In proposing to deliver a eulogy in honor of neoconservatism, I am obviously implying that it is dead. But is it? There are those who think that neoconservatism is still very much with us; if so, in rushing to eulogize it I could be fairly accused of staging a scene out of one of those buried-alive horror stories by Edgar Allan Poe. Others might say that instead of trying to bury neoconservatism alive, I have come to orate over an empty coffin; maybe neoconservatism is not dead but only temporarily missing, which would leave us with a kind of corpus delecti problem.
Among those who deny that neoconservatism is dead are its enemies on the Right, the so-called paleoconservatives, who have long regarded it as a sinister force—in both senses of the word sinister. To them, neoconservatism is not only wicked but, as Human Events put it recently in an attack on the new Weekly Standard and its editor William Kristol, a “sort of . . . Trojan Horse . . . , a vehicle for moving the [Republican] party leftward.” Conversely, many of the enemies of neoconservatism on the Left—who, despite the sectarian animosities that have lately infected the conservative movement, are much more numerous than its enemies on the Right—see it as the driving force behind everything symbolized by the name of Newt Gingrich.
Nor is it only the enemies of neoconservatism who deny that it is dead. Many of its friends do the same—a denial that in their case is mainly motivated by the wish to deprive its enemies of the joy they must feel at such wonderful news. But the liberal enemies of neoconservatism have no reason to rejoice at the news of its death because, as I hope to show, the legacy it has left behind will continue to plague them for a very long time to come. Which is to say that as between neoconservatism’s enemies on the Right, to whom it is a leftist Trojan Horse, and its enemies on the Left, who can perceive not a dime’s worth of difference between the neoconservatives and Newt Gingrich and his troops, it is its enemies on the Left who are closer to the truth.
But let me first explain why I believe that neoconservatism is dead—by which, reverting from metaphor to straightforward denotation, I mean quite simply that it no longer exists as a distinctive phenomenon requiring a special name of its own. And perhaps the best place to begin such an explanation is with the name itself.
“Neo” of course means new, suggesting that neoconservatism was a new kind of conservatism; and so it was. But before counting the ways in which it was new, I want to correct a common error concerning the name itself. I have no idea who first coined it, but I do know that, despite what almost everyone seems to think, it was not invented by the late Michael Harrington toward the end of the 60’s. In 1963, when I was still on the Left, I beat Harrington to the punch by applying the term to Walter Lippmann, Clinton Rossiter, and a number of others who, I wrote then, were “overimpressed with the evil propensities of man and underimpressed with the possibility of political and social arrangements that would encourage the development of the human potentiality for good instead of concentrating on restraint of the bad.” But early though I was, I cannot claim to be the original author of the term. The Oxford English Dictionary traces it back to a 1960 review in the British monthly Encounter by G.L. Arnold (the pseudonym adopted for a time by the late George Lichtheim), while a recent letter in the (London) Times Literary Supplement finds an even earlier appearance in a piece by Dwight Macdonald published in the Reporter in 1952.
It is true, however, that the term neoconservative only entered into widespread usage in the late 60’s after Harrington and some of his socialist comrades applied it to a group of intellectuals who had just begun voicing serious doubts about the leftist ideas and policies they themselves had helped to develop and propagate in the years just past.
The newness of neoconservatism begins, then, with the people who made up this movement—or tendency, as I prefer to describe it, since it never had or aspired to the kind of central organization characteristic of a movement. In talking about those people, it is impossible to avoid Irving Kristol’s definition of a neoconservative as a liberal who has been mugged by reality. Yet famous though this definition has become, there is something slightly misleading about it.
