Toward a New Fusionism?
The Spring 1986 issue of the Intercollegiate Review included a symposium on the state of conservatism. The seven participants, all of them self-identified Old Conservatives, expressed disapproval over the recent drift of the American intellectual Right. Amid complaints about the general spiritual decline of the modern era was the more specific criticism that the postwar conservative movement had lost its bearings. That movement, launched under the guidance of Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Eric Voegelin, and other defenders of the Western cultural and political heritage, was increasingly without direction. The eloquent Southern historian, Clyde N. Wilson, (in a passage later grievously misinterpreted) set the dominant tone of the symposium:
First of all, we have simply been crowded out by overwhelming numbers. The offensives of radicalism have driven vast herds of liberals across the border into our territories. These refugees speak in our name, but the language they speak is the one they always spoke. We have grown familiar with it, have learned to tolerate it, but it is tolerable only by contrast to the harsh syllables of the barbarians over the border.
Not all the contributions were equally blunt nor did they attack a single enemy. Russell Kirk directed most of his criticism at libertarians. Still, it was obvious at whom most of the shafts were directed. Neoconservatives were described as secular materialists and thinly disguised socialists who have swallowed up once-conservative foundations and publications. In November 1985, Commentary, the premier neoconservative journal, published a symposium on change in America since 1945 that passed over Old Conservatives (with the exception of Robert Nisbet), while inviting leftists to participate in its discussion. Several of the responses by neoconservatives in Commentary celebrated the social progress seen in America since 1945, while disregarding (from an Old Conservative perspective) rampant moral disintegration.
Beyond slighted pride over their treatment by Commentary was the more general outrage that Old Conservatives felt (and still feel) toward those who have taken over their movement (and at least some of their ideas) without paying them homage. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which publishes the Intercollegiate Review (along with Modern Age and other Old Conservative publications), has seen foundations under neoconservative direction withdraw funds from its programs. Even today, leading neoconservatives deny their intellectual debts to members of the older conservative movement. Neoconservatives persist in believing that, until their move to the right, American conservatism was almost exclusively controlled by bigots and philistines.
The latent hostility between the two sides came to the surface in April 1986 during and after a Philadelphia Society meeting held in Chicago. At this gathering of what originally was conceived as a debating forum for conservative schools of thought, old and new conservatives excoriated each other and went home with obvious bitterness. Neoconservatives complained about the Old Right’s anti-Semitism and scorn for those with radical backgrounds. Old conservatives noted the persistent condescension and (the Southerners among them) the anti-Southern prejudice that the neoconservatives displayed in their presence.
Frank Meyer vs. Russell Kirk
Perhaps the Old Conservatives misjudged their long-term situation. True, the neoconservatives have slighted them and may continue to do so. Yet, the Old Conservatives – those who participated in the symposium and those who write for Modern Age – ignore three facets of their movement: its past history, its present composition, and its prospects for the future. Contemporary Old Conservatives like to view the postwar intellectual Right as a movement unified on essential questions. I, myself, have been guilty of exaggerating this unity. Though there may have been more philosophic cohesion among conservatives of the ’50s and ’60s than there is on the contemporary right, the postwar conservative movement has always consisted of contentious individuals and factions.
In the ’50s and ’60s, fierce and protracted debates (often turning into personal quarrels) took place between traditionalists and libertarians. Frank S. Meyer’sIn Defense of Freedom, published in 1962, castigated the “New Hegelian” Statists of the American Right, particularly Robert Nisbet and Russell Kirk. Meyer believed that such thinkers replicated the mistakes of Edmund Burke, the great English statesman and critic of the French Revolution whom Nisbet and Kirk admire. By assigning a metaphysical reality to the state that transcends the rights of individuals, Burkean conservatives, said Meyer, denied the dignity of the individual. They also contributed to the defense of the modern collectivist state, unwittingly joining hands with the political Left. Meyer was at least as open as the writers for the lntercollegiate Review in hurling accusations at his colleagues on the right. Nor did those targeted desist from counterattack. Russell Kirk inveighed against Meyer for his distrust of the state and his libertarian solutions to social problems. Kirk’s remarks, both in the symposium and the April 1986 Philadelphia Society meeting, suggest that his dislike for libertarians – “chirping sectaries” – continues unabated. Robert Nisbet, who has mocked libertarians and religious authoritarians since the 1950s, exhibits a similar disdain.
