U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Is the Neoconservative “New Class” New?

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.”

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.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Point of information: I was under the impression that the earlier flights of neocon thought used the expression “new class” to attack liberal policy intellectuals and administrators and that using the same term to refer to 60’s era antinomianism was something of a departure. Laboring under this misapprehension (if it was a misapprehension), I assumed that at least some of the old lefties who became new righties were originally thinking that the liberal reformers were a recent version of the rationalizing bureaucrats that Hegel long ago celebrated as the Universal Class, i.e. the one group that could represent mankind as a whole against the selfish particular interests that made up civil society. Marx, as part of his program of turning Hegel right side up, claimed that the real Universal Class was the Proletariat; but history showed that the group most likely to promote revolutionary politics were commissars and New Dealers and therefore were the real enemies.

    So my question is, did the meaning of “New Class” change markedly in the 60s as modernism lurched into postmodernism or do I have it all wrong?

  2. Very interesting piece, Andrew…which, in effect, also raises questions about the relationship of Leo Strauss’s thought to neoconservatism.

    If we discard the rather ridiculous thesis that neoconservatism is simply an outgrowth of Straussianism and its nearly as ridiculous binary opposite that Strauss’s thought is of little significance to the history of neoconservatism, we’re faced with the more complicated task of placing Strauss and his ideas in relations to neoconservatism. At least two of the people you mention above (Kristol and Bellow) were directly influenced by Strauss’s thought.

    As anyone who knows anything about Leo Strauss knows, Strauss himself put forward a declension narrative. And the Straussian narrative became politically (as opposed to merely academically) significant when it was applied to the New Left in the late 1960s and early 1970s (though whether this caused the emergence of Straussianism as a politically significant force is a trickier question).

    Here’s the thing: Strauss’s declension narrative is neither Weaver’s (paleoconservative?) narrative nor the neoconservative narrative you describe above. For Strauss, the slippery slope to Nazism and the New Left begins with Machiavelli and is transmitted via Hobbes and Locke to the US. Strauss is very ambivalent about the United States (an ambivalence that resulted in a lot of political splits among his students), but to the extent that what’s distinctive about the neconservative declension narrative is how late in the story the decline takes place, the narrative is not very Straussian.

  3. An interesting Wall Street Journal op ed from Kristol on the New Class is here:


    It’s reprinted here without Kristol’s byline (and no paywall):


    I think he says quite clearly that it’s the counterculture he’s worried about, that as they enter the professions, they’re not bureaucrats, he says, they’re crusaders.

    I notice he mentions Daniel Bell and his *Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism,* which he frequently does. One thing that makes the Neoconservatives different is their focus on the flaws of capitalism (with Marx clearly somewhere in the background). That’s not something you’d hear from Buckley…

  4. Jim: Certainly some of the cold war liberals who became neoconservatives, whether they embraced the latter label, like Irving Kristol, or not, like Daniel P. Moynihan, first began turning right in or around 1965, when “The Public Interest” was launched as the leading repository of Great Society criticism. At first their criticism of the welfare state was limited and hesitant–they mostly wanted to focus on some of the unintended negative consequences of reform efforts, while still holding onto a view that most reformers were well intended and that reform was still necessary. But quickly they began to criticize the reformers themselves and doubt whether reform was warranted at all. This was largely the result of the nasty blowback Moynihan got from the infamous Moynihan Report. He and his colleagues could not believe that he was attacked so viciously by those on the left for making what, to them, seemed like such an obvious point about the necessity for traditional family stability. As far as I can tell from my reading of the evidence, the “new class” term did not come to be used with any frequency in neoconservative discourse until neocons began launching a counter-attack against the fiercest critics of the Moynihan Report. And this was at about the same time when the New Left seemingly took a more militant turn by occupying campuses, and when the counterculture arose as the cultural expression of the New Left. All of this was of a piece to the neocons: they saw Trilling’s “adversary culture” at work, chipping away at traditional American foundations of stability, such as the family.

    Ben: Neoconservative declension models were certainly not monolithic. Robert Bork, a neoconservative in most ways, argued that everything started going to hell with the Declaration of Independence. So one could be a neocon and a Straussian declensionist (did I just invent a word?) But most neocons certainly focused on the sixties. This was when, by Trilling’s formulation, the necessarily adversarial relationship to tradition that bohemian artists had went more mainstream, infecting the growing university system and other cultural apparatuses.

