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Conservatism’s Humanist Road Not Taken

Peter Viereck valued rootedness and traditional institutions over the market, standing athwart fusionism, yelling stop.

Ours to fight for #freedom from want/Norman Rockwell. Washington, D.C. U.S. Government Printing Office AA 1943. 1 photomechanical printcol. Poster sho
(Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

It now seems hard to believe, but there was a time when Americans did not often use the term “conservative.” The great Harvard political theorist Louis Hartz even went so far as to argue that in America there are no conservatives. All of this began to change in 1940 when the Atlantic Monthly asked Harvard student and future Pulitzer Prize winning poet Peter Viereck to write an article for them defending liberalism. Instead, he sent them a piece entitled: “But—I’m A Conservative!

In the article, Viereck called for a humanistic conservatism in the tradition of Edmund Burke and John Adams. His defense of conservative philosophy proved a tremendous success and led to a renaissance of conservative scholarship in the United States. However, Viereck soon found himself at odds with the burgeoning conservative political movement. He did his best to stand against what he saw as fusionism’s doctrinaire capitalism and nationalist saber rattling. Though he ultimately proved unsuccessful in opposition, Vireck’s alternative vision of conservatism has much to offer our deeply divided modern moment.

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In his Atlantic essay, as well as a series of books on the history of conservative thought, Viereck argued that properly understood conservatism is not a firm list of political principles, but an attitude grounded in an appreciation of humanity’s fallen nature. As he often liked to say, conservatism is the concept of original sin brought forward into our daily lives. If humans are fallible, it naturally follows that we are not to be fully trusted to answer any pressing philosophic questions. This is not to say that Viereck thought conservatism to simply be nihilism, but he understood that humans are far more likely to be wrong than right.    

As a product of this, conservatives should detest all ideologies—all visions that profess to a total explanation of how the world works and what the future of civilization should be. As Viereck once expressed it: “It is misleading that ‘conservatism’ contains the suffix ‘ism.’ It is not an ism; Adams, Burke, and Tocqueville detested all systems, all ideologies. It [conservatism] is a way of living, of balancing and harmonizing—not science but art.” Though conservatism may not be a true “ism” Viereck argued that certain philosophic tenets naturally flowed from its way of looking at the world.

First and foremost is a preference for what Vireck called "rootedness." By this, he meant those intermediary institutions—family, church, trade union, and so on—that tie us to a place and restrain our selfish passions. These institutions temper our individualistic inclinations, provide a firm restraint on the power of the state, and, perhaps most importantly, give people the space they need to truly flourish. Rooted institutions stand against the rationalist dreams of ideology. Though they may not always make sense when judged by pure reason, rooted institutions have been proven to work and thus embedded themselves within sacred cultural traditions.

Second, Vireck’s rooted skepticism demands pluralism. If we have no guaranteed access to the truth of things, it naturally follows that it would be terribly cruel to try and foist one vision of the world upon everyone else. As a result of this, Viereck spent his early career fighting, with equal fervor, both fascism and communism. In his eyes, both ideological systems trampled upon rooted institutions in a utopian attempt to solve all the social problems in creation. The predictable result of such endeavors was disaster, and Viereck thought it the chief duty of conservatives to remind humanity of its own weaknesses.

Though Viereck certainly thought such reminders must exist in the political world, he believed conservatives’s true home to be in the humanities: art, history, literature, and the like. For it is in culture that conservatism can best chastise a civilization for its hubris. Thus, Viereck’s greatest conservative heroes always remained literary figures such as Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Adams. Their writing lays bare humanity’s weakness and in so doing reminds of our many limits.

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As time passed, the renaissance of conservatism sparked by Vireck began to move in a new direction. In 1955, William F. Buckley founded National Review and started to cobble together a collection of anti-communist hawks, traditionalists, and free market libertarians to try and form a cohesive political movement. The result of Buckley’s efforts culminated in fusionism—a political ideology that sought to use free market economics to sustain the American tradition. This burgeoning conservative movement quickly began to tie its wagon to the Republican party, and in particular Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater.

Viereck thought this turn of events to be a tragic betrayal of conservatism’s deepest insights. He argued that Buckley was taking a cultural attitude and wrongly transforming it into a half-populist political movement. The movement was made all the more odious because it connected conservatism exclusively to the political right. Vireck firmly believed that at its best the conservative disposition had much to offer both the political right and left. Its natural skepticism could help stave off reactionary nightmares and revolutionary dreams at their source. This would become impossible if conservatism was tied exclusively to one political faction over the other. Viereck feared this alliance would end with conservatism itself being subsumed in the reactionary impulses of the Republican Party—a fear not allayed by Buckley’s unapologetic support of McCarthyism.

