Irving Kristol – the Australian Connection

 (Irving Kristol died on September 19. This essay first appeared in The New ConservativeImagination: Essays in Honor of Irving Kristol, edited by Christopher DeMuth and William Kristol, AEI Press, Washington, 1995.)


The connection between Australia and Irving Kristol, “the godfather of neoconservatism”, is not obvious. Having politely but firmly rejected repeated invitations to do so, he has never visited the country. He has never written about it. Australia—along with a great deal of the rest of the Earth’s surface, including Asia, Latin America, Africa and Canada—does not claim his serious attention, which is reserved for what goes on in the United States, Europe and Israel. I am the only Australian who has had a sustained working relationship with Irving, but he has shown a warmer interest in my original Welshness than in my acquired Australianness. (Not that Wales has a vital grip on his imagination either. True, he and Bea [the distinguished historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, Irving Kristol’s wife] did visit the country once, when they were based in London in the 1950s. But when they got there, they managed to stay in the least Welsh place it was possible to find in the principality: the eccentric Italianate “village” created by Clough Williams-Ellis at Portmeirion, a location where one was more likely to meet Noel Coward than the Reverend Eli Jenkins.)

Still, a Kristol–Australian connection has existed for the past four decades, and it has had a significant effect on Australia’s intellectual and cultural life. It should surprise no one that it has to do with magazines. Irving’s working life has centred on magazines—creating them, publishing and raising money for them, editing them, and writing for them. A strong belief in their efficacy as instruments for furthering a cause and propagating a position is almost certainly the only belief that he has shared with the late Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. In Irving’s own writing, the polemical magazine essay has been his weapon of choice, and he has become one of the acknowledged masters of the form in our time.

Except for a short break in the 1960s, he has been continuously involved with intellectual magazines from the time he became assistant editor of Commentary in 1947 until now, when he easily (and from my point of view, embarrassingly) combines being editor of the Public Interest and publisher of the National Interest with a variety of other activities. In between, Irving launched Encounter, in the opinion of many the single most important journal of ideas to appear during the Cold War period; in his six years as its nominal co-editor but real editor (1953–58) he gave the magazine its definitive character. (His partner, Stephen Spender, while distinguished and well-connected, was too impractical and vacillating to be effective. Not long after the Russian repression of the Hungarian Revolution, Spender was still feebly objecting to the term “Soviet empire” as unduly provocative.) Irving was also editor of Max Ascoli’s lively magazine, the Reporter, for a short period in the late 1950s.

Like many others, I first got to know about—and, in a sense, to know—Irving by reading Encounter. That began in Sydney in 1955, shortly after I had arrived in Australia. I was a bit slow off the mark because I’d spent the previous two years doing my national service in the rural depths of Somerset, and new intellectual magazines were hard to come by in RAF messes. Then I got a job at Sydney University (advertised in the back of another magazine, the leftist New Statesman and Nation, which had a circulation of around 90,000 at that time and was to be found in the mess).

Recently married, my wife Dorothy and I made the long four-and-a-half-week journey from London in the P & O liner, the SS Strathmore, travelling the great British imperial route—Gibraltar, Port Said, Aden, Bombay, Colombo, Singapore, Perth—in its last days, just a year before the Suez crisis. (This may be as good a place as any to note that Irving is a great admirer of the British empire. Kipling is one of his favourite poets, and Zulu—depicting the epic of Rorke’s Drift, where a handful of redcoats fought off a Zulu army—his all-time favourite movie. One of his few disappointments with the United States, I suspect, is that it is constitutionally and temperamentally unsuited to sustaining the burdens of an imperial mission.)

Sydney was immediately and gloriously attractive, a marvellous technicolour relief after a grey postwar decade: flawless blue skies, palm and flame trees, yellow beaches, and, not least, plenty of red meat and fruit. But initially it was also lonely, isolated and strange. We knew no one. The landscape was utterly different from anything we were accustomed to. There was not another country within 1200 miles, and not even another sizable city within 600. The politics were strange and harsh, involving Catholics and communists as major actors in a way that was more European than British. (The Australian Labor Party had spilt along these lines the previous year, which was to keep it out of power for nearly two decades.) The newspapers were dull and parochial. Literary-political magazines were few and hardly readable. The most conspicuous of them was the antediluvian and xenophobic Bulletin, a survivor from the late nineteenth century that still carried the slogan “Australia for the White People” on its masthead.

