Neoconservatism and the New Left

My colleague Justin Vaïsse has just published an illuminating new history (it was published in French a few years ago but just came out in English) of the American neoconservative movement , which, he argues, can be divided into three distinct phases. First, between 1967 and the mid-seventies, it was a movement of left-wing New York intellectuals who were preoccupied with domestic issues and in particular critical of liberal social policy. Second, from the mid-seventies through to the end of the eighties, it was a movement of centrist Democrat activists who opposed the isolationist turn of the party on foreign policy under McGovern and Carter but also rejected Kissinger’s policy of détente with the Soviet Union. Finally, from the mid-nineties onwards, it was a movement of right-wing Republicans who believed in a “neo-Reaganite” foreign policy and in particular in the use of American power to promote democracy in the post-Cold War world – including, of course, in Iraq.

This complex, fascinating story overlaps in all kinds of interesting ways with the story of Germany’s 1968 generation that I tell in Utopia or Auschwitz and, it seems to me, raises similar questions about the concepts of left and right. In fact, Vaïsse makes the interesting argument that neoconservatism was originally a response to 1968. The first age of neoconservatism – led by New York intellectuals like Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer and Irving Kristol – was, he argues, “an intellectual reaction to the New Left”. Norman Podhoretz – the neoconservative editor of Commentary in the sixties – called it a “reaction to the reaction to Vietnam”. Similarly, the second age of neoconservatism was a political reaction to the takeover of the Democrat party by the New Left that began after Hubert Humphrey’s defeat in the 1968 presidential election and culminated in the selection of George McGovern as presidential candidate four years later. In a sense, therefore, one can think of neoconservatives, at least those who belonged to the first two phases of the movement, as “anti-68ers”.

At the same time, however, it seems to me that there are some striking parallels between the neoconservatives and the 68ers, especially the German 68ers, which centre on the meaning of the Holocaust for them. I think Vaïsse is right to reject the idea that neoconservatism is a “Jewish phenomenon”, as Jacob Heilbrunn argues in his book on the subject; many but not all neoconservatives were Jewish. However, it does seem as if that a certain view of the Holocaust as a central moral and political reference point – a view that is not exclusive to Jews but one that Jews are particularly likely to hold – is often a key element in neoconservative thinking. It is striking, for example, that the emergence of neoconservatism in the late sixties and early seventies parallels almost exactly the emergence of the Holocaust as a central collective memory in American life (see Peter Novick’s The Holocaust and Collective Memory on this).

The most obvious manifestation of this view of the Holocaust as a central moral and political reference point is the neconservatives’ attitude to Israel (Vaïsse mentions one conservative critic who said in 1988 that some neoconservatives “mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States”). Although first age neoconservatives were mostly preoccupied with domestic policy, it is interesting that, as Vaïsse points out, they also rejected the New Left’s “identification of Israel with imperialism” after 1967. The Six-Day war led Norman Podhoretz – almost the only neoconservative who was a part of all three phases of the movement – to reassess his attitude to Israel and to believe that “the unforgiveable sin would be to allow a second Holocaust”. Similarly, according to Vaïsse, Scoop Jackson – the Democrat senator who was the key figure in the second phase of neoconservatism – was deeply influenced by a visit to Buchenwald in April 1945, which strengthened his opposition to totalitarianism and his support for Israel.

Much of this seems very similar to the thinking of Achtundsechziger like Joschka Fischer who moved away from the far left. After the Six-Day war, the West German New Left became even more anti-Israeli than the American New Left (and, in some cases, anti-Semitic). As a member of the far left group Revolutionary Struggle in Frankfurt in the seventies, Fischer shared this anti-Zionism. But after the Entebbe hijacking in 1976, in which two West German terrorists from the left-wing scene in Frankfurt were involved, he changed his mind about the Middle East and in particular about Israel – his own (neoconservative?) reaction to the New Left. From then on, the Holocaust was the central concept in his thinking. In fact, as I argue in Utopia or Auschwitz, Fischer subsequently attempted to base German foreign policy on the principle of “Never again Auschwitz”.

The most striking example of this is German involvement in the Kosovo war in 1999. As foreign minister, Fischer played a key role in making the case for military intervention in Kosovo – and German participation in it. He did so by arguing that, at least in this case, the principle of “Never again Auschwitz” should override the principle of “Never again war”, which had been the mantra of much of the German left up to that point. It’s interesting that among the earliest advocates in the United States for humanitarian intervention in the Balkans were neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz, who is five years older than Fischer and worked on Scoop Jackson’s staff in the seventies before joining the Republicans. Vaïsse points out that Wolfowitz has denied that the Shoah that occupied a central place in his vision of the world (although he has also said it “shaped a lot of my views”). Nevertheless, I’d be interested to know more about the role that Auschwitz played in the thinking of other neconservatives – Jewish and non-Jewish – about humanitarian intervention.

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3 thoughts on “Neoconservatism and the New Left

  1. Thanks for your comment. Actually, The two West Germans involved, Winfried Böse und Brigitte Kuhlmann, belonged to a group called the Revolutionäre Zellen (Revolutionary Cells).

  2. Pingback: Germany’s Kissinger « Hans Kundnani

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