Published in National Affairs
The meaning, legacy, and future of neoconservatism are often hotly contested subjects. But the history of neoconservatism — particularly its early history — has long been deemed largely settled territory.
According to the prevailing narrative, members of the first generation of neoconservatives — perhaps the most famous among them being Irving Kristol — were left-wing intellectuals who came to question and discard the dogmas of progressive liberalism during the 1960s, especially in response to the cultural radicalism of the student protest movements and the misguided ambition of the Great Society. “Mugged by reality,” as Kristol memorably put it, they embarked upon a rightward journey, explaining themselves in publications like Kristol’s quarterly journal, The Public Interest, and Norman Podhoretz’s monthly magazine, Commentary. Their heresy drew the ire of former comrades on the left, one of whom, political theorist Michael Harrington, is thought to have first applied to them the term “neoconservative” while castigating The Public Interest in a 1973 essay in the democratic-socialist magazine Dissent.
This familiar story proved convenient over the years for both the neoconservatives and their critics. Yet it does not stand up to historical investigation. Such an investigation reveals a much more interesting, impressive, and engaging story — mainly with respect to Kristol and his wife, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. That story involves decades of intellectual evolution, beginning well before the heady 1960s with a profoundly conservative inclination to understand modern life through the lens of the Anglo-American tradition of political thought.
Drawing on previously unexplored archival materials on both sides of the Atlantic, we can now recount a far more thorough and accurate history of Kristol, Himmelfarb, and their intellectual milieu. By so doing, we can shed new light both on the intellectual atmosphere of post-war America and on the roots of the philosophical “persuasion” that eventually transformed American politics.
“A ‘NEO-CONSERVATIVE’ LIKE MYSELF”
To demonstrate the inadequacy of the conventional tale of neoconservatism, we need only consider a dispute between two New York intellectuals in the mid-1950s, almost two decades before the term “neoconservative” was supposedly first applied to Irving Kristol and his fellow travelers.
Kristol and the formidable art critic Harold Rosenberg had been butting heads over politics for some time. Despite irreconcilable differences of opinion, they shared remarkably similar backgrounds. Both were sons of lower-working-class Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Both were born and raised in Brooklyn. Both were educated at the City College of New York when it was known as the “Harvard of the Proletariat.” Both adhered to sects of Trotskyism during the Great Depression. And both broke from the far left after the Soviet Union’s “Great Purge” and its non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany shattered their socialist illusions.
Hostilities between the two had commenced when Kristol, in a personal letter, accused Rosenberg of having been “too faithful to the master” in an essay on Karl Marx in the Kenyon Review. The letter infuriated Rosenberg, but he settled down somewhat after Kristol, then editor of the monthly journal Encounter, accepted an article of his for publication. Tensions were re-ignited, however, after Rosenberg concluded that Kristol, for polemical purposes, had altered the title of a second article without permission. He opted to air his grievances against Kristol in public, specifically bemoaning Kristol’s “cult” of “Couch Liberalism,” with a screed in a small but significant highbrow periodical. The two exchanged heated correspondence for weeks afterward before Kristol, again in a personal letter, asserted to Rosenberg: “We have disagreements over the nature of liberty, the nature of American Society, the role of the intellectual, and many other things — in other words, the classic kinds of disagreements one would expect between a radical like yourself and a ‘neo-conservative’ like myself.”
It was December 1955, and Kristol was writing from Encounter‘s two-room office on Haymarket, near Piccadilly Circus in London. The following year, Kristol received a stack of draft lecture notes in the mail from his good friend Daniel Bell, then labor editor of Fortune, requesting “the valuable comments of that neo-conservative I. Kristol.” It was, undoubtedly, a kind of joke, and Kristol’s self-description to Rosenberg seems to have been a tad sardonic too — hence the quotation marks around “neo-conservative.” But these striking early uses of the term with which Kristol would one day be inexorably linked were also unmistakable indications of Kristol’s already longstanding exasperation with liberalism’s naïve idealism.
