To my knowledge, the late Irving Kristol was the only self-admitted neoconservative in existence. With his death, at the age of 89, does this mean the species is extinct? Far from it. In spite of the odd tendency of neoconservatives to deny their ideological heritage, there is no escaping it. The title of Kristol’s 1999 book pinpoints the problem: Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea.
Neoconservatism, the successful promotion of which Kristol devoted a good part of his life to, is biography at least as much as ideology. It is the story of the so-called New York intellectuals, who spent their misbegotten youth as Trotskyists, penning furious polemics against U.S. imperialism, but mostly against each other — and some of whom, including the ex-Trotskyist Kristol, wound up in the pay of the CIA, writing for Encounter and its French and Italian equivalents. (For a fascinating account of the neocon-CIA convergence, see Christopher Lasch’s essay on the Congress of Cultural Freedom, a CIA front that nurtured Kristol in the early days of the Cold War.)
In his 1977 essay, "Memoirs of a Trotskyist," Kristol describes the denizens of Alcove No. 1 at New York’s City College — the favorite hangout of the anti-Stalinist leftists on campus, including Irving Howe, Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and, indeed, an entire generation of social scientists who later became prominent in academia. Here was the birthplace what we know today as the neoconservative movement, an intellectual tendency in modern American politics that has had an outsized impact on the nation, especially our foreign policy.
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The intellectual odyssey of the neoconservatives is too well-known to go into here at length: the story has been told, especially by the participants, time and again. They even made a movie out of it, in which Kristol played a starring role. As a dedicated Trotskyist on the eve of World War II, young Kristol was caught up in the internecine feuds that consumed the movement and ultimately ripped it into two then three factions. The question was how to respond to the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the occupation of Europe by the twin totalitarian powers. The side Kristol chose propelled him on an intellectual journey, along with his friends and cohorts, that would take him to the heights of power in the inner councils of the very capitalist class he was once pledged to overthrow.
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The debate that broke out in the Socialist Workers Party, the main Trotskyist group in the U.S. at the time, pitted the "orthodox" Trotskyists, led by Trotsky and James P. Cannon — who considered the Soviet Union a "workers state," because property was collectivized — against the revisionists, led by Max Shachtman and James Burnham, who held that the USSR had morphed into "bureaucratic collectivism," a new form of class society based on collectivized property forms, and was no longer worth defending. The movement split, with the Shachtmanite minority going its own way. Kristol went with them, and this was just the beginning of multiple defections.
A few months after the setting up of Shachtman’s group, the Workers Party, Burnham, a professor of philosophy at New York University, resigned. He was well on his way to repudiating Marxism altogether. Burnham took a few party members with him, as was usual in these splits, among them Kristol, who became the editor of the "theoretical journal" of the "Shermanites," who described themselves as "revolutionary anti-Bolsheviks." In the pages of Enquiry, Kristol attacked Sidney Hook for his pro-war stance, yet Professor Hook was just ahead of his time. Soon enough, Kristol and the rest of the Alcove No. 1 gang would follow Hook down the same path, not merely reconciling themselves to what they used to denounce as "imperialism," but becoming its most fervent cheerleaders.
In his "Memoirs" essay, Kristol explicitly gives thanks for the training provided by the Trotskyist movement as the ideal school for an intellectual entrepreneur such as himself. The scholasticism, the organizational discipline, the single-minded devotion to ideas as weapons of combat: all were good preparation for the task that lay ahead of him, which was nothing less than taking over the conservative movement and the Republican Party — and finally, with the election of George W. Bush, taking the White House.
Kristol became known as the "godfather" of neoconservatism, and for a very good reason. He was the quintessential organizer and spark plug of the movement, which took on various organizational forms over the years, and which he best summed up as a "persuasion." The autobiographical details of the various neoconservative intellectuals vary with temperament and circumstance: James Burnham went to work for the CIA and later signed on at National Review, along with several other ex-Communists of one sort or another. Others stayed on the Left but tempered their former radicalism with an emphasis on anti-Stalinism. Shachtman, for example, wound up supporting the Vietnam War while remaining faithful to the doctrine of socialism. His followers found their champion in Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, whose centrist liberalism on domestic issues and ferocious militarism perfectly embodied the ideological parameters of the neoconservative persuasion. Jackson’s aides — Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Elliott Abrams — became the core group that would later have an outsized influence on the course of American foreign policy.