"Neoconservatism vs. Multiculturalism and Radicalism during the 1980s and early 1990s: The Historical Ideology of Gertrude Himmelfarb" by Avital H. Bloch
Avital H. Bloch is Research Professor and Director at the Center for Social Research, University of Colima, Mexico. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
In this paper I will focus on the distinguished historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, Professor Emeritus of modern British history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. I will examine her approach to history and her critique of the practices and trends prevalent in the study of history during the last three decades. In her own work as well as in commentaries on the work of other historians—even though she studies the British past and often refers to British scholars—Himmelfarb especially expresses concerns especially about the state of historiography in the United States, concerns that are a reflection of the American neoconservative ideology and its concepts of history and politics.
Himmelfarb was born in 1922 in Brooklyn, New York. She received her bachelor’s degree in history and philosophy from Brooklyn College in 1942, the year she also started her graduate studies at the University of Chicago. There, as she herself acknowledged, she came under the influence of what by the late 1940s began to be known as “conservative liberalism.” This was articulated by the prestigious “Chicago School,” with which prominent thinkers such as philosophers Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt, and economist Friederich Hayek were associated. They were particularly concerned with the nature of political freedom as a superior goal and examined political values in the traditional light of early modern and classical thought. Such ideas have indeed guided Himmelfarb’s historical work ever since.
In 1950 Himmelfarb completed her doctoral thesis at Cambridge University on the 19th century British parliamentarian and political philosopher Lord Acton. After working for fifteen years as an independent scholar with no institutional affiliation, in 1965 she joined Brooklyn College and, from 1968 until her recent retirement, she was a member of the City University’s faculty. She achieved the undisputable reputation as a prolific writer and one of the most important historians of 19th century Britain, which brought her prestigious memberships in the British Academy, the Royal Historical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (“Himmelfarb”).
Himmelfarb is one of the few historians, very few women, and the only prominent female historian, among the leading core group of American neoconservative intellectuals, which has included primarily sociologists and political scientists, along with literary critics. What defines them all—people such as Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter—as neoconservatives is a peculiar history of political transformation that shaped a distinct ideological concept. Since the late 1930s, their antitotalitarian and anti-Stalinist critique brought them away from socialism into mainstream postwar anticommunist Cold War liberalism. The transformational process culminated in the late 1960s in a shift from liberalism to support of a newly created ideology of neoconservatism. It combines a few vestiges of the old American left, some principles of orthodox consensus liberalism, and high degree of right-wing conservatism.
Himmelfarb represents what might be described as a “neoconservative family.” One of the most important neoconservatives and probably the best known is Himmelfarb’s husband, Irving Kristol. He is a co-founder and co-editor of Public Interest, a central neoconservative journal and an influential figure in the American Enterprise Institute, the neoconservative think-tank. The couple’s son William Kristol is a second generation neoconservative, active in White House and Republican Party politics. Elizabeth Kristol, their daughter, writes as a critic in the neoconservative magazine Commentary. Himmelfarb’s brother, Milton Himmelfarb, is also a veteran neoconservative who writes frequently in Commentary.
Himmelfarb’s opinions about the principles of history and its writing are significant due to her elite position in the historical profession. Yet, what also makes her historiographical critique important is the neoconservative ideological-political point of view it represents in the larger debate over contemporary historical writing in the United States. An understanding of the connections between Himmelfarb’s historical thinking and neoconservative political thinking can explain further the central role of ideological conviction in the conflicts between historiographical schools over the last three decades.
Himmelfarb began asserting neoconservative academic concerns during the campus crisis of the late 1960s in the United States. Neoconservative and traditional liberal professors were worried about the threat they believed was posed by radical New Left students to the American “liberal university:” they feared the violent occupations of the most prestigious campuses by students, their attempts to politically mobilize the university, and above all, the loss of the principle of “academic freedom” because of students’ efforts to make learning “relevant”—to politicize it. In such atmosphere, in the late 1960s, Himmelfarb was among the founding members of the network University Centers for Rational Alternatives (UCRA), along with its neoconservative philosopher leader Sidney Hook. The organization struggled to mend the campus situation by articulating a critique of the academy by anti-radical, responsible liberal academics themselves. Their goal was to restore the university’s autonomy and integrity (Bloch, “Emergence,” 236-85).
