Neo-Conservatives: Not Always Right

Jacob Heilbrunn, They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons

Benjamin Balint, Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Turned the Jewish Left Into the Neo-Conservative Right 


 [Introductory Note:  This is another comment that splices together two earlier pieces: Helibrunn from 2009, Balint from 2011, when it was posted on my Facebook page.]

I’ve always been fascinated by the so-called “neo-conservatives,” many of whom are former leftists – even Marxists! — who gave a particular twist to American conservatism in the last decades of the 20th century.  Neo-conservatives are often credited – blamed is a better word from my perspective – for pushing President George W. Bush to launch the 2003 Iraq war.  Jacob Heilbrun’s They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons surveys the personalities which have driven the neo-conservative movement, particularly Norman Podhoretz and the late Irving Kristol.  Benjamin Balint’s Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Turned the Jewish Left Into the Neo-Conservative Right has a narrower focus, as the title suggests, on the evolution of Commentary, one of America’s most influential magazines.  However, there is considerable overlap between the two books.  Podhoretz served as editor of Commentary for more than three decades, from 1960 to 1995, and Kristol was a frequent contributor to the magazine up to his death in 2009.

Podhoretz and Kristol were sons of Jewish immigrants who grew up in New York City in the 1930s and 1940s and began their reflections on politics as anti-Stalinist Marxists.  Heilbrun argues that Podhoretz, Kristol, and their neo-conservative soul mates were cantankerous and unusually sure of the rightness of their convictions as lefties.  As they cast aside most of their old convictions, they maintained this same cantankerousness and certainty.  On their rightward journey, they made a brief stop with traditional anti-communist liberalism, perhaps best represented by the Americans for Democratic Action.  But by the 1960s, the liberal ADA consensus was falling apart, caused by such factors as the excesses of the decade’s counter culture; the anti-Americanism and nihilism of much Vietnam war protest; the isolationism that seemed to grip the Democratic party between 1968 and 1972; a black power movement which manifested anti-Semitic tendencies; and, especially, Israel’s stunning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War.  Israel’s victory, Heilbrun emphasizes, gave the “first real impetus to the birth of the modern neoconservative movement” (p.83).

From the late ‘60s onward, Kristol and Podhoretz began to preach more aggressive use of American power to oppose left-wing tyrannies and promote democratic values around the world.  Simultaneously, they became profoundly skeptical of the efficacy of centralized planning and collectivist action of the kind they had espoused as young Marxists.  Some time elapsed before they explicitly embraced the Republican party.  One subject I wish Heilbrun had elaborated upon is how Kristol and Podhoretz, as secular Jews, reconciled their views with those of the Christian fundamentalists who began to gain influence within the Republican Party during the Reagan presidency and maintain a pivotal role in today’s GOP.

This book is not only about Kristol and Podhoretz.  There are interesting portraits of Senators Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, neither of whom bolted the Democratic Party, and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who did (and in his later years, Moynihan backed away from many neo-conservative positions).  Heilbrun also includes portraits of such proponents of the Iraq war as Dick Chaney, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and many more.  These portraits give portions of the book a People Magazine flavor.

But there’s no People Magazine flavor to the final portion, where Heilbrun discusses the Iraq war and delivers a scathing indictment of neo-conservatism.  Writing in 2008, Heilbrun surmised that neoconservative enthusiasm for the war had “quite possibly not only destroyed conservatism as a political force for years to come but also created an Iraq syndrome that tarnishes the idea of intervention for several decades” (p.274).  Four years later, this appears far too strong.  Although the discredited Iraq war was a central issue in the 2008 presidential election, that seems almost like ancient history in this election year.  Republican party candidate Mitt Romney seems to have taken his foreign policy positions from the neo-conservative playbook and strident conservatism of all stripes gives no sign of being ready to disappear.

At bottom, Heilbrun concludes, neo-consesrvatives are contrarians, far happier operating against the grain. They are  “temperamentally predisposed to seek extremes,” with a tendency to “scold, hector and denounce” (p.68).  Unfailingly certain of being always right, no matter how many times they changed their views over the years, it’s imperative for them to have, “somewhere, somehow, an enemy – both at home and abroad.  This suits their need to see themselves as lonely prophets standing in the breach between implacable foes on the one hand and weak-kneed liberals (and paper-pushing bureaucrats) on the other” (p.137).

Benjamin Balint shows how Commentary magazine has served as a vehicle for expression of Jewish-American thought from its beginning in 1946, with much reflection upon the role of Jews in the United States.  In its early post-war days, Commentary took decidedly liberal and progressive positions on public issues, from a mostly Jewish point of view.  Commentary was also firmly anti-communist, very much part of the liberal anti-Communist cold war consensus, with its style of “political pragmatism and moderation, its stress on incremental reform” (p.65).  Today, the Jewish viewpoint remains but Commentary has become a forum for neo-conservative thought, generally favorable to conservative and Republican Party positions, and largely contemptuous of liberal and Democratic positions.

In Balint’s study, the evolution of Commentary is itself a commentary on the acceptance and absorption of Jews into the American mainstream, where Jews discovered they could be fully Jewish and fully American at the same time.  Commentary’s evolution parallels that of Podhoretz, its editor in chief from 1960 to 1995.  Balint discusses some of the convulsions of the late 1960s and early 1970s which led Podhoretz and Commentary from the liberal left to the conservative right, much the same factors discussed in Heilbrun’s book.  By the mid-1970s, Balint recounts, the cast of mind of Commentary and Podhoretz was “fully formed and would remain firmly set” on the right side of the American political spectrum (p.134).

Balint summarizes Podhoretz’ left-right journey, and that of Commentary, as demonstrating how “deracinated outsiders had become insiders; under their own centripetal force they had thrust themselves from the margins to the inner most hub of American politics and letters” (p.203).  Less charitable is the view of an observer whom Balint quotes, that Commentary has come to reflect the views of “American Jews who have made it here and don’t want anyone rocking the boat” (p.115).  As one who does not share the neo-conservative persuasion, I found this view close to my own.  Still, the left-right evolution of Commentary is a fascinating story, which Balint details in a lively and breezy style, with scrupulous objectivity.

Thomas H. Peebles

July 29, 2012

Rockville, Maryland



Filed under History, Politics

4 responses to “Neo-Conservatives: Not Always Right

  1. Chanh X. Nguyen

    I was very much intrigued by the way neoconservatives like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz made a stop with anti-communist liberalism on their rightward journey for I have observed the same pattern in like-minded circles in France over the same period.
    I would surmise, however, that they had no difficulty reconciling their views as secular Jews with those of Christian fundamentalists, given the large spectrum of views secular Jews are allowed around the world.
    Nevertheless the widespread hostility to the Six-Day War among the left rather than Israel’s resounding victory might have powerfully contributed to the birth of the new neoconservative movement..

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