Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Mother of Neoconservatism Has Died

Gertrude Himmelfarb 
By Robert Wenzel

Gertrude Himmelfarb never got to see 2020, she died on the evening of December 30, 2019, at the age of 97.

She was the wife of the founder of the neoconservative movement, Irving Kristol, and Bill Kristol was her son.

But Adam Keiper informs:
In a provocative 2014 article in National Affairs, Jonathan Bronitsky argued that Gertrude Himmelfarb was more central to the origins of neoconservatism than is generally understood. Long before Irving Kristol cofounded The Public Interest in 1965, he was learning from, and thinking alongside, his wife—about Burke and Smith and liberty and society and human nature. “I am astonished how intellectually twinned Bea and I have been over the years,” Irving would later write, “pursuing different subjects while thinking the same thoughts and reaching the same conclusions.” 
The influence of Himmelfarb’s ideas on neoconservatism, and conservatism more generally, was readily apparent by the 1980s and ’90s. Although she rarely wrote about contemporary policy, her examination of the virtues prized by the Victorians and her concern about the “de-moralizing” of our own day shaped generations of conservative thinkers, writers, and policy analysts.
In 1940, she met Kristol, also a Brooklyn-born child of Jewish-Russian immigrants, at a gathering of the Young People’s Socialist League. She was 18; he was 20; they were both Trotskyists.

One of their early mutual conclusions, according to The New York Times, was to drop Trotskyism.

According to The Times, Himmelfarb won a fellowship to the University of Chicago, where she was influenced by immigrants like Hannah Arendt, Friedrich Hayek and Leo Strauss.

It appears more of the Strauss stuck than the Hayek, though she definitely understood Hayek's concept of second-hand dealers in ideas.

“The philosopher need address himself only to the best minds of an age—perhaps only to the best minds of all time,” she wrote in the introduction to Victorian Minds. But “the historian of ideas must also consider the representative minds of an age, which may well be the ‘second best’ minds.”

But The Times notes, she applauded the Victorians’ “sociology of virtue,” which, she said, called for empathy toward the suffering but also moral sanctions.

And here is the tell that she was a statist and couldn't comprehend a PPS. She wrote:
Having made an absolute of liberty and having established the individual as sovereign, the liberal has no integrated view of the individual in society which can moderate either his passion for liberty or his desire for regulation and control. When liberty proves inadequate, government rushes in.
But she understood how to influence and she clearly was near the top of the neoconservative intellectual pyramid in terms of influence. Yuval Levin writes:
[S]he helped several generations of politically minded intellectuals in her own day understand themselves, their roles, and their goals more profoundly.
And her social policy thinking (that is central planning ideas) managed to get its way even into the George W. Bush administration.

Levin again:
Himmelfarb put it, “the driving mission of most of the late-Victorian reformers, philanthropists, and social critics was precisely to infuse a sense of proportion into the sentiment of compassion, to make compassion proportionate to and compatible with the proper ends of social policy.”...

And these arguments were more influential than we might now quite perceive. Under their guidance, that portion of the American Right inclined to insist on the moral character of political debates made compassion its watchword and emphasized moral culture — and especially marriage, childbearing, religion, and community. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was only the most explicit and obvious example, but the influence of this mode of thought is apparent over three decades in every form of the conservative recoil from the (often-caricatured) libertarian framework of the Right’s economic thinking.

Such recoil had been a repeating pattern in the development of the modern American Right, but the various forms it took after the mid-1970s were all in various ways influenced by Himmelfarb’s insights. And that recoil is very much a part of what we see on the Right today, even if today’s anti-libertarians are unusually unfamiliar with the history of the pattern they are re-enacting.
Yes, a high-level intellectual, who recoils against libertarianism, has died.

Robert Wenzel is Editor & Publisher of EconomicPolicyJournal.comand Target Liberty. He also writes EPJ Daily Alert and is author of The Fed Flunks: My Speech at the New York Federal Reserve Bankand most recently Foundations of Private Property Society Theory: Anarchism for the Civilized Person Follow him on twitter:@wenzeleconomics and on LinkedIn. His youtube series is here: Robert Wenzel Talks Economics. More about Wenzel here.


  1. Huh. I didn’t even know neo-cons had moms.

  2. Proof that Neo Conservatism is just Trotskyism with a pleasant sounding name to fool the American Public.

  3. I encountered her at a Franklin Society event and she rejoiced in discussing the positive aspects of Hitler's reign, it was quite entertaining.

  4. RIP, Gertrude. It has been a number of years since I acquired it, and it is hard to put my hand on it because of its faulty binding, but her _Lord Acton - A Study in Conscience & Politics_ (1952) is quite essential reading for classical liberals and libertarians. I suspect the quote above about "government rushing in" did not refer to the liberalism of Acton but the modern or post-modern left/progressive version.