The 1980s presented American campuses with a new crisis, which has been primarily characterized by new attempts to politicize the curriculum. What came to be called “multiculturalism” in the universities intended to fit the curriculum to the emerging needs for cultural identity on the part of “marginalized” racial, ethnic, gender groups. In fact, the debates since the 1980s between the intellectual left and right over scholarship only accentuated and expanded on issues that had already emerged in the 1960s (Bloch, “Multiculturalismo”). Thus critical intellectuals compelled to continue their defensive struggle in the 1980s, and once again Himmelfarb joined forces with previous allies. She has served on the editorial advisory board of Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), the leading group that has campaigned against what its politically conservative and neoconservative members regard as the continuing dangerous influence of the left in academia. In the name of this very cause Himmelfarb also published extensive articles especially in the neoconservative opinion magazine Commentary and the more academic journal American Scholar, representing various currents of conservative thought. And recently, in 1992, she was named Jefferson Lecturer by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the powerful federal government agency for support of the humanities (“Of Heroes”). Under its chairperson Lynne Cheney, in recent years it was committed to the defense of traditional scholarship.
In her historical writing and political critique, then, Himmelfarb represents the neoconservative and traditionalist trends of thought. She has been concerned about the deterioration of humanistic learning in general and of history in particular, and perhaps above all, about the possible detrimental effects this deterioration might have on the direction of present society and politics. Several critics have already commented on the way Himmelfarb’s historical work reflects her concerns about present issues and her wish to influence intellectual discourse and public affairs through historical writing. For example, in a comment on Poverty and Compassion, her most recent book, the historian Alan Ryan wrote that she has “a hidden agenda—save that her agenda is not at all hidden…It is unthinkable that Ms. Himmelfarb would pass up the chance to fight a few contemporary battles while she is chronicling the past. She has always subscribed to the view that history is philosophy teaching by example, and the tart tone of much of her writing is no doubt due to her sense that we live in an age of bad examples.” Following this are her biases: she is “an excellent practitioner of the sympathetic historical reconstruction…when she writes about her likings, but no better than the rest of us when it comes to her antipathies” (Ryan, “Do-Gooders”; Petersen; Degler; Turner; Murray; Porter, “Charitable”). Her essays in defense of the old traditional history and against radical historiography, many put together in the 1987 collection The New History and the Old, are openly polemical. Her beliefs about politics, society, and culture that constitute her neoconservative philosophy surface above her specific arguments about historical truth.
Himmelfarb correctly identifies the “New History” with the radical historians of the 1960s and 1970s who were influenced by the French Annales school, Structuralism, and British neo-Marxism. This kind of history began as an attack on the traditional narrative history as it had been known for generations. During those decades, the anti-narrative historiographical trends in Europe and in the United States challenged the traditional narrative. They attacked it for its political as well as methodological failures to represent historical realities of lives of ordinary people and masses (Bloch, “Historia”; Novick 415-68). Thus Himmelfarb describes the counter-narrative approach chosen by the “new history”—to which she also alternately refers as “structuralist history,” “sociological history,” and “history from below”—as history that adopts subjects and methods from the social sciences, focusing on anonymous masses, groups and communities, and on themes such as work and play, family and sexuality, birth and death (_New History_, 13-32, 47-69; “Abyss”; “Group”; “Manners”).
Himmelfarb reiterates that what bothers her is that the new history has become orthodoxy in the profession, as even many reputable historians know no other kind of history, while the “Old History” has been largely displaced: “What once defined history is now a footnote to history.” Even the original Annalistes, she writes, did not mean that the forces they unleashed would go so far as to totalize history and subvert it altogether (_New History_, 1-12). But the effort Himmelfarb makes to invalidate all the principles that underlie the new historical practices demonstrates that it is not only the dominance of the new history that disturbs her, but its basic premises and its very existence (Scott, “Review”).
The first feature of the new history that Himmelfarb criticizes is its focus on the everyday lives of the masses, common men and women, and large groups of people categorized especially by class, race, ethnicity, and gender differences. Such groups are considered by the new history to be structures and the principal problems for historical analysis. Himmelfarb considers the replacement of what was at the core of the old history—elites, organized groups, institutions, and distinguished individuals—with such collectives as a fundamental historiographical revolution that produced several severe interrelated consequences.
