Antitotalitarianism: The Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy by Oliver Kamm
Neoconservatism: Why We Need It by Douglas Murray
Neoconservatism has been caricatured so often but so ignorantly that it has become hard to see its true features lurking within the distortions. Therefore it may be a little alarmingit is certainly curiousto see in these two books that some of neoconservatism's advocates now seem prepared to perpetuate those same distortions.
Though these books were both originally published by the same London think tank, the Social Affairs Unit, they have slightly different takes on what neoconservatism is and why more citizens and policy makers in Britain and America should adopt it.
Oliver Kamm is a British political commentator who writes a column for The Times. He is a lapsed Labour Party member, who voted Conservative in the 2005 election because the Conservative candidate in his constituency was a more reliable supporter of Tony Blair's foreign policies than the Labour candidate was. In Antitotalitarianism: The Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy, he is interested above all in persuading British parties on the Left to cultivate their interventionist instincts in foreign policy, to stifle their isolationist instincts, and to be even more enthusiastic than Tony Blair about promoting "global democracy." He wants to promote a coalition of Left and Right in agreement on interventionist foreign policy, and therefore appeals to "fellow-leftists to acknowledge that the Bush-Blair strategy in foreign affairs accords with our movement's ideals."
Kamm is happy to go along with the idea that neoconservatism equates to using foreign policy to promote democracy and human rights. As he himself acknowledges, that is not a historically accurate description of neoconservatism, which was originally more concerned with domestic than with foreign policy issues. But, he suggests, now that some neoconservatives with "reactionary social views" are abandoning the neoconservative label, "this is as good a time as any" for interventionist foreign policy advocates who want to find recruits on the cultural and social Left to adopt it. It is not clear why this seems like a good rhetorical move to him, given that, as he recognizes, the neoconservative label (which, after all, began as a term of abuse) is now widely (however unjustly) suspect, especially on the Left.
The best thing about Kamm's book is its useful summary of the British Left's divisions on the response to the menaces of totalitarian regimes. He gives us a good brief guide to the splits of the Left in response to fascism in the 1930s and to Communism after 1945; and to the Left's abandonment of its postwar anti-Communism during the 1980s, as well as its recovery of its antitotalitarianism under Tony Blair (who he reminds us was a neoconservative in foreign policy before George W. Bush was). He usefully notes that the current bizarre coalition of the anti-Blair Left with Islamic fascism had historical precedents in the 1930s, when many pro-fascist leaders and parties sprang from and considered themselves part of the Left.
In fact, Kamm's history is so good that it suggests, as does his own shift in party allegiance, that he may be a little too optimistic when he concludes that a Left that is "true to its legacy" will commit itself to internationalism and antitotalitarianism. As he has showed, the Left's legacy includes many less fine moments.
Douglas Murray's study of Neoconservatism is less well written and more ambitious than Kamm's book. While sharing Kamm's interest in encouraging interventionist foreign policy in liberal democracies, Murray, a freelance political journalist, is more concerned to describe neoconservatism as a "philosophy," and to show how it can provide "moral and practical answers" on domestic as well as foreign policy issues. This concern leads him to neglect some of the more pragmatic concerns of the first neoconservatives, and their skepticism about applying political and social theory to practical policies. It also leads him to accept a political philosopher, Leo Strauss, as the most important source of neoconservatism. His first chapter, "Neoconservatism in Theory," consists of sketches of Strauss and two writers influenced by Strauss: Allan Bloom and Irving Kristol.
Murray recognizes that neoconservatism "is a type of thought" rather than a "cult," that it contains "multiple tracks and directions of thought," and therefore that establishing its lineage "is not a task with obvious beginnings, middles or ends." He also rejects the ignorant and incoherent "fixation" on Strauss as the shady mastermind behind the indoctrination of a group of policymakers keen "to launch preemptive wars against countries of their choosing." He helpfully traces this "calumny" through its unreliable academic and journalistic sources, as well as to "the crackpot political agitator" Lyndon LaRouche. Nevertheless he asserts that "Strauss is a useful and necessary point of entry for any investigation of neoconservatism." That is what the trendy caricatures tell us. Is it true?
Murray gives a good brief summary of some of the themes of Strauss's work. He touches on the chastening effects of taking philosophical writings seriously, the dangers of the politicization of philosophy, Strauss's friendship for and defense of liberal democracy, and the challenges that relativism and nihilism can pose to decent politics. Clearly, the depth and scope of Strauss's thought were hardly identical to neoconservatism, and Murray admits that it is arguable that Strauss himself never intended for aspects of his thought to become parts of neoconservatism as "a distinctive new ideology." However, "it is impossible to deny that Strauss' career left traces." And in politics (as opposed to the academy), he asserts, "the seeds of Strauss' thought were best expanded upon by Irving Kristol."
