New Left, but rather was accompanied by fellow intellectuals such as Norman Podhoretz and Nathan Glazer.
Kristol became a professor at New York University in 1969, where he taught social thought until 1988. Since then, he has been a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He remained senior editorial associate of the Public Interest until its final issue in the spring of 2005 and continues to serve as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, with which he has been associated since 1972.
Kristol advanced his conservative ideas mostly through essays, many of which were collected into books. Of these, the most important were On the Democratic Idea in America (1972), Two Cheers for Capitalism (1978), and Reflections of a Neoconservative (1983). Like many neoconservatives, Kristol advocated a strong American foreign policy to meet the threat of the Soviet Union. He made national interest the first priority of American policy, subordinating it to human rights concerns. Although Kristol showed a commitment to a free-enterprise economy and accepted as a fact the death of socialism, he registered a clear ambivalence about capitalism and the society it had produced. He distinguished between the bourgeois moral ethic, based on the traditional values of work, saving, and delayed gratification, and the capitalistic ethic, which was materialistic and hedonist. Kristol insisted that capitalism had once established its legitimacy on the bourgeois ethic, but it had eroded to the point that American society had become vulgar and self-indulgent. In his lament at this condition, Kristol sometimes echoed Victorian standards of moral judgment. He considered contemporary bourgeois society prosaic and unheroic. And he believed that institutional religion was American society’s only hope for a recovery from its spiritual malaise. Perhaps this contributed to his decision, late in life, to become a practicing Jew.
- DeMuth, Christopher, and William Kristol, eds. The Neoconservative Imagination: Essays in Honor of Irving Kristol. Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 1995.
- Hoeveler, J. David, Jr. Watch on the Right: Conservative Intellectuals in the Reagan Era. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
- Norman, Geoffrey. “The Godfather of New Conservatism (and His Family).” Esquire 91 (1979): 7-42.
- Steinfels, Peter. The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America’s Politics. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979