From the Publisher: What is a Neoconservative?

The name “neoconservative” is often bandied about, usually in a way that shows its user to be ignorant (or at least very vague) whereof he speaks. All sorts of people are called “neoconservative” who are merely “conservative” or “new right” or something else quite different. Jerry Falwell is new right; Irving Kristol is neoconservative; Irving Kristol is not Jerry Falwell.

Indeed, in his remarkable collection of essays Reflections of a Neo-Conservative (1983), noting wryly that he may be the one self-confessed (perhaps the only) neoconservative, Kristol builds up a succinct definition. A neoconservative is one who recognizes three things: the merit of the free market in economics; the priority of politics over economics; and the primacy of morals over both. In the 1990s, this third characteristic is the most salient, and its primary target — secular humanism — is coming into ever sharper focus.

The first part of this definition distinguishes neoconservatives from socialists. Indeed, the first neoconservatives (like Mr. Kristol himself) had once been socialists; one by one, they came to see the emptiness of the socialist idea; most, therefore, experienced something like a conversion. Thus, the tag “neoconservative” was first hung upon them by socialists (Michael Harrington, in particular), who regarded them as heretics or, more exactly, traitors. Little did such socialists suspect that the cutting edge of history was about to shove the socialist idea into the dustbin of history, and that human “progress” would soon best be represented by an alternative idea, in line with the neoconservative project. Until 1989, with the collapse of “real existing socialism” (so acutely described by Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus), not many people recognized that the death of socialism was the most underreported fact of the mid-twentieth century.

The second part of Kristol’s definition distinguishes neoconservatives from libertarians. Libertarians, holding to classic liberalism in its most narrow version, tend to give priority to “the economic way of thinking.” While also recognizing the free market as a high achievement of human evolution, neoconservatives differ from libertarians in giving politics priority over economics in many crucial departments. Neoconservatives, for example, are quite critical of the recent development and present direction of the welfare state; but they do recognize the necessity and importance of a suitably reformed version thereof, since in the vicissitudes, contingencies, and hazards of complex modern life, at any one time a significant percentage of the population is likely to be in need of social insurance, a “safety net,” and open opportunity.

Fierce arguments may rage about how best to construct the welfare state. But the aim is to protect the autonomy, responsibility, and dignity of individuals, and to prevent those corruptions of power which Pope John Paul II has bundled together in Centesimus Annus as “the social assistance state.” Before him, Alexis de Tocqueville called these “the new soft despotism,” which would stalk the future of mature democracies.

The third part of Kristol’s definition distinguishes neoconservatives from moral relativists, “cheerful nihilists” (Richard Rorty), and in general the “adversarial culture” that opposes not only “bourgeois morality” but also the fundamental moral and religious principles of Judaism and Christianity. Now that socialism has been defeated as an economic idea, the neoconservatives are lining up their artillery against secular humanism. Mr. Kristol has led off this new campaign with a trenchant critique of secular humanism in last August’s Commentary (“The Future of American Jewry”) and another in the Boyer lecture at the American Enterprise Institute in December.

Secular humanism, he wrote in the first, is “more than a science, because it proceeds to make all sorts of inferences about the human condition and human possibilities that are not, in any authentic sense, scientific. Those inferences are metaphysical, and in the end theological…. It is secular humanism that is the orthodox metaphysical basis of the two modern political philosophies, socialism and liberalism.”

We have “observed two major events that represent turning points in the history of the twentieth century,” Kristol continues. “The first is the death of socialism, both as an ideal and a political program, a death that has been duly recorded in our consciousness. The second is the collapse of secular humanism — the religious basis of socialism — as an ideal, but not yet as an ideological program, a way of life. The emphasis is on ‘not yet,’ for as the ideal is withering away, the real will sooner or later follow suit,” just as it did with socialism.

Like the creed of socialism, the creed of secular humanism is both morally and philosophically inadequate. That is why our society is now being shaken to its depths. The founding ethos of the United States was from the first open to transcendence. In this, it was continuous with the classical tradition of Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, and (much later) Blackstone. It was a tradition of republican virtue, natural law, common law, and practical wisdom. For this reason, Christians and Jews came easily to love America, finding in it a familiar home. Indeed, the founding ethos was so compatible with the Catholic tradition that someday, Alexis de Tocqueville suspected, Catholics might become its best interpreters; like Catholicism, the roots of the American regime plunge much deeper than the Enlightenment. By contrast, secular humanists have tried to scissor out from the American ethos all contact with Judaism, Christianity, and the classical tradition of philosophy. As Kristol reports:

The main currents of thought in American universities today — postmodernism, deconstruction, varieties of structuralism — are all contemptuous of the universities’ humanist heritage, which is dismissed as the accursed legacy of an “elite” of “dead white males.” Secular humanism is brain dead even as its heart continues to pump energy into all our institutions.

Thus, secular humanism is no adequate base for the American democratic republic. The Rortians cannot affirm Jefferson’s propositions: “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” The deconstructionists ridicule even the idea of a search for intellectual foundations for our democratic institutions. Secular humanism cannot underpin democracy; it cannot even underpin morals. It can, “at best, provide us with a statement of the necessary assumptions of a moral code, but it cannot deliver any such code itself.” Nor can it, thirdly, provide us with a moral code deep enough to protect and to enliven our capitalist institutions, whose capacity for asceticism and creativity depends upon a religiously based moral tradition.

Neoconservatives aim, therefore, to accomplish a religious and moral transformation of current American culture. They take aim in particular at the culture of our intellectual and communications elites, most of whom in America today call themselves “liberals.” This is why feminists, gays, and others on the American left lash out with special fury at “neoconservatives.”

Thus, the great attack on the cultural citadels of liberalism is just beginning. The enemy within has already laid down its intellectual arms. Few in its ranks any longer believe that intellect can be more than a servant of power and interest. They no longer think of it as capable of objectivity or driven by the inner laws of inquiry toward a firm grasp on the real.

In this new circumstance, believing Catholics like believing Jews have an unparalleled opportunity to offer an interpretation of American institutions and American purposes far deeper and truer than the alternatives presented by a moribund liberal secularism. With no desire to impose the truth as we see it (resistance to any such attempt comes as much from our own convictions as from others), and with full respect for liberty of conscience, we can nonetheless propose that truth, and display its intellectual power through public argument aimed at rational persuasion. Seldom in recent centuries has the intellectual situation been so open to metaphysical and religious argument. For our opponent no longer makes intellectual arguments; he, in effect, merely grunts approval or disapproval.

If America was once (as Tocqueville judged) a place where the cause of liberty and the cause of religion coincided, it should become today the place in which the cause of intellect and the cause of religion are one.

  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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