Murray cites Kristol's statement that Strauss was one of the two great formative influences of his mature years. The other was Lionel Trilling. Kristol found in both Trilling and Strauss a skepticism that "went to the very roots of modern liberalism and modern conservatism." Yet in Murray's profile of Kristol, it is "socialist-inspired liberalism", not conservatism, that takes the brunt of Kristol's polemics. He quotes some criticism by Kristol of conservatives' moroseness, but we can see in his summary of Kristol that it is liberalism, not previous conservatism, that inspired Kristol to mount his most important rhetorical offensives, against Communism in the 1950s and against the counterculture and welfarism in the 1960s and 1970s. Murray sees the philosophical basis of these offensives in the proposition that "although we can improve our condition, governments cannot make it immeasurably better, or unrecognizably better." He suggests Strauss was one of Kristol's sources for this proposition, but he also accurately observes that the proposition enjoys "a wealth of philosophical ancestry."
So Murray does not establish a very impressive connection between Strauss and Kristol, and therefore between Strauss and neoconservative politics. His conclusion at this point that the "line of descent from Leo Strauss...is the clearest of the neoconservative lineages" is not very sound.
That conclusion might be more acceptable if Murray had made it after his next observation, that the "central tenets" that unite neoconservatives include their implacable opposition to moral relativism and their insistence on moral clarity, for Strauss did draw attention to the corrosive effects of relativism in modern politics, and argued that a certain degree of moral clarityseeing the foothills if not the peaksis possible. However, two problems arise. First is the fact that moral relativism is not absent from neoconservative writings, so the Straussian influence on neoconservatism again becomes questionable. Second, Murray now risks encouraging the same misrepresentation of neoconservatism that Kamm engages in, and neoconservatism's current enemies delight in, namely of seeing neoconservatism only as a democracy-expanding foreign policy. The moral clarity of the neoconservatives that Murray is here concerned to displayand does succeed in displaying, by drawing on fiery speeches by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Ronald Reaganappears exclusively in foreign policy. He notes in passing that "neoconservative domestic beliefs can most often be summarized by identifying what they oppose" (he briefly lists these things: increasing secularism, illiberalism masquerading as liberalism, and the destructive effects of the counterculture). But foreign policy, where "neoconservatives are demonstrably less reactive," occupies all of his attention. Moreover, it is in this context of "a neoconservatism that was almost exclusively foreign-policy inspired" that Murray again identifies "Straussian descendants" in the ranks of neoconservative commentators.
This leads Murray to the war in Iraq. He clarifies some of the ways in which relativismthe impossibility of speaking in absoluteshas led many critics of the Bush Administration's war efforts to engage in an unpatriotic "equivalencing" of America with its enemies. The war has furnished the opportunity for countercultural spokesmen in the academy and the media to voice, "with spite and racism, their hatred of Western society, and their desire for the troops and civilians of those societies to be taught a brutal lesson." Murray's indignation against these enemies within the walls is justified, and he nicely dissects several examples of their ignorance, hyperbole, and admissions of hostility. However, Murray does not make a strong argument in favor of neoconservatism's conviction that establishing democratic regimes is essential to fighting a war against Islamists. "Al-Qaeda affiliates could not thrive in democratic states which opposed them and their nihilistic creed," he asserts. But is this correct? Are dictators never more capable of efficiently suppressing terrorists than democracies are?
In this book about neoconservatism, why is so much attention given to the countercultural opponents of neoconservatism? Murray's answer would be that he is showing (as the subtitle of his book has it) "why we need" neoconservatism. It is the duty of neoconservatism to "eradicate" nihilism and relativism, and in undertaking this duty neoconservatives must "lead the way in pointing the finger and isolating those who have, for too long, been allowed to get away with being traitors and opponents of the very country which gives them sanctuary."
In the last chapter of his book, "Neoconservatism for America," Murray elaborates his argument that changes based on neoconservative ideas and attitudes would be good for Americans. He includes domestic policy: taxes (cut them, along with wasteful spending, but don't oppose the welfare state), education (abolish ethnic quotas and cultural relativism, teach history), social policy (end welfarism, support policing), and immigration (preserve American identity). Conservatives and even non-morose neoconservatives might question Murray's advice that "in the drive to make people's lives better, government must never say that something cannot be done," and "where there is a problem, that problem must be addressed." Does this not threaten to extend neoconservatives' alleged hubris in foreign policy to domestic policy? However that may be, here as throughout his book Murray is really more interested in foreign than domestic policy, and he finishes this chapter and the book by turning to the European Union (oppose its undemocratic tendencies, and keep it "a Christian club," opposed to Turkey's admission), the United Nations (be realistic about what it is and can do), and the war on terror (be tough, e.g. strike Iran's nuclear industry, but also foster liberal democracy).
Murray is inclined simply to assert that such-and-such a policy "must" be adopted, without explaining why the incentives or means for adopting the policy have hitherto been lacking and how that could be changed. Such explanations used to be a strength in neoconservative writing.
Murray's arguments about the "philosophical" basis of neoconservatism and on particular political issues, domestic or foreign, are not sufficiently precise or sustained to persuade anyone who needs persuading. His strength is rather in his call to rhetorical arms, and in his passionate conviction that a "true liberalism"whether or not it is called neoconservatismstill has the capacity to resist the relativistic counterculture and to help the American people "reaffirm their instinctive ambition and hope."