Despite the Bulletin and the fact that Robert Menzies’s conservative party was in office, the country’s intellectual and cultural life was dominated by the pro-communist Left, and a shallow, reflexive, progressive orthodoxy prevailed. A man widely regarded as Australia’s leading historian—Manning Clark—went to the Soviet Union at this time and wrote a glowing book called Meeting Soviet Man. He singled out for special praise—a “very great man”, one of “earthy images and folk wisdom”—none other than Alex Surkov, the thuggish secretary of the Soviet Writers’ Union. The Fellowship of Australian Writers was so impressed that, shortly after the Hungarian Revolution, it invited that tormentor of Russian writers to Australia as its guest. And so it went.

Such behaviour will not strike American intellectuals of a certain vintage as particularly unusual. There was a lot of it about in the 1950s in all parts of the West, and indeed to an extent Australian academics and intellectuals were only mimicking admired overseas models. But there was a difference. In a much smaller and more isolated cultural community—one characterised simultaneously by an aggressive commitment to an egalitarian ethos and by desperate concern to distinguish itself from the surrounding philistinism—there was much less diversity and pluralism, less in the way of countervailing challenges to this orthodoxy, than in either America or Europe. To the untutored eye, at least, the Australian cultural landscape seemed as flat and unvaried as an Australian sheep station.

Although my own views at the time were leftish (I had, after all, grown up in a South Wales mining valley), I found all this depressing. It was, for one thing, a coarse-grained radicalism, unadorned by any of the (in retrospect, perhaps spurious) sophistication and glamour that the Bevans and the Crossmans brought to the British version. For another, it was much more uncritically pro-Soviet than I was used to—for, Kingsley Martin notwithstanding, the British Left as a whole was not fellow travelling. But there was another reason: once in Sydney, I began that important process of self-education that is involved in preparing lectures, in my case lectures on international affairs and on totalitarianism. Once engaged in a close study of these matters (something that I had managed to avoid at Oxford) and having to declare myself in public on them, I quickly came to doubt and to move away from the prevailing leftist interpretations.

In these circumstances, I discovered Encounter, and its effect was exhilarating. I had never before heard the political and cultural case for the West argued with such assurance, style and intellectual force. This was not surprising because for at least twenty years no one else had heard it either—the initiative had been entirely with the Left. What celebration there had been of the West—mostly during the war—had been left in the inadequate hands of the likes of Sir Arthur Bryant. Otherwise, all had been denigration, or at best gloom, of the sort expressed by Cyril Connolly in his notorious sentence, declaring that it was “closing time in the gardens of the West”.

Now Irving Kristol and Encounter appeared, combining the panache and aggression that used to be the birthright of New York intellectuals with the style and self-possession of the English man of letters, to make an unapologetic case for the West. It was all enormously liberating, as well as being a splendid read. (One remembers articles like Leslie Fiedler’s “McCarthy and the Intellectuals”, with its lines: “From one end of the country to another rings the cry, ‘I am cowed! I am afraid to speak out!’ and the even louder response, ‘Look, he is cowed! He is afraid to speak out!’” And there was Nancy Mitford’s famous essay on U and Non-U.)

One of the interesting things about little magazines is that while they are produced in the great metropolitan centres with the readers of those cities principally in mind, they often have their greatest impact in the provinces and on the periphery. At the centre, the magazines represent merely one form in a dense complex of activities (public meetings, debates, clubs, cafes, dinner and cocktail parties, many other readily available magazines and newspapers); on the periphery, a good magazine may be the only thing that effectively and regularly links someone to the larger issues and intellectual community, and it can assume an inordinate importance in a life. At least, that was substantially the case forty years ago, when communications were much more primitive—and Sydney was very much on the periphery.