However, Viereck’s biggest problem with fusionism was not its political methods or its nationalist overtones—it was National Review’s unqualified commitment to free market economics. Viereck was no socialist, but he argued that Buckley and his acolytes went far beyond opposing socialism. Instead, they transformed capitalism into a political dogma, and forcefully opposed any measure that deviated even slightly from their ardent bourgeois economic values.   

In clinging to a capitalist dogma, Viereck thought that the fusionists fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the free market. Buckley argued that support for a free market would encourage the survival of free social institutions such as the family and church. In short, capitalism would be a force for freedom and social cohesion. Viereck disagreed, instead pointing to countless historical examples that displayed the inevitable homogenizing forces of unrestrained free market capitalism. Far from enabling the rooted institution's conservatism so cherishes, capitalism when left to its own devices destroys each and every one.

Viereck argued that capitalism’s opposition to rootedness was inherent to its ideological commitments. Capitalism preaches one simple truth: a society built around accumulation will prosper. To aim continuously for increased material prosperity leads to a focus on efficiency, on carefully removing all objects that slow commerce and human interaction. Rooted institutions that form the heart of a conservative society are simply not built for such utilitarian purposes—their greatness lay in their inefficiency.

As proof that this condemnation of capitalism was not merely a fever dream of his own, Viereck pointed to the British novelist and prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, who, in forming a realigned Conservative Party, refused to open his coalition up to middle-class merchants. He understood that such men have no genuine interest in tradition aside from what they themselves can get out of it. Predicably Viereck’s favorite examples of conservative opposition to capitalism lay in the literary world. He could easily draw upon such giants as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Penn Warren to show the evils of a society built upon the market. He loved to quote a verse by Herman Melville that makes clear the weakness of a greedy merchant society: “The spider in the laurel spins, The weed exiles the flower; And, flung to kiln, Apollo’s bust makes lime for Mammon’s tower.”         

Though a generally quarrelsome fellow, Viereck did not ceaselessly berate fusionists without offering an alternative. He argued on behalf of what he called a humanistic conservatism, one that emphasized infusing the literary world with a conservative disposition and building a strong mixed economy. Viereck felt that bringing conservatism back into the arts would better prepare American culture to withstand the homogenizing influence of modernity and continuously warn us of our own weaknesses.

In this respect, he sought to lead by example. His own historical writings all seek to display the way in which imprudent shifts in culture lead to civilizational disaster. Most famously, his first book, Meta-Politics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind, showed the origins of fascism in the attempts of neo-pagan militarists to imprudently remake German culture. His poetry displayed this same quality, at once praising the dignity of the human soul and chastising humans for their foolish actions.      

Viereck’s economic and political views gained far more opposition from Buckley and his followers than his focus on the humanities. They consistently accused the mixed economy of being soft socialism, the slippery slope to economic tyranny. Viereck disagreed and argued that a mixed economy took the best of capitalism—its free market economy—and combined it with a serious concern for maintaining social welfare and cohesion. Such an economy would better foster a genuinely conservative society were poverty was weakened and roots were maintained.

As a result of this economic outlook, Viereck thought fusionist attacks on the New Deal were misplaced; true conservatives should be working to further entrench the New Deal into the American tradition and help shave off its more revolutionary excesses. Trimming away the worst of the New Deal would be a simple task, entailing moving most progressive reforms to the local level and ending appeals to class resentment as one of the primary bulwarks to advancing social policy. It is for this reason that Viereck had a great fondness for Dwight D. Eisenhower, even as National Review regularly treated his economic moderation with open contempt.

In most respects, though, Viereck’s ideal of a twentieth-century American conservative always remained former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, who he thought wonderfully articulated the necessary path for reconciling the New Deal with conservative principles. He loved to quote Stevenson’s assertion that “the strange alchemy of time has somehow converted the Democrats into the truly conservative party of this country—the party of conserving all that is best and building solidly and safely on these foundations—our social security system and our Democratic Party’s sponsorship of the social reforms and advances of the last two decades—conservatism at its best.” 

Of course, it would be foolish to advocate to modern conservatives that they should find their true home in the Democratic Party or idolize Adlai Stevenson, but there is still much we can learn from Viereck’s alternative vision for the conservative movement. Perhaps most importantly, that the contemporary emphasis on free market capitalism as a foundational principle of conservatism is a relatively new concept, and not one we should feel continuously obligated to uphold. One need not be a national conservative to recognize, as Viereck did, that capitalism destroys the roots of a strong community rather than supporting them.

This article is part of the American System series edited by David A. Cowan and supported by the Common Good Economics Grant Program. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.

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