Exasperation of that sort was characteristic of a certain kind of intellectual’s turn away from the left in the 1950s. Norman Podhoretz, reflecting back upon the prior decade in 1957, attested that “all the disparate forays against liberalism employed the same tactic: They all set out to show that liberalism was guilty of a failure to take a sufficiently complicated view of reality.” In fact, this attitude had already been called “neo-conservative” at least once by another member of Kristol’s intellectual circle in the previous decade: “The neo-conservatives of our time,” social critic Dwight Macdonald wrote in Partisan Review in 1943, “reject the propositions on Materialism, Human Nature, and Progress” that were indispensable to the progressive outlook.
In this respect, at least, Irving Kristol’s neoconservatism arose well before The Public Interest was launched in 1965, and even before his tussle with Rosenberg. And, though he did not often write or speak about his intellectual development, Kristol did not exactly hide from later chroniclers that he began his drift from the left as a very young man. “I started moving right a long time ago,” he informed the New York Times in 1970. “In my case it’s been a pretty steady drift, ever since 1942.” He reiterated as much in a 1983 interview with Reason magazine: “I really ceased being a socialist in the 1940s, and I was never all that orthodox of a liberal.”
By plumbing previously unexplored primary-source materials, we can begin to delineate the true genesis of Kristol’s neoconservatism. The period from 1942 to 1958, when Kristol returned to New York after five years in London, is particularly under-examined, and particularly important; Daniel Bell described this time as “one of the most creative periods in Irving’s life.” A study of Kristol’s life and work in that period confirms that he began to eschew liberalism much earlier than most observers of neoconservatism have long assumed. It further demonstrates that his early concerns and priorities were predominantly cultural, historical, religious, and philosophical rather than political. Additionally, it establishes that his relinquishment of liberalism was sparked and reinforced by his exposure to what might best be designated the British variant of classical liberalism, or what we now generally classify as conservatism.
This untold history illustrates, as well, that Kristol’s introduction to and extensive education in that classical liberalism came, above all, from his wife of 67 years: Gertrude Himmelfarb. As such, Himmelfarb — known to her friends as “Bea” — should be understood to be not only an internationally esteemed historian of Victorian England but also a pivotal figure in the trajectory of neoconservatism and post-war American conservatism. The influence of her passion for British moral and political thought can be discerned in practically every position Kristol maintained on culture, economics, religion, history, philosophy, and politics. “Looking back,” Kristol reminisced in 1995, “I am astonished how intellectually intertwined Bea and I have been over the years — pursuing different subjects while thinking the same thoughts and reaching the same conclusions.”
Those thoughts and conclusions were not quite what the familiar narrative about neoconservatism suggests, though, here again, Kristol — on those rare occasions when he did expand upon his aims and influences — offered guidance that went unheeded by historians. “[I]f I were to say what neo-conservatism is as an intellectual impulse,” Kristol stated in 1983, “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.” He similarly explained in a 1999 letter to Daniel Polisar that his “mission” in the “development of neo-conservatism” had been “to reconcile Adam Smith and Burke — who were friends and co-admirers.” “They managed to get along well enough in 19th century Britain,” he added, “and they still get along, if erratically, in 20th century America.” Kristol was just reiterating what he had outlined in Commentary four decades earlier, in 1960: “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.”
Some observers over the years did ascertain that classical liberalism was the underpinning of Kristol and Himmelfarb’s worldview. In 1972, Robert Bartley, the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial-page editor, declared that Kristol’s writings seemed to leap “almost straight from the pages of Edmund Burke, whose ideas the word conservative was coined to describe.” Michael Harrington followed suit the next year in Dissent. “The philosophy behind this theory,” he opined on the neoconservative critique of liberalism, “goes back at least to Edmund Burke and his assertion of an organic development of society as an argument against state interference with the providence of the natural order of things.” In 1985, an article ran in El País, the highest-circulation newspaper in Spain, which stressed the link between Burkeanism and neoconservatism. “The key,” it asserted (as translated), “should be found in the anti-utopian cases of a type of political-philosophical reasoning inspired by Burke — the Burkean persuasion — or resistance to the ideological impulses stemming from political rationalism, utopia, and terror.” What is more, Diana Trilling, wife of literary critic Lionel Trilling, avowed in her 1993 memoir that her dear friends Kristol and Himmelfarb were once known as “Burkeans, not right-wing Republicans or Republicans of any stripe.”
