U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Neoconservatism and the Spirit of the Anti-Sixties


(My first post since it was announced that USIH won the 2010 Cliopatria Award for best group blog!)

At risk of opening up a discussion of another vague, contradictory, often polemical and even more often misunderstood political label, I’m going to move the discussion from neoliberalism to neoconservatism. How should intellectual historians frame neoconservatism? (This post is lacking in that I have yet to read Justin Vaïsse’s much-discussed new book, Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement—I’ll get to it!)

Leo Ribuffo always gives the best advice on all things conservative history, in a grumpy senior scholar sort of way. For a classic Ribuffo statement on the field of conservative history, check out the paper he gave at last year’s OAH: “Seventeen Suggestions for Studying the Right Now that Studying the Right is Trendy.” One of his suggestions is that we take Lionel Trilling’s famous statement that there are no conservative ideas in America, only irritable gestures, and “bury it in a deep hole with nuclear waste.” Point taken. Of course, anyone who has read George Nash‘s 1976 bible, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, hardly needs this bit of advice. But there are several other nuggets of wisdom in the Ribuffo essay. I highly recommend it, crankiness and all.

Another panel at last year’s OAH offered suggestions on the field. (Wow, how often do I remember not one but two panels from an academic conference that took place nearly a year ago? Other than the USIH annual conference, of course, where all the panels are memorable!) The panel, on rethinking conservative intellectual history, featured, among others, Jennifer Burns, whose biography of Ayn Rand: The Goddess of the Market, is one of the best books in intellectual history of the last five years. To that extent, surprisingly, the panel hardly offered any sage advice. The basic point I gathered: we should go beyond Nash—we should go beyond a narrow definition of intellectuals in studying conservative intellectual history. Beverly Gage, for instance, suggested that we consider the texts of political figures like J. Edgar Hoover as intellectual texts (she just happens to be writing a book on Hoover). This is good advice. But did we need this advice? (For video links to this OAH panel, featuring Burns, Gage, and Angus Burgin, click here.)

Certainly Eliot Weinberger does not need such advice, based on his brilliant and hilarious review of George Bush’s presidential memoir, the number one selling book in America, Decision Points. Weinberger treats Decision Points as a postmodern text, arguing that were Foucault still alive, he would have considered it one of the quintessential demonstrations of that philosophical question, “What is an author?” (Weinberger also reads Turning Points as a country and western song: “one minute they’re raising hell and the next they’re jerking tears.”)

Lately I’ve been diving into the work of one of the most important neoconservative thinkers, Gertrude Himmelfarb (aka Bea Kristol, wife of neoconservative “godfather” Irving, mother of Republican house intellectual Bill). As an intellectual historian, her example serves as one model for how to think about conservative intellectual history. Himmelfarb is a firm adherent of that paleoconservative Richard Weaver’s mantra that “ideas have consequences.” In other words, her theory of intellectual history is explicitly non-materialist, or, at least, non-Marxist, in the sense that ideas do not take a back seat to economic forces. Ideas, for Himmelfarb, quite often shape material reality. In her view, this is a properly conservative approach to intellectual history, even though, on its face, it is also a properly postmodern approach to intellectual history.

What ideas have consequences in Himmelfarb’s work? Most prominently, she contends, in The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values and elsewhere, that what the Victorians referred to as “virtue,” or morality, shaped the culture of nineteenth century Britain (and America) to a greater degree than did the political economy. In this, Himmelfarb thinks she proves wrong one of the more popular passages from The Communist Manifesto, about how the bourgeoisie has “pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties…[and] the family its sentimental veil…” Marx and Engels were wrong since Victorian virtues, for example, made the traditional family stronger than ever in nineteenth century Britain, at the height of rapid industrialization. For Himmelfarb, this goes to her larger point that capitalism is not to blame for our contemporary pathologies: crime, illegitimacy, welfare dependency, pornography—the usual litany (see Charles Murray for a complete run-down). Older ideas about work and thrift kept people in line in spite of the “all that is solid melts into air” vertigo experience of capitalism or modernity. Rather than capitalism, Himmelfarb argues, the cultural and moral shift that took place during the sixties is to blame for our current pathological society. Duh, it’s the sixties! Always the sixties!