The importance given to impersonal and unchanging structures means the loss of the central role given by the so-called “event history” of historical elites and distinct actors (Burke). The new tendency, Himmelfarb laments, not only demystifies history, as it takes away from it what used to give it its drama. But it also falsifies the meaning of history because it discredits great public “momentous” events, such as wars and revolutions, as the major forces that determine the course of history (“Of Heroes”; McKendrick). She asserts that important events are not to be understood by means of the daily activities of ordinary people, but through the actions and ideas of distinguished public individuals. They are the heroes of humanism, the creators of “heroic history,” since through free will they generate events and move history. And as she was taught by both Alexis Tocqeville, the critic of the French Revolution, and American literary scholar and critic Lionel Trilling—two of her intellectual heroes—the role of the historical narrative is to commemorate their worthy actions. But now, historical individuals, the heroes of the old history, are deprived of the freedom to influence, mobilize, or dissent. They cannot become heroes nor “heroes of evil,” namely, villains. Even the historical roles of Hitler and Stalin are trivialized by the new historians.” Denying the deliberate intentions and personal responsibility of those individuals, the new practitioners fail to understand their dreadful regimes as anything more than just historically unexceptional structures (“Of Heroes”; “Abyss”).
In a history that depreciates the value of elites, describing them as self-serving, privileged, or hegemonic, all great individuals are reduced to a level of anonymous private persons and made into “anti-heroes:” their outstanding public moral virtues are ignored and the ideas they have articulated forgotten (“Of Heroes” 22-3; Rubin). After all, the heroism of the Victorian intellectuals Himmelfarb herself studies—from Charles Darwin and John Stuart Mill to Lord Acton—lay in their minds, works, and public virtues (_Darwin_; Liberty; Lord Action; Semmel, “Two Views”; Cheney 4, 9).
Unlike the new historians, Himmelfarb asserts that the ideas of outstanding historical figures are created independently of social reality, transcending race, gender, or class. And precisely due to their greatness and the greatness of their creators, ideas have the power to change reality and to claim a superior status in historical study. The denial by new historians of the importance of personalities with extraordinary minds and recognizable identities is a “presumption against greatness” that contradicts “the very idea of individuality” (“Of Heroes” 22-3; Cheney 6). And since Himmelfarb’s commitment to history as traditional humanism explains her deep concern about the loss of the historical individual, she recommends a return to her kind of history, humanistic history, which consists of a combination of the history of ideas—or intellectual history—which deals with individuals as creators of serious ideas, and political history, which deals with individuals as actors who mobilize history (_New History_ 9, 94-106; “In Defense”; Magnet).
The old political history that regards “man as a rational, political animal” is what connects ideas with the basic principles of both humanism and the modern liberal state (_New History_ 25; Rubin). Himmelfarb suggests that if we look at the Victorian “Whig history,” the ideal she tries to follow as a model to her own work, we will acknowledge that it demonstrates the dependency of the paradigms of humanism and state upon the notion of continuity. The Victorian historians conformed Burke’s idea that liberty is not an effortless natural right that is always in a process of progress, but is a patrimony gained through “descent.” If, as she stresses, liberty is “laboriously acquired and preserved” and is not “assured by providential order,” it needs “laws, institutions, conventions, and principles which encourage its acquisition, preservation, and transmission” (_Marriage_ 163-77).
What is required in order to secure freedom and prevent tyranny, then, is a conservative system: a political apparatus organized by reason and matched by a moral mechanism, and in order to sustain them both, a deep appreciation of the past. Through discovery and transmission of the historical truth, says Himmelfarb, the role of intellectual-political history is to guarantee the continuity between morality and politics that transcend time and are established in the present. This kind of historical approach is admittedly conservative because it approaches the past with a priori respect: it attributes to past wisdom and virtue “the collective opinion of generations” that deserves to endure in the present (“Remaking” 364). While the new social history—”History with the Politics Out”—ignores the “polity” as the principal bearer of inheritance and the insurer of continuity, Himmelfarb hopes that even when she focuses on poverty or on marital relations, her social history—like that of the Victorian historians—is “insistently political:” it discusses the private sphere just to illuminate “public affairs” (_New History_ 13; Marriage 163-77; Cheney 5; Hays).
