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.
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