Ben Ross: Who Named the Neocons?

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[Hat tip to A.L.]

Dissent, Summer 2007

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.[1]

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.[2]

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, or the American historians who reacted against Charles Beard, Carl Becker, and their liberal interpretation of the Revolutionary era. It was in the latter sense that the word made its first appearance in the New York Times, in a May 26, 1968, book review by Columbia University historian Richard Morris. It described—of all people—Staughton Lynd, in some of whose work Morris found “an updated and perceptive brand of neoconservatism.” It recurred annually in the Times thereafter.[5]

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One response »

  1. Very nice piece. I have been reading up on the neo-conservative movement during the last few months, and it is surprising how little people actually know about it. People throw the term “neocon” around as a pejorative on the left, but I see the neo-conservative philosophy of putting democracy first as a core left leaning tenant.

    I have problems with the application of the neo-conservative agenda, but I do find that they are my temporary allies (as Hitchen’s put it) in the War for Democracy.

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