    • I’m probably thinking of the use of the term “New Class” by guys like Milovan Djilas. I knew a fair number of Yugoslavian Marxists back in the 60s and associated their criticism of the emergence of a ruling bureaucracy in Communist countries with right-wing dislike of American reformers. These days people seem to relate everything to Leo Strauss, but in my era both right and left philosophical types were more likely to think of things in Hegelian terms and I gather that was even more true twenty or thirty years earlier.

    • Jim: FWIW, what you think of when you hear “New Class” is exactly what I think of when I hear “New Class.” I might occasionally seem to relate everything to Leo Strauss simply because I happen to be writing a book on Leo Strauss. I strongly advise those _not_ writing books on Leo Strauss not to relate everything to Leo Strauss.

  5. Thank you for a really great and thought-provoking post; you’re very convincing that there are fundamental differences between the Buckley line and the neoconservative rejection of the “new class.”

    One thing that your post has made me wonder about is the way that religious conflict seems to have been re-coded or transcoded as cultural conflict. The Moynihan quote made me go look up the actual origin of the term “Kulturkampf,” which is fairly interesting in itself, as it suggests a much greater and even stranger significance to that alignment of Jews (and Catholics like Moynihan) with the ideals of the Protestant ethic. Buckley, on the other hand, seems like a much more traditional Catholic firing away at the Protestant establishment, and now it strikes me that the famous quote you cite may have its own religious valence: the first four-hundred names in the Boston telephone directory, one might think, would be disproportionately Catholic, while the faculty of Harvard (at that time) would still be disproportionately WASPy. Had Buckley used New Haven and Yale, for instance, or New York and Columbia, I think the meaning would have been quite different.

  6. two points, both minor. First, Bellow: I read that novel, although I haven’t read much of his other work–the figure of Sammler seemed to be to be a profoundly, I even dare say tragically, farcical one. If Sammler represents a true culture of the intellect, washed up on American shores from the wreckage of Mitteleuropa, he’s not accomplished anything at all since arriving, is forever promising a book he has no intention of writing…not so? If the city around him is absurd, vulgar, all of that, surely he doesn’t represent an actual alternative?

    second, on the neocon diagnosis of crusading academics and anti-American feminists, a naive question: does it matter that this analysis, for all its exaggerations, is in important ways true? Many who entered the academy then (let us not speak of now) really did want to use this position to forward a political project (say, social justice)? There really were explicitly anti-American and certainly anti-traditional elements of 60s and 70s feminism. It’s pretty important that broadly applied gender equality in fact is radically revolutionary, that it really is an attempt to break apart and end ‘civilization as we know it.’ Whether one agrees or not with such goals, I wonder how seriously the historian must take, or discuss, the correctness of some of the accusations (made by the neocons and other conservatives) in order to do justice to their contextual intentionality. That is, maybe the New Class idea is new because it ‘fits’ the sociological situation much better than old conservative complaints? (if, indeed, it does) I know this is to tread on unstable ground, but I’ve got to ask…

  7. I keep linking to it, but in case someone still needs to listen, here’s Sam Tanenhaus’s 2007 speech to the AEI on the New Class:


    Tanenhaus asks, once the counterculture recedes, what remains that the right is reacting to? The Neoconservative-style “New Class” thought starts to sound more and more like what George Orwell didn’t like about James Burnham’s thought, that there’s little or no “public good,” only factions competing for power (If Marx was a “Master of Suspicion,” James Burnham certainly didn’t lose his tendencies toward suspicion once he turned right):

  8. Andrew: Very astute regarding the religious implications of culture wars-style anti-intellectualism. Buckley’s fusionism made conservative Catholicism more palatable to many conservative Evangelicals. Both groups despised not only secularism but also squishy mainline Protestantism, especially its social gospel variants. Similarly, neocons made it possible for Jews to align with conservative evangelicals, something that would have seemed ludicrous a few decades earlier. As George Nash has argued recently, rather convincingly, the conservative turn taken by the Jews at Commentary, for example, demonstrated that Jews were more of the mainstream than ever before. “In 1945, Commentary had been born into a marginal, impoverished, immigrant-based subculture and an intellectual milieu that touted ‘alienation’ and ‘critical nonconformity’ as the true marks of the intellectual vis-à-vis his own culture,” Nash writes. “Two generations later, Commentary stood in the mainstream of American culture, and even of American conservatism, as a celebrant of the fundamental goodness of the American regime, and Norman Podhoretz, an immigrant milkman’s son, was its advocate.”

    Eric: I think you’re exactly right to say that neocons were correct about the radical implications of the sixties women’s liberation movement. I argue as much in the book I’m writing. I think feminism made US society much more humane, so I disagree with neocon prescriptions, but their descriptions were often spot on.

Comments are closed.