Irving Kristol and the Radicalization of American Conservatism

Shadia B. Drury

The death of Irving Kristol on September 18, 2009, at the age of eighty-nine is a reminder of the long and tragic journey that American conservatism has taken. Kristol is the founder of American neoconservatism, which replaced the old-fashioned conservatism associated with the so-called Rockefeller Republicans. The latter was not ideological: its policies were not ironclad conclusions from articles of faith. They were pragmatic—which is to say they were made to fit the ever-changing and unpredictable circumstances of political life. The old-fashioned Republican temperament was based on a recognition that there are no foolproof formulas in politics. It preached fiscal responsibility and moderation, but it was at peace with the liberal reality of America—it had no plans to eliminate government programs or to turn government into a watchdog of private life or private faith.

In contrast, the new conservatism is madly ideological. It derives its policies deductively from first principles. It is characterized by a devout faith in the supremacy of the market, no matter what happens. Armed with unwavering conviction, it has replaced consensus with confrontation. Its political style is combative and dualistic. It understands politics in terms of the cosmic struggle of good and evil. When political opponents at home and abroad represent the forces of evil, negotiation, let alone compromise, is unthinkable. All the eulogies aside, let us not forget that this new conservatism (neoconservatism) is the godchild of Kristol.

The fact that Irving Kristol and his fellow travelers began their political careers as Marxist devotees of Trotsky is not insignificant. From their Marxist past, they imported the trappings of radical ideology—rejection of gradual and cautious change, refusal to accept the present reality and promote its best elements, faith in an apocalyptic fantasy that will emerge like a phoenix out of the ashes once the evil forces of the enemy are utterly destroyed. This radicalism explains the vehemence of the less-intellectual followers such as Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, and other purveyors of hate speech.

Perhaps no single moment in American history better represents the emergence of this radical ideology than the Republican Party’s selection of Barry Goldwater, the Republican senator from Arizona, over Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, as its nominee for the presidential election of 1964. Nothing encapsulates the spirit of the new ideology better than Goldwater’s famous words: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” With these words, conciliatory temperament became a thing of the past. Goldwater’s speechwriter was Harry Jaffa, one of the students of German émigré philosopher Leo Strauss, who had a profound influence on Kristol.

In his youth, Kristol attended City College of New York, which was then an all-male institution totally funded by the state. It was an intellectually lively atmosphere where political discussion and debate were paramount and where young Trotskyites such as Kristol were fired up by the prospect of creating a better world. This stimulating education made it possible for intelligent and self-motivated young men from lower middle-class families to make something of themselves—and they did. They became writers, professors, editors of intellectual magazines, and literary critics. It was the classic realization of the American dream.

Kristol did not remain a Trotskyite for long. Thanks to the influence of Lionel Trilling in the 1940s and Leo Strauss in the 1950s, Kristol became a conservative. But he shared Strauss’s disdain for Burke. The old-fashioned conservatism of Burke, like the Rockefeller Republicanism, did not suit Kristol’s radical temper. Instead, he wedded Strauss’s aristocratic preference for the rule of the superior few to his faith in market economics.

Despite its sinister qualities, the Straussian/Nietzschean/Platonic concept of “natural aristocracy” has an American pedigree. In contrast to the decadent aristocracies of Europe, America has always prided itself on its natural aristocracy. In a letter to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. . . . There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents . . . that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government. . . . The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendancy. [October 28, 1813]

Kristol was not alone in wedding this aristocratic ideal to American capitalism. He surmised that those who succeed in the competitive race of the market economy deserve to succeed because of their diligence, sobriety, ingenuity, and other virtues. This marriage of market economics with the American myth of the “natural aristocracy” explains not only the hysteria over the “socialist policies” of President Barack Obama but also the fury of those whose sense of entitlement makes them feel dispossessed.

In his essay “About Equality,” Kristol surmised that bourgeois economics was healthy since its inequalities were a reflection of nature. (In America, he argued income tends to distribute itself along the same bell-shaped curve as talent.) The implication was that the distributions of the market mirrored natural justice, and those who did not succeed must be stupid, lazy, or both. Nevertheless, Kristol warned that all was not well in bourgeois society: though bourgeois economics was healthy, the bourgeois ethos—the cultural support that sustains faith in the equity of bourgeois economics—was ailing because liberal intellectuals refused to lend it support. In other words, what Marx bluntly called an “ideology”—a fiction that justified the preeminence of the ruling classes—was not being endorsed by liberal intellectuals. Instead, they echoed Bernard Mandeville’s claim that the success of the capitalist system depended on greed, self-indulgence, love of luxury, callous disregard for the underprivileged, and other personal vices. Kristol was nostalgic for the novels of Horatio Alger, who celebrated the virtues of the entrepreneur. But he was no champion of petit bourgeois economics. He championed corporate capitalism and was dismayed at how frequently films portrayed the corporate elite as villains. Fortunately, the economic collapse of 2008 exploded the myth of the “natural aristocracy” and brought home the truth about the Kristol’s bourgeois ethos—it is a lie that even a talent as prodigious as Horatio Alger’s cannot resuscitate.

In the documentary film Arguing the World, Kristol and his friends return to their humble origins in the Bronx. The film displays a touching combination of nostalgia and pride in them—nostalgia for their youth and pride in seeing how far they have come. The film is a testament to the reality of the American dream. But it also promotes the fiction of the self-made man—as if the dream can be realized without a society committed to the maximum dissemination of opportunity, as if their successes could have been achieved without the free education provided by the state. The film unwittingly displays the neoconservatives as brazen, crude, and insolent old men who were given every opportunity in their youth and who rose to prominence in a society where wealth was not necessary for success—yet they are busy writing books and establishing foundations, think tanks, journals, and magazines that d
isparage social programs and condemn government support for health and education.

Now that they have made it, neoconservatives seem determined to shut the door on opportunities for others. They fancy themselves self-made men who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, which is to say, they succeeded on their own merits without opportunities provided by their society. It does not occur to them that those who had opportunity to acquire an education at the City College of New York at the expense of the state owe something to the society that made the realization of their potentialities possible. After all, even enormous talents—intellectual, athletic, artistic, or scientific—would come to naught if not for the opportunities society provided for their development.

The celebration of corporate capitalism serves neoconservatism’s ascetic streak by preventing wealth from being too widely disseminated. Like Strauss and other misanthropic thinkers, neoconservatives worry that in the hands of ordinary people, wealth might reduce the pursuit of happiness into a state of hedonistic sloth incompatible with the mettle required to defend the nation against its enemies. There is no doubt that neoconservatives were haunted by the specter of the Soviet Union. But they also believed in a state of perpetual war and vigilance as a cure for hedonism and self-indulgence, especially among the masses. So, when the Soviet Union was no more, Kristol breathed new life into the disastrous doctrine of Manifest Destiny. This doctrine had the effect of turning America into a crusading nation mired in endless wars. Thanks to the legacy of Irving Kristol, the United States has lost the Rockefeller Republicans whose often useful inclination was to curb the democratic evangelism of American liberals.

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).


The death of Irving Kristol on September 18, 2009, at the age of eighty-nine is a reminder of the long and tragic journey that American conservatism has taken. Kristol is the founder of American neoconservatism, which replaced the old-fashioned conservatism associated with the so-called Rockefeller Republicans. The latter was not ideological: its policies were not …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.