U.S. Intellectual History Blog

This Looks Like a Job for….Intellectual History!

Over on Obsidian Wings, Eric Martin has a post up deriding the continuing effort by some neoconservatives to deny the very existence of neoconservatism, an argument that got its most famous rehearsal in an infamous January 6, 2004 David Brooks piece, in which the columnist laughably tried to suggest that the very use of the term was antisemitic: “con is short for ‘conservative’ and neo is short for ‘Jewish.'”

But while there is no question that neoconservatism exists, it often proves to be a little complicated to define. There are certainly some figures who are unquestionably neoconservatives (Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz leap to mind). And there are policy positions that seem strongly associated with the movement (or is it a philosophy?) as well, e.g., an aggressive foreign policy. This is the focus of Eric Martin’s own definition of neoconservatism (in the comments to his post): “The belief that all foreign policy problems have military solutions and that any attempt to solve them via diplomacy merely delays and makes more expensive the eventual military solution.” That definition might be close enough for government work, but as an historian it leaves me a little uncomfortable.

Certainly Martin’s emphasis on foreign policy fits the current view of neoconservatism and its place on the American right. The current Republican Party is often described as being defined by three ideologies that have essentially divided up the policy pie: social policy belongs the Christian Right, economic policy to supply siders, and foreign affairs/national security policy to the neoconservatives.

But neoconservatism has not always been–or been seen as being–principally about foreign policy.

The neoconservatives were originally identified in the late 1960s and early 1970s biographically, as a set of public intellectuals who drifted from liberalism (or the non-Communist left) to the right.* Even some second-generation neo-conservatives made this journey. Joshua Muravchik, for example, was president of the YPSL from 1968 through 1973. And very often the defining issues on this journey were not simply foreign policy–though the hawkish neocons certainly disagreed vehemently with the dovish wing of the Democratic Party. The culture wars were as central, if not more so, in defining neoconservatism in its early days. Opposition to court-ordered school busing was as important for early neoconservatism as was support for the Vietnam War.

Indeed, the first serious book-length study of neoconservatism, Peter Steinfels’s The Neoconservatives (1979), defines the movement largely in terms of its rejection of the culture of the New Left, which neoconservatives feared was undermining traditional Western values. Steinfels also focuses on their embrace of a “New Class” critique that was borrowed from Trotskyism. The list of public intellectuals that Steinfels focused on may seem slightly odd to us today. They include some who are still universally considered to be neoconservatives–Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and Aaron Wildavsky–some slightly more marginal cases–Daniel Bell, Daniel Boorstin, and Seymour Martin Lipset–and at least one, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, on whom virtually nobody bestows the title anymore. Nonetheless, in 1979, Steinfels list seemed representative.

In many ways, neoconservatives in the 1970s resembled (far) right social democrats. They were certainly more comfortable with the welfare state (and statism in general) than other American conservatives. As they drifted into the GOP, their opponents on the right began calling themselves “paleocons” and attacked the neocons as much for their welfare statism as anything else. The conservative historian Stephen Tonsor summed up the feelings of many on the non-neoconservative right when he remarked in a speech to the Philadelphia Society in the mid-1980s that:

It has always struck me as odd, even perverse, that former Marxists have been permitted, yes invited, to play such a leading role in the Conservative movement of the twentieth century. It is splendid when the town whore gets religion and joins the church. Now and then she makes a good choir director, but when she begins to tell the minister what he ought to say in his Sunday sermons, matters have been carried too far. I once remarked to Glenn Campbell of the Hoover Institution that had Stalin spared Leon Trotsky and not had him murdered in Mexico, he would no doubt have spent his declining days in an office in Hoover Library writing his memoirs and contributing articles of a faintly neoconservative flavor to Encounter and Commentary.

…and yet, today, it is foreign policy with which the neoconservatives are most associated. Whatever support they once had for the welfare state seems to have entirely dissipated (though their more general statism is, in many ways, entirely intact).

By this point, of course, many scholars have charted the path of the neoconservatives. My favorite in many ways remains Gary Dorrien, who takes the story through the 1980s in The Neoconservative Mind (1993) and continues it into the early twenty-first century in Imperial Designs (2004).

And yet, I still can’t give a simple, yet satisfactory and historically informed, definition of neoconservatism that could serve us in our teaching and public conversations.

This seems to me like a job for intellectual history. Though perhaps we’re doomed to un-ask this question by declaring–with apologies to Gary Gerstle–the Protean Nature of American Neoconservatism.