No doubt a goodly number of the people who came to be known as neoconservatives had formerly been liberals; but what is often overlooked under the influence of Kristol’s irresistible witticism is that many had also once been radicals. In fact, the most notable example was Kristol himself, who had gone through a Trotskyist phase in his youth in the 30’s—a very brief phase, but decisive in his intellectual formation. I am another example. As I have often complained, Kristol and I are widely taken to be the same person; but one of the several ways in which we differ is age. Being ten years younger than he, I was born too late to get involved in the old radicalism of the 30’s. I did, however, make up for this deprivation by becoming intellectually active in the new radicalism of the early 60’s before breaking ranks with it and entering into a de-facto alliance with the neoconservatives which in due course became de-jure. And in the age cohort about ten years or so below me, a substantial number of latter-day Trotskyists—or should I call them neo-Trotskyists?—known as Schachtmanites drifted closer and closer to the neoconservatives in the late 60’s and early 70’s and ended by becoming indistinguishable from them.
Neoconservatism is usually identified as a movement of New York Jewish intellectuals, and there is no question that the ex-radicals who became neoconservatives were mostly intellectuals of Jewish birth who came from or worked in New York. But for whatever it may be worth by way of sociological illumination, I would point out that the liberals who were mugged by reality into neoconservatism were mostly non-Jews like James Q. Wilson, Daniel P. Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Michael Novak, Richard J. Neuhaus, William J. Bennett, and George Weigel. And for whatever additional illumination it may provide, except for Jeane Kirkpatrick and Richard Neuhaus, all were not only Gentile but Catholic—and Neuhaus would later remove himself from the short list of exceptions by leaving the Lutheran church and going over to Rome.
Most members of this group—along with some of the ex-radicals—tended to reject the label neoconservative. Not only did they consider it pejorative (in those prehistoric days, people actually regarded the term liberal as an honorific and contended fiercely for possession of it), they also thought it was wrong. So far as they were concerned, they were indeed still liberals, fighting to reclaim the traditional principles of liberalism from the leftists who had hijacked and corrupted it. Most of them also remained members of the Democratic party, supporters of Hubert Humphrey (the liberal anti-Communist Humphrey of the 50’s, not the Humphrey who went Left in the last years of his life) and especially the great cold warrior Henry “Scoop” Jackson who, they vainly hoped, would rescue the party from the McGovernite forces that took it over in 1972 and return it to its old Trumanesque glory.
Nevertheless, nothing these people could say or do prevented them from being called neoconservatives by everyone else, and most of them, with varying degrees of reluctance, eventually surrendered to the name. They did so because despite their best efforts and fondest wishes, the word liberal had been so successfully coopted by the Left that applying it to themselves could only confuse and mislead. Or, as Moynihan recently put it, the neoconservatives were like “good Catholics who were excommunicated and who said, finally, OK, we’re Protestants.”
But the neoconservatives brought something new to conservatism besides their own persons. They were not converts who earnestly and faithfully and humbly—certainly not humbly—embraced an established faith. If they had been converts of that stripe, there might have been some justification in the speech once delivered by a paleoconservative professor who, upset by all the attention the neoconservatives were getting, declared that while he had nothing against welcoming this repentant whore into the church, he violently objected to turning over the pulpit to her. But the malice here was misplaced, because the neoconservatives were not applying for admission to an established church. They were, rather, caught up in the process of shaping a perspective of their own that differed in important respects from the older varieties of American conservatism.
Thus, in the area of domestic policy, the neoconservatives dissociated themselves from the wholesale opposition to the welfare state which had marked American conservatism since the days of the New Deal. Unlike the older schools of American conservatism, they were not for abolishing the welfare state but only for setting certain limits to it. Those limits did not, in their view, involve issues of principle, such as the legitimate size and role of the central government in the American constitutional order. Rather, they were to be determined by practical considerations, such as the precise point at which the incentive to work was undermined by the availability of welfare benefits, or the point at which the redistribution of income began to erode economic growth, or the point at which egalitarianism came into serious conflict with liberty.