This emphasis on the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment is hardly what comes to mind when most people think of neoconservatism, but the forgotten early years of Kristol and Himmelfarb suggest that it ought to be.
“A LIBERAL WITH A DIFFERENCE”
Our effort to set the historical record straight begins in 1942, for more reasons than one. This was the year that Kristol would later identify as the beginning of his separation from the left. It was also the year that Himmelfarb, soon after marrying Kristol, started her graduate studies in history at the University of Chicago.
Her master’s thesis sought to bolster the case made by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth that the Reign of Terror — the bloodiest phase of the French Revolution — was the ultimate fulfillment of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of “the general will.” It was an idea that Coleridge and Wordsworth themselves had derived in large part from Edmund Burke, and this unorthodox reading of the French Revolution would resound throughout both Himmelfarb’s and Kristol’s subsequent writings. “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.”
As a matter of fact, Kristol started incorporating such Burkean insights into his own work soon after Himmelfarb began her graduate studies. In the April 1944 issue of Enquiry — a little-known journal that he and Philip Selznick co-founded and that was devoted, as its subtitle decreed, to “independent radical thought” — 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.” These words were hardly typical of a New Deal liberal.
Soon after they appeared in print, Kristol was drafted to serve in the Second World War. He fought as an infantryman in the 17th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 12th Armored Division, nicknamed the “Hellcats,” which secured a series of crucial victories over the Wehrmacht at Colmar and in southern Germany and liberated several Dachau “satellite” camps. The tour of duty extinguished for him any lingering progressive fantasies not already squelched by Soviet totalitarianism and exposure to the works of neo-orthodox Protestant theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. Thrust for the first time into close proximity with disparate Americans from across the nation, Kristol concluded that the distance between the socialist man he had trumpeted while an undergraduate in the musty basement alcoves of City College and the actual man found in the real world was — for good and for ill — too expansive to traverse, and it made little sense to pretend otherwise.
Shortly after returning to Chicago following the war, Kristol headed back across the Atlantic. Beginning in October 1946, he and Himmelfarb spent nine months in England at the University of Cambridge. Himmelfarb, on a traveling fellowship, examined the personal papers of her doctoral subject: English Catholic historian John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, usually referred to as simply Lord Acton. Acton, likely best known for his aphorism about the tendency of power to corrupt, also challenged papal infallibility and dedicated much of his life to an epic history of liberty, since heralded by some as “the greatest book never written.”
While researching her master’s thesis, Himmelfarb had come to Acton by way of his collected lectures on the French Revolution, delivered between 1895 and 1899 while he was the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge. “The logical conclusion of his argument,” she later wrote, “would be that it was not democracy, or violence, or any other fortuitous circumstance that perverted the French Revolution, but rather the idea of liberty itself — liberty as an idea.” Critically, Acton led Himmelfarb to Edmund Burke, who soon became one of her and her husband’s foremost historical and intellectual inspirations. Burke and Acton, according to English historian Archbishop David Mathew, were “master and disciple.” Acton himself had lauded Burke as the “teacher of mankind” and exalted his parliamentary speeches from 1790 to 1795 as “the law and the prophets.” Himmelfarb defined Acton as “a liberal with a difference” and cautioned her colleagues in 1949 to avoid the temptation “to fit him into a familiar pattern of thought” or “a ready-made philosophy or school.”
Kristol and Himmelfarb’s time in Cambridge, though brief, augmented their emerging attachment to classical liberalism. They were chiefly influenced by Himmelfarb’s pro tempore supervisor, Herbert Butterfield, a renowned Acton scholar. Like Niebuhr, Butterfield was a votary of neo-orthodoxy, which caused him to grieve that modern society had “gambled very highly on what was an over-optimistic view of the character of men.” His deepest influence on Himmelfarb, and in turn on Kristol, involved his outlook on historical inquiry, which was enshrined in his groundbreaking 1931 work, The Whig Interpretation of History. “Whig history,” he stated, was the tendency of historians “to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.” History, as it is often depicted, Kristol echoed in Commentary in 1952, “is the record of the struggle between Freedom and Authority, Reason and Prejudice, Left and Right, with the victory of the former assured by the growing preponderance among mankind of rational opinions and rational conduct.”
