Irving Kristol, who died last week, was probably one of the most influential political figures of the twentieth century. He was one of the Encounter group who during the cold war covertly channeled CIA money into a range of anti-communist cultural front organisations (the story is best told in Frances Stonor-Saunders’ Who paid the piper?). And he famously founded neoconservatism. It was he who, along with figures such as Paul Weyrich, helped reinvent conservatism as a highly organised radical political force, and helped turn the US Republican Party into the political war machine it became in the 1980s. The Reagan economic agenda and its anti-welfarist stance (‘welfare breeds welfarism’) owed much to Kristol. Perhaps most of all, he was a brilliant organiser who understood before anyone else that politics is a battle of ideas, and knew how to put people and ideas together. Two of the most influential journals of postmodern conservatism, The Public Interest and The National Interest, were both founded by him, and the reinvention of the modern conservative think tank as a partisan propaganda machine — The American Enterprise Institute is the paradigmatic example — owes much to Kristol’s work. And there’s his work as a columnist on the Wall Street Journal opinion page when it was at its most influential.
Even as a left-leaning centrist it’s hard not to admire this legacy. I’ve read a lot of Kristol and even at his most repugnant (his anti-multiculturalist writings, for example), he wrote in a clear, hard-edged style that is always compelling. Like many of his neocon generation — Nathan Glazer, Norman Podhoretz, Daniel Bell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan — he took inspiration from the 1960s left and its machine (Kristol was former Trotskyist), even as he was bagging their ‘new class’ (another Kristolism) ways. Probably the most telling marker of just how influential they were is that the left has never really caught up with or been able to counter neocon rhetoric. They got bogged down in an entirely defensive welfarist pro-’big government’ position that was unable to concede its failures. Their ‘public’ turned out to be a fantasy or else moved to the right. Even now, in the wake of the GFC and the much over-hyped ‘death of neoliberalism’, they haven’t been able to craft a narrative that goes far beyond ‘we told you so’. Kristol and the other key strategists of the radical conservative revolution had completely blind-sided them.