A related distinction between neoconservatism and the older varieties of conservatism lay in their differing attitudes toward the labor movement. The older conservatives were uniformly hostile to labor unions, both in principle and in practice, whereas the neoconservatives remained as friendly to the labor movement as they had been in their days on the Left.
There were many reasons for this, some nostalgic and atavistic, rooted in the working-class background out of which many neoconservatives came. But perhaps the most important reason of all had nothing whatever to do with personal sentiment or domestic affairs. It was the fact that the leadership of the labor movement was so staunchly anti-Communist. Since anti-Communism was the ruling passion of the neoconservatives in foreign affairs, they were naturally drawn into an alliance with the AFL-CIO, which in those days was as passionately anti-Communist as they.
Now, it goes without saying that all the older varieties of conservatives were ardently anti-Communist as well. But as Richard Gid Powers points out in Not Without Honor, his new history of American anti-Communism, they tended to worry less about aggression from the outside than about the threat of internal subversion; and in tracking down the sources of that threat, they were not, to put it gently, always scrupulous in distinguishing among the various factions on the Left. The truth is that in their heart of hearts most of the older conservatives simply did not believe that anyone on the slippery slopes of the Left, let alone a “labor agitator,” could really be an anti-Communist.
Conversely, they found it hard to believe that businessmen who contributed large sums of money to the Republican party and made the right noises about taxes and government regulation could be less than fully committed to the struggle against Communism. Yet, hard to believe or not, the business community did on the whole support the policy of détente with the Soviet Union and the opening to China pursued by the Nixon and Ford administrations. For, as George Will would later say of the bankers during the Polish crisis of the early 80’s, they loved commerce more than they loathed Communism.
The neoconservatives did not love commerce, or anything else, more than they loathed Communism; nor did their allies in the labor movement. Few businessmen, and few Republicans for that matter, had ever met a Communist. Some of them seemed to think that the Soviet Union was one huge regulatory agency, a sort of gigantic Federal Trade Commission armed with nuclear weapons (which was about as close as they could come to an image of absolute evil). Others were so temperamentally remote from and unfamiliar with the phenomenon of ideological fervor that they thought the Soviets could in effect be bribed out of Communism by the right business deals.
No such illusions ever clouded the minds either of the neoconservative intellectuals or of their allies in the labor movement. They had all had first-hand experience of one kind or another with Communism; they knew it for the evil totalitarian system it was; they knew how it operated; and they knew how to contend with it.
It is instructive in this connection to remind ourselves that Ronald Reagan had been a labor leader, and had fought the Communists in that capacity; and Reagan can also be considered one of the first neoconservatives, having been a liberal Democrat for most of his political life and then becoming a Republican only at the age of fifty-one. And it is even more instructive in this same context to ponder a wonderful anecdote, possibly apocryphal, about Ernest Bevin, the British labor leader who became Foreign Secretary just in time to attend the summit conference with Stalin at Potsdam in 1945. Though Bevin had never before participated in an international negotiation, he had spent years fighting the attempts by the British Communist party to take over the local trade unions. Asked upon returning from Potsdam what the Russians were like, he replied, “They’re just like the Communists.”
The neoconservatives in America, too, knew that the Russians were just like the Communists they had been fighting for so long (in some instances, after having once been Communists themselves). Among other things, this meant they understood that the Soviet Union was not a “normal” imperial power, merely seeking its place in the international sun, and that it was a great mistake—moral no less than political—to treat it as such.
In other words, the neoconservatives understood that the Soviet Union had more in common with the revolutionary and expansionist pre-World War II Germany under Hitler than with the authoritarian but non-revolutionary pre-World War I Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm. And so it was they who led the attack against an American policy based on the Wilhelmine model, the policy of détente, and it was they who also took the lead in making the case against the correlative delusions of arms control and for a stronger national defense in response to the great Soviet arms build-up of the 70’s.
