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Viereck Revisited

The philosopher-poet christened conservatism—then failed its litmus tests.

Peter Viereck has been called, with good reason, “the first conservative.” His 1949 book Conservatism Revisited was the first post-World War II effort to rehabilitate the c-word, which until then had been almost exclusively a pejorative in American politics. Viereck embraced not only the term but also one of its most vilified exemplars, the 19th-century Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich. Viereck found in Metternich’s aristocratic internationalism and Tory socialism—Metternich had called himself a socialiste conservateur—an attractive alternative to classical and modern liberalisms and to Nazi and Communist totalitarianisms.

Viereck was more than just a political thinker, however. He was also a perceptive social critic and a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet for another 1949 book, Terror and Decorum. He came from illustrious, albeit dubious, roots: his father, George Sylvester, a noted poet himself, was one of Germany’s leading apologists in the U.S. during both World Wars and was eventually jailed for espionage. His grandfather Louis had been an acquaintance of Karl Marx and a socialist deputy in the Reichstag. Louis was implicated in an assassination attempt against his own probable father, Kaiser Wilhelm I. (The official story held that Louis was the son of another Hohenzollern, Louis von Prillwitz, but his mother was known to be the kaiser’s mistress as well.)

He inherited more than a little of the Hohenzollern temperament, but Peter Viereck’s life, by comparison with his forefathers’, seems almost sedate: after serving in World War II—as an enlisted man, since his father’s German ties precluded Viereck’s becoming an officer—and his brush with political and poetic fame after 1949, Viereck settled down to the life of a scholar, teaching history for most of the next half-century at Mount Holyoke College. He was married three times, twice to the same woman, Anya de Markov, whom he met in Italy during the war. He divorced her twice, too, later marrying Betty Falkenberg, a writer for the International Herald Tribune and Partisan Review, among other journals.

When Viereck died on May 13 of last year, the New York Times, Boston Globe, and several of Britain’s left-of-center broadsheets ran obituaries of several hundred words apiece for the late professor, poet, and political philosopher. It was more notice than he had received in decades—apart, that is, from a 6,000-word profile the year before in The New Yorker. But that piece, claimed National Review’s John J. Miller, had just been a ploy by liberal journalist Tom Reiss to highlight a dissident conservative in order to score points against President Bush. Miller dismissed Reiss’s contention that Viereck had “been erased from the picture” of the Right’s origins “like an early Bolshevik fallen out of favor.” On the contrary, wrote Miller, “Viereck is remembered almost exclusively by conservatives.” A year later, Miller’s magazine showed just how well it remembered Viereck—with a single-paragraph obituary of 164 words.

At the time of his death, Viereck evidently had more admirers on the Left than on the Right. That had probably been true for some time: after all, Viereck was the only professed conservative invited to contribute to Daniel Bell’s 1955 anti-McCarthyite anthology, The New Right (later re-titled The Radical Right). And while other conservatives of the 1950s looked to Sen. Robert Taft as the alternative to the “modern Republican” Eisenhower, Viereck found his conservative paragon in Adlai Stevenson. Even the work that made Viereck’s name as a conservative, 1949’s Conservatism Revisited, bid fair to unmake that name in its revised 1962 edition, in which he added a second “book,” The New Conservatism—What Went Wrong? that criticized every manifestation of right-wing sensibility from Southern agrarianism to libertarianism —and above all “thought-control nationalism,” Viereck’s term for the admixture of McCarthyism and militarism that he felt characterized much of the postwar Right.

“He runs with the hares of the established fashion which writes off all opposition to the prevailing Liberal orthodoxy as the psychological resentment of unadjusted neurotics,” wrote Frank Meyer in 1955. “Viereck is not the first, nor will he be the last, to succeed in passing off his unexceptionably Liberal sentiments as conservatism.” Today it might seem abundantly obvious that Viereck—defender of the New Deal and of trade unionism, who thought “the finest conservative episode in American history, since the miracle of The Federalist Papers, is the 1952 campaign of Adlai Stevenson”—was no conservative. But in 1955, the year that Louis Hartz’s Liberal Tradition in America proclaimed that the United States had never had—nor could have—any tradition but liberalism, the meaning of American conservatism was far from settled. Meyer, an ex-Communist turned Cold Warrior with a libertarian streak, consciously set out to erect an orthodoxy, to define The Conservative Mainstream (the title of one of his essay collections). Viereck’s own attempt to define conservatism came years before Meyer’s, at a time when Robert Taft still called himself a (classical) liberal and William F. Buckley Jr. preferred the term “individualist.”