The Old Right brought together thinkers who disagreed, thanks to the bridge-building of National Review and of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Both products of the 1950s made possible a working alliance within what is today celebrated, or condemned, as the postwar conservative intellectual movement. The members of this movement included the Catholic clericalists Frederick Wilhelmsen and L. Brent Bozell; the uncompromising libertarian Murray Rothbard, who denounced American participation in the Cold War as a collectivist plot; the anti-Communist Max Eastman; Burkean traditionalists; Southern regionalists; and Yankee Republicans. Frank Meyer’s construction of a “fusionist” view of history, intended to clarify the American past and help define its conservative tradition, was a desperate effort to keep his own house in order. A founder of National Review in 1955 and of the New York Conservative Party in 1962, Meyer produced controversy among conservatives as well as the Left. He lectured James Burnham, the neo-Machiavellian exponent of power politics and co-founder of National Review, for being amoral and insufficiently patriotic. His insistence that both moral absolutes and the “Western Christian concept of the person” were basic to the conservative movement caused him to quarrel with Max Eastman. Eastman resigned from the National Review editorial board, after he had attacked Meyer for “pre-liberal ecclesiastical authoritarianism.”
Meyer, the fusionist, tried to forestall such rifts by proving that the American heritage consists of both traditionalist and libertarian values. The Founding Fathers, according to Meyer, had synthesized currents of thinking that had long been “bifurcated” in European politics: “the emphasis on virtue and value and order and the emphasis on freedom and the integrity of the individual.” Meyer justified liberty primarily as an instrumental good, one that allowed men to will what is moral rather than having it imposed. He also grounded the principle of individual freedom in the Christian personalism that he traced to the doctrine of the Incarnation. Because Christian theology taught that God Himself assumed an individual human form and was concerned with each individual soul, it laid the basis for the awareness of the individual that distinguished Western from Oriental civilization.
The justification for individual liberty, as Meyer saw it, was bound up with a Christian and Western metaphysic. Moreover, the modern collectivist state, born of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, was drawing libertarians and Christians together with its attack on their related traditions. In Europe, the rationalists had worked through revolution to reconstruct human nature; in America, by contrast, bureaucrats and social engineers produced far-reaching change without political violence. The results, Meyer maintained, were similar in both cases: established patterns of community, property rights, and once-honored moral authorities were all subverted to make way for a metastasizing managerial state.
Though Meyer’s fusionism, viewed as a philosophy of history, remained rough around the edges, it provided the Old Right with programmatic unity. Its yoking of capitalism and social tradition, individual freedom and the defense of the West against Communist collectivists, marked the conservative political platforms of the 1960s. Meyer’s fusionism as political practice can be read into the manifestos and programs of the various state conservative parties. It informed what Barry Goldwater and his advisers presented as The Conscience of a Conservative, written shortly before Goldwater’s presidential nomination in 1964. Whether Goldwater in 1964 represented the full range of Old Right values is open to question. What is not, however, is that most of the Old Right put aside their reservations and bickering to support his presidential bid.
Even so, members of the Old Right continued to fight about other things. The back issues of National Review and Modern Age and the proceedings of the Philadelphia Society reveal a contentiousness that has lately been ignored. Leftists, most recently Sidney Blumenthal in The Rise of the Counterestablishment, pay insufficient attention to the internal disagreements of conservatives. Such an oversight, however, is understandable among those who have trouble distinguishing even an anti-Communist socialist and secularist such as Sidney Hook from a Catholic traditionalist. Conservative scholars have also played up the unity while understating the rifts in their movement. Jeffrey Hart’s The Conservative Dissent and George Nash’s encyclopedic The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 both leave the impression that postwar conservatism is a gathering stream of ideas that ultimately flow together. The overarching unity depicted in these studies has always been problematic. Conservative wars have been with us since the 1950s. The major difference between the old and new ones is not so much a matter of degree as one of expectation. Twenty-five years ago, conservatives took their infighting for granted and often stayed friends despite their differences. Such tolerance is in short supply within the American Right today, but not because of unprecedented internal strife.
