Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Sunday Review: The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945

In 1976, the two hundredth anniversary of America's independence, liberalism maintained the ascendance it had enjoyed since the era of the New Deal. Although liberalism experienced some bitter divisions that manifested themselves at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, conservatism seemed even more in disarray. Conservatives had failed to takeover the Republican Party through the Goldwater movement of the 1960s. Neither had conservative ideas found much of a home in the GOP. Moreover, the Republican Party itself suffered from the disgrace of the Watergate burglary and the resignation of Richard Nixon. It was an inauspicious time to publish a book about conservatism. That year, however, George Nash published the definitive history of the conservative movement up to that time entitled In The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. Began as a doctoral dissertation, the book comprehensively chronicles the contributions of post-WWII movement conservative intellectuals in clear, engaging prose. It turned out to be a portent of sorts as the following decade conservatives finally witnessed the election of one of their own--Ronald Reagan--to the White House in 1980. Reagan's election revived the prospects of the Republican Party itself, which finally captured control of the Congress in 1994.

In the introduction, Nash describes the scope of his book. "This book is about conservative intellectuals--those engaged in study, reflection, and speculation; purveyors of ideas; scholars  and journalists." He explains that the topic of conservatism as a political movement is beyond the scope of his work. He touches on political events most frequently when discussing conservative criticisms of the policies of the liberals (and moderate Republicans) who dominated post-war politics or discussing the conservative search for a presidential candidate as a conservative standard bearer. Nash offers little else on conservatism as a political movement.

Nash's introduction also contains a disappointing note. Readers might anticipate encountering a working definition of conservatism as a philosophy or ideology in a book dedicated to ideas. Instead, he deflects readers with the observation that defining conservatism is a "perennial question." He notes the difficulty of crafting a definition of conservatism that transcends place and time. (Nash pointedly avoids the terms "philosophy" and "ideology" in favor of "intellectual movement" in order to escape the difficulties of definition.) Does conservatism contain any "eternal verities" embraced by self-described conservatives of every era? Or does conservatism merely appear as reactionary sentiments to the social and political changes occurring in any given era? He settles more or less on the later. Consequently, in a refined description of his theme, Nash defines his project as limited to  "conservatism as an an intellectual movement, in America, in a particular period."

This challenge of even defining conservatism within those narrow limits appears most obvious in the opening chapter in which Nash discusses the first of several "streams" of conservative thought which formed the confluence of the  modern conservative intellectual movement. He introduces readers to Friedrich Hayek--who explicitly denied that he was a conservative at all. In 1944, Hayek published The Road to Serfdom, an economic examination of planned economies. Hayek's charge was that "planning leads to dictatorship." The book became a best seller both in the United Kingdom and the United States. It even attracted the attention of those who disagreed with its conclusions. The "Old Right" criticisms of government planning under the New Deal had been largely dismissed because Republicans were perceived simply as spokesmen for business interests.  In spite of the provocative title, a critique by an economist was something else altogether.

Hayek's book proved to be the first of many libertarian books and magazines to challenge the economic presuppositions supporting the New Deal. While "fellow travelers" rather than movement conservatives, the libertarians generated ideas that came to be embraced by the post-war conservative intellectuals-- at least on economic matters.

A a second stream of more philosophical and less accessible conservative writers included  Richard Weaver, Eric Voegelin, and Leo Strauss. In different ways they rejected both modernism in political philosophy and modern mass man. They traced the origins of what they described as the modern malaise to errors in thought made decades before by philosophers in Europe starting with Niccolo Machiavelli. What seemed to unite these eclectic writers is the eclipse of the ancient notions of virtue by the modern embrace of moral relativity. In Nash's view, they found it easier to fight ideas rather than more or less irresistible social and economic changes of modernity such such as industrialization or urbanization.

Nash turns next to the most influential group among the conservatives: the traditionalists. They, too, looked to Europe, not so much for conservative ideas or sources of contemporary philosophical error, but for a traditional  social order. The thinker most responsible for articulating this natural order was Russell Kirk in his The Conservative Mind. By means of biographical sketches, Kirk paint portraits of several American thinkers who attempted to foster an appreciation for the traditional order inherited from Europe. In fact, Kirk cites a European--British writer Edmund Burke--as the father of the American conservative tradition. Unlike Nash, Kirk attempted to distill conservative thought into several cannons that included a traditional social order based upon natural law, hierarchy of orders or classes, custom or tradition as against philosophical innovation, appreciation of diversity over conformity, and the inseparable link between freedom and property. Kirk modified these "conservative cannons" several times in subsequent editions of his book.