Viereck could, and did, cite a long line of distinguished Anglo-American conservatives in support of his claim that “Since the industrial revolution, conservatism is neither justifiable nor effective unless it has roots in the factories and trade unions”—not only Disraeli, but “Coleridge, Carlyle, Newman, Ruskin, Arnold, Melville.” Viereck’s economics may have been unsound—like many critics of capitalism, Viereck’s work betrays little familiarity with economic thought after Adam Smith and Karl Marx—but it could hardly be called unconservative. As for Adlai Stevenson, Viereck noted that Eisenhower’s Democratic opponent identified himself with conservatism before any politician of the postwar Right did. Stevenson had said in 1952,

The strange alchemy of time has somehow converted the Democrats into the truly conservative party of this country—the party dedicated to conserving all that is best, and building solidly and safely on these foundations. The Republicans, by contrast, are behaving like the radical party—the party of the reckless and the embittered, bent on dismantling institutions [i.e., those of the New Deal] which have been built solidly into our social fabric.

For Viereck, Cold War conservatism was the real imposture. “The historic content of conservatism stands, above all, for two things: organic unity and rooted liberty,” he wrote. “Today the shell of the ‘conservative’ label has become a chrysalis for the opposite of these two things: at best for atomistic Manchester liberalism … at worst for thought-controlling nationalism, uprooting the traditional liberties (including the 5th Amendment) planned by America’s founders.” To critics on the Right like Frank Meyer, he admonished, “children, don’t oversimplify, don’t pigeonhole; allow for pluralistic overlappings that defy abstract blueprints and labels.” His rejoinder to Louis Hartz was to observe that “history has provided America with a shared liberal-conservative base more liberal than European continental conservatives and more conservative than European continental liberals.”

Yet European political traditions, more than America’s own, shaped Viereck’s political philosophy. Already by 1940, that philosophy had begun to congeal. That year, Viereck—“twenty-three years of age, unemployed, short of cash” and recently graduated from Harvard and Oxford—published “But—I’m a Conservative!” in the Atlantic Monthly. Therein he criticized both right-wing Liberty Leaguers and those fellow-traveling liberals who insisted, in the words of The Nation, that “the Soviet Union continues as always to be a bulwark against war and aggression.” But his greatest concern was with the Nazis and Communists against whom he saw wet liberals and hidebound capitalists alike as equally ineffective. “The success of … ‘National Socialists’ whether Hitler or Stalin, is in their voter-getting synthesis of romantic expansive nationalism with a planned economy,” he wrote. “In contrast, we conservatives must synthesize the good in the latter, not with despotism, but with freedom—that is, with all our ancient civil liberties, tolerance of minorities, and a peaceful internationalism of Law.”

Nine years later, in Conservatism Revisited, Viereck expanded on his beliefs and chose as their epitome a “good European,” Prince Metternich. He admired the Austrian as the man whose prudent internationalism had extinguished, for a time at least, the nationalist fires threatening to engulf Europe. “The theme” of Conservatism Revisited, wrote Viereck, “is the last stand of western oneness—‘cosmopolite’ was Metternich’s favorite adjective—against the mass men of nationalism. And, on the other flank, against the mass-men of class-war radicalism.” Through the Concert of Europe, Metternich secured the continent nearly a century of peace—“no lengthy wars nor widespread general wars between 1815 and 1914”—though Viereck had mixed feelings about Metternich’s accomplishments within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The repressive measures taken at his behest against nationalist German liberals inflicted grievous collateral damage on bourgeois liberals, too. The latter should have been Metternich’s natural allies, Viereck thought, “for both sought a peaceful and ethical and cosmopolitan Europe. They should have joined their respective half-truths against the whole-lies of their real enemies: the self-styled realists of antiethical Realpolitik, the racists, the militarists, the war-planning Irredentists.”

In a healthy, stable order, “moderate liberals and moderate conservatives agree” on many things, Viereck insisted. “Mill and Burke are not opposites,” especially when confronted by radicals of the Left or Right. He was particularly sympathetic to Mill’s warning that “the inevitable growth of social equality and of the government of public opinion should impose on mankind an oppressive yoke of conformity.” For Viereck, tradition itself safeguarded individualism against the tyranny of the majority over opinion: “To prevent majority rule from becoming majority despotism, every stable society has certain traditional institutions acting as breaks on precipitous mass action.” He also emphasized the importance of “tolerance for individual divergences in art as in politics, in religion as in personality,” noting in particular that “‘religion’ is a house with many mansions, finding room not only for literal but for symbolic interpretations of church dogma.” Here, too, Metternich provided a model, as a paradoxical “‘homme d’église,’ a free and strict Catholic.”