Also while in Cambridge, Kristol and Himmelfarb started to evidence sympathies for classical economics, contradicting the historiography that paints them as staunch F.D.R. liberals in the post-war period who were entirely devoid of free-market leanings. Even Kristol himself would later aver that he “had no interest in ‘market economics'” in the years following the Second World War. As proof of this, he pointed out that he skipped Friedrich Hayek’s iconoclastic anti-totalitarian work, The Road to Serfdom, which incited a classical-liberal revival in Britain. “I did not believe for a moment that the American people would allow themselves to be seduced or coerced along any such path,” he wrote in 1995. “I deemed that kind of ‘anti-statism’ to be a species of political hysteria, and I felt its reaction to the New Deal excessive.”
What Kristol failed to mention was that he was already decidedly opposed to planned economics by that point. In order to accompany Himmelfarb to austerity England, Kristol obtained a work visa by serving as the English correspondent for the New Leader, a New York-based, liberal anti-communist periodical. In one notable article, he excoriated Britain’s Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, which aimed to control land usage by requiring that all development plans be approved by the newly created Central Land Board. He blasted “His Majesty’s Socialist Government” for its intention to pursue a planned economy. The Act, which he further deplored as “one of the most far-reaching measures in all of British history,” also ordered that individuals face a levy on any increase in land value brought about by development — or even projected development — of property. “The land speculator in Britain,” Kristol warned, “is a breed faced with extinction.” It is no coincidence that Hayek, who hailed the right to private property as “the most important guarantee of freedom,” reviled the Act as “administrative despotism.”
Moreover, at the very moment Kristol later claimed he had taken no notice of Hayek, his wife was beginning to communicate directly with that high priest of Austrian economics, then a professor at the London School of Economics. Himmelfarb and Hayek discussed, among other intellectual topics, his forthcoming launch of “an international Acton Society to promote the ideals of liberty and morality,” which became the Mont Pelerin Society. Hayek had not only opened The Road to Serfdom with a quotation from Acton, but also acclaimed him as one of the “great individualist social philosophers of the nineteenth century.” Himmelfarb admired Hayek for having linked Acton to Adam Smith and the “Manchester school.” Writing in the Journal of Modern History in 1949, she recapped Hayek’s 1945 lecture at University College Dublin, in which he differentiated between the “true individualists” of the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment and the “false individualists” of the Continental Enlightenment. The latter, she explained, “assume that liberty is the product of a conscious social design, the application of a single, consistent, and rational idea” whereas the former “are sensitive to the complexity and indirection characterizing society.” This sharp distinction between the two Enlightenments would later prove fundamental to both Himmelfarb’s and Kristol’s own work.
Their extended excursion to Cambridge left Kristol and Himmelfarb impressed with the qualities that had allowed for what French historian Élie Halévy branded “the miracle of modern England” — the nation’s ability to evade the revolutionary turmoil of Europe. They concurred with Hayek that the “Anglo-Saxons… possessed — in a higher degree than most other people” the basic virtues of “independence and self-reliance, individual initiative and local responsibility… respect for custom and tradition, and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.” Kristol came to admire the British for their “bulldog tenacity which excites a universal awe, that incomparably obstinate, persistent, and unyielding fixedness of mind.” Thus, the couple left Britain in 1947 as steadfast Anglophiles. Within weeks of returning to Brooklyn, Himmelfarb confessed in a letter to Herbert Butterfield: “I wander around the noisy, busy, ugly streets and recall nostalgically the fens of Cambridge. I spend much time designing wild schemes to return to England.” As fate would have it, the couple would return to England just a few years later.
After coming back to New York in 1947, Kristol was hired to be a junior editor at Commentary, the freshly minted magazine of the American Jewish Committee whose dual mission was to contest Communism and guide Jewish intellectuals away from alienation and into the fold of American life. During his five-year tenure, from 1947 to 1952, he mostly used his station as a pulpit to chastise mainstream Judaism for having replaced revelation with reason — or, as he put it, for having replaced the “Lord of Hosts” with “the God of the philosophers.” One after another, he assailed America’s most beloved rabbis for swapping the rabbinical tradition with a prophet-inspired political progressivism so as to remain relevant amidst the post-Holocaust spiritual drift. He worried that their preoccupation with “social action” was inculcating a new, quasi-religious radicalism. “What are we to make,” Kristol asked in a scathing 1948 review of Rabbi Milton Steinberg’s Basic Judaism, “of a rabbi who claims for the Mishnah and the Talmud that they guarantee the right to strike — thereby providing Holy Writ with the satisfaction of having paved the way for the National Labor Relations Act!”