Another issue of foreign policy on which the neoconservatives differed from the older schools of conservatism was Israel. Some older conservatives were, for religious reasons, uncomfortable with the idea of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land; to others the Jewish state was a parasitical and untrustworthy socialist country. But the neoconservatives saw Israel as a highly vulnerable outpost and surrogate of the West in a strategically vital region, and they interpreted the fierce assault on its legitimacy as part of the ideological offensive against the democratic world led and orchestrated by the Soviet Union. Thus, while their enthusiastic support of Israel was often attributed to the fact that so many neoconservatives were Jewish, the truth was that it had at least as much if not more to do with the fact that they were anti-Communists.
Finally, there was the realm of culture. If anti-Communism was the ruling passion of the neoconservatives in foreign affairs, opposition to the counterculture of the 1960’s was their ruling passion at home. Indeed, I suspect that revulsion against the counterculture accounted for more converts to neoconservatism than any other single factor.
This revulsion was not only directed against the counterculture itself; it was also inspired by the abject failure of the great institutions of the liberal community to resist the counterculture. First the universities capitulated, then the national media, and finally even the Democratic party. In part the problem was simple moral cowardice, but in part it was the sheer inability of these institutions to defend themselves intellectually when they came under attack. William Phillips, the editor of Partisan Review, once told the British critic Kenneth Tynan, who was throwing hoary Marxist arguments in his face, that these arguments were so old he couldn’t remember the answers. Well, neither could the great institutions of American liberalism remember the answers when the counterculture assaulted them as bastions of oppression and repression, pillars of a society so rotten that it was beyond help through reform and so far gone that it had to be destroyed before it could be saved.
Here too, as with the strictly political battles involving policy toward the Soviet Union and the Communist world in general, the neoconservatives enjoyed a great advantage over other conservatives in being intimately familiar with the sources of the enemy’s arguments and attitudes. In this case the sources were the adversary culture of modernist literature, avant-garde art, and bohemian libertinism, on which many neoconservatives had themselves cut their cultural teeth. Some of them may have forgotten the answers; but under the pressure of the countercultural assault, they quickly began to remember, or in some instances to discover for the first time, why American society and its sustaining institutions were worth defending—or, to state it more strongly and more accurately, why the traditional values of the bourgeois democratic order were superior to any of the known alternatives.
Among the sustaining institutions worth defending was capitalism, which needed defending in those days if anything did. So tarnished had its reputation become—even among conservatives, and even among capitalists themselves—that it dared not speak its name. At a time when so many other formerly forbidden practices were noisily coming out of their respective closets and shouting their names from every rooftop and every talk show, the proponents of capitalism were still evasively resorting to euphemisms like “free enterprise” or the “market system” or the “free market.” And little wonder: the word “capitalism,” like “neoconservatism” after it, was first employed (in the early 19th century) mainly as a term of abuse, and still carried strongly pejorative connotations.
It was the neoconservatives who decided that the time had come to drag capitalism out of the closet. In doing so, they defiantly revived the name as part of an aggressive campaign to demonstrate not only that capitalism was far better than socialism at producing wealth, but that it even managed to distribute it more widely; and not only that it was good in itself, being a form of freedom, but that it was also a great bulwark against totalitarianism.
Admittedly, there was at first a limit to the enthusiasm with which the neoconservatives pressed this campaign. Irving Kristol, for instance, could only bring himself to give (in the title of one of his books) Two Cheers for Capitalism. But Michael Novak later made up for this in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, where he gave it the equivalent of four, bringing the neoconservative average up to the full and proper measure of three.1
This, then, is the list of things that made neoconservatism new and different. It is in looking over the list today that I find it hard to escape the conclusion that this phenomenon no longer exists as a distinctive thing in itself, requiring a special name of its own.
Begin again with the people. If the neoconservatives were new to conservatism when they first appeared on the scene, there is self-evidently nothing new about them today, 25 or 30 years later. Irving Kristol is known as the godfather of neoconservatism, but by now he might more accurately be called its grandfather, since there is not only a second generation to the manner born, but yet another hungry generation in the wings already preparing to tread that one down.