Finally, Nash introduces readers to the anti-communists, whose alarms about the Soviet threat to the Western way of life brought about some measure of convergence of those other streams of conservative thought. In several books, James Burnham articulated an aggressive stance against communism abroad; he urged replacing the policy of containment with one of roll back. Joseph McCarthy, more controversially, for a brief time led  the charge to roll back communism at home. McCarthy's reckless and mostly baseless accusations about communist penetration of the highest levels of government eventually brought him down. Although supported by most conservatives, McCarthy was despised by the man who actually exposed the existence of communist sympathizers in the government--Whittaker Chambers.

These diverse streams of conservatism converged in another sense within the pages of the flagship conservative periodical, The National Review. Started by William F. Buckley in 1955, the magazine's mission was  to stand "athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no other is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it."

To that end, the magazine published pieces by an assortment of writers from Catholic traditionalists, libertarians, and  ex-Trotskyite anti-communists.   The confluence of different streams of conservative thought was not a smooth one. The National Review also became a venue for philosophical infighting over diverse views about the relationship of conservatism to liberty, equality, and virtue between such antagonists and Frank Meyer and Russell Kirk and between Harry Jaffa and Willmoore Kendall.

Nash summarized the general agreement:

"There was a fascinating heterogeneity in conservative thought, yet most right wing intellectuals readily agreed on certain fundamental "prejudices" which they articulated and refined in many different ways: a presumption (of varying intensity) in favor of private property and a free enterprise economy; opposition to Communism, socialism, and utopian schemes of all kinds; support of strong national defense, belief in Christianity or Judaism (or at least the utility of such belief); acceptance of traditional  morality and the need for an inelastic moral code; hostility to positivism and relativism; a "gut affirmation" of the goodness of America and the West. These were but a few constituent elements of the working conservative consensus."

The National Review, as a biweekly magazine, also became a vehicle for conservative analysis of contemporary politics in a way that book length philosophical treatises could not. Conservative authors weighed in on the cold war, colonial wars abroad, the Viet Nam War, the civil rights movement, and the unrest on college campus. A note on one of these issues that has hurt conservatism politically: the National Review seems in general sympathetic to the civil rights movement and its goals. Because of commitments to the idea of constitutionally limited government, however, conservatives opposed federal action on behalf black Americans. Consequently, Republican share of black vote has fallen from near 40% during the Eisenhower years to less than 10% in the most recent presidential election.

Of course, the point of any political philosophy or ideology is its implementation through the exercise of political power. And in the period examined by Nash, conservatives never earned that opportunity. Conservatives relentlessly criticized the Eisenhower administration and remained lukewarm to the candidacy of Eisenhower's vice president, Richard M. Nixon. The National Review refused to endorse either candidate in 1960. They rallied around Barry Goldwater in 1964, but he suffered one of the largest electoral defeats in the history of presidential elections. They held their noses as they voted for Nixon in 1968 and 1972. The only glimmer of hope  for conservatives came from the election of Ronald Reagan as the governor of California in 1966.

Nash tells a captivating story about conservative ideas and the (mostly) men behind them covering three decades following World War II. If readers seek a working definition of conservatism as a timeless philosophy, they will suffer disappointment. For those seeking an understanding of those who opposed the post-war liberal consensus in America and their alternative vision, Nash's book is a must read. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 should be on the bookshelf of every American conservative.


CW said...

You should be a professional book reviewer, V.L. (is there such a thing?). This is very well done.

Maybe this should be required reading among the members of the GOP. I think too many of them have lost their way.

Thanks for leaving a comment on my Rand Paul post. I’ve been meaning to get to your site but wanted to have a block of time to do the reading. So much information, so little time.

RightDetour said...

It is a great book. I read the older edition. I want to locate the revised edition that carries on the story. I believe Nash also wrote another book called Reappraising the Right. It also might made a good read.