Viereck contrasted Metternich’s Catholicism with the rampant paganism of the fascists, and he observed that Europe’s atheistic and anticlerical liberals “had undermined their own best protection: the dikes of religious ethics which guard both liberal and conservative democracy against amoral statism.” Without religious ethics, modern men became “Neanderthalers with high I.Q.; giggling apes playing at snowball-fights with atom bombs; efficient barbarians applying to uncivilized ends the subtlest technical achievements of civilization.” Yet Viereck recognized that an implacable critic of religion, Friedrich Nietzsche, had been “perhaps the first to diagnose the modern mass-man. He associated him with nationalism and with worship of quantity and power, as opposed to quality and thought.” Nietzsche, too, was a touchstone of Viereck’s philosophy.

Conservatism Revisited was well received on both sides of the Atlantic. In September 1954, when the Times Literary Supplement devoted an issue to “American Writing Today,” Viereck and Reinhold Niebuhr received by far the lengthiest attention of the several hundred writers discussed. But as postwar American conservatism took shape in the mid- and late 1950s, Viereck’s differences with the movement became pronounced. With Clinton Rossiter, John Lukacs, Robert Nisbet, and even Russell Kirk, Viereck could find much common ground. But there was little love lost between Viereck and the National Review circle, and Viereck looked askance at anyone on the Right who defended Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

In 1956, Viereck published a second book on conservatism, called simply Conservatism: From John Adams to Churchill. It’s an evenhanded and elegant treatment with a thematic thread contrasting relatively more authoritarian continental traditions rooted in Joseph de Maistre with the milder Anglo-American conservatism of John Adams and Edmund Burke. Viereck takes pains to treat fairly those philosophies on the Right—such as William Graham Sumner’s laissez faire—with which he disagrees. It is a book that even Viereck’s critics ought to appreciate, though Meyer used the occasion of a review to read Viereck out of the movement. Claes Ryn was surely right to suggest that Meyer’s “sweeping judgment was based not so much on the contents of the book, which were barely discussed, as on Meyer’s general impression of Viereck as, at heart, a liberal in practical politics.”

For his part, Viereck had already unleashed a salvo against the Right in his contribution to Daniel Bell’s The New American Right, a collection most famous for Richard Hofstadter’s essay locating the origins of right-wing populism in status resentment: “pseudo-conservatism is in good part a product of the rootlessness and heterogeneity of American life, and above all, of its peculiar scramble for status and its peculiar search for secure identity.” Viereck argued almost exactly the same thing, prompting Frank Meyer to accuse him of “following T. W. Adorno, Richard Hofstadter and David Riesman.” In fact, Viereck had come to his conclusions independently through his reflections on Nietzsche. “The entire status-resentment thesis” of his essay, he wrote, “is frankly borrowed—elaborated—from Nietzsche. He defined a sublimated ‘ressentiment’ (he preferred the French term) as the basic, half-unconscious motivation of mass politics.”

Viereck’s 1956 book, The Unadjusted Man, reprinted several of his essays on the subject of right-wing populism, including the New American Right piece, and expanded upon the theme of status resentment and the ideological divide between the East Coast and the Midwest and Southwest—the Blue State-Red State split, though in Viereck’s day the South had not yet joined the Right’s coalition. Viereck described a phenomenon he called “transtolerance,” which transformed racial and class animus into hatred of elites. “Not only economics but also ethnic and religious rivalries have become less important a base for status-resentment, and hence for thought-control nationalism, than social, educational, and sectional rivalries,” he wrote. “The same American prosperity that has relaxed ethnic and religious resentments has intensified the competition for social and educational status.”

Viereck devoted special attention in one chapter to the politics of Wisconsin and what he perceived as the genealogical link between Robert LaFollette and the Progressives and the later McCarthy movement. “The two Wisconsin movements shared six important and potentially dangerous characteristics,” he wrote: “direct democracy, conspiracy-hunting, Anglophobia, Germanophilia, nationalistic isolationism, anti-elitist status-resentment.” Viereck’s own elite affinities surely colored his perceptions; even so, the parallels at the national level between what Progressivism wrought and what the popular conservatism of recent years has achieved are hard to miss. In each case, the worst rose to the top: Progressivism gave us not Bryan or LaFollette, but Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Elite-bashing conservatism has given us not Robert A. Taft but George W. Bush. In each case, energetic—and bellicose—executives reaped the rewards of anti-establishment resentment.

