Several times on the show, I have made mention of the book Neo-Conservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, Selected Essays 1949-1995, by Irving Kristol. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Kristol was a popluar and influential writer and political commentator for over fifty years; he was a father of the neo-conservative movement (neo meaning “new”) and the father of Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard who carries on his father’s tradition and, with his own compatriots, profoundly influences the Republican party to this day.
Neo-Conservatism lays out the decades-long journey Irving Kristol made from self-described neo-Trotskyist and neo-Marxist to one of the founders of the neo-conservative movement. The book is beautifully written with a truly elegant style, and Kristol brings to the subject levels of sociological analysis that one rarely finds on the right.
As a matter of fact, it’s the kind of sociological analysis that one never finds on the right – the traditional right, that is – because it is a fundamentally leftist view which starts with the assumption that the basic unit of society is society itself instead of the individuals who comprise it. As beautiful and interesting as the book is, it’s also an offense to sincere Americans, from its total lack of recognition of objective individual rights to its Machiavellian prescriptions for the Republican party.
I still recommend the book both because it is intellectually gripping and also because the essays are artfully written, but the real value of the book is that it reveals the origins and goals of the neo-conservative movement, and they are quite illuminating.
For the benefit of those who don’t have the time to read the whole book, I have selected several telling passages and added some of my own commentary. Here is the first from the 1976 essay The Republican Future:
[The Republican] party has never fully reconciled itself to the welfare state, and therefore has never given comprehensive thought to the question of what a conservative welfare state would look like. . . .
The idea of a welfare state is in itself perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy–as Bismarck knew, a hundred years ago. In our urbanized, industrialized, highly mobile society, people need governmental action of some kind if they are to cope with many of their problems: old age, illness, unemployment, etc. They need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it. The only interesting political question is: How will they get it?
This is not a question the Republican party has faced up to, because it still feels, deep down, that a welfare state is inconsistent with such traditional American virtues as self-reliance and individual liberty.
The dirty little secret is that Bismarck recommended the modern welfare state to the Kaiser because the citizenry was getting too prosperous and too independent following the Industrial Revolution. Bismarck sensed that the populace was beginning to question the Kaiser’s value-added and he knew he had to shore up the government’s position or risk revolution. Continue reading