The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 23, 2019

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American Conservative Thought

The problem is that America, viewed in a certain aspect, would appear to be an overwhelmingly “ideological” nation—a “propositional” nation. The Harvard political theorist Louis Hartz famously observed in the 1950s that America is the Lockean country par excellence, arising from an aboriginal condition closely resembling Locke’s state of nature and a founding compact reflecting Lockean principles of consent. Consequently, it is said, all Americans are “naturally” Lockeans, committed bourgeois liberals, and there never has been, nor ever can be, a genuinely conservative party—in the “European” or authentic sense—in American life. While this view of the meaning of America and its attendant political-intellectual limitations has been challenged pointedly on historical and other grounds, it remains a dominant position in academic political theory.

From this perspective, those whom Americans call “conservatives” are really nothing more than “right-wing liberals.” Indeed, for a considerable period it was common to equate American conservatism completely with the so-called Manchester School of classical liberalism, with its unabashed embrace of free-market capitalism and its advocacy of a minimalist “night watchman” state. Such an equation, however, was described scornfully as the “Great Train Robbery” of American intellectual history by Clinton Rossiter, and justly so. While an appreciation of free markets and limited government is indeed an element of modern conservatism, such a stance does not exhaust its meaning. Nor are the reasons conservatives give for affirming these principles the same as those adduced by classical liberals.

National Review cover

In his seminal work, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, George Nash chronicled the emergence of modern American conservatism in the period just after the Second World War through the prism of the magazine National Review, undoubtedly the central organ through which modern American conservatives came to recognize themselves as a coherent movement. Nash identified the three main intellectual tendencies that found a place in the charismatic William F. Buckley Jr.’s magazine: libertarianism, anticommunism, and traditionalism.

The libertarians were more or less the direct heirs of the prewar critics of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Road to Serfdom, by Friedrich Hayek, was the bestseller that served as their touchstone. In that book, Hayek argued that Soviet-style collectivism need not be achieved by revolutionary violence only: the slow and seemingly inexorable advance of the welfare state could lead to the same oppressive end. Thus, a self-reliant “individualism” must always be championed and the lure of socialist solutions resisted. Most libertarians viewed social questions through the lens of economic thought, particularly the theories of Austrian-school economists such as Ludwig von Mises. They stressed the efficiency and productivity of the free market—arguments that subsequently have been widely accepted. But they also celebrated the virtues of freedom in more broadly humane terms, and they took pains to counter those leftist critiques which equated the operation of markets with exploitation and injustice.

The anticommunists in Nash’s account were a group of writers and intellectuals who in many cases had themselves been members of the Communist Party in their younger lives. As a result, they had a lively sense of the attraction of Communist ideology and a troubled respect for the efficacy of the Communists’ disciplined cadres. In the National Review circle, these ex-communist anticommunists included James Burnham and Frank Meyer. The anticommunists’ concerns about domestic subversion led them to a generally (though not always) favorable attitude toward the campaign of Senator Joseph McCarthy, but they also addressed, in detail, questions of national strategy in the emerging Cold War. The great anticommunist testament that galvanized a generation of conservatives was Whittaker Chambers’s Witness. The difficulty the early anticommunists faced was that much American liberal and progressive opinion did not fundamentally object to communism, which was sometimes described benignly as “the New Deal in a hurry.” After all, had not the Soviets been our allies against Hitler and were they not on the side of “progress”? Against this perception, the anticommunists argued that communism and Nazism were in fact two species of a common genus: totalitarianism. A common fear was that, steeped in suicidal liberalism, Western societies lacked sufficient will to resist the determined assaults and seductive attractions of the totalitarians.

The traditionalists, who in the early 1950s were referred to as the “New Conservatives,” comprised a group of writers who attempted to situate American conservatism in a broader context, drawing a connection explicitly to European conservative traditions. Prominent among these were Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, and Richard Weaver, author of Ideas Have Consequences. Peter Viereck, author of Conservatism Revisited, and Robert Nisbet, author of The Quest for Community, may also be numbered among the traditionalists. For the traditionalists, modernity as such was usually recognized as problematic—giving rise to moral, social, religious, economic, and political problems, all driven by ideology in one way or another. They looked with affection on societies that had resisted modernity in the name of tradition, whether in the American South or as far afield as Spain. In light of the devastation of the Second World War and the threat of Soviet communism, the traditionalists understood Western civilization to be in a state of crisis. They sought to address this crisis through a recovery of tradition, a reconnection with the West’s moral sources, whether classical or Christian. Such a project frequently took traditionalists in the direction of intellectual history and high theory; this direction can be seen especially in the work of thinkers such as Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss, both of whom were traditionalists of a sort—though today that connection, especially with respect to Strauss, is contested.

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