But it didn’t take long to find out what should have been obvious from the start (I was very young at the time): there were others, native-born Australians, who were roughly in the same predicament and who had the same concerns, often in a much more developed form. They included some distinguished and interesting men: Sir John Latham (a former chief justice of the Australian High Court); John Kerr QC (later to be the governor-general who dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in controversial circumstances); James McAuley (one of Australia’s best poets, and co-perpetrator of the famous anti-modernist Ern Malley hoax); Peter Coleman (writer and editor and politician-to-be, who would one day write the history of the Congress for Cultural Freedom); Donald Horne (author, later, of The Lucky Country); and a bunch of academics including Richard Spann, Doug McCallum and David Armstrong.

And there was one other who was of outstanding importance: Richard Krygier, a Pole by origin, who in 1941 had, along with his wife Roma, found his way to Australia via Lithuania, Siberia, Tokyo and Shanghai. Arriving broke and with little English, he started by taking a job as a waiter in one of Sydney’s nightclubs. By the 1950s, Krygier had a successful book-importing business. He was passionately, knowledgeably, uncompromisingly, and effectively anticommunist. When the Congress for Cultural Freedom was formed, Krygier was determined that Australia should participate in it. Despite initial indifference in Paris, he succeeded: in 1954, a small Australian committee was formed.

How was that committee to be most effective in an environment made up, in more or less equal parts, of indifference and hostility? The answer was given to Richard Krygier by—Irving Kristol. And it was, in retrospect at least, a predictable answer, as well as being right on the mark. Peter Coleman has described the episode:

“Krygier’s great achievement was the founding of Quadrant. Its conception was in 1955 in the Russian Tea Room on West 57th Street, Manhattan, where he met with IrvingKristol, the editor of Encounter, to discuss the Australian situation. You should start a magazine! Kristol said. Like Encounter! Krygier wrote to the Paris office of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and asked for a subsidy. MalcolmMuggeridge, who had returned from his first visit to Australia, supported Krygier and told the Congress executive that this was an idea whose time had come.”

Thus did Irving contribute to the founding of Quadrant, probably the most important and successful magazine of ideas in Australia’s history. (Its only significant rival in recent decades has been the leftist Meanjin, but it has not been a serious one. The Australian writer Frank Moorhouse once explained that “meanjin” was an Aboriginal word meaning “rejected by the New Yorker”.) Indeed, Quadrant was destined to outlast Encounter; forty years after that conversation in the Russian Tea Room—a long time for a little magazine—it is still a lively and substantial monthly, capable of starting a vigorous controversy and frequently quoted in the national media. It has even acquired a small but devoted following in the United States. William F. Buckley, Jr, was once generous enough to describe an issue of the magazine (a special one on China, put together by Simon Leys) as “the single most liberating issue of any magazine I can remember”.

More generally, Quadrant became a rallying point for Australian intellectuals who rejected the prevailing leftism and the perverse but comfortable notion that principled liberalism required an anti-anticommunist posture. Around it grew a pattern of activity involving seminars and lectures and dinners and committee meetings—as well as close friendships and intense rivalries. (When it was eventually disclosed in the 1960s that the Paris congress, and through it the Australian association of Quadrant, had been funded secretly by the CIA, our general inclination was not to condemn but to congratulate the CIA for having been smart enough to give us the wherewithal to do what we wanted to do in any case—and then not to interfere or to impose conditions. The secrecy was regrettable, but we didn’t live in a perfect world and it had been a condition for the thing being done at all.)

In due course, air travel became cheaper and quicker, and the tyranny of distance over Australian life slackened. In the 1960s, visits to the United States became less rare. When anyone from the Quadrant circle made it to New York, the preferred way of coping with the initial overwhelming impact of the city was to ring Irving Kristol. It must have become tiresome for him after a while, but he bore it with good grace, and some lucky Australians enjoyed lunch in the agreeable setting of the Century Club as one of their first meals in the city. (When he lived in New York, Irving was a clubman; in Washington, he is not. I have forgotten to ask him why.)