Due to the ultimate importance of the public sphere, the disappearance of the notion of “national history” also presents a threat. Himmelfarb observes that “in the democratic ethos of the new history,” which maintains that all groups and individuals are equally important and which particularizes history down to atomistic and individualized units, “it is certainly not nationality or citizenship that enjoys [a] favored status.” While the new historians wish to liberate history from the tyranny of the national phenomenon, she insists that beyond inner differences or disparate events, distinct nations with distinct national histories do exist. And nation as an entity is fundamental for political history since the concept of nation implies a common base for the historical continuity of collective political institutions. Nationality as embodied in those institutions, therefore, means the preservation of freedom, individuality, and progress, as well as of a set of values that are accepted by all the nation’s individuals (_New History_ 121-42; “Some Reflections” 665, Semmel, “Two Views”).
For Himmelfarb, the radical historians are responsible for the harmful fragmentation of the idea of national history primarily because of their strong emphasis on class. She does not reject the general notion of class as a fundamental concept of stratification, and she can even sympathize with traditional Marxism in which national history is a basic framework. She is troubled, however, by Marxist and revisionist Marxist ideas of economic determinism, dichotomic class structure, and class conflict (“’Real’ Marx”; New History 47-9). Thus what bothers Himmelfarb about the new historians who are influenced by Marxism is that in their desire to “illuminate darkness” they reduce the phenomenon of class to a quantitative question of standard of living, class relations to a question of oppression, and class culture to class consciousness. They create classes where they did not exist, and make class struggle central everywhere in history. And those who later became influenced by Michel Foucault’s notion of the past as a reflection of sexual, personal, and racial power relations worsen things by also politicizing race and gender, generally non-political phenomena (_New History_ 33-56; “Some Reflections” 661-70; Porter, “Heart”; Himmelfarb, Stone, and Degler).
According to Himmelfarb, those who are most culpable for these attitudes in British as well as American historiography, before poststructuralism, are the English revisionist Marxists, whom she names collectively “The Group.” This group consists principally of E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and Christopher Hill, who were pro-Stalin communists during the 1950s (“Group”). Himmelfarb’s resentment of them reflects her decades-long hostility toward socialists, Communists, and particularly pro-Stalinists. She particularly attacks Thompson for what she perceives as his naive blindness to Stalin’s atrocities and for his failure, after he left the Communist Party, to fully see the connection between Stalinism and Marxism, that is, to conclude that Marxism is always wrong. In comparison with critics who stress Thompson’s later “socialist humanism,” which emphasizes culture and individual initiative as forces shaping history, Himmelfarb does not acknowledge that this revisionism implies a departure from original Marxism. And she sees no other way for him and his colleagues in “The Group” but to confront their own past, an act that should induce them “to liberate themselves from the theories and assumptions they have applied to the past” and to abandon Marxist theory altogether (Porter, “Heart”; Wilentz; Cannadine; Bess; Semmel, “Two Views”).
Himmelfarb demands that instead of over-utilizing economic information, radical historians should use “moral data.” Not the “state of mind” pseudo-data “_mentalité_” historians apply, which is “the worst offender of intellectual history,” but facts about values that demonstrate that class is an entire condition in which moral disposition is a crucial factor (_New History_ 47-69, 99; Rubin). Through her own studies of 19th Century England, Himmelfarb intends to show that class historians impose a biased interpretation. Her work describes a non-economic class consciousness and an emphasis on the moral virtues of character, authority, hard work, prudence, and bourgeois respectability that, according to her, were shared by all English classes (Fuller; Gross; Meacham; Murray; Nisbet; Ryan; Turner; Porter, “Charitable”). She portrays a multiple-class structure that includes not one proletariat against a ruling class, but middle classes, along with several constantly mobile lower classes, united with the elites through an integrative moral order. It was a complex system of social relations, but one in which the poor classes were offered advancement by a group of compassionate yet analytical “scientific” reformers. They devised a welfare system that was value-oriented rather than materially-oriented, conservative rather than radical, and “hard-headed, rational, pragmatic—and at the same time moral and humane.” Therefore it provided “an invitation to economic betterment, social advancement, and, ultimately, political equality” that socialists could not offer (_Idea_; Marriage; Poverty; “Manners; “Victorian Values; “Eagles”; “Moral Responsibility”).