A Sense of Martyrdom
The discussants featured in the Intercollegiate Review symposium were half right about their present situation. They were properly concerned that the Old Right, and they as members of it, had fallen on hard times. The English political scientist Gillian Peele, in an extensive study of American conservatism during the Reagan era, does not mention the Old Right or its representatives; though she makes multiple references in Revival and Reactionto Commentary, The Public Interest, and other neoconservative publications as well as to those of the New Right and of conservative think tanks, neither Modern Age nor National Review is mentioned in her work. Regarding money and professional honors, the second generation of Thomas Fleming has turned to anthropology and sociobiology to demonstrate what Kirk and other traditionalists of the ’50s took as self-evident: class and gender distinctions are part of the human condition. The Old Right (now middle-aged) is no better off than one might infer from their relative lack of political influence. Unlike neoconservatives of comparable intellectual stature, most of the participants in the symposium do not have access to foundation grants for doing research and for living comfortably. M.E. Bradford, perhaps the best known second-generation Old Conservative, earns less at the University of Dallas than do tenured secondary-school teachers in the same city.
Old Conservatives see this deprivation as the price to be borne for preserving the heritage of the postwar Right, or, more precisely, of its traditionalist wing. A sense of martyrdom suffuses the outrage that these conservatives feel at their exclusion from the successes enjoyed by other segments of the intellectual Right. Typically they stress their close contact with the older generation of postwar traditionalists. This connection is real in some cases: Bradford, for example, was a direct disciple of Richard Weaver and Donald Davidson and thus a living link in the Southern Agrarian tradition. Yet, other self-declared devotees of the same tradition, such as Clyde N. Wilson, Samuel T. Francis, and Thomas Fleming, embraced Agrarianism because of books and conversations with their peers. Claes G. Ryn, a Swedish political theorist, has long expressed admiration for Russell Kirk, whose writings Ryn discovered in Sweden through his professor, Folke Leander. Leander shared Kirk’s (and eventually Ryn’s) interest in Edmund Burke and Irving Babbitt. George Panichas, another Old Conservative, was a student of F. R. Leavis at Cambridge. Panichas’ worldview, which was shaped only minimally by members of the Old Right, combines the moral understanding of literature found in Leavis and Babbitt with heavy doses of Christian Platonism. His philippics against neoconservatives include the characteristically Platonic distinction between doxai and episteme, transitory opinions and permanent knowledge grounded in the transcendent. George Carey, who participated with Panichas in the symposium, and is a co-editor of Modern Age, was a younger contemporary rather than student of the founders of the Old Right. Usually seen as a faithful follower of the conservative populist Willmoore Kendall, Carey actually collaborated with Kendall in preparing The Basic Symbol of the American Political Tradition in 1970. He has used Kendall’s thought selectively, drawing primarily on Kendall’s interpretation of the Constitution, which stresses original intention and Congressional supremacy and is only secondarily in defense of majoritarian democracy.
Dawning of the Age of Aquinas?
This selective use of first-generation Old Conservatives by the second-generation needs further examination. It is wrong to assume with their critics that this second generation merely echoes the first. Its members may voice filial pieties about their intellectual elders, but they, like the Straussians, invoke old masters even while expressing their own views. A misunderstanding of this second generation led to a confusing and confused debate between Stephen Tonsor, a conservative Catholic historian, and Peter and Brigitte Berger, neoconservative sociologists. In a speech at the Philadelphia Society in April 1986, Tonsor defined authentic conservatism, as opposed to its imperfect “modernist” neoconservative imitation, as Catholic and Anglo-Catholic Aristotelianism. True conservatives, including American ones, Tonsor maintained, accept the moral-religious worldview expressed in the philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas. Any attempt, he said, to found a conservative movement upon non-religious foundations opens the way to modernism, and even more ominously, to the grim nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Much of the debate between Tonsor and the neoconservatives centered on baseless accusations such as Tonsor’s attribution of Nietzschean teachings to the Commentary circle and the neoconservative charge of anti-Semitism against Tonsor. But there was also a certain amount of agreement between the two sides. In an Octber 1986 Commentary article, the Bergers denounced the “absolutist battle cries on domestic issues” that they heard coming from traditionalists: “We are not able, at least not honestly, to accept any particular moral tradition in toto as being the recovery and unquestionable manifestation of divine will, natural law or reason.” This statement of moral agnosticism clashes with the Lutheran tradition (and its Biblically based morality), which the authors profess to believe, yet the Bergers also concede the very point Tonsor made. While they may have different definitions of “authentic” conservatives, Tonsor and the Bergers do agree on a definition of Old Right conservatives. Like Tonsor, the Bergers view the Old Right as a rallying point for neo- medieval Catholics who hold a monolithic system of values as universally applicable.
