U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Abstractions of Conservatism

Nash_CIMAAs LD Burnett noted in one of her prior posts on George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in American: Since 1945, an important component of post-WWII conservatism was (and is still, I believe) its reliance on intellectual history, both American and otherwise. Here’s a key passage from the book and her post (bolds mine):

The most noteworthy feature of this body of thought [of the “new conservative” wing in Nash’s taxonomy] is the simple fact that it was overwhelmingly intellectual history. In nearly all these accounts of the decline of the west…ideas were alleged to have been decisive; ideas had consequences. …In a sense, an explanation which made ideas the principal engines of history was an explanation which offered hope. Perhaps it is harder to battle the direction of events if one thinks that the whole impersonal weight of industrialism or secularism or urbanization is bearing down on the present. Perhaps it is easier to resist one’s age if ‘only’ ideas and not ‘forces’ seem to be the foe. For presumably ideas can be altered. If bad ideas have consequences, so can good ideas. …This belief in the potency of ideas pervaded all segments of the postwar American Right.*

Postwar conservatives, by way of review, sought refuge and political battle in the realm of ideas for several reasons. First, apparently New Deal liberals had done a better job linking their political programs to larger ideas about national solidarity. Second, conservatives believed that “Communism”** had won over a disconcerting number of New Deal intellectuals and American thinkers. This tainted New Deal liberalism. Third, conservatives believed that prior, interwar conservatives had done a poor job articulating the intellectual principles of conservatism. Fourth, conservatives believed that the institutions where ideas were incubated, namely universities, had become corrupted by liberal and communist-sympathizing professors. Here’s how Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen recently summarized that critique of higher education in a recent review*** of a new book by Neil Gross:

Gross…puts conservative criticisms of the university into historical view while trying to suss out their merits today. For well over half a century, from William F. Buckley with his God and Man at Yale (1951) through David Horowitz’s campaign to ferret out leftist advocacy with his “Academic Bill of Rights,” introduced in 2003, conservative detractors have made castigating a liberal professoriate a marquee event of their activism. The conservative punditry’s postwar rise and growing stature were not ex nihilo but rather gained funding and political force through conservative organizations, foundations, think tanks, and publications. This postwar para-academic infrastructure helped them to give voice and coherence to their grievances and find a receptive audience. The work of critics of the university, in other words, has been crucial for creating alliances between economic elites and small-government populists within the postwar GOP.

Apart from questions about universities and liberal professors, focusing on the battleground of ideas made sense for conservatives. But this reliance on ideas, focused on political philosophies, both helped and hurt in the end. It helped them identify common ideological grounds amidst the libertarian, traditionalist, and anti-communist wings. But this wasn’t enough; they also had to minimize differences and come up with some practical policies as the Sixties progressed—a move which Nash documents. It also caused them to chase some false abstractions, some phantasms.

The opening section of chapter nine in CIMA (pp. 236-256) discusses The Right’s late 1950s and early 1960s efforts to reframe the Cold War. The goal was to offer an alternative to containment. Their choice? Militant rhetoric that “demanded a policy of victory.” Charles Malik urged an “active policy of liberation” (p. 254). The enemy, generally framed as “messianic, revolutionary Communism,” had engaged in a “continuous, implacable assault on the West” (p. 239). Some within the movement (i.e. Frank Meyer, James Burnham, William Schlamm, and William F. Buckley, Jr) took even this rhetoric to another level. That group collectively believed that “Communism transcended ordinary laws of diplomatic behavior” and that “Soviet leaders were not ‘rational'”(pp. 240-241). The “world was not merely complicated (as liberals insisted) but dangerous” and populated with “evil men working tirelessly to bury the West” (p. 250).

Liberals, moreover, were incapable of getting it. Here’s Meyer, via Nash, on this: “Liberals…were ‘innately incapable’ of victoriously resisting Communism. …The blandly rationalistic liberal mind was incapable of grasping the religious, transnational, and nonrational character of messianic Communism” (p. 251). Indeed, the “Soviet menace,” to Meyer, was merely “the state form taken by a materialist faith determined to rule the world” (p. 251).

