If something has a name, it must exist — right? Not really. Most writers seem to define neoconservatism by listing certain doctrines that supposedly go together and that are shared by almost all the ranking members of George W. Bush’s team, plus the numerous Americans who agree with them. The difficulty is this: I know some of the people whom they are calling neoconservative and, so far as I can tell, they don’t see eye to eye on many issues at all. In fact, I cannot recognize any cluster of attitudes and values that those people do have in common – at least not the views that are being attributed to them. Although Fukuyama claims he is leaving the fold, I doubt that there’s any fold for him to leave.
His book, America at the Crossroads, does trace the history of this supposed movement but, for the sake of clarity, it is necessarily somewhat reductive. Ian Brown buys into his account, whereas he might contribute more by criticizing it. (A more accurate depiction of neoconservatism is available on Wikipedia.) Brown and Fukuyama are not unique in pointing out that the core neoconservative intellectuals were the sons of Jewish immigrants who, as students at the City College of New York, became followers of Max Shachtman, an apostate Trotskyist who abhorred Stalinism and Nazism equally. The other putative father of neoconservatism was Leo Strauss, though there was little or no interaction Between Shachtmanites and Straussians during their formative years. It is true that a number of former CCNY Shachtmanites became prominent leftist intellectuals; the ones with whom I studied include Nathan Glazer, Lewis Feuer, Philip Selznick, and Seymour Martin Lipset (see photo) for whom I worked five years as a research assistant. Most of them have rejected the neoconservative identity, a term that was apparently coined in 1973 by another former Shachtmanite, Michael Harrington, who remained a democratic socialist, as did Irving Howe and their ally, Bayard Rustin, previously an organizer for Martin Luther King, Jr. However, some former socialists (e.g. Sidney Hook, Feuer, and Irving Kristol) did become famously conservative.
Fukuyama does not define neoconservatism in terms of economic and social policies, for to do so would reveal the disparate, incoherent nature of the movement that he treats as a single political orientation. He and many other writers do distinguish it from old- fashioned (or “paleo”) conservatism, which favored “small government.” However, the main qualities that they impute to neoconservatism are shared foreign and military doctrines. Neoconservatives are defined as great believers in democracy and in the promotion of it through interventionist, militaristic American leadership. Presumably they are united in their skepticism about multilateral, international decision-making. They allegedly favor the use of military force to impose democracy around the world, most conspicuously in Iraq. (Yet all along, Fukuyama had numerous allies among the so-called neoconservatives in objecting to the war against Iraq.)
It is surprising that some fine, humane intellectuals have failed to protest against being called neoconservative. Among these people, I know Lipset best. His health is irreparably broken, so he can no longer speak for himself. However, in 1996 he wrote in a memoir:
“Intellectually I moved a considerable distance, from believing in Marxism-Leninism-Trotskyism to a moderate form of democratic socialism and finally to a middle-of-the-road position, as a centrist, or as some would say, a conservative Democrat. In recent decades, leftist critics of my writings and subsequent politics have placed me in that category known as neoconservative.”
What were his “subsequent politics?” I would call him a liberal. He wrote speeches for Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign. He was one of the world’s foremost scholarly proponents of democracy. His stroke preceded the war in Iraq, so he wrote nothing on that subject, but he was (and officially remains) a director of the United States Institute of Peace, which published papers strongly criticizing that war. He worked patiently for a mutually acceptable solution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, serving as president of the American Professors for Peace in the Middle East. As a member of the Democratic Party, he co-chaired the Coalition for a Democratic Majority.
What shocks me is the absurd assertion that the support for democracy is a “neoconservative” doctrine, regardless of the nature of such support. I myself am a left liberal and my fervor for democracy is almost limitless. I want all democratic societies to sponsor the spread of democracy throughout in the world — but without imposing it on anyone by force. That criterion makes an enormous difference.
Political views come in such ill-assorted packages that it is often misleading to apply a single category to any one of them. Thus at official functions honoring Lipset, I have met other former socialist “neoconservatives,” who differ as widely on foreign policy issues as any other random collection of Americans. There was Jean Kirkpatrick, for example, who had once been a Shachtmanite herself but had become a hard-nosed militarist famous for supporting those right-wing dictatorships that aligned with the United States against communism. There was Carl Gershman, a somewhat younger former Shachtmanite who is often called a neoconservative these days, but who heads the National Endowment for Democracy, dispensing money to help democratic opposition movements get rid of dictators nonviolently in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and other repressive regimes. (What a difference nonviolence makes!) There was also Francis Fukuyama himself, who also had been a protégé of Lipset’s and who delivered the second annual Seymour Martin Lipset Democracy Lecture. Fukuyama disavowal of his neoconservative identity was mainly because he disapproves of the Bush Administration’s Iraq adventure. Plenty of his erstwhile allies had the same misgivings all along.
One of Lipset’s closest friends during the last decades of his professionally active life was Alex Inkeles, who had also been my mentor. I wrote to him recently, seeking to test my own understanding of Lipset against his own. He had never perceived him as a nneoconservative, nor did he ever think of himself as such. (“I am a child of the Roosevelt era,” he explained.) In fact, he believes that he and Lipset had both been recruited from Harvard to Stanford’s Hoover Institution because they were both more liberal than most of the other scholars there: “I think our ideas and goals were essentially libertarian, liberal, welfare state, democratic, anti- totalitarian, tolerant of experimentation in art and life styles, opposed to the politicization of social science.”
Excellent. So let’s insist on calling those values “liberal,” not neoconservative! If, as widely assumed, neoconservatism consists of the willingness to impose democracy on other countries, a lot more people would be more appropriately identified as liberal, especially those of us who love democracy and want to help the whole world attain it — but only when they request nonviolent support.