Derek Robertson has a piece at Politico Magazine called “How ‘Owning the Libs’ Became the GOP’s Core Belief.” It’s an interesting article with plenty of quotes from friends of National Review. The thesis is that conservative provocations against liberal elites have a long history that predates the rise of Donald Trump. That’s true. But in the course of his narrative, Robertson mischaracterizes Irving Kristol’s position on Joseph McCarthy. I’m here to correct him.
Robertson says Kristol was “one prominent conservative willing to defend McCarthy, much to the chagrin of nearly everybody to the left of the John Birch Society.” He quotes from the most infamous essay Kristol, then-managing editor of Commentary, ever wrote: “Civil Liberties, 1952—A Study in Confusion.” And then he writes that, “To Kristol, the certainty McCarthy signaled was worth commending, despite his argument’s lack of substance or his corrosive rhetorical style.”
Not so. First, Kristol did not identify himself as a conservative at the time he wrote that essay. He was an anti-Communist liberal associated with other liberal Cold-War hawks at the Congress for Cultural Freedom. He didn’t adopt the label “neoconservative” until the late 1970s.
Second, as Jonah Goldberg tells Robertson, Kristol was not a McCarthyite. Nor was he a McCarthy defender. Not once in “Civil Liberties, 1952” does he commend the Wisconsin senator. Rather, Kristol was a critic of liberals whose opposition to McCarthy often resulted in apologies for the Communist system. The context for the well-known lines Robertson quotes shows this to be the case:
Perhaps it is a calamitous error to believe that because a vulgar demagogue lashes out at both Communism and liberalism as identical, it is necessary to protect Communism in order to defend liberalism. This way of putting the matter will surely shock liberals, who are convinced that it is only they who truly understand Communism and who thoughtfully oppose it. They are nonetheless mistaken, and it is a mistake on which McCarthyism waxes fat. For there is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing. And with some justification.
The rest of the long essay — which you can read in The Neoconservative Persuasion — consists not in justifications for McCarthyism, but in analysis of simple-minded defenses of Communism. Liberal intellectuals, Kristol argued, had fallen into the trap McCarthy set for them: He mistakenly equated liberalism with Communism, and they were happy to agree. “It is equally futile for liberals to try to match Senator McCarthy’s irresponsible declamations with a crafty rhetoric of their own,” Kristol wrote, “especially when this rhetoric, while not designedly pro-Communist, is compelled by the logic of disingenuousness and special pleading to become so in effect.”
“Vulgar demagogue” . . . “irresponsible declamations” . . . “there will always be a basic division and antagonism between liberalism (which is solicitous of freedom) and McCarthyism (which is not)” . . . these are not the sentiments of a McCarthyite. Nor could Kristol’s essay annoy everyone “to the left of the John Birch Society,” for the simple reason that the John Birch Society didn’t start until 1958. Moreover, unlike Kristol, plenty of people to the “left” of the forces that would make up the John Birch Society actually supported McCarthy, including the founding editor of this magazine (who later said that McCarthy set back the cause of anti-Communism by a generation).
It’s true that “Civil Liberties” was perhaps the most controversial essay Irving Kristol ever wrote. The fallout from it was among the reasons he left New York for London the following year to co-found Encounter magazine. The reaction to the piece was itself a study in confusion. The Left never really forgave Kristol for pointing out that equating Soviet tyranny with American liberalism only strengthened the enemies of American liberalism. Every few years, another misreading finds its way into print. Every few years, Kristol’s actual position needs to be restated. The work continues.