Neoconservatism is even old enough to have spawned several generations of defectors. At one end, a few of the founding fathers, including Daniel P. Moynihan and Daniel Bell, have broken with it entirely. Moynihan has reverted to the liberalism he always insisted he had never abandoned, while Bell has gone back to whatever it is he has gone back to. And at the other end, a couple of young people have lately been furthering their journalistic careers by denouncing the neoconservatives who launched those careers in the first place, thereby demonstrating how much nourishment can be had under the right circumstances from biting the hand that has fed you.
In addition to losing its newness simply by virtue of having been around for a long time, neoconservatism has also been losing its ideological distinctiveness. If it originally differed from the older varieties of conservatism in wishing to reform rather than abolish the welfare state, few traces of that difference remain visible today. By now most neoconservatives have pretty well given up on the welfare state—by which, as they see it, American society has been mugged just as surely as they themselves once were by reality. They may disagree with other schools of conservative thought, and with one another, over the best and most humane way to phase out particular features of the welfare state, or over the question of whether states can do a better job than the federal government in administering social policy. But there is hardly any disagreement over the harm the welfare state has done in fostering illegitimacy and all the terrible social pathologies that flow from babies having babies. Nor is there any disagreement over the desirability of working to get rid of the welfare state, or at least as much of it as is politically possible.
There is an instructive parallel here with the defectors from Stalinism in the 20’s and 30’s who became Trotskyists. These Trotskyists regarded the Stalinists as betrayers of the revolution; they, by contrast, were the true Communists, the true heirs of Marx and Lenin. The Stalinists, for their part, regarded the Trotskyists as thoroughgoing traitors to the Communist cause who were only using Trotsky as a way-station into the anti-Communist camp. Of course, the language used by the Stalinists against the Trotskyists was much more violent and vituperative than I have indicated, but in a fair number of cases the substance of the accusation turned out to be justified: many of the Trotskyists did wind up in the anti-Communist camp. Similarly with the analogous charge hurled against the neoconservatives by their former political friends on the Left—namely, that for all their protestations, the neoconservatives were not really the true heirs of pre-60’s American liberalism but rather apostates on the road to the Right. Where the welfare state and social engineering in general are concerned, it must be acknowledged that this accusation was on the mark.
On the other hand, with regard to another major issue of domestic social policy—namely, affirmative action—the opposite was true. The neoconservatives fought against affirmative action from the very beginning, and precisely on the ground that it represented a violation of the traditional liberal principle that every individual should be treated on his own merits as an individual and not as a member of a group. Here the neoconservatives really were the true defenders of pre-60’s liberalism in the face of a policy built on the rejection by the Left of a fundamental element of the liberal creed. And here, in contrast to what happened with the issue of the welfare state, it was the older schools of conservative thought that came around to the neoconservative position.
Thus it was that some on the Right who had opposed the civil-rights movement even before it was radicalized in the late 60’s, and who had never had any use for Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was alive, later learned under the tutelage of the neoconservatives that one of the most effective weapons they could wield in the fight against affirmative action was King’s dream of a world in which all would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. In this way many conservatives came to embrace the ideals which had animated the civil-rights movement during what the late Bayard Rustin called its “heroic period,” and which the neoconservatives continued to uphold even when the most vocal leaders of the black community itself had turned to a very different set of ideas. This belated conversion of a large part of the conservative movement, however, again had the effect of robbing neoconservatism of ideological distinctiveness, if from the other direction.
In foreign affairs, neoconservatism has lost not so much its distinctiveness within the larger conservative community as its own internal identity. Among some of the older varieties of conservatism, the end of the cold war has led to a resurgence of isolationism. This is less surprising than it may seem, since it was only the fight against Communism that drew many conservatives out of their traditionally isolationist shell in the first place (just as it was only the fight against Nazism that drew many liberals out of their isolationist shell). With the Soviet Union gone, and with China not yet a threat, these traditionally isolationist conservatives have begun returning, as it were, to normalcy.