While Kristol drew fire on the front lines for his incendiary assaults, Himmelfarb fastidiously raked through the armory of intellectual history for new ammunition for their battles. Over the course of six years, she produced more than ten essays on an assortment of topics and published her dissertation on Acton to much acclaim — including a glowing review in the New York Times. One piece of writing, nevertheless, stands above the others in terms of illuminating her and her husband’s political transmutation: “Prophets of the New Conservatism,” which ran in Commentary in 1950, was an approving valuation of some budding intellectual currents on the right. In the essay, Himmelfarb expressed admiration for German-Jewish émigré Leo Strauss, whose method of analyzing quintessential texts in political philosophy precluded relativism by demanding that sages of the past be understood as they understood themselves. Strauss convinced her — and evidently Kristol as well — that classical political philosophy could be used to reflect on the feasible limits of politics.
Himmelfarb also extolled Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Peter Viereck for combating the type of “liberal” who was “possessed of an optimistic and secular, often hedonistic, religion of progress; a faith in the masses, in the natural goodness of man, and in modern technics; a taste for equality rather than freedom, change rather than tradition, and relative rather than absolute standards.” Viereck had claimed Edmund Burke as a hero in Conservatism Revisited, his magisterial 1949 work on Austrian diplomat Prince Metternich. And as early as 1940, in the Atlantic Monthly, the poet had beckoned a “New Conservatism” that would “synthesize cultural, spiritual, and political conservatism with economic reform.”
Kristol, stirred by Himmelfarb’s scholarship, emerged as an increasingly open detractor of liberalism. In a 1950 letter to English philosopher Isaiah Berlin, he knocked the left’s ideology for having been spoiled by a “vulgarized Hegelianism.” In Commentary the following year, 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.” In 1952, also in Commentary, Kristol insisted that “Progress, Revolution, and Liberty” had become “the key words of modern liberalism that now ring somewhat hollow.” In the New York Times Book Review, he even questioned the moral integrity of that sacred cow of liberalism: government-run welfare. “The idea of ‘freedom from want,’ of a decent standard of living assured by the state,” he proffered, “wields such an influence over the minds of men that all existing social orders are at its mercy.”
Soon thereafter, Kristol and Himmelfarb found their rationale for returning to Britain. From 1953 to 1958, Kristol served with English writer and poet Stephen Spender as co-founding editor of Encounter, a London-based monthly journal sponsored by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an international anti-communist organization. The CCF was exposed in 1967 to have been an extravagant propaganda front for the Central Intelligence Agency, though to this day there is no evidence that either Spender or Kristol had been cognizant of the CIA’s involvement. Importantly, it is apparent through detailed inspection of archival materials that the two editors maintained total editorial control over the content of their publication. By offering a spectrum of opinion on culture and politics, Encounter aspired to show that it was liberal democracy, not Soviet communism, that prized freedom and sovereign thought. From its conception, the journal was met with a mix of lofty expectations and daunting internal challenges. But almost immediately after it premiered in October 1953, Encounter was regarded, in the words of historian Hugh Wilford, as “the foremost journal of ‘serious’ political opinion and cultural expression in the English language.”
As Kristol toiled within his cramped office at 25 Haymarket, Himmelfarb dedicated her waking hours to writing a second book and raising their children, Bill, born in 1952, and Elizabeth, born in 1956. It was amidst the standard bedlam of family life — illness, a faulty boiler, and the like — that Himmelfarb researched and composed a monumental work on naturalist Charles Darwin and the effect of his thought on Victorian society. “Before-Darwin a bold spirit could be tempted to think of God as merely the custodian of the laws of nature,” she posited. “After-Darwin it took no great courage to think of the laws of nature as themselves the custodians of the universe.” As Kristol’s public prominence increased, Himmelfarb continued to work largely in the background, yet her ideas were always at the forefront of her husband’s thinking. “I am sure it was Bea’s understanding of English history and English conservatism which contributed so enormously to Encounter‘s appeal in those early days,” noted Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, “not just to progressive intellectuals — at which it was primarily aimed — but also to right-wing ones who sensed an affinity there which was certainly never openly avowed.”