Himmelfarb’s dissonant interpretation raises three questions for me:

1) Must intellectual history be all ideas or all material? All text or all context? One or the other?

It seems to me that the new intellectual history as practiced by those who write for this blog, and as practiced by most of those who regularly attend the USIH conference, seeks to situate ideas in cultural context without necessarily reducing those ideas to some opaque reflection of “reality.” In other words, it’s not a question of either-or.

2) Even if Himmelfarb is correct in her assertion that major cultural changes did not obliterate Victorian values until the 1960s—dubious, but OK—why does this prove Marx wrong? Is there a statute of limitations on the “all that is solid melts into air” theory of dissolution?

A new book by Daniel Rodgers, The Age of Fracture, which I predict will be the most talked about work of intellectual history since Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club, implies that Marx’s thesis is a pretty good explanation for our postmodern condition. As Robert Westbrook writes in an excellent review, Rodgers “hints, much like Marx and Engels, that at the bottom of things lay the powerfully destabilizing impact of capitalism.”

3) Why do neoconservatives always blame the Sixties?

This is one of the major currents of intellectual history that I am exploring at length in researching and writing my book on the culture wars. There are several reasons for this, most of which I won’t get into here for reasons of time and space (this is already far too long for a blog post!) A major reason, though, is the neoconservative distaste for antinomianism. This is made clear in a new biography of Norman Podhoretz, who, as editor of Commentary from 1960 to 1995, was equally if not more important than Kristol in delineating the neoconservative mind. Podhoretz had a longstanding yet latent (in terms of outspokenness) distaste for antinomianism and sexual liberation, revealed as early as 1958, when he wrote a scathing Partisan Review essay on the Beats, titled, “The Know-Nothing Bohemians.” Anti-antinomianism became foundational to his distaste for the sixties.

Of course, not all of the neoconservatives rooted the origins of cultural demise in the sixties. Robert Bork, in Slouching Towards Gomorrah (don’t you love that title!) argued that the sixties enshrined the radical individualism of the Declaration of Independence. Allan Bloom went much further back. For him, it was all downhill after Plato. But the larger point: the sixties formed the neoconservative view on American culture. Thus, if neoliberalism is, as I argued a few weeks ago, the spirit of the sixties, neoconservatism is the spirit of the anti-sixties.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Another excellent post Andrew!

    Some thoughts…

    Why is it always the Sixties with neoconservatives? The short answer, I think is that, like comedy, it’s all about timing. The sixties (or more precisely the New Left) created and defined neoconservatism, which took form from the mid-60s through the early ’70s precisely in opposition to it. In a very real sense, there’d be no neoconservatism without the Sixties (not that that answers your broader questions about the roots of what Himmelfarb sees as moral decay). Do read Vaïsse, by the way, who’s good on this.

    That said, one of the things that neither Vaïsse nor anyone else writing about neoconservatism (AFAIK) is very good on is Himmelfarb’s impact on Kristol’s intellectual and political development. Bea married Irving in 1942. I believe she was already writing for Commentary by the late 1940s. And she was always something of a cultural conservative (saying nice things in print, for example, about Leo Strauss i/r/t Judaism from very early on). How did Himmelfarb help effect Kristol’s ongoing rightward journey? Not enough has been said about this AFAIK.

    Finally on Bloom: if there’s a moment from which things go downhill, it’s the early modern period (Macchiavelli and Hobbes). Things are fine (at least with philosophy…which is what counts) before that in the Straussian narrative. But I’m not even sure that’s quite right with Bloom, who was a Rousseau scholar and, in certain ways, a “modern” among the Straussians (he was, after all, also a student of Alexandre Kojeve). And the exoteric story that Bloom tells (to which he is not actually committed IMO) in Closing is that things were great at the American Founding…and it would have worked too, if not for those meddling (Sixties) teenagers! As I suggest in this comment thread on one of your earlier posts, I don’t think Bloom believed this, but this argument (or apparent argument) is largely what sold his book.