* In fact, the term “neo-conservative” has a pre-history in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when it was sometimes used as a synonym for “New Right,” the standard term used to describe the emerging, post-WWII conservatism being developed around institutions like The National Review.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. The “new class” concept was not “borrowed from Trotskyism.” It is part of a theory that Trotsky categorically rejected.

    The standards for accuracy in discussing the relationship between the neoconservatives and the left are so low as to be nonexistent. Most discussions of this connection amount to exercises in rumor. Very few of the people now belonging to neocon circles ever had any radical background at all, while those who did often passed through it very briefly.

    The person who wrote that Trotsky “would no doubt have spent his declining days in an office in Hoover Library writing his memoirs and contributing articles of a faintly neoconservative flavor to Encounter and Commentary” proves that he has absolutely no knowledge of the man’s politics or personality whatsoever. The remark is of interest only as a specimen of intellectual pathology.

  2. I think Ben was pointing out that it was the critique of the “new class” concept that was borrowed from Trotskyites. That’s Dorrien’s argument, if memory serves.

  3. I apologize for writing unclearly about the relationship between Trotkyism and the “New Class” critique. “New Class” theories were largely developed by ex-Trotskyites. To quote the best book on these theories (Lawrence Peter King and Iván Szelényi, Theories of the New Class (University of Minnesota Press, 2004), pp. xviii-xix):

    Trotsky himself was of course not a New Class theorist. He emphatically denied the class character of the bureaucracy and emphasized that the Soviet Union, even after the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy, remained a workers’ state (though a deformed one). Still, Trotsky powerfully documented the conflicts of intrest between the ruling Stalinist bureaucracy and the working class during the 1930s in the Soviet Union, and so opened up the theoretical space for bureaucratic class theories.

    Indeed, the first comprehensive theories that described the Soviet Union as a society dominated by a bureaucratic class were developed by former Trotskyites.

    Both Steinfels and Dorrien emphasize that neoconservatives embraced the “New Class” idea in their critiques of the U.S. Dorrien in particular emphasizes the links with former Trotskyites.* James Burnham is a particularly important figure in his account. More than the King and Szelényi quotation above might suggest, New Class ideas grew in part out of debates within Trotskyism in the 1930s, though King and Szelényi (and Scott McLemee) are entirely correct that Trotsky himself adamantly rejected these ideas.

    As for Stephen Tonsor’s speech, I quoted it as an instance of the extremely hostile response to neoconservatism from many others on the right in the 1980s, not as an accurate description of neoconservatism. The point is that the disagreement did not chiefly concern foreign policy.

    Finally, I do agree with Scott McLemee that a lot of nonsense has been written over the years about the relationship between neoconservatives and the left. But there has also been a fair bit of careful and accurate discussion of that relationship (I’d include the first Dorrien book in that category). Many neoconservatives in the older generation had fairly deep roots in the left. Not surprisingly, these connections are much less common among younger neoconservatives.


    * I’m not exactly sure how Steinfels handles the Trotskyite connection, as I don’t have a copy of his book handy to check.

  4. A follower of Leon Trotsky is called a Trotskyist, not a Trotskyite — the latter term being preferred by Stalinists eager to kill them. This is semantics with blood on its hands.

  5. I’m aware of the terminological distinction, Scott. My sincere apologies for flubbing it. I’ll admit that I often get the two terms confused and can only plead that, as King and Szelényi use “Trotskyite” in the above quote (they actually switch back and forth between the two terms in their book, fwiw), the Stalinist term was floating around in my head as I wrote the comment.

  6. Ben,

    I think you’re right in that this truly is a job, or an opportunity, for intellectual history.

    Your last note, the asterisk, touches on the deeper sources of confusion. “Neo” is usually referred to as an updating of some past ideology or philosophy (e.g. neo-Thomism). But the term “neo-conservative” as used—or mis-used—in the 1970s defined the forming group as against liberalism, or rampant liberalism. I mean, neo-conservatives went Right because, party-wise, there were only two alternatives. The story of neo-conservatives seems to me to be a part of the ongoing (and futile) search for a viable third party in U.S. politics.

    Since historians can control, or take control, of the narrative, why don’t you impose a new phrase on this protean group that has, hitherto, defied easy discussion? Use your analysis as chance to rework things, to impose a new framework of discussion.

    – TL

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