I finally had the pleasure to read The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought, written by our USIH colleague Paul Murphy. It was the topic of discussion during my graduate seminar last night. My students found the history of the Agrarians fascinating, in no small part due to Paul’s masterful telling of it, but also because, being from Illinois—the “Land of Lincoln”—it was a shock to their system to learn that serious intellectuals found complex ways to defend the antebellum South.
The thing I found most compelling about The Rebuke of History is Paul’s notion of “radical conservatism.” He considers Southern Agrarianism, as originally formulated in its founding 1930 text, I’ll Take My Stand—written by “Twelve Southerners”—both conservative and radical. Its conservatism is obvious in its idealization of a southern past rooted in the hierarchy of slavery. But the radicalism of southern agrarianism is also evident, in its antipathy to industrial capitalism. Paul sets out to understand how this radicalism dissipated, as the postwar conservative movement sopped up aspects of Agrarianism. In his words:
“The burden of this study has been to document the deradicalization of the Agrarian tradition and to identify the ways in which a cultural criticism originally insistent on the interconnection between culture and the economy came to be replaced by a traditionalist conservatism oriented around the image of the South as a synecdoche for Christian orthodoxy and a patriarchal social order.”
My questions for discussion: What makes a radical conservative? Paul clearly defines a radical conservative as someone who understands that the cultural critique of modernism must, logically, extend to an economic critique of capitalism. In his epilogue, he classifies Eugene Genovese and Wendell Berry as radical conservatives. Paul writes: “Genovese’s [prior] radicalism.. was informed by the same hostility toward bourgeois culture and radical individualism that shapes his current conservatism.” Paul describes Berry in similar fashion: “Berry is at once profoundly conservative in his views on marriage, sexuality, and community and radical in his condemnation of modern agribusiness, the military establishment, and global capitalism.”
In these terms, Christopher Lasch clearly qualifies as a radical conservative, as I have argued elsewhere. Who else? Were radical conservatives more common prior to the postwar conservative movement, which fused the libertarian and traditionalist strains of social thought? More common prior to the polarizing effects of the culture wars?