The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 23, 2019

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American Conservative Thought
Russell Kirk

It should immediately be apparent that there was no small degree of tension among—and within—these three intellectual tendencies within the nascent postwar conservative movement, giving rise to sometimes acrimonious debates.

From the standpoint of the libertarians:
From the standpoint of the anticommunists:
  • the libertarian devotion to individualism in fact hastened the appearance of the mass man, detached from traditional social authorities in a state of anomic alienation, and it was precisely this type of human being—as the experience of Nazi Germany had shown—that was most prey to the totalitarian temptation;
  • traditionalists on the other hand were thought to be sometimes insufficiently alarmed at the threat of communism; they were too attracted to an isolationism that would cede the globe to communist oppression.
From the standpoint of the traditionalists
Frank Meyer

In the pages of National Review, Frank Meyer (acting in effect as chief ideologist) proffered what became known as “fusionism” as a consensus doctrine for the movement: Conservatives are those who pursue traditionalist ends (virtue) by libertarian means (freedom). Of course, almost as soon as it was proposed, fusionism was subject to objections from libertarians and traditionalists alike.

Was the conservative intellectual movement then nothing but a “shotgun marriage” in the face of the Communist threat, and was fusionism nothing more than a rhetorical sleight of hand to paper over irreconcilable theoretical differences for the sake of political success? While at first glance this would seem to be so, the reality is more complex. For one thing, each of these three tendencies really did authentically represent part of the mind and personality of Buckley, the movement’s impresario and archetypal figure. For another thing, each of the three tendencies understood itself to be resisting the tides of history, and so each took on the “form” of a conservatism. Also, as M. Stanton Evans and Willmoore Kendall emphasized, whether we understand ourselves primarily as inheritors of Western civilization or as American citizens, our tradition really is a tradition of freedom; Meyer’s formulation captured in general terms the fundamental moral, social, and political intuitions of a broad class of dispositionally conservative Americans. Finally, the intellectuals drawn to the nascent conservative movement “felt” themselves to be engaged in a common cause. Against the regnant liberalism, they were locked in dialogue, seeking common ground.

What is more, there was genuine common ground to be found. Any account of the tensions among these three intellectual tendencies must be balanced against the subtle connections and areas of agreement among the same three groups.

For libertarians,
  • a central thinker was Albert Jay Nock, who insisted that true liberty is something demanding, difficult, hard; in fact, liberty is only really possible for those who have undergone an intense cultivation in high culture and great books. In other words, Nockian libertarians shared something very important with the traditionalists.
  • Moreover, the libertarians could certainly affirm that the anticommunists were right that communism represented an extreme violation of the liberty of the individual and so must be resisted.
For the anticommunists,
  • the libertarians were correct in their fear that “it can happen here”: domestic communism was indeed a genuine threat, not a chimera, and we might well be on the “road to serfdom.”
  • What is more, the traditionalists were right in their critique of mass society, for the emergence of the mass man was indeed the enabling condition for totalitarianism; the traditionalists were also right when they contended that a flourishing civil society, richly settled in tradition, was the best possible domestic defense against the totalitarian temptation.
For the traditionalists,
William F. Buckley, Jr.

The truism, however, is true: anticommunism was the “glue” that held together the classical postwar conservative intellectual movement. With very few exceptions, all conservatives could agree that communism represented a kind of summum malum, the preeminent civilizational challenge of the second half of the twentieth century. On this great question, the Cold War conservatives were right—and many on the left were wrong. Conservatives therefore rightly celebrate the presidency of Ronald Reagan as an exemplary era of conservative governance. But the emphasis on anticommunism as a unifying theme also had a price: because of it, the largely unanticipated collapse of Soviet communism in 1989–91 threw American conservatism into a state of uncertainty from which it has yet to fully emerge.

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