Mel Bradford’s “‘Thundering Abstractions”
Although some conservatives fit the above description, they form only a dwindling remnant of the second-generation Old Right. Indeed the Bergers’ critics on the right are at least as skeptical as they are about crusading for universals. The major appeal of M.E. Bradford among Old Conservatives is not his polemics against Abraham Lincoln or his reluctance to condemn antebellum slavery. It is Bradford’s relentless and perceptive attacks on “thundering abstractions” and the raising of equality to a godterm that have brought him the favor of the entire Old Right. Scorning discussion of universals, as opposed to historically rooted custom, Bradford has broken, without admitting it, from his own teacher in rhetoric, Richard Weaver. Unlike Weaver who praised Lincoln’s speeches for their arguments from definition, or principle, Bradford condemns Lincoln as an inflammatory ideologue and recommends the oratory of Burke – whose arguments from circumstance Weaver despised. This difference between the two is not attributable to Bradford’s more reactionary views. Though Weaver, unlike Bradford, admired Lincoln as a principled statesman, he was even more defensive of the South-and violently opposed to the federal government’s efforts to end segregation.
The plain truth is that Bradford dislikes the appeal to universals divorced from historical contexts. He detests in particular the appeal to equality, which he associates with utopian politics and with a war against inherited order. Though a specialist in literature of the South and the Southwest who studied with the New Critics at Vanderbilt, Bradford has never believed that one can properly examine literature outside its cultural setting. In relating literature – and he sees political rhetoric as part of literature – to the cultural and historic, Bradford has moved beyond the New Critics, who focused on the aesthetic and syntactical aspects of literary analysis. His sensitivity to historical particularities and his intuitions about Southern character have earned him praise from America’s leading Marxist historian, Eugene Genovese, as well as from the renowned constitutionalist, Forrest McDonald. Significantly, Bradford has encountered the criticism of Straussians and Thomists for his contemptuous remarks about natural reason. His recently published collection of essays, A Better GuideThan Reason, includes strictures against those who appeal to reason or universal truths in teaching public virtue.
Beyond ancestral custom and a few Biblical (mostly Old Testament) precepts, Bradford finds it idle to discuss speculative guidelines for social behavior. Like the philosopher Alisdaire MacIntyre (another hero to second-generation Old Conservatives), Bradford maintains that a particular ethic loses its viability as soon as it must be intellectually justified. Also like MacIntyre, Bradford is drawn to pre-modern cohesive societies in which people’s lives are shaped by duty and ingrained loyalty. Exemplifying the tendency of second-generation conservatives to uphold the historically specific against the abstract universal is a letter by Lee Congdon in Chronicles of Culture. The letter was addressed to a critic of Congdon who scolded him for disparaging the ethical rationalism of legal scholar Walter Berns. Congdon asserts:
I believe in God’s law…I do not believe in natural law, which I take to be the product of rational imagination, ideas extrapolated from historical experience.
Congdon’s comment may be, even for him, an unusually blunt dismissal of natural law and natural reason, but the source is an eminent and self-identified second-generation Old Conservative historian. In his letter, Congdon approvingly cites John Lukacs on the inevitably historical character of values. His other writings also include arguments from Russell Kirk and the Southern Agrarians about the need for situated men and rooted cultures.
Rediscovering the Social Sciences
The study of history as a means of understanding human consciousness and developing structures of order was essential for the work of Eric Voegelin (perhaps the 20th century’s premier philosopher of history), who closely identified with the postwar conservative movement. Voegelin’s Order and History affected profoundly the early editors of National Review, particularly Frank Meyer, and has been a recurrent topic in Modern Age since its founding. A deep historical sense, as I have argued in a recent book, pervades the traditionalist wing of postwar Conservatism, though rarely until recent years did this turning to a living past come to exclude the appeal to higher or transcendent norms. Distaste for the universal ideals of the political Left and of neoconservatives has led some members of the second-generation Old Right toward a sympathetic view of an all-determining history.
Another second-generation Old Conservative, Thomas Fleming, has turned to anthropology and sociobiology in order to demonstrate what Kirk and other traditionalists of the ’50s took (and still take) as self-evident: class and gender distinctions are part of the human condition. Only vaguely present among traditionalists of the ’50s and ’60s, the interest in social science is far more marked among the Old Right today. Samuel T. Francis, originally a Southern regionalist, has used the radical leftist C. Wright Mills, as well as James Burnham, to explore the revolutionary aspect of the modern managerial state. Francis’ references to “class hegemony” and to the “superstructure of ideas created by the ruling class” sound more like Marx and Antonio Gramsci than Richard Weaver.
