Death Of Head NeoConMan Irving Kristol Reminds One Of Excellent Demolition Of Neoconservatism By Prof. Stephen J. Tonsor In 1986 Talk To ” Philadelphia Society”
The following is a slightly abridged version of a, for the most part, excellent talk Dr. Tonsor gave in the late 1980s to “The Philadelphia Society” — a talk that created quite a stir among the neocons — who do not take to criticism kindly. It was titled “Why I Too Am Not A Neoconservative.” I say the talk was, for the most part excellent, because I reject the parts where conservatism is more highly regarded that it ought to be. And, as a Reformed, Calvinistic, Protestant, I differ with some of the remarks here re: “religion.” That being said, Tonsor nailed the neo-cons magnificently!
Dr. Tonsor is now 85 and Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Michigan. A key point made in this talk, if I may be so bold as to summarize it, is that the neocons were then (and are now) Godless, are atheists. In fact, in the “NY Times” obituary (9-19-09) on the death of neocon “Godfather” Irving Kristol, Kristol is quoted as having said in a 1996 interview: “I’ve always been a believer.” But, the “Times,” says, he added: “don’t ask me in what.” Kristol, an admirer of FDR’s tyranny, also wanted to simply “reform” the welfare state, not abolish it. — J.L.
By Dr. Stephen J. Tonsor
I FEEL somewhat like Mr. Creedy in the Midas Muffler television ad. The engine of the old model of Conservatism that I drive is still running well, and, as I believe that “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,’ I have come to view Conservatism as a perennial political philosophy which does not admit of neos or “Saturn’ models.
I became a Conservative in 1954. Rather, I should say that I discovered that I was a Conservative in 1954. The event was not a conversion experience, but a moment of self-revelation. My experience was not unlike that of a Catholic acquaintance of mine who, one day, as he entered a Catholic church, dipped his hand in the holy-water fount and said with sudden clarity, “My God! What am I doing here?’ He left the church, never to return. I dipped my hand in the holy-water fount of Russell Kirk and said, “Home at last!’
Whether or not one is a neoconservative is not simply a generational matter. It is not that I am an “old party comrade’ and knew the Twelve Apostles, while those “neos’ who came after us belong to a new and different age. After all, Irving Kristol must be nearly as old as I am. No, there are still young big-C Conservatives who enter the movement every day and are as far from neo-dom as I am.
Nor is the great divide the consequence of changing times and altered political and economic circumstances. It is not that most neoconservatives think that Barry Goldwater is “cute’ and ought to be honored and revered and humored now and then, but that he belongs to the paleolithic age of the Conservative movement. If that indeed is the case, then I too am a paleo-conservative.
It can’t simply be that neoconservatives read and often write for Commentary magazine. I read Commentary and have done so for years. I find myself often in agreement, always stimulated, and now and then put off by Commentary. However, I don’t think Commentary is a reliable test. It often publishes writers I consider big-C Conservatives.
Age, changed circumstances, and an identifiable literary connection have little or nothing to do with the ideological identity of those on the Right. (There, I have uttered that awful word, usually prefaced by “far,’ as in farsighted.) These differences that separate neoconservatives from Conservatives are differences that have for nearly a hundred years divided the Right.
I have made these personal references because I believe that the way in which I became a Conservative, and my starting point, were very different from the way in which one becomes a neoconservative, and the neoconservatives’ starting point. One’s starting point and the way in which one achieves an identity have very important implications for what one becomes.
These differences among Conservatives are grounded in the relationship of Conservatism to modernity. Increasingly, our culture is becoming aware that it is no longer “modern,’ though it is totally uncertain just what it is. This cultural break with “modernity’ presents us with the preconditions for an accurate assessment of our relationship to it.
