Who Named the Neocons?

Who Named the Neocons?

Who named the neoconservatives? You are looking at the perpetrator, or so it is believed. Dissent and its circle, in the early 1970s, invented the term to denigrate the right-moving intellectuals who wrote in Commentary and the Public Interest. The name first appeared in print here, in a Fall 1973 article by Michael Harrington entitled “The Welfare State and Its Neoconservative Critics.” The neocons, it is said, resisted the designation at first and began to use it only after it had gained wide acceptance.

This history can be found in dozens of books, articles, and Web postings; the best-annotated version is in S. M. Lipset’s 1996 book American Exceptionalism. But—you’re reading Dissent, after all—the story really is more complicated.Norman Podhoretz, in his 1996 Commentary essay “Neoconservatism: A Eulogy,” gives glimpses of this prehistory. Podhoretz himself in 1963 had called Walter Lippmann and Clinton Rossiter neoconservatives, and he gives earlier citations from George Lichtheim and Dwight MacDonald.

The word neoconservative has (Internet search tools now reveal) a long prehistory of use in academic and quasi-academic writing to describe any new variant of conservatism. I found it used in 1883, in a periodical that featured excerpts from Karl Marx’s new book Capital.In Today, vol. 1, p. 276 (1883): “…the principles of neo-Conservatism as expounded by the late Lord Beaconsfield…”

In the late 1960s, it seems, neoconservatism began its transformation from academic neologism to part of the language. By this time, the term had developed two specific meanings for historians alongside its more general usage. It designated either the integral nationalists of Weimar Germany, such as Arthur Möller van den Bruck,By 1965, the historian Walter Struve could write that “Right Wingers who hesitated or refused to identify themselves with any political party and who dissociated themselves from the yearning of the more traditional Right to restore the Second Reich have come to be known as neoconservatives.’” “Hans Zehrer as a Neoconservative Elite Theorist,” American Historical Review, vol. 70, pp. 1035-1057 (1965). It appeared in this sense in a July 12, 1970, New York Times book review by Gordon Craig. This usage appears to be an invention by English-language historians; Fritz Stern, in Five Germanys I Have Known (New York, 2006, p.72) asserts otherwise, but gives no citations. The usual German terminology is Jungkonservativen or the konservative Revolution. or the American historians who reacted against Charles Beard, Carl Becker, and their liberal interpretation of the Revolutionary era.For example, S. G. Brown, “Democracy, the New Conservatism, and the Liberal Tradition in America,” Ethics, vol.66, pp. 1-9 (1955). It was in the latter sense that the word made its first appearance in th...

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