The iconoclastic strain in Francis and in other second generation Old Conservatives points to their basic difference from those traditionalists of the ’50s whom they continue to praise. In reacting to liberal and, more recently, neoconservative pieties, the Old Right has acquired naturalist and positivist tendencies that sometimes offend its older representatives. Thomas Molnar, a Catholic Aristotelian, has taken exception with Thomas Fleming over the use of sociobiology to demonstrate the inescapability of hierarchy and patriarchy. Though Molnar deplores the evidence of naturalism in Fleming’s writing, he himself cites works in cultural anthropology to prove that most societies, in most places, have embraced public religion and the principle of hierarchy. The Old Right has come to grasp what Robert Nisbet first observed in the 1950s, that the study of history and social theory in 19th-century Europe was largely the work of self-conscious conservatives.
Contrary to the connection that the French Enlightenment drew between what was natural and what was individualistic and egalitarian, the social theorists Edmund Burke, G. W. F. Hegel, and Frederic Le Play and the historians Fustel de Coulanges, Leopold von Ranke, and Jules Michelet emphasized the role of community in the development of peoples and civilizations. It is unsurprising that those who oppose social homogeneity as a public philosophy of secular democracy would rediscover the social sciences.
It is also no surprise that the same conservatives should move toward the relativist and positivist sides of the social sciences. The espousal of the social scientific outlook among the Old Right has not been without generational tension and has, moreover, created philosophic difficulty for those engaged in this enterprise. In his dismissive remarks about natural law, Congdon also explains that “I believe in God’s law and. . . can stipulate, with some measure of precision, what it enjoins.” Bradford has said the same while expressing skepticism about the concept of natural reason. Fleming combines in his social analysis the teachings of Aristotle, Southern Agrarians, and the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker with the evolutionary theory of Edward O. Wilson, an atheist and materialist.
Observing the relativist tendencies in certain forms of historical thinking, Claes G. Ryn has tried to develop a “value-centered historicism,” as a way of understanding the interrelationship of moral truth and shifting historical situations. Ryn has drawn on various thinkers, particularly Benedetto Croce, Irving Babbitt, Russell Kirk, and Edmund Burke, to present his view of the aesthetic and historical preconditions of moral consciousness. It is never as an isolated intellectual engaged in speculative thought, but as a member of a particular society and epoch that, according to Ryn, man acquires a sense of right. By an act of will, he chooses what is right, through imagination and natural reason: “Man participates in the synthesis of the universal and the particular as creative mediator.” Francis and Fleming represent the ascending influence of the social sciences on traditionalist conservatism; Ryn (like myself) seeks to temper the conservative historicism of M. E. Bradford and, among older conservatives, James Burnham by reintroducing a historicized sense of natural reason.
Cynicism about the State
Another characteristic of the second-generation Old Right that distinguishes it from the earlier one is cynicism about the State. Unlike Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet, for example, this second generation no longer extols an activist government even in principle. Its members, in the words of Nigel Ashford, an English political scientist, think of an expanding welfare state whenever the subject of government comes up. This observation is illustrated by the critical way that second-generation Old Conservatives responded to George Will’s Statecraft as Soulcraft, a defense of the American welfare state that cites Aristotle’s and Burke’s statements on political community. Joseph Sobran, Samuel T. Francis, M.E. Bradford, and other traditionalists berated Will for applying the language of classical political theory to radically anti-traditional institutions. The Old Right is losing its fear of being identified with libertarians, who seem to be, at least objectively, reactionary. Because libertarians speak concretely of dismantling the welfare state, and thereby taking the predominantly leftist managerial class out of people’s lives, Old Conservatives are less and less inclined to ridicule libertarians as moral anarchists. Although there is no evidence of real affection between the two, traditionalists below the age of 50, with no strong memories of the conservative wars of the ’60s, rarely exhibit the distaste for libertarians still apparent in Kirk and Nisbet. Though the Old Right is often pessimistic about its future, its prospects for recognition are far better than its doomsayers imagine. Its members are less isolated than they believe. Old Rightists still have a home base at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and are able to publish freely in its periodicals. The more prominent are also featured in other publications of the Right such as National Review and Chronicles. There may also develop stronger ties between the second-generation Old Right and other groups within the conservative camp. Old Right members number many among the contributors to Human Life Review, Family and Society, and other publications supported by the New Right. On social issues, close agreement already exists between the Old and New Right, though the populist, majoritarian rhetoric and activist style characteristic of the New Right still upset many traditionalists. First-generation Old Rightists complain about the New Right’s crassly democratic character, whereas the second-generation Old Rightists are more likely to criticize its Pollyanna generalizations about American society being on the verge of a great conservative awakening.