Even more worrisome to Himmelfarb than the new history is its evolution since the 1980s into what she calls “The Newest of the New History.” She sees it as the previous new history but with an added up-to-date layer that consists of poststructuralist theories imported to the United States again, especially from France. The newest history deserves an additional discussion, says Himmelfarb, because “the varieties of the new history have proliferated so rapidly, the rhetoric and the rationale have become so bold, and the entire discipline has gone far beyond the old ‘new history’.” The-newest-of-the-new-history is much more frightening because it “threatens to deconstruct much of the new history together with the old” (“Some Reflections”).
The more rigorous demands by the newest-of-the-new-historians to categorize society through “differences” of gender, race, and ethnicity and the pressures to create a multicultural “counter canon,” made Himmelfarb especially anxious about the possible disintegration of the American cultural consensus and political unity (“Of Heroes” 24; Novick 552-72; Schlesinger). She perceives this counter canon as a major threat to Western culture whose superiority, in her view, is due to its power to transcend all differences in a pluralist society such as the American society (“Remaking” 360-1). But above all, particularization threatens the importance of the West as the locus of humanism, modernism, and the “dogma of progress,” and it contradicts the definition of the American nation as part of the Western civilization, where the national unity is maintained by the dominant Western culture. Himmelfarb even tells how she herself experienced that power of the Western canon as a daughter of a Jewish family in her Brooklyn school years decades earlier. She laments that nowadays, the recent historiographical directions are accompanied by a fad of disillusionment with the idea of the West, which, according to Himmelfarb, puts history and civilization at stake. We might arrive at a future, she warns, which is not only non-American, but which is practically “post-Western” (“Remaking”; “In Defense”; Marriage 168-9; Darwin; Nisbet; Fromm).
What for Himmelfarb sustains the newest history and what makes it so dangerously anti-Western is postmodernist theories that question the idea of a stable and provable truth. She particularly refers to “deconstruction,” in which, among other currents of thought and thinkers, she includes Jacques Derrida’s literary theory and Richard Rorty’s neo-pragmatic philosophy. The first, she asserts, abolishes what we know as literature, and the second abolishes what we know as philosophy. Postmodernist theory “taught a generation…that there is no ‘text’ apart from interpretation, that the author has no more ‘authority’ than the critic, that there is no objective reality, only an ‘invented’ or ‘imagined’ reality.” Historians discovered that as text, “history too could be deconstructed, that the ‘events’ of the past have no objective reality, that they are no more than texts to be interpreted, invented, or imagined…” In this age of “historical imagination,” according to Himmelfarb, when texts have no “authorial voice” and “the past itself is deprived of any authority, any objective reality or factuality,” there is no past except for what historians reconstruct. Asserting their interpretive authority over the historical contemporaries, historians such as Simon Schama, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Theodore Zeldin claim the liberties of the “creative artist” (“Abyss” 346-8; Schama; Davis; Zeldin).
Schama’s Dead Certainties has been discussed by historians as the one of the ultimate examples of postmodernism in history. Schama avoids the ordinary chronological sequences, jumps back and forth in time, uses multiple points of view, merges into the narratives fictional accounts and dialogues, builds invented characters and finally arrives at contradictory possibilities and conclusions about what might have happened historically. Davis became first known for her ideas about “possible history” through The Return of Martin Guerre, and according to Himmelfarb, in his book The French, Zeldin makes illusory connections that are not established by causation and chronology. These historians, then, abolish what we know by history. They impose their literary “‘critical’ or ‘ironic’ imagination” upon historical events and characters as if they were fictional material. Free from history’s “oppressive traditional tyrannies” of chronology, causation, and “facticity” they can simply make up a plausible historical account with no correspondence to facts. No wonder, says Himmelfarb, the words “fact” and “truth” are placed nowadays within quotation marks (_New History_ 122-3; “Abyss”; “Some Reflections” 668; “Remaking” 360-4, 379, 381; “Right”; “BAD”; Humpherys).
