Commentary Magazine

The Neoconservative Revolution by Murray Friedman

The Neoconservative Revolution: Jewish Intellectuals and the Shaping of Public Policy
by Murray Friedman
Cambridge. 312 pp. $29.00

One of the many causes championed by the late Murray Friedman, whose death last May brought to a close a long and fruitful career, was the recovery of a genuine, if largely forgotten, strain of conservatism in the American Jewish past. Given the unwavering commitment to liberalism of most American Jews, a more counter-intuitive proposition would have been hard to find. But Friedman, an accomplished historian who served as mid-Atlantic director for the American Jewish Committee, vice chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and founding director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University, was a patient and a hopeful man.

Nor did the goal of excavating an American Jewish conservatism seem any more quixotic to Friedman than Russell Kirk's project a half-century earlier in The Conservative Mind (1953). After all, when Kirk's book was launched, conventional wisdom had it that America possessed but one intellectual tradition, namely liberalism, outside of which there was nothing but an uncharted territory of (in Lionel Trilling's sardonic characterization) irritable mental gestures. Kirk provided a plausible historical background for a very different collection of ideas, and a very different intellectual and moral disposition—an American outlook that had been there all along but that lacked the means of identifying itself.

To be sure, The Neoconservative Revolution should not be read as Friedman's attempt to produce a Jewish version of Kirk's book. Nor is it yet another redaction of the myth about a small band of Jewish intellectuals taking over the U.S. government. Indeed, Friedman is relatively uninterested in analyzing current neoconservative ideas and influences. His book is instead an effort to demonstrate that Jewish intellectuals, activists, and policy-makers played a significant role in the formation of modern American conservatism. He therefore operates on a fairly large canvas, retelling many of the pivotal events in 20th-century American political and intellectual history, especially since World War II, and along the way introducing us to important Jewish players.

There is a good deal more of that retold history here than many readers will want or need, although it does serve a purpose, showing how these thinkers were responding to real-world events and not merely to intellectual or academic fashions. And it is indeed surprising how often Jewish thinkers and activists turn up in the story of modern American conservatism. From the articulation of conservative positions on the espionage and McCarthy controversies of the immediate postwar era, to the founding of National Review in 1955 and the formation of the Goldwater movement in the Republican party, to the critique of the multiple debacles of the Lindsay years in New York City, to the response to the post-Vietnam crack-up of American foreign policy, and in countless other such moments in the recent past, conservative Jews have not merely popped up but played highly visible and important roles.

Not all of them have been neoconservatives or proto-neoconservatives; some were conservative from the start. But all seem to have coalesced around a perception that the American nation is, by historical standards, an environment extraordinarily favorable to Jews; that it is itself a force for good in the world; and that a regnant liberalism has wrought extreme damage and possibly brought the country to the verge of catastrophe. Neoconservatism itself, as Friedman states, began in “a reaction to the liberal meltdown and the loss of confidence of many Americans,” at a time when the nation was afflicted by powerful enemies abroad and a “despairing spirit” within. Its recent emergence into more general public view and parlance needs to be seen against this historical background.


Thus, no one reading Friedman's book, with its host of interesting and near-forgotten characters, can pretend that “Jewish conservatism” was an oxymoron, even in pre-neoconservative days. That stipulated, however, it must also be said that Friedman's approach provides large historical sweep at the expense of depth, and tends at times to treat the protagonists' Jewishness as a matter of individual and social identity rather than as a factor in their thinking or in their cultural or historical influence. Such an approach may make sense if one is speaking of a Hank Greenberg or Sandy Koufax or other great American Jewish athletes, but not in the case of writers and intellectuals.

Thus, Friedman seldom distinguishes between cases in which the Jewishness of his subjects is incidental and those in which it is absolutely critical, not only determining what they do but imparting something significant to the overall enterprise in which they are involved. This becomes especially frustrating in his treatment of the rise and success of neoconservatism proper, but the problem is evident almost from the very earliest stages of his story.

Describing some of the earliest players, Friedman uses categories like “premature Jewish neoconservative” and “forgotten Jewish godfather” to suggest the ways in which they were formative of, or at least prophetic of, the neoconservatism to come. In the former category are figures like Trilling, Irving Kristol, and Will Herberg; the latter includes Eugene Lyons, Ralph de Toledano, Morrie Ryskind, Frank Chodorov, Milton Friedman, Frank Meyer, Marvin Liebman, and others.

It is fairly clear that a familiar American Jewish pattern—from immigrant ghetto to passionate socialist commitment to post-Stalinist disillusionment—operated in each of these lives. Yet one has to be careful not to see neoconservatism too readily as the end toward which these earlier Jewish conservatives were driving, and thereby to miss its, and their, distinctive qualities. More to the point, Friedman never makes clear how, or how much, their specific life pattern influenced the enterprises with which they were associated. Many Americans rise in the world, or leave their natal world behind; why was this way different?

