U.S. Intellectual History Blog

George Nash: Intellectual Autobiography

Dear Readers: What follows is an excerpt from George Nash’s comments on an OAH Panel on conservative intellectuals. He graciously agreed to my request that these comments be published here.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin April 19, 2012

George H. Nash

One of the organizers of this panel has urged me to be autobiographical in my remarks, as a way, perhaps, of providing a context for our discussion, and so, for a few minutes, I will oblige. As most of you know, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 originated as a doctoral dissertation at Harvard University. What you probably do not know is that this was not the original subject of my dissertation. Casting about for a topic while living on a politically polarized university campus in 1969 and 1970, I became fascinated by the phenomenon of intellectuals in American politics and began to look for a “case study” to focus upon. For a time I considered writing a dissertation about the muckrakers or the Progressives. Moving closer toward the present, I examined leftwing student protest movements in the 1930s. Finally, after several months of searching, I selected my dissertation subject: a history of Americans for Democratic Action (the ADA).

Barely two months later, I abandoned this topic. I did so for reasons that seemed compelling to a lowly graduate student at the time. I discovered that another graduate student at another university was working on the very same subject and had a substantial head start. And I came to the conclusion from my preliminary research that the ADA—whatever one thought of its principles—was boring. Once it had defeated the “Progressive” liberals in the political civil war on the Left in 1947-48, it quickly settled down into utter predictability and ideological conformity. Its period of greatest historical importance had lasted little more than a year.

And so it came about that my dissertation adviser—himself at the time a liberal Democrat and onetime ADA member—suggested that I look at intellectuals on the other side of the political divide: the conservatives. In truth, the idea of writing about modern conservatism had occurred to me before my adviser, Donald Fleming, made his fateful recommendation, but two obstacles had deterred me up to that point. The first, which may strike you as quaint, was concern that the topic was not “historical” enough—that it was too close in time to the present to be examined in historical perspective. Would there, I also wondered, be enough archival material upon which to base such a study? The second hurdle was in a sense political: conservatism in the early 1970s was not chic among historians, and I knew this. During my undergraduate years at Amherst, one of my professors had dismissed Russell Kirk as a “broken record” and William F. Buckley Jr. as “fancy footwork.” I knew what prominent historians thought of what was frequently then labeled the “Radical Right.” Still, in 1970 I accepted my adviser’s counsel and quickly found, on the intellectual Right, a world in ferment that proved fascinating to explore.

The decision to write about an unfashionable topic, with contemporary ramifications, had an important effect on me, I now believe: it encouraged me to approach the subject as dispassionately as possible. I aspired to write a dissertation (and eventual book) that could be read with profit by people across the ideological spectrum, regardless of their opinion of the subject. In the near term (though I do not recall worrying about this unduly), it would be necessary to submit a dissertation that would pass muster with readers in my own department, none of whom, so far as I knew, was sympathetic to conservatism.

But there was more to my modus operandi than this. In his paper Professor Andrew Hartman quotes a passage from Gertrude Himmelfarb that resonates with me. “Where modernism tolerates relativism,” she says, “postmodernism celebrates it.” “Where modernism, aware of the obstacles in the way of objectivity, regards this as a challenge and makes strenuous efforts to attain as much objectivity and unbiased truth as possible, postmodernism takes the rejection of absolute truth as a deliverance from all truth and from the obligation to maintain any degree of objectivity.”

By this definition of terms, I think it fair to say that Professor [David] Hoeveler [chair of this panel] and I came into the profession at the tail end of the reign of modernism. Somewhere along the line I absorbed the conviction that the fundamental purpose of a historian must be the quest for truth about the past or (in the words of the historian John Lukacs) “the reduction of untruths” about the past. To be sure, we all have our limitations. We are all human and, as Mark Twain once remarked, “There is a little human nature in all of us.” Moreover, as historians we know that perspectives change, new methodologies appear, the world turns, new conditions arise, and new questions about the past become salient. Nevertheless, as Himmelfarb notes, the “modernist” response to these “obstacles in the way of objectivity” is to try to overcome them and reaffirm the ideal, even while knowing that we shall never totally succeed. Some of this impulse, I believe, guided my approach to my subject: I wanted and felt the need to be as nonpartisan about it as possible.

So I plunged in and thereby (without knowing it) set out on a road that has remained less traveled until recently. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had persisted with a dissertation on the ADA. The chances are that I would not be participating in this panel today.

I share these fragments of autobiography partly to emphasize the curious, contingent factors that can shape a career or a field of inquiry–and partly for another reason. Today historians and other scholars often speak about our “projects” and our research agendas. Perhaps this is a subtle reflection of the hold of postmodernism on the academic imagination: If truth is merely a construct derived from the interplay of power relationships, perhaps it must appear to some that whenever we write a book we must have some hidden, long-term purpose. In my own case, I have occasionally noticed in the literature what seem to be intimations that The Conservative Intellectual Movement in American Since 1945 was intended to establish the parameters for the field and to marginalize other approaches to the study of American conservatism. Why, for instance, did the book start with 1945? Why not 1933? Was I attempting thereby to “privilege” the Buckleyite New Right at the expense of the pre-World War II “Old Right”? And so on.

Perhaps the funniest hint that the book had some grandiose ambition was probably a case of a typographical error. In the 1980s someone in a bibliography mistakenly cited my book as The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1492!

Let me assure all present that I had no such grand design when I began. In 1970 I was a twenty-five-year-old graduate student anxious to do my best on a manageable subject that seemed worth studying and then, with my degree in hand, to enter Academia. If I had done so in the conventional manner, I have no idea what my second book would have been about.

One Thought on this Post

  1. I do believe that the very year, 1973, George completed his diss at Harvard in intellectual history, Martin Jay did the same, and both books (Jay’s being The Dialectical Imagination) came out in 1976. Both diss’s rather drew the parameters of a generation’s scholarship in the field generally. But there was phase action. The work on the Frankfurt School reached full tilt quickly after 1976, while that on the conservative tradition stood in wait. I wonder if Jay thought his work was “too recent.” Not recent enough, I imagine his followers felt. And the ultimate reception of George’s work represents a scandal averted.

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