Some disagreement still persists between the two camps about the founding principles of the American government. While libertarians such as Robert Nozick and Richard A. Epstein stress the contractual and Lockean roots of the Constitution, the Old Right more typically focuses on the precapitalist-i.e., Judeo-Christian and classical-contributions to the American Founding. At the 1987 gathering of the Philadelphia Society, Forrest McDonald stated that “one cannot leap from the Framers’ belief in the sanctity of private property to the conclusion that they advocated either capitalism or a free market economy.” At the time of the Founding, McDonald explained, “precapitalist values, attitudes, and institutions rooted in the feudal past were far from dead in America and those of mercantilism. . , were in full bloom.” In what may have been a critical reference to Epstein’s attempt in Takings: Private Property and the Power of Eminent Domain to link early American attitudes about ownership to William Blackstone’s Commentaries, particularly his defense of property in Book Two, McDonald observed that those who cite Blackstone’s defense of an inviolable light to property often fail to note that the same author “devotes 518 pages to qualifying and specifying exceptions to it.”
Significantly, McDonald ended his remarks about precapitalist values in early America with an assertion that could have come from a libertarian. He stated that “constitutional government and capitalism became inextricably intertwined at the outset,” whatever else the Founders may have intended. Moreover, “they were born together, they grew up together, they prospered together, and unless we return to limited government under law, and soon-they will die together.” Epstein and Nozick could easily have written the same passage, though they and McDonald continue to disagree on the impact of social contract theory on the Founders. One should also note that George Carey, a second-generation Old Rightist like McDonald, cites Federalist No. 62 to show that the Founding Fathers had an active interest in promoting commercial prosperity.
A New Fusionism?
The Old Right may be able to build a political alliance with libertarians, if both sides can disregard their differences on family issues in order to launch a joint assault on the welfare state. This could happen, if the past provides a key to the future. The fusionism of Frank Meyer worked on the practical level, even if it was not entirely convincing as a historical view. Fusionism was an expression, which also became a program, of the combined willingness of traditionalists and libertarians to oppose the “modern behemoth state” while battling Soviet Communism. What draws the Old Right toward the libertarians is a shared hostility to an activist state that is committed to equalizing people.
Though Old Rightists view democracy and the related demand for equality as part of our historical condition, they find no reason to celebrate either as the essence of civic virtue. They believe in the truth of Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s observation that “democracy is in principle totalitarian, for it politicizes entire nations (men, women, and children).” What the Old Right admires in America’s Founders is not their alleged democratic sentiments, but their strenuous efforts to curb and even frustrate the popular will by constitutional means. Likewise, they admire similar qualities in present day politicians.
Congressman Jack Kemp, who identifies himself as a democratic populist and who has made overtures to civil rights activists, appeals to New Rightists and neoconservatives. Yet, despite Kemp’s conservative views on family issues and, generally, on foreign policy, his standing among the Old Right is poor. Gregory Fossedal, writing in the Washington Times has asked with unconcealed annoyance why the Right is reluctant to back Jack Kemp. The answers Fossedal does not consider are Kemp’s exuberant endorsement of the Martin Luther King holiday, his statements about “equality as a conservative principle,” and his initial backing of sanctions against South Africa. Such actions may have cost Kemp dearly in terms of Old Right support, though Fossedal may be correct in stating that many conservatives equivocate when asked about their lack of enthusiasm for candidate Kemp.
Having polled more than 40 Old Right intellectuals, I have learned that the presidential candidates whom most of them support (usually with pained expressions) are George Bush and Robert Dole. The support for Bush and Dole reflects disenchantment with self-declared conservative politicians who rush to “sell-out,” by accommodating the media and adopting the adversary’s rhetoric. Bush and Dole have the merit of not raising Old Right expectations that they will then likely disappoint.