On this point, at least, we can say that the neoconservatives are still different. For if there is a neoconservative extant who has become an isolationist, I do not know where to find him. At the same time, though, I can think of only a tiny handful who still advocate the expansive Wilsonian interventionism that grew out of the anti-Communist passions of the neoconservatives at the height of the cold war, and that repeatedly trumped the prudential cautions of the realists among them. My impression is that today the realists have the upper hand in the neoconservative community, or what is left of it.
But whatever the precise balance of forces may be among these contending schools of thought, in foreign policy it has become impossible to define a neoconservative position. Once upon a time, I could foresee with reasonable assurance where any neoconservative would stand on almost any serious issue in world affairs. Today I am hard put to predict where even some of my closest friends will come out when a contentious issue like Bosnia arises, or on the question of NATO expansion, or on how to deal with China, or on whether to send American troops to the Golan Heights.
As with the cold war, so with the culture war. Of course, unlike the cold war, the culture war rages on. But it has moved into a new phase in which the single most salient and most neuralgic issue is abortion; and on that issue a clear neo-conservative position is as hard to define as it is in foreign affairs. I would guess that the great majority of neoconservatives consider themselves pro-life. I would also guess that most of them are uneasy with the absolutism of the pro-life movement. But these are only guesses. The fact is that I simply do not know where many of my friends stand on this issue. Despite what the paleoconservatives think, there is no clearly identifiable neoconservative position here.
To be sure, a new front in the culture war has recently opened on which most neoconservatives do seem to differ from other conservatives, and that is the issue of immigration. The conservative opponents of immigration argue that, unchecked, it will end by destroying the common culture which has given this country its character and held it together in all its diversity. The neoconservatives, myself emphatically included, disagree. In endless hours of private argument with Peter Brimelow and John O’Sullivan, the two leading conservative critics of current immigration policy, I have repeatedly pointed out—to no avail, naturally—that the same cultural anxiety they feel was expressed a century ago by the likes of Henry Adams, John Jay Chapman, and Henry James, and that it turned out to be unwarranted.
For example, in the course of a visit to the Lower East Side of New York in 1905, James persuaded himself that the Yiddish-speaking masses there were an “agency of future ravage” that would topple “the consecrated English tradition” and transform the English language itself beyond recognition: “Whatever we shall know it for,” he sighed, “certainly, we shall not know it for English.” But the joke was on James, if a joke it was, for perhaps his most devoted, and maybe even his only, readers in the generations ahead would be the children and grandchildren of these agents of future ravage, alarming numbers of whom would go on to produce doctoral dissertations on, precisely, the novels of Henry James.
On immigration, then, we may again have something resembling a distinctive neoconservative position. Nevertheless, important though this issue is, it is not in my judgment enough by itself to bring neoconservatism back to life.
Having been a neoconservative for so long that I ought perhaps to be called a paleoneoconservative, I have good reason to mourn the passing of this movement or tendency. And yet I must confess that its death seems to me more an occasion for celebration than for sadness. For what killed neoconservatism was not defeat but victory; it died not of failure but of success.
Neoconservatism came into the world to combat the dangerous lies that were being spread by the radicalism of the 60’s and that were being accepted as truth by the established liberal institutions of the day. More passionately and more effectively than any other group, the neoconservatives exposed those lies for what they were: expressions of hatred, rooted in utopian greed, for life as it is lived in this country, and weapons in a campaign to deprive it of the will to defend itself against its enemies in the world outside. And more passionately and more effectively than any other group, the neoconservatives undertook the job of rebuilding intellectual and moral confidence in the values and institutions on which American society rests, not to mention the actual physical defenses on which the country’s security depends. That effort, extending over a quarter of a century and more, and seeming utterly quixotic when it was launched in the late 60’s, succeeded to so great an extent that the neoconservatives were left, like Othello, with their occupation gone.