By “modernity’ I mean that revolutionary movement in culture which derived from a belief in man’s radical alienation, in God’s unknowability or non-existence, and in man’s capacity to transform or remake the conditions of his existence. The thoroughgoing secularism, the attack upon the past, religious and social, aristocratic or bourgeois, the utopian dream of alienation overcome and innocence restored are all linked together in the modernist sensibility. To be “up-to-date’ was, for a hundred years, to be an alienated person. The world was viewed as anarchic chaos upon which man-become-God imposed his own particular dream of order. Often as not, that order was an inverted order, against the grain, against nature. Prometheanism and Satanism were one and the same order of man’s invention. The Romantic Satanic hero is the same man as the Prometheus of Shelley and Marx, the Zarathustra of Nietzsche.
To pretend that the Right, that Conservatives, have been immune to modernity is self-delusion. On the whole, the Right has been much more modernist than the Left because the Right has dared to think consequentially, because the Right knows that he who says A must also say B. It is for this reason that the modernists of the Right have been, almost without exception, fascists and totalitarians, for they know that when things fall apart and the center does not hold, the only recourse is to an invented and imposed order.
Now that we are able to gain some perspective on this past century, we recognize that the social and political consequence of modernity is totalitarianism. We can see that the denial of the existence of order as the ground of being, and the rejection of the transcendent, are a one-way street to Dachau. If everything is permitted and the will to power the only reality, then the Gulag is as logical as an Euler diagram. Those who do not refuse to think the unthinkable have known this for a long while. Hitler did not need to give a specific command for the “final solution.’ Himmler and the members of the SS Einsatzgruppen knew the “final solution’ was implicit in their conception of reality. It is on the ground of modernity that Right and Left are merged and the differences between them are only differences of style and slogans. The Right that is born of modernity is a radical, a revolutionary Right, which cannot in any important degree be distinguished from the revolutionary Left.
Now it is a matter of fact that most of those who describe themselves as neoconservatives are or have been cultural modernists. They have been, to use Peter Berger’s telling phrase, baptized in the “fiery brook.’ (He was making an elegant pun on the name of Ludwig Feuerbach, the Left Hegelian inspiration of Marx and the Church Father of alienation theory.) We Conservatives have been baptized in the Jordan, and there is a vast difference between the Jordan and the fiery brook.
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.
Is it ungracious of me to suggest that political and even religious conversion does not often improve the mind’s capacity for sound judgment? Whittaker Chambers, one of the most beguiling intellectuals of the twentieth century, had a flawed judgment as a Marxist and said some very silly things on the subject of Conservatism once he had become a convert.
All of which is not to say that the rejection of Marxism is unimportant and that the piecemeal rejection of various articles of faith shared with Left-liberal modernists is unimportant. Nor do I wish to imply that the assistance of neoconservatives is unwelcome in the work of dismantling the failed political structures erected by modernity. Conservatives have made common cause with classical liberals, and there is no reason why they should not make common cause with neoconservatives. When the wagon train is attacked we arm the women and children even though they may in their ineptitude occasionally mistake a friend for a foe.
Still, halfway from modernity is not far enough. Politics has always been inseparable from culture, and both derive ultimately from religion. It is absurd to believe that one can remain a modernist in culture and reject the implications of modernism in politics. Unbelief is incompatible with Conservatism. Conserve what? And to what end? Werner Dannhauser, writing in the December 1985 Commentary, tells us: “Too many conservatives have failed to come to terms with Nietzsche’s thought, dismissing it as an embarrassing attempt to outflank them on the Right. But the challenge he represents will not go away.’ Dannhauser continues:
Nietzsche went far beyond Burke, who held out the hope of a time when atheism might cease to be fashionable. Nietzsche postulated an irreversible loss of naivete in Western civilization. To put the matter crudely, he argued that the cat of atheism was out of the bag. The meanest capacities could now learn that religion was a myth, and when a myth is exposed for what it is, it can no longer serve to provide a unified horizon.
Too many conservatives whose own belief is weak or non-existent, who will privately admit that religion is “for the troops,’ continue to try to teach the catechism to those troops, forgetting that the latter have by now been thoroughly exposed to the Enlightenment and its lessons.