As Claes Ryn has noted, Viereck never really considers whether there might be more substantial reasons for the rest of the country’s resentment of the East Coast financial and political elite. And there certainly was a personal element to Viereck’s defense of internationalist, Atlanticist, and WASP values. Viereck thoroughly rejected and reacted against his father’s pro-German views. Yet for all that, there is much that is valid in Viereck’s analysis of right-wing populism, which, with the values inverted, resembles Sam Francis’s understanding of “Middle American Radicals.” Viereck’s antipathy toward populists of all stripes also resembled, as he was well aware, the high Federalist attitude toward the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian rabble.

Viereck’s frustration with the character of the emerging conservative movement boiled over in his 1962 addition to Conservatism Revisited, the second “book,” The New Right—What Went Wrong? He reiterated his objections to “the deracinating, technology-brandishing industrialists whose so–called freedom and progress is merely the economic ‘individualism’ of Manchester-liberal pseudo-conservatism,” placing himself instead in the camp of “‘Tory Socialists’ (in the aristocratic Shaftesbury-Disraeli-FDR-Stevenson tradition).” But Viereck also leveled his guns against other traditionalists, contending “today’s conservatism of yearning is based on roots either never existent or no longer existent.” He acknowledged “such a conservatism of nostalgia can still be of high literary value,” and “it is also valuable as an unusually detached perspective toward current social foibles. But it does real harm when it leaves literature and enters short-run politics, conjuring up mirages to conceal sordid realities or to distract from them.”

For European-style, Maistrean reactionaries he had no patience at all: “Let them present their case frankly as anti-traditional, rootless revolutionaries of Europe’s authoritarian right wing, attacking the deep-rooted American tradition of liberal-conservative synthesis.” And Viereck was little less harsh, though at much greater length, in criticizing a traditionalist who was not a Maistrean: Russell Kirk, whom he accused of betraying Burkean conservatism by making common cause with the Goldwater movement (and its supposed thought-controlling nationalists, though Viereck allowed that the senator himself was milder than his supporters) and by failing to denounce Joe McCarthy. This, it must be said, was blatantly unfair: while Kirk never joined the chorus of condemnation against McCarthy—which even Viereck described as a “hysteria about hysteria”—Kirk’s book Academic Freedom leaves no question about his disapproval of the “thought-controllers.”

The New Conservatism: What Went Wrong? would be Viereck’s last extended rumination on conservatism; thereafter he would devote his energies to poetry rather than politics. He continued to write occasional essays for the New York Times and other outlets, often on topics relating aesthetics to ethics. The continuing controversies over Ezra Pound were a frequent concern: Viereck considered Pound’s work aesthetically corrupted by his moral evil, his anti-Semitism and support for the Axis powers. Two of Viereck’s earlier books examined the relationship between art, morality, and power at length, Dream and Responsibility in 1953 and Viereck’s first book, Metapolitics, originally published in 1941. The latter remains to this day a penetrating study of the role of German Romanticism, as found in figures as diverse as the rabble-rouser Father Jahn and Richard Wagner, in paving the road to Nazism.

For his poetry and his literary-political writing, Viereck remains much admired by a small but influential following. The poet Dana Gioia has said that after 50 years Terror and Decorum “still lives and breathes.” Claes Ryn has written extensively about Viereck’s philosophy of art and politics. And one of Viereck’s former students, Lisa Szefel, now a lecturer at Harvard, is at work on a biography. Most of his books remain in print.

For conservatives, however, Viereck presents several problems. Certainly the movement’s mainstream has little esteem for him. He embodied “a kind of pre-neoconservatism none of us had any use for,” William F. Buckley told Tom Reiss in 2005. But Viereck was no neoconservative: he had none of their zeal for ideological crusading, first against communism and now for democratism. On the other hand, Viereck’s anti-populism and his emphasis on civilization against culture and Kultur, the cosmopolitan over the localist, makes him a poor fit for the paleos. So the first postwar conservative, squarely in the tradition of John Adams and Disraeli, is an odd man out today.

But conservatives need not agree with everything Viereck wrote to find much of value in his work, even in his criticisms of the Right. He was an insightful critic, if perhaps a premature one, of the forces that have lately sidelined traditional small-government, prudential conservatism: jingoistic nationalism, the politics of social resentment, and a politicized religiosity. No, Viereck should not be taken as a guide in all things. But he does provide an antidote to the Romantic nationalism of the Bush era. 

Daniel McCarthy is senior editor of ISI Books.



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