Himmelfarb feels that the loss of truth to the notion of factitiousness in the most recent historiography threats Western humanism much more than the previous new history: the new nihilism about truth “may subvert liberal democracy together with all the other priggish metaphysical notions about truth, morality, and reality” (“Abyss” 345). The postmodernist history rejects even more easily the traditional historical genres that rest on the elitist yet universalist idea of truth. The substitutes postmodernism celebrates are equally fragments, and thus, more than ever before, the significance of elites, the majority, and national whole is trivialized. Furthermore, not only do the practitioners of the newest history single out “marginalized” social groups and magnify their historical importance, they justify it by largely inventing their past. As Himmelfarb’s example of women’s history goes, it is written intentionally from a deterministic feminist perspective, not based on actual experience of the historical actors. The risk in the spread of such a “conscious bias” is the possibility of a “total rewriting of history” (“Some Reflections”; “Self-Defeating”; Scott, “History”; Towes).
Each element in Himmelfarb’s discourse and historical work echoes a parallel element of the American neoconservative ideology. First, the basic aspect of the vision of class structure. Himmelfarb clearly reflects what has developed into a neoconservative overall anti-radical concept of the class structure in western liberal democracies, especially in the United States. Ever since the 1950s, the answer neoconservative scholars have provided to the question of what is the best socio-political system for an industrialized, democratic, complex nation, has been “liberal pluralism.” This is a non-Marxist notion that prefers, as Himmelfarb demonstrates, to think about a socio-political structure of multiple groups. First, neoconservatives define these not as classes in the Marxian ideological sense, but as “interest groups.” Whether they are ethnic groups, labor unions, or voluntary organizations, they are guided not by ideologies or fixed principles, but by pragmatic interests. Second, while the Marxist class structure is a two-class structure, and the revolutionary process is a conflict between classes over who will get the entire pie, according to pluralism, there are many groups who compete among themselves for a larger piece of it. Being numerous actors in an established political arena makes such groups flexible and adaptable. Moreover, being in agreement on the basic socio-political principles that guide the country makes them, above all, anti-radical. As Himmelfarb explains the historical case of modern England, the English succeeded in achieving progress while maintaining stability because when lower classes were allowed to move up the socio-economic scale, they were nonetheless convinced of the legitimacy of the elite, and were committed to a consensus over society’s modest fundamental goals (Bloch, “Emergence”; Steinfels; Dorrien).
In England, any extreme devotion to a singular ideological principle on others’ account was doomed to failure. As Himmelfarb argued—and neoconservatives have adopted this as a generally applicable argument—even the principle of “individual liberty” as a dominant absolute idea can harm the real liberties of others and, therefore, harm real liberalism completely. What more, she says, can prove the need for pragmatism and concession than the case of “Mill versus Mill.” Even John Stuart Mill himself realized that need for concession and later in life corrected his own initial radical “liberty” idea of On Liberty. Only when he changed did he truly deserve the title of “liberal” (_On Liberty_).
Thus Himmelfarb’s dissatisfaction with the divisive tendencies by recent historians to particularize society stems from the neoconservative belief that such an approach threatens the unity and political balance that liberal pluralism provides. While neoconservatives believe in a multi-group pattern, they are disturbed by the intentions of radicals to impose a deterministic radical ideology on minority groups. According to neoconservatives, attempts to ideologically mobilize what are fundamentally content groups who are prepared to play only a modest political game, carry the danger of polarizing society, and possibly revolutionize it.
The history of modern totalitarian revolutions proved to neoconservatives a few decades ago the futility and menace of ideologies. The answer they articulated in the 1950s was the theory of the “end-of-ideology.” This was an integral part of their anti-Stalinism and anticommunism, and has dominated their thought ever since. According to that principle, left-wing ideologies are always inherently dangerous because of their evil antidemocratic consequences, as the socialist and communist regimes they produced have demonstrated. Thus Himmelfarb’s attacks on radical historians, and obviously on the ex-Stalinists ones, are characterized by the typical neoconservative antagonistic spirit. To her as a neoconservative, an analysis that is guided by a radical ideology—be it original Marxist or revisionist Marxist—is forever misguided and misleading.
And the more resentful neoconservatives have become toward radicalism and left-oriented liberalism, which, they believe, directs the new scholarship in the humanities, the more they have advocated conservative ideas. Especially since the 1970s, disillusioned by the ambitious government liberal social policies and left-wing demands to actively promote the American poor and blacks, they have stressed the limited capacity of the state to handle social and cultural issues and advance economic justice. Instead, they have urged bourgeois and traditional fraternal institutions—family, churches, voluntary associations—to assume much of the modern welfare state’s functions. They have emphasized that these are the institutions that bear the middle-class ethics, self-discipline, and moral prudence of the social majority, and therefore represent the genuine “public interest.”