Take what I have identified as the two ruling passions of neoconservatism—its anti-Communism and its revulsion against the counterculture. With respect to the former, I would note that, as against the claim that no one foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union, the neoconservatives, driven by their anti-Communist passions and ideas, argued that the entire purpose of a more determined resistance to Soviet power was to encourage the forces of disintegration that had become visible within the Soviet empire and even within the Soviet heartland itself.
I would not deny that the neoconservatives were as surprised as everyone else by the speed with which the Soviet Union eventually collapsed. But it was they themselves who had held out the promise of just such a collapse, as the ultimate reward of the policy they consistently urged on Ronald Reagan: a military build-up, combined with an ideological offensive, and capped by an active challenge to the widespread notion that the West had an interest in the maintenance of the Soviet empire. (And Reagan, incidentally, though he needed no urging to accept this line of argument, did need a good deal of urging as President to follow through on it.) So, surprised though they were by how fast the Soviet Union collapsed, the neoconservatives were not surprised by the collapse itself. They felt vindicated by it, and rightly so.
As for their other ruling passion, I think we can claim that the defense the neoconservatives mounted of American society and its traditional values against the frontal assaults of the counterculture ended with a victory that in its own modest way resembled the victory of the West over Communism in the cold war. Who today shies away from the word capitalism, or denies that it is superior to socialism both in producing wealth and distributing it? Who today celebrates free and easy sex as the road to health and happiness? Who today promotes drugs as the gateway to a higher consciousness? Today family values are all the rage, even among feminists, and indeed even among homosexuals, who have gone from celebrating the “joys of gay sex” to demanding that they be permitted to participate in the joys of married life.
I have no desire to adopt a triumphalist tone, or to suggest that there is no conservative work left to do. On the contrary, in the realm of domestic social policy it is obvious that only a beginning has been made on the work of the conservative revolution—or, rather, counterrevolution. (I prefer the latter term since the purpose of this movement is to dismantle the structures created by the liberal revolution of the past 50 years, and left largely intact even when Republicans came to power, and even after many Democrats had themselves lost faith in them.) But while neoconservatives are deeply involved in the work of the counterrevolution in domestic social policy, they are, as I have already indicated, no longer acting in that area as neoconservatives.
And then there is the even more recalcitrant realm of culture. There, the naked anti-Americanism which the neoconservatives devoted so much energy to combating has been discredited in its original forms. But at the same time it has mutated into insidious new shapes and thereby acquired a new lease on life, especially in the universities, where the assault on the traditions and values of this society comes disguised, under the name of multiculturalism, as an innocent effort to give their belated due to previously excluded ethnic and sexual minorities.
Nor is the lingering influence of the counterculture confined to the universities. The hostility it bred toward this country—toward its history and toward the values and the moral standards by which it has always tried to live—has been seeping down into secondary-and even elementary-school curricula and classrooms. That same hostility now pervades the mainline churches, the great liberal foundations, and even such formerly staid institutions as the Smithsonian. And in the world of the arts, it enjoys the status of a complacently unchallenged orthodoxy.
Here, too, an enormous amount of conservative work remains to be done—so much, indeed, that in contemplating it I begin to wonder whether I have overstated the extent of neoconservative success in this area. Be that particular accounting as it may, however, there is a big difference between the situation in the period of the neoconservative ascendancy and the situation today. For thanks to the influence of neo-conservatism on the conservative movement in general, the philistine indifference to culture which once pervaded that movement is largely gone. Everyone is now so fully alive to the importance of the cultural realm that the neoconservatives are no longer alone on the field of battle contesting ground that to many older conservatives seemed hardly worth taking. We are all Gramscians now.
