RIGHT OR WRONG—and they have been both—left-wing intellectuals have never had much luck in America. The Depression seemed ready to trigger enduring class hatred. But radicals were mistaken about the benignity of Joseph Stalin and the possibilities of domestic Marxism. Their revolution was postponed. Then along came World War II, the postwar boom and millions of house-owning, boat-buying, TV-consuming workers, downtrodden all the way to the bank.
Even when things again went badly for capitalism, the left could not capitalize on its opportunities. The anti-Establishment was right about the Viet Nam War; it proved a conflict that could not be won, or lost, with honor. But radical rhetoric kept linking dislike of the war with condemnation of the whole American system. Perspectives were blurred; hard-liners compared the U.S. to Hitler's Germany and listeners turned away. Today, as Jimmy Carter acknowledges, the country faces recession, popular distrust of big corporations and the existence of a sizable underclass. And still most Americans can imagine no more radical cures than those of a 19th century liberal like Ralph Nader, who wants to make the system work by correcting its flagrant abuses. Moreover, in the left-wing view, the turbulent '60s and the Great Society debacle have left Americans fearful of any threat to political stability and distrustful 0f Government.
According to Author Peter Steinfels, the recent resistance to change has largely been due to the work of a busy group intellectuals known as neoconservatives. Steinfels, who is the executive editor of the Catholic biweekly Commonweal, does not see a neoconservative under every bed. He names only a dozen or so, including Sociologists Nathan Glazer and James Q. Wilson of Harvard and Seymour Martin Lipset of Stanford. But the book centers on three thinkers: Editor Irving Kristol, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Daniel Bell, author of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. All are associated with The Public Interest and Commentary. Most are professors, including Moynihan, who, Steinfels devastatingly demonstrates, is also an ambitious presidential candidate and an Irish politician the old school. ("Blarney is one thing," author observes, "self-deception something else.") Connected with big-moneyed foundations, great universities i.e. Government, these neoconservatives exert disproportionate influence by preaching a doctrine that, the author argues, "threatens to attenuate and diminish the promise of American democracy." What are these seditious views? A certain discouraged attitude about the future and human nature in general. Misgivings about the decline of the family and the habit of hard work. A sense that some sort of religious values must be re-established in America. A notion that individuals should be responsible for their own success or failure.
In fact, politically and economically, there is nothing neo under the sun. The reason these men are labeled neoconservatives is simply that every one of them began flying by flapping his left wing. Typically, when Kristol graduated from City College in New York in 1940, he was a young socialist. Today he defends the market, though not quite as staunchly as Steinfels asserts.
As recently as 1969, Pat Moynihan was urging upon Richard Nixon a Family Assistance Plan, in effect offering a guaranteed income to ghetto families. He now regards such legislation as folly. They and their fellow converts are relentless in their attacks on old comrades of the New Left. Sometimes the sniping is justified; often it recalls Robert Frost's memorable admonition: "I never dared be radical when young/ For fear it would make me conservative when old."
Many of the conservatives are indeed old, and few, if any, are as young as Neocritic Steinfels, 38. Perhaps comparative youth makes him both shrewd and intolerant. His research is impeccable and his stylistic analysis of the rhetorical devices employed by Kristol and Moynihan is brilliant. For the most part, though, the book remains an ideological paper chase.
Steinfels talks too much about personal reasons for his subjects' change of political hue. Most neoconservatives, he says, have fully arrived in America after a climb from deprivation. Quite a few are Jewish, and Steinfels views the Holocaust as shattering to any faith in human nature. He also notes the long Jewish struggle against the quota system to explain neoconservative impatience with extreme forms of affirmative action.
Perceived in that manner, the new pessimism seems only the old optimism turned upside down. Surely a better way to explain the neoconservatives' views is not to deal with their motives but to measure their reasons for turning right against the political and social reality that Americans have been confronting for the past 15 years. Steinfels' provocative volume might have been better served by getting down to more tough cases. He repeatedly reprimands his subjects for not blaming society's weaknesses (self-indulgence and galloping consumerism, for instance) on the free-enterprise system. He might have pursued that point of view in more detail.
Just lately, too, the generous and "democratic" doctrine of entitlement without qualification as it applies to American education has converted quite a few nonintellectuals to neoconservatism. Steinfels' analysis of that situation would have been telling indeed.