One wants to know, for example, just how the Jewishness of Chodorov and Liebman and Meyer affected the things they wrote and did. Can one show anything beyond clichés about Jewish “marginality,” something touching on the real structure of Jewish thought and morality? Is it enough to say of Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, and other Jewish free-market advocates that they were steeped in “the ever-present Jewish distrust of authority and government” when such distrust is as all-American as beer and pretzels? And besides, how does one square this with the “ever-present” Jewish attraction to socialism and activist progressivism in government?

Other questions obtrude. Yes, there was a surprising number of Jews in high posts on the staff of the National Review even in its earliest days—but what, specifically, did this do to color the magazine's outlook? Their presence may have helped in small ways to strengthen the magazine's resolve to purge the Right of its anti-Semitic elements, but is that all? We get only the most scattered and undeveloped hints of answers to such questions.

In fairness, the confusion is not merely Friedman's; it reflects the intrinsic difficulty of the subject. The modifier “Jewish” almost always stands in need of further clarification. And these days, now that the word “neocon” has become an equal-opportunity slur, employed glibly by everyone from addled rock stars and actors to conservative ideological rivals to respected foreign-policy analysts to thinly veiled anti-Semites (some of whom may be the same people), the confusion seems all but permanent.

Nor is it clear whether and to what extent neoconservatism should be understood as a Jewish phenomenon. On the one hand, it would be inconceivable to describe it without pointing out that Jewish intellectuals and Jewish publications—notably COMMENTARY itself—gave the movement much of its momentum and its specific flavor, as they have done for the whole of New York intellectual life.
1 Yet as Friedman himself shows, it would be equally inconceivable to describe neoconservatism without reference to such non-Jewish figures as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James Q. Wilson, Peter Berger, Richard John Neuhaus, and others who have been far from incidental players in its formation and growth.

The more Friedman is forced to take account of such figures, the more his account of the intellectual core of neoconservatism begins to lose its specifically Jewish color and to look like a more general form of chastened liberalism, or post-liberalism—if one with an especially powerful appeal to certain Jews because of the ubiquity of liberalism in American Jewish culture. In that sense, it may be parallel to other, larger movements of modernity that it partly (but only partly) rejects—movements with which Jews are importantly (and rightly) identified, but which it is dead wrong to describe as specifically Jewish.


In short, one reads Murray Friedman's book with a mixture of fascination at the richness and variety of the parade and frustration at the somewhat haphazard and unprocessed quality of his descriptions of it. But if Friedman's book is both indispensable and flawed, it will surely provide inspiration for others. One strand that future writers might pick up on, and about which Friedman may have made too little, is the centrality of the “conversion experience” in neoconservatism, one that is really a deconversion from secular and progressive orthodoxy.

Most accounts of neoconservatism, particularly those that seek to distinguish it from “paleoconservatism,” tend to emphasize its acceptance of certain features of liberalism, including the basic structures of the welfare state. That is fair enough; but there is another and nearly opposite distinguishing feature. Nearly all neoconservatives, with the possible exception of the younger ones, have had a painful experience of “breaking ranks” (to borrow the title of Norman Podhoretz's 1979 book) in their intellectual development, a revolt against powerful tribal norms, so to speak, that has often proved extraordinarily costly in terms of ruptured relationships, lost professional opportunities, and personal isolation.

There is nothing exclusively Jewish about this experience, either. But for individual Jews, especially those still likely to perceive themselves as marginal in American culture, such a revolt could not help being especially daunting. It meant challenging not only the status quo within the safe havens of academia, where many had congregated, but also the near-universal assumptions of American Jewish life itself, assumptions that had come to be seen, however wrongly, as the essence of Jewish identity.

Even the espousal of anti-Communism, not to mention an openly favorable view of capitalism, carried a special price for Jews, given the intensity with which the socialist ideal was exalted in American Jewish thought. So, too, given the strong American Jewish identification with the cause of civil rights, did the willingness to break from liberal ranks on issues of race. And so did the willingness to make common cause with conservative Christians in promoting a post-secular, post-separationist ethos that to secular liberal Jews has seemed nothing short of madness. Such conclusions have not been arrived at easily, and the existential weight entailed in acting on one's “second thoughts” is a crucial part of the story.

If there is anything Friedman's book demonstrates conclusively, it is the impossibility at this point of writing a definitive history of the neoconservative disposition. That is, in part, because it is still so visibly in motion. But as is true of so many characteristically American phenomena, it also defies simple categories of cultural analysis. Indeed, the difficulty of either completely affirming or completely denying the specifically Jewish character of neoconservatism may turn out to be one of its greatest assets—and another sign of its thoroughgoing Americanness.



1 In early 2004 Friedman organized a symposium in New York on the role of COMMENTARY, and subsequently edited a fascinating volume of papers from the event: commentary in American Life, Temple University Press, 232 pp., $64.95 ($22.95 paper).


About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, contributed “Is Conservatism Finished?” to the January COMMENTARY. His latest book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past.

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