Jun 14, 2010

A Chronology for "Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea"

In late August and September, Study Groups for Objectivists will examine selected chapters of C. Bradley Thompson's new book, Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea, available from The Ayn Rand Bookstore. The book, which I hope to review next month, spans 2400 years of history as part of the author's plan to characterize the sixty-year-old neoconservatism movement and uncover its tangled roots. The movement's advocates characterize neoconservatism as a form of conservatism uniquely identified with America. It isn't, as shown in the following chronological sketch -- which I drew up while selectively rereading the book.

I have placed this chronology in the Prep section for the study group. Perhaps this chronology will also be useful to anyone now reading Dr. Thompson's book. My third motivation is to counter the impression that some individuals have -- that the book is only about day-to-day politics under the Bush administration. Far from it!

The question marks below show I am unsure of a particular point. Treat the details cautiously; this is only a working draft I wrote to make my own study of this rich book more productive.

428-328 BC:
Plato, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plato

1135-1204: Moses
Maimonides. (see Wikipedia) (p. 211)

1469-1527: Niccolo
Machiavelli, Florence, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Machiavelli

1844-1900: Friedrich Wilhelm
Nietzsche, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nietzsche

1883-1945: Benito
Mussolini (see Wikipedia)

1889-1976: Martin
Heidegger (see Wikipedia)

1899-1973: Leo
Strauss (see Wikipedia)

1915: During WWI, Werner
Sombart (1863-1941) publishes Merchants and Heroes, denounces the selfishness of the merchant society (capitalism), and praises Plato's idea of society, as a model for the German state. Sombart influenced intellectuals who in turn influenced young nihilists and the young Strauss immediately after WWI. (pp. 206-207)

1920-2009: Irving
Kristol (see Wikipedia)

1921-1929: Strauss is a devoted follower of Nietzsche. (p. 200)

c. 1922: Strauss audits courses taught by Heidegger, whom Strauss initially admires. (p. 200)

1927: Carl
Schmitt (1888-1985), a close friend of Sombart and later an official Nazi scholar, publishes
The Concept of the Political. The theme is that capitalism is bad (it "depoliticizes" society) and a society based on "the political" (collective political action) is good. (p. 207)

c. 1930(?): Strauss, a Jew by birth culture, identifies but does not reject (?) Heidegger's connection to Nazism. Strauss later (when?) shows disdain for Heidegger personally. (p. 201)

1930's-1940s: Later neocons are Trotskyite communists at this time. (p. 27)

1932: Strauss reviews Schmitt's
The Concept of the Political. Strauss, whose much later neocon supporters said he was a "friend of liberal democracy," does not defend a free society but instead attacks it by helping Schmitt strengthen Schmitt's argument against a free society. (p. 208) Strauss thus indirectly aided in destroying the Weimar Republic. Strauss, not a Nazi, sided with Nazis (and others) against capitalism. (p. 211)

1932, Sept. 2: Strauss writes a long letter to Schmitt, adding more intellectual ammunition to Schmitt's anti-capitalist arguments. E.g., man is evil and therefore needs to be dominated by the unifying state, preferably by uniting men against other men. (p. 211)

1932: Strauss leaves Berlin for Paris, then Cambridge Univ. (1935), New York universities (1938-1948), and Univ. of Chicago (1949-1969). (Wikipedia)

1932: Before he turns anti-semitic, Mussolini (writing with fascist philosopher Giovanni
Gentile) publishes "Doctrine of Fascism," an article presenting the fundamental principles of fascism. (p. 214) http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/Reading/Germany/mussolini.htm

1933, May: In a letter to his Jewish friend Karl
Lowith, Strauss (a Jew by birth but later an atheist in private), says he thinks the best antidote to Nazism is another sort of fascism. It saves man from the "ludricous and despicable appeal to the rights of man." (p. 212) The type of fascism Strauss refers to is the early Italian version he learned from a variety of European writers. (CBT, p. 213) The wording of the letter resembles the wording of Mussolini's brochure. (p. 214)

1941: At the New School for Social Research (NY), Strauss delivers the lecture "German Nihilism," explaining that nihilist young "Conservative Revolutionaries" in the 1920s gravitated from Nietzsche and Heidegger to Nazism and Fascism. Though rejecting nihilism, he sympathizes with the nihilists' attacks on Enlightenment and capitalist culture -- "modernity." (p. 202) From the 1940s onward, Strauss showed contempt for the moral meaning of capitalism, which is the right of each individual to pursue his own happiness. (pp. 203-204) The essence of virtue, he held, is self-sacrifice. (p. 205) While accepting their morality, he did not follow their politics (totalitarianism). (p. 205) He was "moderate" and "prudent"; they were extreme. Further, they blamed Plato for rationalizing capitalism; Strauss "recovered" Plato by reinterpreting him in a way compatible with Strauss's philosophy of governance (Platonic-Machiavellianism, that is, classical [idealism]-realism), the foundation of later neoconservatism. (p. 206)

