THE CENTRAL QUESTION raised in Peter Steinfels' book, The Neo-Conservatives , is does this new label, "neo-conservative," meet the utility test? is is a more or less reliable rhetorical benchmark? "No," would be my answer, or at least, "not yet," in spite of the fact that in this genuinely impressive book, steinfels tries to give some precision to the term. g

The problem with labels is that when they are applied too soon or too loosely, they are, while not necessarily despicable, usually not to be trusted. By trying to encapsulate too much, they oversimplify or mislead. That is the one weakness in Steinfels' otherwise signal contribution to an understanding of what is undoubtedly an important new element in contemporary American politis. In his dogged attempt to present a comprehensible definition of neo-conservatism, he tries too hard to pin down the presence of a powerful new political consensus where, by his own admission, something a lot less than a real consensus actually exists.

Another weakness is that Steinfels, a liberal with a well-controlled admiration for fallen-away liberals, is not necessarily your best witness. But he has been more than fair in dislosing his own prejudices while striving mightily to produce, as promised in his opening paragraph, a "thoughtful, extensive, and careful evaluation" of what he describes at the outset as a "distinct and powerful political outlook [that] has recently emerged in the United States."

Although he is occasionally unfair to the neo-conservatives along the way, he is more importantly unfair to the reader. He tells us in the greatest detail what assorted neo-conservatives are opposed to or simply worried about. But when it comes to the question of what, in positive terms, neo-conservatism is, Steinfels' answer is itself almost a puzzle.

Initially, he describes "neo-conservatism" as an outlook "forged in reaction to sixties turbulence, an outlook fierce in its attachment to political and cultural moderation, committed to stability as the prerequisite for justice rather than the other way around, pessimistic about the posibilties for long range, or even short range, change in America, and imbued with a foreboding sense of our civilization's decline."

So far so good. Neo-conservatives, it would appear, have much in common with the rest of us. They are in flight from the presumed failure of the Great Society, the Vietnam tragedy, the breakdown of moral values among the young, the ravages of Watergate and all the other searing developments of the '60s and the early '70s. They don't like things as they have been. Who does?

But "neo-conservatism" is obviously more than an "outlook." It is also a lot less than a political party or even a political movement. Steinfels describes it early on as "a party of intellectuals," and a few pages later adds the adjective "powerful." He proceeds to give some sense of its sweep and significance by offering an impressive list of the names of those to whom the neo-conservative label has been applied. While the most attention is given to Irving Kristol, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Daniel Bell, the roll call includes Norman Podhoretz, Seymour Martin Lipset, Nathan Glazer, Edward Banfield, Daniel Boorstin, Michael Novak, Ben J. Wattenberg, Walter Laqueur, Samuel P. Huntington, Midge Decter. . . .

If that doesn't give you a solid ideological fix on neo-conservatism, would it help to know that Zbigniew Brzezinski is also on the list? Or that Senator Henry Jackson is identified not once but twice as the neo-conservative candidate in 1976? Or that a number of neo-conservatives "openly supported" Nixon for President in 1972? Or that the American Enterprise Institute is a "major neo-conservative base?" Or that some neo-conservative luminaries fought the cold war -- wittingly or unwittingly, it is not clear -- under the aegis of such CIA cover organizations as the American Committee for Cultural Freedom?

It didn't help me. But, mercifully, Steinfels doesn't leave it at that. Like a sculptor working with stone, he keeps chipping and shaping. Neo-conservatives are not eminences grises . Their work is of high quality. They have powerful connections in the Establishment. They address fundamental questions. They are literate. "Neo-conservatism, it might be said, is literary criticism and social science aspiring to the rank of political philosophy."

And finally, near the end of the book, Steinfels makes his final effort to nail the thing down. "The most substantial explanation of neo-conservatism is the one that sees it as the ideology of a new cast of experts variously described as technocrats, 'new mandarins,' and so on," is what Steinfels eventually comes up with, but the next passages make it clear that he is still groping. "One appropriate term for the group is obviously 'reform professional.' Yet 'stability professional' might do equally well . . . . Perhaps 'policy professional' is the most neutral and suitable description, as long as the larger political and ideological purposes suggested by reform and stability are kept in mind."

Got it? Never mind; perhaps it's more important to zero in on what the neo-conservatives believe, what propels them, where this outlook or developing ideology, or whatever, got its impetus. And here, Steinfels is at his analytical best. Neo-conservatives, it appears, were on to the "malaise" theory of what ails this country long before Jimmy Carter propounded it in his recent diagnosis of the American political scene. Steinfels offers a scholarly exposition of the roots of neo-conservative thinking, tracing it back to Edmund Burke and Auguste Comte and Alexis de Tocqueville, to 19th-century liberalism and the excesses, as the neo-conservatives see it, of 20th-century liberalism. Today the immediate preoccupation of neo-conservatism is with what Steinfels calls the "new class and its adversary culture."

I find these buzzwords bothersome; even Steinfels admits "the new class" label is vulnerable to "polemics, exaggeration and confusion." What it means to him is a large slice of contemporary society deriving its well-being from "expertise" and "position" in large complex organizations -- scientists, engineers, technicians and intellectuals. It is "restless, dissatisfied, and critical" and urgently in need of an ideology. But is also doing quite nicley; it has a vested interest in the status quo. It is apparently the aim of neo-conservatism to co-opt this new force in American society (and politics) by providing it with an ideology. "Today, social and economic uncertainties make it necessary for the policy professional to wage an ideological offensive for the 'hearts and minds' of the 'new class.'"

And what is the ideology to be? According to Steinfels, even Irving Kristol, neo-conservatism's "standard bearer," owns up to nothing more than an influential political current "deemed" to be neo-conservative and a "vague consensus" which: is not hostile to the welfare state but deplores the Great Society version of it; favors a free market and would interfere with it only by "rigging" it, not by direct controls; values religion, family, Western culture, and hates the "counterculture"; is all for equal opportunity, but not for an egalitarianism which ends up with equals shares of everything for everybody; would strike some balance, in foreign policy, between neo-isolationism and "detente" on the theory that American values can not survive for long in a world that is overwhelmingly hostile to them.

Steinfls' own version, naturally, is less generous. On the plus side, he sees neo-conservatism largely as a worthy sparring partner for the left. "I believe that neo-conservatism is the serious and intelligent conservatism that America has lacked," he writes, thus giving the neos a patronizing pat on the head while simultaneously giving the true blues a thumb in the eye. He admires the neo-conservative emphasis on morality and fundamental values. The neo-conservatives, he allows, are good at "exposing unintended consequences of well-meant measures."

But neo-conservatism, he insists, is also downright dangerous. In the beginning, he argues, it was supposed to be a passing thing, no more than an "antibody" on the left in reaction to the '60s excesses which ought to have subsided once the excesses had been "quelled." Instead, it has evolved into an "independent force" threatening to give legitimacy to an "oligarchic America where essential decisions are made by corporate elites, where great inequalities are rationalized by straitened circumstances and a system of meritocratic hierachy, and where democracy becomes an occasional, ritualistic gesture."

Steinfels doesn't predict what the neo-conservative role will be -- whether sinister or constructive, he argues, it will depend not only on the neos themselves but on the skill and vigor of their opponents.

Perhaps. But the future of neo-conservatism, I suspect, will also be determined in large measure by events, mostly economic in nature, unforeseeable, perhaps even uncontrollable. And a doctrine, or whatever, as negative, narrow, passive and addicted to gradualism and the status quo as neo-conservatism appears to be, strikes me as peculiarly vulnerable to rude shocks or seriously unsettling events.