RIP Irving Kristol, the godfather of neo-conservatism, who died in a nursing home in Virginia last Friday. Arguably the philosophy that was associated with his name died months before, when Barack Obama took office. Since then, it has been open season against neo-conservatism, blaming it for everything from the disastrous war in Iraq to the United States’ go-it-alone belligerence and the failure of the world’s banks.
Yet it would be wrong to dismiss neo-cons as nothing more than overly nationalistic and militaristic policy wonks, who care little about anything other than the US. Perhaps they became that. But neo-conservatism originated in a moral vision of the world far nobler and — dare I say it — far more progressive than is often recognised by liberals.
It is no coincidence that many neo-cons, such as Kristol himself, began as Trotskyites — international Marxists who believed that Stalin betrayed Marxist ideals by concentrating the revolution in the Soviet Union.
It was this internationalism that distinguished the neo-cons from simle small-town conservatives. The neo-cons wanted to change the world and to export the American revolution. But this revolution was not rooted in the public ownership of the means of production, but in the neo-con holy trinity of democracy, the market, and God. For the neo-cons, this was another way of saying freedom, prosperity, and moral values, all mutually reinforcing each other.
It is not that intellectuals such as Kristol were uncritical of the market. His Two Cheers for Capitalism (Basic Books, 1978) credited the market with the promotion of freedom and the creation of wealth, but acknowledged that it had a shadow side, responsible for a surge in value relativism and its progeny, cultural nihilism — thus the need for God.
Interestingly, this important critique is one that is generally absent from the friends of the market on the Left, such as New Labour, who are much more uncritical of this spiritual shadow.
The neo-conservatives failed because they lost sight of their Trotskyite inheritance, and were seduced by a right-wing version of the Stalinist belief that the revolution must be located in one country. They lost sight of the genuinely international, and thought that it was all about the extension of Americana to the world.
Thus they came to be regarded as latter-day Crusaders, forcing through a clash of civilisations. Better internationalists would have been more respectful of difference, recognising that what works in one country may not work in the same way in another.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.