U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What’s next in the intellectual history of conservatives?

My OAH experience this year was short but sweet. My panel, “Advise and Dissent: Intellectuals, Values, and Postwar Conservative Trajectories,” which took place on Thursday, was a huge success by my account. Chaired by J. David Hoeveler (University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee), it included excellent papers by Gregory Schneider (Emporia State University), who talked about Stephen Tonsor, and Lisa Szefel (Pacific University, the next S-USIH treasurer), who presented on Peter Viereck. I gave a paper on Gertrude Himmelfarb. The highlight of the session was provided by George H. Nash, author of the groundbreaking The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945 (which we debated last year at length here).

Nash opened with a fascinating autobiographical discussion about his peculiar career trajectory–which is of historiographic significance given that his seminal book on conservative intellectuals was written way, way before the topic became trendy. He then spoke some about the incredible surge of historiography on conservatism since Alan Brinkley offered the topic his imprimatur. After that, Nash concluded with some suggestions about what still needs to be done on the history of conservatism. Here they are:

Nash contends that we need biographies of the following three conservative intellectuals:
1) Irving Kristol. (It’s amazing nobody has written this yet.)
2) Richard John Neuhaus. (I think our own Ray Haberski is the perfect candidate to write this book.)
3) Peter Viereck. (As Nash noted, luckily Lisa Szefel is on the case.)
Nash also argued that we need more historical exploration of the following three spheres of conservative intellectual history:
1) Neoconservatism. (I couldn’t agree more.)

2) The changing place of Europe in the conservative imagination. (This is intriguing–I wanted to ask Nash more about this but forgot to.)

3) Conservative religious ecumenicalism and interfaith alliances. (Speaking as someone writing on the culture wars, for which the breakdown of religious barriers in favor of new political alliances was a major cause and consequence, I second this notion.)
What do you all think? How about an open thread on what still needs to be done on the history of conservatism, conservative intellectuals, or even intellectual history more broadly.

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Slightly OT, but I’d love to hear what you have to say about Himmelfarb (whose engagement with the ideas of Leo Strauss, as far as I can tell, preceded her husband’s).

  2. Don’t think for a moment that some conservative Catholic isn’t already on the case of writing the Richard John Neuhaus biography. In fact, I’d be willing to put money on the notion that Neuhaus arranged for his papers to be made exclusively accessible to another conservative willing to write the “definitive” Neuhaus lionization. I’d also bet that the Neuhaus estate is also paying that person to write the magnum opus. – TL

  3. Tim: You’re probably right. But all the more reason someone should write a dispassionate biography on Neuhaus, someone like Ray! The Podhoretz biography I reviewed for RAH was awful largely because it was hagiographic in a sort of semi-official way. I argued that we need a better biography of Podhoretz because he is so important and shouldn’t be left simply to his admirers.

  4. Someone is writing Neuhaus’s biography: Randy Boyagoda is researching his biography of Neuhaus in the First Thing’s papers right now.

    My horse in this race is to do an intellectual history of Neuhaus and the era that he and others defined.

  5. Andrew: this is a great post. I would add that intellectual historians need to pay more attention to how conservatives like Neuhaus and Kristol thought about/interacted with the environmental movement. Neuhaus wrote an entire book on “Ecology and the Seduction of Radicalism,” and Kristol talks about the “environmental crusade” in nearly all the articles compiled within the first section of “Two Cheers for Capitalism.” When most historians talk about the neoconservative turn, they mention prominently the student revolt of the 1960s and rightly so. But it turns out that neoconservatives and many other conservatives thought about the environmental movement in the same terms as they did the student revolt. In the interest of full disclosure, I am biased towards this topic. I just submitted my dissertation prospectus a week ago, and it is tentatively titled “Fighting the ‘Environmentalist Crusade:’ Conservative Thought and the Origins of American Anti-Environmentalism, 1930-1980.” I am not sure how much environmental historians pay attention to the history of conservatism or vice versa, but I hope to bridge that gap.

    • Alex, Have you read Naomi Klein’s cover article in The Nation of November 28(?), 2012? “Climate Against Capitalism” (or is it vice versa?) If not, you’ll find it of interest.

  6. I don’t know about being a trend setter. I attended the American Society for Environmental History’s annual conference in Madison last month, and it seemed that most people working on the intersections between conservatism and environmentalism seem to think that the two can coexist peacefully despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary.

  7. I agree with Nash about neoconservatism, but, unlike the other topics he mentioned, vast amounts of ink have already been spilled on it. Yet it seems to be one of those issues about which the more people write, the less we understand. Maybe we need a Rodgers-on-Progressivism type review essay to clear the historical decks so someone can take a fresh whack at writing about it.

  8. This is a really great question. A friend of mine was just writing a lit review on intellectual histories of libertarianism, and realized how unsatisfactory and really rather piecemeal the coverage of this huge topic has been. Nash himself is one of the best sources I’ve found on The Freeman and the figures involved in it, but, unless I’ve missed them, there don’t seem to be full-length academic studies of the important libertarian figures and institutions.

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