My own first meeting with Irving was in 1968, when I spent part of a sabbatical in America. My initial impression, strengthened rather than changed over the years, was of how comfortably high intelligence and good nature—two qualities that are not habitually found together (or even separately) in intellectuals—were combined in him. The intelligence was evident in the way the conversation seemed to be happening in a higher gear than I was accustomed to: the sharpness of the wit, the speed in anticipating one’s point, the shorthand in stating his own. (The latter was easy to mistake initially for off-the-cuff dogmatism, until one probed and found that the arguments were all in place and that it was just a case of dispensing with the recitative. When, say, Irving pronounced flatly that NATO should be abolished, it was after he had thought hard and carefully worked out his position.)

At the same time, there seemed to be none of the insecurity or vanity that is commonly part of the makeup of intellectuals, no urge simply to score points or put down or claim credit. The wit was funny—very funny—but not vicious, and the gossip was affectionate and tolerant. Irving was, and remains, a kind man: what he does not like he usually prefers to dismiss rather than attack. As it happened, when we met we had both just had articles published in Foreign Affairs, and Irving helped put me at ease by adopting the flattering fiction that the two articles were equally vital contributions to the intellectual life of Manhattan. Shortly after, he invited me to a dinner party at his home at Riverside Drive, and I met Bea. Before the evening was over, an enduring and, to me, greatly valued friendship had begun.

In the mid-1970s, I left academic life—left with no regrets whatsoever, for the foolishness and cowardice of the American university scene had been faithfully copied in Australia. For the next seven and a half years, I worked for the Australian government. As part of my job was to help interpret the political culture of the United States, and as the tide of neoconservatism was running strong in those years, Irving Kristol continued to figure prominently in my thought and work. As a self-conscious position, neoconservatism was to all intents and purposes his creation, and in explaining the phenomenon to my political masters, I drew heavily on his ideas. (Our professional diplomats, like their counterparts elsewhere, spoke mainly to other professional diplomats and officials and were slow to recognise and to appreciate the significance of intellectual innovations.) In explaining the significance of the sudden appearance of numerous conservative think-tanks—a startling and unsettling new form of institution for many Australians, who had been schooled to believe that conservatives didn’t think—one also had to talk about Irving. His belief in the importance of the struggle of ideas in determining who would own the future meant that his ramifying practical activities—particularly in encouraging young talent—were shaped by a determination that it would be right-thinking conservatives who would do so.

When I had to write a major speech outlining Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s political philosophy—not the easiest of tasks, given that Fraser, though gifted with a strong intelligence, was not comfortable expressing himself in terms of abstract ideas and principles—I did so with Irving’s Two Cheers for Capitalism open at my elbow. The speech was later published as a definitive statement of Fraser’s beliefs, and I wish I had a copy on hand to find out how much I had plagiarised.

Fraser’s period in office came to an end when he lost an election to Bob Hawke in early 1983. This also brought to an end my spell in Paris as ambassador to UNESCO (a personal highlight of which had been a dinner I hosted at which a group of Parisian intellectuals led by Raymond Aron—ailing, but still with a hearty appetite for both conversation and food—met a group of New York intellectuals led by Irving who happened to be passing through on their way to a conference). I retired to Washington and spent a productive year at the Heritage Foundation, writing and helping to get the United States and Britain to leave UNESCO.

But what to do next? Irving Kristol had the answer ready, and it had a familiar ring: Why not start a magazine! Like Encounter, but mostly about foreign policy! Irving’s friend Michael Joyce was thinking along the same lines and was in a position to help make it happen. So the National Interest was conceived, and in 1985, exactly thirty years after first reading Irving Kristol, I began to work with him.