Morality, indeed, is proposed as the neoconservative desirable substitute for ideology. In fact, Himmelfarb significantly avoids in her texts the term ideology altogether. The counter-ideology is based on the notions that society is primarily a moral order and progress is an ethical, not a cosmic, taken-for-granted process. Neoconservatives, including Himmelfarb, are therefore alarmed by current—and historical—”absolute liberalism” not simply because it practically violates liberties. They fret about “the modish groups in our culture” who promote this kind of liberalism even more because they dismiss moral limits (Cheney 4). Just as neoconservatives prefer political leadership that respects bourgeois principles, so Himmelfarb prefers the English aristocratic reformers who, by appreciating rooted moral values, helped to bring about social and economic justice without violating liberties and communal solidarities.
Himmelfarb’s call for a “restoration of the moral imagination” and her hope that “reality will assert itself, and culture…will once again assume the task…of interpreting reality” points to a tendency among neoconservatives to often elevate the cultural-moral realm over the ideological-political-economic realm (“In Defense” 463). They find pragmatism and complexities in the first sphere, which they associate with conservative thought, in contrast to determinism and simplicity in the other, which they identify with radical thought. Along with endorsing traditional culture, the neoconservatives wish to prove that in a “good society” the cultural and political realms must remain separate. Thus in liberal pluralism competition is defined only politically, that is, over material gains and power interests. Those interests are divorced from culture and morality, which should exist beyond conflicts.
What underlies all the recent radical manifestations that concern neoconservatives is exactly what they understand as the politicization of phenomena that are mainly cultural: class, race, and gender. Politicization means, as it meant to them in the 1960s, a threat to the university. But more importantly, it implies forcing cultural entities, such as beliefs and life-style—which for the neoconservatives are not measurable in political terms—into the game of economics and power; forcing them out of the private domain of the individual and community into the public domain of the state. The danger in the confusion between the realms is in the penetration of non-quantifiable moral and cultural considerations into the quantifiable political and bureaucratic actions. According to the neoconservative analysis, this process of confusion, which is inherent in ideologies, causes emotionalism and absolutism to take over rationalism and pragmatism. The problem, however, is the loss of the latter, which are crucial for the well-functioning of democratic governments.
Eventually, Himmelfarb’s rejection of postmodernism also relates to this problem. Epistemologically, neoconservatives have been committed to the western humanistic and scientific notions of truth. Truth, they admit, is not metaphysically absolute, yet empiricism and ethics do provide methods to determine true and false (Bloch, “Controversies”). But postmodernists’ extreme problematization of the idea of truth in their preoccupation with culture, and their efforts to place doubts also in the political sphere, might dangerously rob politics of its capacity to function on rational and pragmatic bases.
But as much as Himmelfarb and the neoconservatives insist on the necessity of separating realms, they display difficulties in establishing this separation theoretically. A basic problem arises, for example, when we connect Himmelfarb’s central discussion on morality as a force that propels progress, with her criticism on the tendencies by radical historians to politicize culture, to use it as a resource to gain power, while, also, to renounce morality. As it appears in her own historical applications of the concept of morality, she does not definitely determine whether morality is a political or a cultural force. Because she cannot clearly observe within morality a political vs. cultural contrast, her Victorian reformers, for instance, come out as simultaneously cultural and political leaders, contradicting the theoretical principle of political-cultural division. Furthermore, since the reformer’s moral ethics was applied in political struggles to advance it, Himmelfarb cannot define their moral ethics as distinct from ideology, as her historiographical critique implies.
Himmelfarb reflects the inability of neoconservatives to demonstrate that the actual separation between culture and politics is indeed possible in social reality, or that such separation reflects this reality. It has been precisely radical scholars in the last three decades who have observed the limitations and difficulties of strictly separating the cultural and the political man, culture and politics, ethics and ideology. In attempts to better comprehend the reality of human life they have sought to reconcile the two realms on the epistemological and theoretical level and consolidate the political with the cultural. It is their endeavors to reconcile these realms through a revisionist critique that a neoconservative, such as Himmelfarb, has tried to defeat.
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