1950-1960s: The individuals who will later consider themselves neocons are "liberals" at this time. (p. 27)

1952: Reading philosopher Strauss inspires Kristol to launch the neoconservatism movement. (pp. 64, 137) Kristol synthesizes Plato and Machiavelli (both described by Strauss) as "classical [idealism]-realism." (p. 137)

1953: Strauss publishes
Natural Right and History. (Wikipedia) ["Right" apparently refers not to individual moral or political"rights" but to a structure of the world, including society, as when philosophers rule and commoners are ruled by "natural right."

1960s: Certain liberals, on their way to becoming neocons, denounce the cultural Left (moral relativism, etc.). (p. 27)

1970s, early: "... Kristol, following Leo Strauss's lead, begins to flirt with 'the secular myth of nationalism' as an antidote to the internal contradictions inherent in bourgeois capitalism." (CBT, p. 220) This is an example of an intellectual, Kristol,
applying a philosopher's philosophical (universal) idea to a particular culture. Within 20 years, Kristol will be willing to openly say that the three pillars of neoconservatism are religion, nationalism, and economic growth. (p. 221)

1970s: Kristol encourages proto-neoconservatives to accept the welfare state (p. 24) but at the same time his proto-neoconservatives realize Pres. Johnson's "Great Society" was a mistake because it tried to impose liberal idealism too quickly on the supposed reality of a religious, nationalist country. (p. 140)

1990s, late: David
Brooks, intellectual heir to Kristol and a writer for the New York Times, begins publishing the principles of "national greatness conservatism." (p. 222) Note how long the chain of influence is: decades from Strauss to Kristol to Brooks and then in 2008 to John McCain.
See Wikipedia for "David Brooks (journalist)."

2003: Kristol publishes "The Neoconservative Persuasion." (p. 23)

2008: Brooks trains John
McCain in the neocon philosophy of governance. (p. 225)

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith


Anonymous said...


Does this book explain the difference between "Neo" and "Paleo" Conservatism? There is quite a dislike today between the two groups. I am curious if Thompson explains why that is so.

Doug Bandler

Burgess Laughlin said...

No. The N:OI index does not list "paleoconservative" or (a presumed example) "Buchanan, Patrick." N:OI is not a taxonomy of conservatism.

As a scholar, C. Bradley Thompson's main purpose in N:OI is two-fold:

- Identify the nature of the ideology of neoconservatism as it is now and in recent history. The nature of neoconservatism includes not only the face it presents to America but also its actual philosophical nature (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics). This answers the "What is it?" question. The tools used by the scholarly author are historical and philosophical detection.

- Explain how it came to be what it is. This is a historical question. The uncovering of an answer was made very difficult for the author by the dual -- and duplicitous -- nature of the movement. That duality, which you can read about in the book, runs from its foundation in neocon metaphysics to its ethics. The same tools -- historical and philosophical detection -- are used here.

For multiple reasons, the author focuses on the nature of neoconservatism but uses what might be called "Jeffersonian conservatism" as his foil: constitutionally limited government that goes back to the secular principles of the Founders -- that is, capitalism standing on principles such as individualism and the right to pursue one's own happiness. Sometimes the book refers to this stream as "Goldwater conservatism," I recall.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your response Burgess. It sounds like a fascinating book and I intend to read it.

Doug Bandler

Michael Garrett said...

Thanks, Burgess, for posting this chronology. I'm just planning my reading of this book. (I enjoyed Dr Thompson's lecture which spawned this book.)

In browsing the chronology I noted that the link for Irving Kristol directed me to the wikipedia page for the name Irving--not to the Irving Kristol page. (Since he's such a major figure in this context, I thought you'd want to know.)

Again, thanks for the resource.

Best Regards,

Michael Garrett

Michael Garrett said...

The same problem occurs with the hyperlinks for Mussolini, Heidegger and Strauss.


Michael Garrett

Burgess Laughlin said...

I am preparing to move to another city. In the time available, I have not been able to resolve the link issue, which apparently centers around underscores. I have removed the defective links.

Thank you for spotting the errors!