One can no better describe the subject of this book than by quoting the publisher’s press release:

Once there was a group of liberals and Leftists. They were Democrats, they were radicals, they were freedom riders. But they became disillusioned by the Left. They moved toward the Right, they opposed the anti-war movement, they made socialist arguments for electing Richard Nixon. They claimed to be the true American liberals, and they attacked their former friends who continued to identify with the Left. . . . They went on to campaign for Cold War objectives of “exporting democracy,” and to support Ronald Reagan and his crusade for “family values.” . . . What can explain such a reversal in ideology?

Most of what has been written about the strange band called neoconservatives has been written either by themselves and their admirers or else by persons, to the right and to the left, who bear the bootmarks of their climb to power. The author of I’he Neoconservative Mind, however, seems to have no axe to grind, but to be motivated by genuine intellectual curiosity about the phenomenon in question. He is a man of the moderate Christian left and has written a dispassionate, seriously researched, and historical account. At the level of intellectual history and public discourse, he has answered the question “What can explain such a reversal in ideology?” very well—as far as it goes.

A more important question, however, remains to be answered; How did a group of New York Trotskyites come during the 1980’s to assume the ideological management of the Middle American Reagan revolution? The answer to this question lies in the realm of intellectual logistics and political factionalism, not in that of the history of ideas. A fascinating account remains to be written, and the answers may be looked for in the neoconservatives’ proximity to the media and large capital of the Northeast, well documented here, and in the intellectual and ethical shallowness of the decision-makers of the Reagan era.

In his attempt to capture the “neoconservative mind,” Dorrien has written thorough, respectful, but candid intellectual biographies of four of the leading lights of the movement: Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Michael Novak, and Peter Berger. He has traced the development of their public thought and related it to the right and left and to the larger questions of the 20th century. This is a useful exercise, though one of the things it proves is that, with the exception of Berger, none of these writers has any real claim to being a serious scholar or important thinker (as opposed to political polemicist), though Kristol has undoubted talents as an editor and intellectual logistician. That is, most of the neoconservatives would be of no importance at all in a public discourse that was less vulgarized and commercialized than that of the present day.

Dorrien has not neglected the questions of intellectual logistics mentioned above or the neoconservative accomplishments in this area; his description does not differ greatly from the critical assessment made by paleoconservatives, and I will resist the temptation to quote more than a couple of his best bits: “The supreme irony of his [Kristol’s] attacks on the self-promoting opportunism of the New Class intellectuals was that they were most convincing as descriptions of the career he knew best,” and, “Novak moved further left. For the next two years, when such attitudes were most fashionable, he epitomized the social type of the liberal-bashing New Leftist.”

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the author’s careful treatment of the particular variety of Marxism that he sees as the seedbed of neoconservatism. It will surprise many conservatives to learn that Dorrien judges James Burnham to have played a large role in the neoconservatives’ journey from Marxism to an equally ideological Cold War liberalism. Here is a fascinating chapter in American intellectual history, though I have to enter something of a demurrer. Burnham, after he escaped from the belly of the beast, was motivated chiefly by the desire to preserve Western civilization: it is not clear that the neoconservatives who adopted a similar stance did so from a similar motive. Basic to Burnham’s view was the idea that the gestalt of the left had imperiled the West by disarming it. In my youth a favorite barroom game of conservatives was to test oneself and others against Burnham’s 39 theses of liberalism as set forward in Suicide of the West: the fewer of the insidious, plausible lies of liberalism one agreed with, the better. I do not think the neoconservatives would score very high on Burnham’s test.

Dorrien would have done much better to search for the intellectual antecedents to neoconservatism in the strange cult of Straussian political science. Though the personal connections are not as direct, and though the Straussians represent a much higher level of intellect than do the neoconservatives, the affinities between the uncritical pursuit of “global democratic capitalism” and the Straussian universalization of equality are clear. If the Straussians had not succeeded in putting 19th-century German left-wing Romanticism into American conservative discourse in place of the chaste and cool republicanism of the Founding Fathers, the neoconservatives would never have achieved their success as philosophers of the pseudo-right. But the name of Leo Strauss appears in the index of this book only a few times and that of Allan Bloom not at all, which is a real limitation. The author does provide an account of his subjects’ controversies with the paleoconservatives, including many thinkers well known to the readers of Chronicles. This is a useful survey, though at a superficial journalistic level, that by no means exhausts the subject.

Dorrien finds the neoconservatives’ positions shot through with contradictions—a judgment made from the left but one with which no conservative not on the neoconservative payroll will disagree. The history of this “movement,” in the final analysis, is a history of opportunism: of leftists, that is, who used their clout with the major media to form a very profitable alliance with the corporate elites. At the very moment that the American economy was deteriorating at its base, the American social fabric was unraveling, and the American middle class was threatened by decimation, the neoconservatives formulated an abstract democratic capitalism that appealed, with plenty of well-funded publicity, to some of the more superficial aspects of the public discontent.

Though Dorrien seems to believe that, despite all, the neoconservatives are in a position to offer powerful opposition to the “reconstructed progressive politics” for which he hopes, I am inclined to disagree. Their moment, I believe, will not be prolonged—the ever-changing tides have shifted. The neoconservatives may well ride out the next big wave, but it will be in some other athletic guise than that to which we are accustomed, and in the long perspective of history they will rate but a footnote.


[The Neoconservative Mind: Politics, Culture, and the War of Ideology, by Gary Dorrien (Philadelphia: Temple University Press) 500 pp., $34.95]