Irving was to be the publisher, and Robert Tucker, of Johns Hopkins, and I the co-editors. Bob and I had never met, but any worries we might have had about each other were overshadowed by our shared uncertainty about how Irving might interpret his role as publisher. He was, after all, one of the great editors of his day and a man of forceful opinion. Would he not want to have his say, and would not a triumvirate of editors, each with firm views, be disastrous? Our concern was strengthened by Irving’s opinion, freely offered, that one didn’t actually need to know anything to write about foreign policy, it was only a matter of applying common sense. This was a view of things that left me uneasy, but Tucker, who had devoted his whole working life to an exhaustive study of the subject and was one of the country’s leading scholars of foreign policy, found it positively alarming. As an amiable and relaxed Irving cheerfully held forth on the virtues of common sense, Bob would tense. A softly muttered “Man, oh man” would come from his direction. Things didn’t look altogether promising.

In the event, all our worries were misplaced. Bob and I got on famously, and Irving, perhaps remembering the trouble that he himself had experienced with interference from the Paris office of the Congress for Cultural Freedom during his Encounter editorship, performed immaculately as publisher: always interested and supportive, always respectful of editorial autonomy, ready with praise and tactful with advice and criticism, taking on himself the onerous but crucial responsibility of looking after the funding. On one thing Irving was firm: the National Interest would not be a “journal”, it would be a magazine. It would be concerned about reaching the educated general reader, not the specialist; it would give attention to ideas and arguments and policy, rather than emphasise scholarship; it would put a premium on decent writing.

After a quiet start, the National Interest steadily gained prestige and influence. Oddly, though we could be fairly characterised as a “Cold War magazine” when we began (in our first issue, we asserted quite firmly that “the Soviet Union constitutes the greatest single threat to America’s interests, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future”), we performed rather better after the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union. We took up the questions of the nature of the post-Cold War era, and of the appropriate American foreign policy for it, more quickly and in more lively fashion than most others. Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History?” (1989) gave us a flying start, and we have continued to be pace-setters in the discussion of the character of the new era.

While the magazine has always welcomed a variety of conservative and centrist views, the prevailing editorial position—or disposition—has been one of realism. Initially, this was something that Irving—a New York intellectual accustomed to focusing on the role of ideas—did not altogether share. In the lead piece that he contributed to our first issue—“Foreign Policy in an Age of Ideology”—he declared the traditional conception of national interest to be “dead beyond resurrection”—thereby directly challenging the validity of the new magazine’s name! But over time the National Interest has succeeded in converting its publisher, and he has now sometimes taken to describing himself as a neoconservative neorealist when the subject of foreign policy comes up.

One of the great pleasures of going to work as editor of the National Interest is that one gets to meet Irving—sitting just across the room as editor of the Public Interest—every day. As befits a New York intellectual, he is rarely to be caught without firm—or at least definite—opinions on both current issues and editorial matters, and listening to them is a stimulating way of starting the day. (On the editorial questions he is tough-minded, and he quotes with relish Cyril Connolly’s response to an author complaining about the non-appearance of his article: “Well, it was good enough to accept, and it was good enough to set in type, but it wasn’t good enough to publish.”) As is much rarer in the case of intellectuals, Irving is also an exceptionally good and responsive listener.

Another major advantage of working with him is that one gets to meet a lot of bright and nice young people. Irving is a great believer in and practitioner of the intern system; there has been a flow of such young talents through both our offices during the ten years I have been there. More often than not, he and I have been the only people over thirty on the premises.

This commitment to the young is a matter of affinity as well as policy: he likes the company of young people. When I was beginning to write this piece in the fall of 1994, Irving and Bea gave a party for those who had worked on the two magazines as interns over the past twenty-five years. Nearly fifty men and women turned up, a fair sample of Irving’s young people over three decades and with an age range from the early twenties to the early fifties. They included many who now hold prominent positions in government, universities, think-tanks, newspapers, foundations—as well as some editors of magazines. These are all people who, at a crucial stage of their lives, benefited greatly from exposure to Irving: from his instruction, his advice, his encouragement and care and friendship—and most of all from his example of how to live honestly and creatively on that uncertain ground where the worlds of ideas and of public policy meet. At that party, affection for him radiated through the company. Brilliant writer though he is, and enormously influential though he has been, I suspect that Irving might regard the people in that room as his most satisfying achievement.

Owen Harries is now visiting fellow at the Lowy Foundation, Sydney.


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