There you have it: The dividing line between conservatives is the line separating Burke from Nietzsche. Let me say parenthetically that I could never understand the reasoning processes of Jews who are Nietzscheans. Walter Kaufmann was quite unable to discern that while Nietzsche was not a biological racist he was a philosophical anti-Semite. If Nietzsche’s anti-Semitism was less vulgar than that of Julius Streicher or of Nietzsche’s friend Richard Wagner, it was no less deadly.
One is struck again by the true and forceful portrait Thomas Mann gives us of the Nietzschean modernist in the person of Adrian Leverkuhn in Dr. Faustus. Adrian’s music is modernist music not only as a style but in terms of the metaphysical conception out of which it is constructed. It is also demonic. It can only come into existence through the ruin of a soul, the destruction of a mind—and as the work of the composer reaches fruition, Germany is destroyed philosophically and sinks into ruin beneath the rain of Allied bombs. Mann, who made the character of Adrian Leverkuhn out of a composite of Nietzsche and Arnold Schonberg, intended in this, the greatest novel of the twentieth century, to tell us something about the cultural reality of our age. The narrator, Serenus Zeitblom, is a religious and pious Conservative—one, I take it, who had missed the Enlightenment.
I sometimes imagine myself and my fellow Conservatives to be of the type of Serenus Zeitblom. They have a loving regard for their age and their fellow men, and they realize that they must often forgo intervention and permit the tragic drama to play itself out. Because Leverkuhn could not accept an order which, modernist that he was, he felt to be meaningless, he imposed a new order, rational and cleanly articulated as the music of Bach but lacking Bach’s attachment to the divine and reconciliation to the human. Leverkuhn’s achievement was a great technical triumph but only a triumph of technique. It is fitting funeral music for a culture that died of pride.
Rational technique in the pursuit of irrational ends; that suggests the modernist condition. That is why neoconservatives are so inventive and often correct in dealing with the realm of technique. But when push comes to shove, ends are of ultimate importance and will finally determine the appropriate technique. What the neoconservatives have done is to divorce techniques from ends in an effort to maintain their cultural modernism while rejecting its social and political implications. This, I say, is quite impossible, and in the long run dangerous. It is easy to see that the utopian social and political programs of the last hundred years have failed. It is not the cat of atheism that has been let out of the bag but the failure of the Enlightenment in all its forms. Neoconservatives are, as Irving Kristol remarked, “liberals who have been mugged by reality,’ but while they have been detached from their social and political myths they have not located themselves in a body of principle that makes life worth living, or that one would die defending.
It is important, also, to realize that the phrase “liberals mugged by reality’ is only a part of the truth about neoconservatism. Neoconservatism is above all a transmogrification of “the New York intellectuals,’ in Alexander Bloom’s phrase, who, in turn, reflected the instantiation of modernity among secularized Jewish intellectuals. Neoconservatism is culturally unthinkable aside from the history of the Jewish intellectual in the twentieth century. When the New York intellectuals turned from the beguilements of left-wing revolutionary utopianism, they did not in fact become Conservatives but attached themselves to positions that were neoliberal, in the sense that Mises and Hayek were neoliberals; and just as Mises and Hayek are philosophical and cultural modernists, so too New York intellectuals who now call themselves neoconservatives are modernists.
Conservatism has its roots in a much older tradition. Its world view is Roman or Anglo-Catholic; its political philosophy, Aristotelian and Thomist; its concerns, moral and ethical; its culture, that of Christian humanism. Most old-fashioned Conservatives are free of metaphysical anxiety and as happy as clams in a world that bears the unmistakable imprint of God’s ordering hand. They are free of alienation, and they have absolutely no hopes of a utopian political order. They live with sin and tragedy not as a consequence of inadequate social engineering but as a consequence of man’s sin and disorder. They believe that human institutions and human culture are subject to the judgment of God, and they hold that the most effective political instrument is prayer and a commitment to try to understand and do the will of God.
If neoconservatives wish us to take their conservatism seriously, they must return to the religious roots, beliefs, and values of our common heritage. They cannot dither in the halfway house of modernity and offer us technical solutions that touch the symptoms but never deal with the causes of contemporary disorder.