Five years in England carried Kristol and Himmelfarb closer to conservatism. They met many people in London, of course, but were most impressed by a clique of young, up-and-coming Tories: Worsthorne, then a struggling journalist; Henry Fairlie, a freelance writer formerly with the Times; Colin Welch of the Daily Telegraph; Michael Oakeshott, professor of political science at the London School of Economics; and Malcolm Muggeridge, editor of Punch. The panache, buoyancy, and acerbic wit exuded by these unrepentant partisans of the right enchanted Kristol and Himmelfarb, who, after all, had come from a milieu in which conservative beliefs were scarce. The Tories were formative for Kristol. He donned a bowler hat and furled umbrella, mourned the passing of Britain’s “Establishment,” outlined advantages of the country’s class system, and lionized the British for still quoting Edmund Burke in the House of Commons. “He is unpretentious, straightforward, fairly humble and de-tribalised, and obviously at home in London, which he loves,” the Observer wrote of Kristol just before he left Encounter in 1958. “He is one of those American left-wingers with a weakness for British Conservatism.”
One noticeable reflection of Kristol’s burgeoning conservatism was his perspective on international affairs. “Democracy, heaven be praised,” he professed in 1956, “is not indivisible, any more than peace is; we need no perfect solutions to survive in an imperfect world.” 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 was intrigued by the early writings of arch-realist Henry Kissinger and 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.”
By the time Kristol and Himmelfarb moved back home to New York in 1958, they were entrenched in the classical-liberal tradition and, therefore, primed to react negatively to the sweeping, progressive agendas of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Their fervent disapproval of some premises and programs of the Great Society, which relied on aloof academics and wonky bureaucrats to cure America of poverty, illiteracy, and social divisions, was not the result of an epiphany. It was the result of a conviction, built up over two decades by that time, that human institutions, in the words of their friend Michael Oakeshott, “are the product of innumerable human choices, over long stretches of time, but not of any human design.”
NEOCONSERVATISM AND CONSERVATISM
After another decade of highlighting the illiberalism of liberalism, mainly through The Public Interest, Kristol reciprocated various overtures he had begun to receive from the right. In 1969, he welcomed an invitation from William F. Buckley, Jr., to join the “Boys’ Club,” a small, informal group of journalists that met for lunch every other month either at Buckley’s maisonette at Park Avenue and East 73rd Street or at the ritzy Century Association in midtown Manhattan. The following year, despite having backed Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election, Kristol began to receive — and accept — White House dinner summonses from Richard Nixon and his advisors. In 1971, he started corresponding with George Will, who was then a 30-year-old Senate staffer. Before long, Will reverently signed off a letter, “Yr mst hmb’l & ob’t sv’t.” The next year, Kristol traveled to Switzerland to deliver a lecture at the 25th-anniversary meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, the free-market organization that Hayek had founded in 1947. By 1972, no one on either side of the political spectrum was astonished when he was asked to contribute a monthly column to the Wall Street Journal.
During his quarter-century run with the newspaper, Kristol attempted to show how far “capitalism” — a label that Himmelfarb never ceased to point out was invented by 19th-century socialists — had fallen from its morally enlightened, classical-liberal pedigree. He notably gave capitalism only “two cheers” instead of the customary three in the title of a 1978 collection of essays. “It is the ethos of capitalism that is in gross disrepair, not the economics of capitalism — which is, indeed, its saving grace,” he submitted in 1979. Hence, his quarrel was with business leaders, the captains of industry who he said had debased Adam Smith’s “obvious and simple system of natural liberty” by lacking a sense of civic obligation. “Social responsibility begins at home,” he wrote in 1974, “and if the large corporation wishes to gain the trust of the American public, it has to consider what kinds of changes will make it more worthy of this trust.”
Both Kristol’s embrace by the right and his supportive yet critical estimation of market economics are easier to understand in light of his and Himmelfarb’s intellectual odyssey, which began not in the mid-1960s but in the early 1940s. And in light of that odyssey, Kristol and Himmelfarb’s place in the intellectual geography of American conservatism, and even their relationship to other neoconservatives, must be re-evaluated.
