Last week, I took issue with Kevin Mattson’s view that neoconservatives didn’t offer anything very new in their critique of intellectuals. Mattson’s argument pivots from his belief that the neoconservative use of the sociological concept of the “new class” was an unoriginal adaptation of conservative anti-intellectualism that had already been well established by William Buckley and his stable of writers at the National Review. Mattson writes the following about the neoconservative version of anti-intellectualism, perhaps best enunciated by Irving Kristol: “their criticism of the ‘new class’ [was not] all that different from the previous [old right] critique of the ‘liberal establishment’… Kristol defined the new class as ‘an intelligentsia which so despises the ethos of bourgeois society, and which is so guilt-ridden at being implicated in the life of this society.’ Nothing new there.”
Is the Neoconservative “New Class” New?
Perhaps there is “nothing new there,” at least in this particular Kristol quote, or in Mattson’s very brief historical analysis of neoconservative “new class” thought (in his Rebels All!). Certainly Buckley and a host of other conservative thinkers made a career of lambasting liberal intellectuals well before Kristol and his ilk made their fateful turn to the right. As I argue at length in Education and the Cold War, the longstanding conservative critique of John Dewey set the tone of conservative anti-intellectualism during the Cold War. Taking his cues from traditionalists like Richard Weaver, Buckley played a big part in this. His 1950 treatise against Yale professors, God and Man at Yale, was a lamentation that “the teachings of John Dewey have borne fruit, as there is surely not a department at Yale that is uncontaminated with the absolute that there are no absolutes, no intrinsic rights, no ultimate truths.” His mission was to convince the Yale Board of Trustees and alumni to retake the university from the professors who subverted the curriculum to their “secularist and collectivist” ends. Buckley, ever the humorist, peppered his later writings with delightful anti-intellectual ripostes. “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” (You gotta admit that’s funny.)
So Mattson is correct that neoconservatives were not the first American intellectuals to paradoxically find American intellectual life rotten. That said, neoconservative anti-intellectualism was different. Context matters here. Unlike Old Right thinkers like Weaver and Buckley, most neoconservatives considered themselves left of center in the early sixties. Some, like former Trotskyist Irving Kristol, were garden-variety Cold War liberals. But many others were New Leftists, or at least, fellow travelers of the sixties left. This included Norman Podhoretz, the Commentary editor who published some of the classic expressions of the New Left, most famously, Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd. By turning on the New Left in the late sixties after being so close to it—Podhoretz’s influential Commentarybecame the magazine most critical of the New Left—neoconservatives best articulated the anti-New Left conservative reaction, which was best expressed in neoconservative “new class” thought. This strain of thought also helps us make sense of the culture wars.
“New class” thought, which neoconservatives reformulated out of older left-wing, anti-Stalinist trope (that we have discussed at length at this blog here and here), was premised on the contention that acquisition of knowledge had become more crucial to the workings of power than accumulation of property. But more important to neoconservatives, who took their cues from Lionel Trilling’s famous examination of the avant-garde revolt against bourgeois society—what Trilling termed the “adversary culture”—“new class” theorizing was a way to understand the apparent anti-American turn taken by intellectuals and students during the 1960s. Trilling’s formulation, in turn, also helped neoconservatives explain the culture wars that grew out of that polarizing decade. A private memorandum written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan for his boss President Nixon in 1970 exemplified this framework: “No doubt there is a struggle going on in this country of the kind the Germans used to call a Kulturkampf. The adversary culture which dominates almost all channels of information transfer and opinion formation has never been stronger, and as best I can tell it has come near silencing the representatives of traditional America.”
New Class thought was different from previous strains of conservative anti-intellectualism because it was specifically formulated to understand the New Left; the older right never took such an interest in trying to get inside the mind of the New Left. Take novelist Saul Bellow as an example. Stephen Schryer, author of the excellent Fantasies of the New Class, considers Bellow’s 1970 Mr. Sammler’s Planet the neoconservative novel par excellence. (My thanks to Andrew Seal, who suggested I read Schryer in his comment on my earlier post about Bellow’s Ravelstein.) Having recently read Mr. Sammler’s Planet, I am inclined to agree. Furthermore, the portrait Bellow paints of the “new class” type reveals a new texture of anti-intellectualism.