Both disillusioned political hopes and the “Christian conservative anarchist’’ impulse that Henry Adams found in himself abound on the contemporary Old Right.
Among men and women of letters, nothing could be more invigorating than a thoroughgoing reaction: a conscious turning away from the disastrous fads and failures of recent years to that deep well of wisdom called the past.
The author of these lines written last fall, Russell Kirk, is not likely to interpret a federal educational program on democracy as the “conscious turning away” from recent times he desires. On the other hand, Old Rightists will likely support changes intended to get government off their backs, to undo the process of bureaucratic encroachment on their lives and communities that they ascribe to the advancing power of democratic egalitarianism.
Though traditionalists and libertarians may disagree about the goodness of the past, they do agree about present enemies. In 1985, George Carey edited a collection of papers, Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative Libertarian Debate, a work in which the Old Right and libertarians air their differences with mutual respect. On foreign policy, the distance between the two sides may no longer be as great as it formerly was. The intransigent anti-militarism of Murray Rothbard’s followers is by no means typical of all libertarians. Milton Friedman, James Buchanan, Walter Williams, Charles Murray, and Thomas Sowell, all distinguished libertarian thinkers, advocate a strong military defense for the United States. Murray, Williams, and Sowell are also moral traditionalists who base much of their briefs against the welfare state on its socially destructive effect on the black family.
The identification of Sowell and Williams, both black social economists, with the Old Right is not as strange as it might first appear. When interviewing the editorial board of the Southern Partisan, a publication that extols Weaver and the Agrarian tradition, I was struck by the high regard in which Sowell and Williams are held. Its anti-egalitarian stance and sociobiological interests notwithstanding, the second-generation Old Right shows no inclination to revive racialism. The New Right Papers (which may as well have been called the Old Right Papers) included not only contributions by Wilson, Fleming, and Francis, but also one by a black Southern Agrarian, Don Anderson. The research and polemical energy of some of the second-generation Old Right has gone largely toward discrediting the belief in natural equality, particularly between the sexes. In this they have been joined by others not usually identified with the Old Right. Michael Levin, a libertarian professor of philosophy at City University of New York, has criticized the efforts of the welfare state to obliterate sexual roles. Levin has written a book-length critique on “feminist scholarship.” Levin points out that women’s history, though it assigns deliberately revolutionary value judgments to its subject matter, “confirms one of the oldest and most deeply entrenched of sexual stereotypes: Women provide the stability in society while men provide the change.” Levin’s colleague and occasional collaborator at CUNY, Steven Goldberg, has produced a book, The Inevitability of Patriarchy, which traces the disparate social roles of the sexes to chemical and hormonal causes. Despite different ideological points of origin, Goldberg and Fleming have begun to correspond about their common work, and Goldberg has already published several articles in Chronicles.
A True Counterestablishment
In a recent New Republic, Marxist historian Eugene Genovese scolds Sidney Blumenthal for not paying sufficient attention to the resurgent Old Right. Blumenthal assumes that if the conservative counterestablishment, which Genovese and Francis identify as neoconservative, fails, the Left will inevitably sweep back into power. But the waning of neoconservativism, maintains Genovese, may in fact “bring forward a much harder and more radical right, with serious political prospects.” Recruiting heavily from the South, this revitalized Right has already absorbed elements of the Southern Agrarian tradition, according to Genovese: “Today with the work of M.E. Bradford, it has established a political base of indeterminate but clearly not trivial proportions.” Moreover, “The Northern contingent has always had a strong dose of high Romanism, but in addition to Stephen Tonsor and other Catholics, it has included Russell Kirk, and such younger scholars as Paul Gottfried.” Genovese may exaggerate the social base of the Old Right and overlook its debilitating lack of funds. He is correct, however, in noting what others continue to disregard: The Old Right, far from being intellectually depleted, has “an impressive array of educators, many of whom are scholars and teachers of a high order.” Perhaps thoughtful libertarian and Old Rightist critics of the welfare state will come together in building a true conservative counterestablishment. The Old Right may never dominate this counterestablishment and may never quite lose its reputation for whimsical reaction. But conservatives – and on this point let there be no doubt – will rediscover the Old Right as an indispensable source of conservative thinking. In the end, conservatives may even find themselves returning to Frank Meyer’s blend of traditional social values and resistance to managerial collectivism, whether they call it fusionism or not.
Paul Gottfried is the Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College.