(GUARDIAN) Few intellectuals of the 20th century were the equal of Irving Kristol, who died today at age 89, in terms of political influence. His journey from left to right from the 1940s to the 1970s was one that many others would follow, but he blazed the trail.
In the 1930s, he was a Trotskyite. Many a history exists describing the circle of formidable Jewish intellectuals who studied at City College of New York in Harlem – Kristol, Sidney Hook, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe and many others. In those days, tables at the cafeteria were divided between Stalinists and Trots. Debates were ferocious, but it was assumed that one was on the left.
Things stayed that way for a long while. Even when Kristol was co-editing Encounter out of London with Stephen Spender in the 1950s, and even with that journal’s infusions from the CIA, it was a magazine of the anti-communist liberal-left.
Kristol’s swerve to the right began in the 1960s during the Great Society. The Public Interest was the journal he co-founded with Daniel Bell in 1965 and edited first with Bell and later with Nathan Glazer. It wasn’t, in its early days, avowedly conservative, but it did challenge liberal orthodoxies. By the 70s, it was firmly on the right, as was Kristol (yes, by the way, he’s Bill Kristol’s father).
Michael Harrington, the democratic socialistic, first came up with the word “neoconservatism”. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but Kristol appropriated it and said it suited him fine. In those days, neoconservatism was not chiefly a foreign-policy doctrine – that came later, during Ronald Reagan’s time – but more an attempt to use the tools of social science to demonstrate that government programmes weren’t working. The journal had tremendous movement-building influence.
I probably couldn’t find much of anything the man wrote that I would agree with, but acquaintances and friends of mine who were his contemporaries always said he was a genuine and formidable intellect, a very good editor and a nice man.
That last quality came through some years ago in a fascinating documentary film called Arguing the World, which traced the careers of Kristol, Glazer, Bell and Howe. If you ranked them left to right, you’d say: Howe, Bell, Glazer, Kristol.
Of the four, Howe was closest to my political views, although certainly to my left. As I watched, I kept more or less agreeing with him. But I also observed that disposition-wise, he seemed the unhappiest of the lot. And in fact, it tracked perfectly from left to right. Howe was sullen and a little acidic, Bell was a touch short-tempered but less dour than Howe, Glazer was basically sunny but a little cutting and Kristol seemed a completely happy fellow who hardly had a complaint in the world.
Well, things had gone his way since those long-forgotten days at City College, so why not? But his disposition may have been a matter of conviction as well. He once said: “The trouble with traditional American conservatism is that it lacks a naturally cheerful, optimistic disposition. Not only does it lack one, it regards signs of one as evidence of unsoundness, irresponsibility.” I guess he really meant it.
We’ll leave considerations of his responsibility for neoconservatism’s effects on the world for another time. For now, let’s just say that the left could have used its own Irving Kristol, and it still could.