In the opening scene of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, the protagonist says the following: “intellectual man has become an explaining creature. Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, experts to laymen, colleagues to colleagues, doctors to patients, man to his own soul explained.” But Mr. Artur Sammler, despite being an explainer himself, is uncomfortable with this age of humanity because he believes that most explanations contradict the “natural knowledge” innate to the human soul. Having fun with Hegel’s “Owl of Minerva,” which only takes flight at dusk—an allusion to Hegel’s theory that philosophy is only right after phenomena—Sammler says that the soul rests “unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.”
Echoing the neoconservative thought of Kristol, Podhoretz, Midge Dector, John Q. Wilson, and a host of others, Bellow (through Sammler) argued that much of intellectual life was dedicated to intellectualizing, rationalizing, and apologizing for increasingly bad behavior. As Schryer writes: “The history of western thought”—far from the moral apex imagined by Hegel—“has culminated in a cultural nihilism that, Sammler believes, finds expression in the social and political chaos of 1960s New York.” Sammler says, in a not so veiled critique of the sexual revolution, black power, and the sixties ethos in general: “the labor of Puritanism was now ending, the dark satanic mills changing into light satanic mills. The reprobates converted into children of joy, the sexual ways of the seraglio and of the Congo bush adopted by the emancipated masses of New York, Amsterdam, London.”
It’s not as if declension narratives were new. Weaver, for instance, perfected such an approach in Ideas Have Consequences (1948). But whereas old right conservatives believed the sixties were merely more of the same, the logical culmination of modernism, neoconservatives believed that the sixties represented a break: the break that later thinkers would mark between modernism and postmodernism. As neoconservative historian Gertrude Himmefarb (Kristol’s spouse) has written: “Where modernism tolerates relativism, postmodernism celebrates it. Where modernism, aware of the obstacles in the way of objectivity, regards this as a challenge and makes strenuous efforts to attain as much objectivity and unbiased truth as possible, postmodernism takes the rejection of absolute truth as a deliverance from all truth and from the obligation to maintain any degree of objectivity.”
Something else new to neoconservative new class thought was the ways in which the critique of the sixties movements became a way to lament the collapse of the Protestant work ethic—to look on with horror at the onset of Charles Reich’s “Consciousness III.” Dector (Podhoretz’s spouse) forcefully articulated such a theory in her two anti-feminist books, The Liberated Woman and Other Americans (1971) and The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation(1972). Decter’s overarching contention was that American women had it better than ever. For example, women had newfound abilities to secure gainful employment and control pregnancy through birth control. And yet, as she sought to show, even with such advances, or perhaps because of them, feminists blindly lurched against patriarchal strictures. Decter argued that women joined the “women’s liberation” movement not out of a desire for new freedoms, but rather out of fear that with brand-new freedoms came brand-new responsibilities. “Women’s Liberation does not embody a new wave of demand for equal rights. Nor does its preoccupation with oppression signal a yearning for freedom,” she complained. Rather, it emerged from “the difficulties women are experiencing with the rights and freedoms they already enjoy.” For instance, if women were going to enter the workplace like men, Decter reasoned, they had to be prepared to compete in the cutthroat capitalist labor market that men had long grown accustomed to. In short, Decter believed that feminists were adversarial to the discipline enshrined in American traditions, such as the Protestant work ethic that the mostly Jewish neoconservatives came to adore.
The notion that feminists revolted against American traditions was consistent with so-called “new class” thought. The new class, as such, rationalized the New Left and countercultural expressions that had settled into the fabric of American culture. This was an innovative approach that came to define the ways conservatives fought the culture wars.
Of course, I am usually willing to admit that I might be wrong. And many of you, dear readers, are usually more than willing to show me where I might be wrong.