Another way of putting all this is to say that the conservative work which remains to be done in every realm will be marked and guided and shaped by the legacy neoconservatism has left behind. That legacy has wrought a profound change in the scope and the character and the ethos of American conservatism.
It is a legacy of emphasis, of ideas, and of people. The emphasis is the emphasis on the role of culture and—increasingly as the years have rolled by—on religion as the root and fount of the cultural issues that have moved from the periphery to the center of the national debate. Almost from the moment the neoconservatives appeared on the scene, they began speaking, in Nathan Glazer’s famous phrase, of “the limits of social policy,” and they began reminding us, in the words of the great couplet from Dr. Johnson that I myself have always loved to quote:
How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part, which laws or kings can cause
This reminder was scarcely heeded in a period when everything was being politicized, when all problems were thought to have solutions, and all solutions were believed to lie in the political realm. But today it is finally taking hold, and it will become even more important as the exaggerated expectations once invested in “laws or kings” give way, as they have already started doing, to a new sense of the overriding importance of moral and spiritual factors both in causing and in curing—insofar as they can be cured—the ills of the human condition.
As to the ideas that neoconservatism has left behind, they are ideas about the history and the nature of American society and the American polity—what makes this country tick, and how and why it has managed to provide more freedom and more prosperity to a greater share of its populace than any other on earth. And as to the people, they are people whose intellectual and political skills were developed and sharpened and energized by contact with the special style of discourse that the neoconservatives brought with them from the Left and into the conservative movement.
A word about that style. Hard to describe and harder still to define, it is nevertheless easy to perceive in the primacy it gives and the loyalty it accords to ideas over the details of policy or the demands of party. It is also readily recognizable from the way it synthesizes a number of qualities that are rarely found together, let alone coexisting in such perfect harmony. It is, at its best, exuberantly polemical and combative, and yet always careful to deal honestly with the case against which it is contending; it seeks to marry ideological passion to intellectual disinterestedness; it gives vent to a heated sense of urgency about the present moment while maintaining a sense of historical perspective; and it aims to be simultaneously illuminating to the specialist and accessible to the common reader. Though neoconservatism no longer exists as a unique school of thought, this intellectual style, which has always marked it as unmistakably as the political positions it took, is vibrantly alive in the pages of a classically neoconservative magazine like COMMENTARY, and it is already setting its stamp on the Weekly Standard where, as I reported earlier, it has been mistaken for a leftist Trojan horse.
Surely nothing is here to make the enemies of neoconservatism happy. Instead, I would say, borrowing from John Milton’s lament over the death of Samson:
Come, come, no time for lamentation now,
Nor much more cause, Samson . . .
A life Heroic, on his Enemies
Fully reveng’d, hath left them years
And to the veterans of the neoconservative battalions and their friends and heirs, I would say, still borrowing from Samson Agonistes, that
Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail
Or knock the breast, no weakness, no
Dispraise or blame, nothing but well
And what may quiet us in a death so noble.
But perhaps the tragic Miltonic mode is too elevated for the occasion at hand. In addressing the immediate neoconservative community, then, I will descend from these poetical sublimities and simply express my conviction that it is right and proper and healthy to recognize and openly to acknowledge the end when it comes, the better to make a new beginning in the living spirit of what has passed. I mean to say that this is not a time for mourning or for apprehension or for anxiety, but a time for satisfaction over a just war well fought, and a time for rejoicing in a series of victories that cleared the way and set the stage for other victories in the years to come. In those victories of the future, I believe that the legacy, and the legatees, of neoconservatism, now zestfully thriving all around us, will play as indispensable a part as did the neoconservatives themselves in achieving the victories of the past.
1 George Gilder, in Wealth and Poverty, went Novak at least one better, but never having been on the Left, Gilder was not, strictly speaking, a neoconservative. Nor was Peter L. Berger, who, in The Capitalist Revolution, came closer to Kristol's two than to Novak's four or Gilder's five.