  2. “Himmelfarb is a firm adherent of that paleoconservative Richard Weaver’s mantra that ‘ideas have consequences.’ In other words, her theory of intellectual history is explicitly non-materialist, or, at least, non-Marxist, in the sense that ideas do not take a back seat to economic forces.”

    Congratulations on turning every non-Marxist intellectual historian into a “paleoconservative.” And probably some Marxist ones, too, as I reckon some of them also believe ideas have consequences.

    Also, with regard to Himmelfarb, you should take a gander at her proper historical writing, which shows a considerable shift in the two decades between The Idea of Poverty (brilliant social history) and The Roads to Modernity (sheer ideological hackery).

  3. Conservatism does seem a healthy growth field of late, and neoconservatism desperately needs attention. Justin Vaisse’s new history, while interesting and a lucid and efficient introduction to the field, will not be the last word. He follows the lines of analysis already marked out in books by Garry Dorrien and John Erhman, mainly adding a peculiar focus on Democrats, especially elected officials, staff members, and various other policy-making types in and around the halls of power in Washington DC. Vaisse’s neoconservatism looks a lot like right-leaning Democratic Party centrism and does more to explain the Democratic Leadership Council, perhaps, than the triumph of conservatism of late. He specifically de-emphasizes folks like Irving Kristol.

    Why the 1960s? That’s where the key trends converge, no? The shift to post-industrialism well underway, the marginalization of working-class politics in the face of a broader and more powerful middle class situated comfortably in white-collar service industries, the divisive war that unleashed until number of furies about power and morality on Right and Left, and the outbreak of various and assorted movements for social and cultural change. The terrain of contemporary politics is hogged by the middle class, and our narrow language of liberal-conservative divisions reflect the self-divisions of that vast group. Neoconservatives straddled the divide for a while, and then became just plain conservatives.

  4. @Ben: I agree entirely with the assessment that the New Left and the neocons formed in sort of a dialectical tandem. I also agree that more needs to be said about Himmelfarb’s influence on Kristol, just as more needs to be said about Midge Dector’s influence over Podhoretz. Both women, it seems, were cultural conservatives before their respective partners. And yes, Himmelfarb was writing for Commentary while a grad student at Chicago, and writing about conservatism no less, including a pretty critical review of a Peter Viereck book in 1950. And lastly, I will never forget our earlier discussion of Bloom on the blog. It really informs the way I think about him (despite my reductionist Plato remark).

    @Varad: I neither meant to imply that paleoconservatism is a pejorative (in fact, I prefer it to neoconservatism), nor that the ideas have consequences approach is necessarily a paleoconservative one. Read further down, where I write that the best intellectual history is written by those who don’t reduce ideas to reflections of reality, material or otherwise. Thanks for the reference on her proper historical writing. Cheers.

  5. @Andrew: I did read the whole thing, I was just joshing you for the juxtaposition of “ideas have consequences” with “paleoconservatism,” not because you believe it, but because that’s one area where Himmelfarb’s conservatism can’t be confirmed because that approach to intellectual history is so broadly shared. At the same time, I think in some ways the more enflamed right does believe that more than other ideological communities, hence its repeated denunciations of “socialsm” and other bogeymen du jour.

    As for her proper historical writing, I should be clear that while The Idea of Poverty is history of the best sort, The Roads to Modernity is Exhibit A that conservatives can produce historical scholarship as tendentious and ideologically slanted as they accuse liberals of peddling. Whenever I get around to teaching the historiography grad seminar, I will devote one week to “How Not to Write History,” and that will be the conservative book I use in association with whatever leftwing claptrap I pair it with.

  6. Oh, and I find nothing objectionable in your capsule summary of the basic methodology of intellectual historians these days. I think that’s a fair assessment of the current state of the field.

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