Scholars routinely break down the intellectual conservatism that emerged in post-war America into three groups. First, there were “traditional” conservatives like Russell Kirk, John Crowe Ransom, and T. S. Eliot. They invoked Edmund Burke and his anti-radical appeal to tradition. Second, there were “New Conservatives” — as they were called in the post-war years — like William F. Buckley, Jr., Richard Weaver, and Peter Viereck. They looked to Burke as well as to Adam Smith with his moral justification for market economics. And third, there were libertarians like Robert Nozick, Albert Jay Nock, and Murray Rothbard. They admired Smith in addition to Friedrich Hayek with his contention that communism and fascism were merely opposite sides of the same totalitarian coin. Though the first generation of neoconservatives interacted with these three groups, they operated at a distance — or at least most intellectual historians have repeatedly insisted they did — preferring change over custom, reason over revelation, dogma over philosophy, and, thus, celebrating thinkers far removed from classical liberals like Smith, Hayek, and, particularly, Burke.
“[N]eo-conservatism’s adherents,” political theorist Stephen Bronner proclaims, “are unconcerned with what Edmund Burke called the ties that bind ‘the dead, the living, and the yet unborn.'” Historian Justin Vaïsse remarks of the neoconservatives that, “[i]nspired more by Alexis de Tocqueville than by Edmund Burke or Friedrich Hayek, these intellectuals had almost nothing in common with the ‘real’ conservative movement that had taken shape around William F. Buckley, Jr. and the National Review from 1955 on.” “The neocons clearly differed from traditional conservatives like Friedrich von Hayek and Russell Kirk,” stresses historian Murray Friedman. He adds, “The paleos followed the thinking of Edmund Burke and Thomas Carlyle, who emphasized religion, social hierarchy, and status. The neocons were direct descendants of the Enlightenment.”
These assessments effectively describe most individuals who have both self-identified and been stamped as neoconservative, but not Kristol and Himmelfarb. The couple, just like the traditional conservatives, New Conservatives, and libertarians of post-war America, was imbued with classical liberalism, which cherished individual liberty over equality of outcome, the latent wisdom of “prejudice” over philosophical reason, and convention over radical change.
To be sure, many eminent figures now known as neoconservatives were former radicals who became New Deal liberals and then shifted rightward after the towering progressive endeavors of the 1960s collapsed around them. But Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb simply did not follow that track, and their role in facilitating the rightward evolution of numerous friends and colleagues — through the power and example of their writings and arguments — must, in view of this, be understood anew.
“A DISTINCTLY MORAL ENTERPRISE”
The foremost service that Kristol and Himmelfarb offered to those who followed them toward conservatism was a way of thinking that combined an openness to measured change with a trepidation at unbridled idealism.
As classical liberals, starting as far back as the early 1940s, Kristol and Himmelfarb treasured the past but also recognized that the future must be different. Even Burke, who denounced the overthrow of the Ancien Régime, accepted the American Revolution and insisted that a “state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” Like those of their Irish-born hero, Kristol and Himmelfarb’s hopes for progress were formed and mitigated by the insight that human nature is immutable and even the slightest adjustment to the social fabric is bound to elicit unintended consequences.
“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. Over those years, Kristol and Himmelfarb became “anti-intellectual intellectuals” who abhorred ivory-tower hubris and admired the intrinsic wisdom of the common man. Accordingly, they privileged the original “republican philosophy” of America with its emphasis on liberty and virtue over the country’s burgeoning “democratic dogma” with its emphasis on parity and tolerance. As Kristol had approvingly spelled out in Encounter back in 1960, there was “no disagreement” between Burke and the founding fathers over the imperative fact “that self-government was a distinctly moral enterprise.”
In the hands of Kristol and Himmelfarb, this disposition of confidence in America’s core virtues — a disposition that encouraged material improvement and social reform while upholding a skepticism of bureaucratic audacity — carved out space for an innovative critique of liberalism. Indisputably, Kristol and Himmelfarb’s persuasion was not the same as that of many neoconservative intellectuals — especially those immersed in foreign policy. But it was essential to making possible a broader movement that indelibly shaped American conservatism and, through it, American life.