Michael Novak, from Socialism to Conservatism

A review of Novak’s new memoir, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative

“One of life’s most time-consuming tasks is to achieve disagreement with an ideological opposite,” writes Michael Novak in his newly released memoir, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative. It’s a task that few individuals care to engage in to begin with, and the very few who try rarely have the ability to do so with a spirit of charity that equals their sense of conviction. Yet Michael Novak represents the exception of those who have done just that and his highly engaging book is much more than a political and economic memoir about evolving views on matters of policy. It’s also deeply personal, as it reveals the honest attempts of a man seeking truth and having the courage to follow that pursuit wherever it led him.

Novak begins his account during his time as a young faculty member at Stanford when, at the height of the Vietnam War, Vice President Hubert Humphrey was brought to campus to tout US foreign policy. While Novak had been an admirer of Humphrey, he was appalled by his shallow defense of the country’s war strategy and equally disgusted by the university’s handling of the matter. This was the beginning of his decisive turn to the left and his adamant opposition to the war. Yet Novak’s understanding of politics and the world around him is best understood in light of another war—that of World War II. At the age of six he listened to news of the Nazi invasion of Poland. “Listen closely,” his father told him. “It’s going to change your life.” While it was World War II that first exposed Novak to the fragility of the world, the war in Vietnam, which he saw firsthand while reporting on the country’s 1967 elections, made him realize the complexity of global politics. While this left him with mixed emotions, it also gave him a resolve to engage, rather than to despair.

Born and raised in the Pennsylvania Rust Belt as the grandson of Slovak immigrants, Novak’s upbringing consisted of practical lessons about the obligation to work hard, the duty to save money and spend it well, the value of strong family life, and the importance of one’s neighbors and communities. At age 80, it’s fair to say that these same principles still anchor and motivate both Novak’s intellectual and personal engagements.

After spending more than a decade in the seminary training to be a priest with the Congregation of Holy Cross, Novak eventually discerned that the priesthood was not his calling. While this was a painful decision, he knew it to be the right one and he soon thereafter moved to New York City to begin a career as a writer. After publishing his first novel, Novak turned to the political realm, where he was quickly tapped to serve as a speechwriter to a congressional Democratic candidate in New Jersey. While the campaign revealed to him the limits of politics, it also allowed him to see its potential. An early speech he wrote hoping to reignite America’s sense of adventure and courage, titled “The New Frontier,” was eventually delivered by John F. Kennedy after he received the Democratic nomination for president. Novak’s reputation as an inspired political writer was firmly established. 

Ever curious, Novak soon waded into the world of academia—first as a graduate student and later as a professor. “My dream was to build a bridge, beginning with the practical things,” writes Novak. “If ethics is a branch of politics (as Aristotle proposed), that might be a good place to begin.” The journey to build this bridge would take him from Harvard to Stanford to an experimental college in Long Island and several other institutions along the way. Yet throughout his lifetime, Novak would find himself constantly crossing back and forth over that bridge, living in both the theoretical world and the practical through his journalistic coverage of the Second Vatican Council and the Vietnam War, as well as his masterful tours of duty as speechwriter for the likes of Bobby Kennedy, Sergeant Shriver, and a US ambassador.

Through these various endeavors, Novak experienced politics in the trenches while working alongside some of the brightest and most influential minds of the 20th century. Perhaps his life’s work is best described as a continuing education—an unquenchable pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. And it was this continual pursuit that led him to ask serious questions about many of his political and economic stances. As the son of immigrants, all he had known was leftist politics. In his eyes, the Democratic Party was the party concerned about the plight of the poor, particularly workers, while the Republicans Party was made up of wealthy tycoons eager to exploit the working class. As an idea man, he believed the ideals—and promise—of socialism would improve the world around him.

Yet as Novak traveled the world and engaged with folks on both sides of the political aisle, one questioned haunted him: why was it that socialism in practice had never succeeded? In every example he looked to, be it China, the Soviet Union, and Cuba, among others, he found that socialism never produced wealth, it only seemed to consume it. These honest queries led him to begin his eventual critique of socialism, while still hesitant to accept its alternative. As he recalls in the memoir, “It was easier for me to decide against socialism, than in favor of capitalism.”

As Novak weighed the merits of both socialism and capitalism he soon realized that the underlying difference was the way each system understands human nature. In 1976, Novak publicly denounced socialism in an editorial for the Washington Post titled “A Closet Capitalist Confesses.” In it he reasoned, “Socialism is a system built on belief in human goodness, so it never works. Capitalism is a system built on belief in human selfishness; given checks and balances, it is nearly always a smashing, scandalous success.” 

Since that time, Novak has been an unashamed capitalist—but never willing to concede that a system based on human selfishness should be unrestrained. In fact, as a devout Catholic, he realizes the need for restraint and the call to inspire goodwill and virtue as an essential part of civil society. It is in this regard that he has been critical of capitalists who are uninterested in the cultural and moral concerns necessary for economic flourishing. According to Novak, “Economics begins in the mysticism of creativity. Politics begins in the mysticism of common action. Culture supplies the mysticism for both.” Until we create a culture that values and respects all individuals, both our political and economic systems will suffer.

Writing from Left to Right is chock-full of wonderful back stories and personal anecdotes of Novak’s friendships and working relationships with, among many others, Steve Forbes, Vaclav Havel, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Sergeant Shriver, and John Paul II, whom he fondly remembers as the friend closest to his heart. Yet despite working alongside such greats, Novak has never lost sight of his roots—or the “least of these” in society—that have inspired his life’s work. Ultimately, it could be said that what motivates Michael Novak is poverty—in all forms, be it political, economic, cultural, or spiritual. As such, he praises the left for the up-front attention given to the poor, while praising the right for offering better arguments about the best ways to help the poor. Yet he never posits that political or economic systems alone can right all wrongs, hence his focus on the cultural and moral systems that are indispensable to fostering stable and healthy communities and families.    

In 1972, George McGovern asked Sergeant Shriver to be his running mate in the presidential race. Serving as Shriver’s speechwriter at the time, Novak penned the following words for his acceptance speech: “The best-fed nation in the world suffers famine of the spirit. We have a sense of something lost, something missing.” It’s clear from Novak’s memoir that he still believes that something is indeed missing in our nation’s spirit. In the closing pages of the memoir he laments the national debt that will be passed on to his grandchildren and likely, their grandchildren, a nation that has lost its ability to understand the intrinsic nature of marriage, and a nation that still promotes legal abortion as a solution to poverty. While his observations are clear-eyed and straightforward, he is not a pessimist. His is the spirit of a true patriot that has spent a lifetime aiming to provide proper nourishment to a nation still very much in need.

In that same 1972 speech for Shriver, Novak concluded with words from the Jesuit philosopher and priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” Michael Novak’s life has been one of discovering that fire. We should be grateful for him using it to light the way—both for past generations and for those to come.  


Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative

By Michael Novak

Image, 2013

336 pages, Hardcover, $24

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About Christopher White 0 Articles
Christopher White is director of Catholic Voices USA.