x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A liberal thinker 'mugged by reality'

The godfather of neo-conservatism, this fiercely patriotic intellectual rejected the 1960s counterculture, arguing instead in defence of capitalism and bourgeois values.

Irving Kristol dispensed his criticisms through several prestigious publications, including <i>Commentary</i> and <i>Encounter</i>.
Irving Kristol dispensed his criticisms through several prestigious publications, including Commentary and Encounter.

Irving Kristol, who has died aged 89, was a prodigious, highly erudite political commentator who was commonly acknowledged to be the godfather of neo-conservatism. His oft-quoted description of its archetypal adherents was that they were liberals who had been "mugged by reality". He had come to that position himself by way of various political affiliations, including a period in support of the liberalism that swept America during the second half of the 20th century, during which, for a time, he served as editor of a number of magazines with liberal leanings. When he reacted against what he saw as the moral anarchy that liberalism allowed, or even positively encouraged, he was unequivocal in his criticism. Together with various like-minded associates, Kristol started the magazine The Public Interest in 1965. In its pages, he and others wrote about the social ills that the Democratic reforms of the 1960s and 1970s had bred. In the face of the "counterculture" of the 1960s, the fiercely patriotic Kristol argued in defence of capitalism and bourgeois values, and moved steadily towards the political Right. By the 1970s, he was registered as a Republican. He became renowned for his polemical essays: a true intellectual, he shaped his thoughts on the written page, shunning all other media, and became a deeply influential voice. His central philosophy was that the implementation of government policy was a limited tool with which to effect social change. Born in Brooklyn, New York, into a poor, non-observant Jewish family, Kristol attended City College in the late 1930s. As an undergraduate, he was an anti-Stalin Trotskyite, a cell so small, his wife the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb would later comment, that it could have met in a telephone booth. The phase did not last beyond the realities of life in Chicago in the 1940s, where Kristol and Himmelfarb moved after their marriage. Kristol's ideals were sabotaged by the raw material - the average man in the street - that he encountered. "I can't build socialism with these people," he realised. Later, he followed his wife to Cambridge, England, while she pursued her studies in 19th-century history. Returning to America in 1947, Kristol took an editing job with the magazine Commentary, then a liberal anti-communist publication, in which he published a characteristically controversial article, which included the memorable lines: "There is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he, like them, is unequivocally anti-communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing." In 1953, he was back in England, editing the magazine Encounter with the poet Stephen Spender. The magazine was a literary and intellectual exercise that was hugely influential, publishing the talented writers of the day, including Frank Kermode and Al Alvarez. What tarnished its image, however, was the revelation in the late 1960s that America's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had funded the magazine and that one of the editors had been a CIA agent. While it was generally assumed that it could not have been Spender, Kristol strenuously denied that he had known of any CIA involvement. Back in New York at the end of 1958, he worked for a year at another liberal anti-communist magazine, The Reporter, before taking a job at Basic Books, where he became executive vice president. In 1969, he left for New York University where he was professor of social thought, and while teaching there became a columnist for The Wall Street Journal. "Ever since I can remember," he said once, "I've been a neo-something: a neo-Marxist, a neo-Trotskyist, a neo-liberal, a neo-conservative ? I'm going to end up a neo. Just neo, that's all. Neo-dash-nothing." Irving Kristol was born on January 20, 1920, and died on September 18. He is survived by his wife, one son and a daughter. * The National