The logical political bottom line of these abstractions of Conservatism was, in the words of L. Brent Bozell, “preventive war” (p. 241). The United States, by this logic, “would then have an ‘obligation’ to destroy the enemy ‘in the middle of the night,’ knowing that ‘when the right is pursued, it is God who ordains the cost'” (pp. 241-242). With Bozell, Frank Meyer also argued for a “counterforce strategy” that would “require a first strike” (p. 242). Nash notes that Buckley (somehow) did not see this as warmongering.

In politics, then, when one makes “ideas the principal engines of history,” you risk turning your living, fallible, human opponents into fuzzy ideas—ghosts or phantasms of their actual selves. Your opposition was more projection than reality. When you fight something inhuman, you’re willing to use inhuman means of battle. Given the destructive power of atomic warfare, that meant mutually-assured destruction. It meant MADness.

I’m not a student of the USSR, its propaganda, or propaganda about the USSR forwarded by U.S. agencies, so I have some questions: What kinds of reliable empirical studies of Soviet leadership existed in the late 1950s and early 1960s? What studies existed of common USSR citizens in relation to party ideology? In sum, did anything empirical exist to counteract these conservative projections? I ask this knowing, per the material represented above from Nash, that those studies would be dismissed as mere liberal rationalism. Even so, it’d be nice to know if accurate profiles Soviet leadership and citizens existed.

Finally, it is clear that there are parallels for today. What of conservative abstractions in relation to the never-ending “War on Terror”? What are today’s conservative phantasms? – TL


*From p. 82 in LD’s 2006 version; pp. 48-49 in my 1996 version. I added a few lines that weren’t in LD’s original quote.

**If Nash’s study is to be believed, it’s amazing how postwar conservatives viewed “communism” in such a monolithic fashion. To them communism held forth no contingencies or special iterations; it was the same without regard to culture, state, or a state’s leader. Thanks to other historical studies we know this view was mistaken. For more on the varieties of twentieth-century communism, see Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes.

***Gross’s new book is titled Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? Ratner-Rosenhagen’s review appeared April 3, 2013, in The American Prospect.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great questions, Tim! I guess, are the differences between Burnham and PNAC more significant than their similarities? Is there anyone out there who has tried to trace neocon foreign policy back to the anticommunist new conservatives of the fifties? I believe Matteson, in Rebels All, keeps them separate.

    • Mark: Can you elaborate a bit on your question about PNAC and Burnham? I’m game for more discussion. As for your historiography question, I don’t know. I confess ignorance. – TL

      • Sorry for the brevity. According to Nash, Burnham was the most influential on new conservative foreign policy in trying to replace “containment” with “liberation” (see his 1953 book, Containment or Liberation?). The Project for a New American Century (PNAC) was a Bill Kristol, neoconservative venture (1997?) that sought American ability to fight multiple wars in multiple venues. There’s definitely similarities between Burnham and PNAC–maintain a large military establishment, take the fight to the “bad guys.” But there are differences as well: the place of Israel (largely absent for Burnham’s people but central for Kristol’s); exporting democracy (neocon) versus preserving American democracy (new conservatives); and probably more. So, in absence of a direct line between Burnham and neocons (which I don’t know of anyone who has established it), can we talk about A conservative foreign policy without a ton of qualifications?

        Hope that’s clearer.

      • It’s been awhile since I’ve read Ehrman, too. In any case, I think my focus on direct lines is a bit off-target from Tim’s original question about “parallels” or “today’s conservative phantasms.” To get back on track, I might ask instead, “are conservatives the only ones who see ghosts?” Seems to me the more meaningful foreign policy distinctions during the 1950s were not between liberals and conservatives but between realists (like Kennan) and idealists (like Burnham). Does that hold today? What most distinguishes Obama from Bush II, his discomfort with unilateral displays of force 🙂 or his refusal to be driven by abstractions like “war on terror”?

    • Mark: John Ehrman, “The Rise of Neoconservatism: Intellectuals and Foreign Affairs : 1945-1994,” traces neoconservative thought back to the anticommunism of the early Cold War, Burnham and other conservatives, but also, importantly, Cold War liberals. Ehrman is very sympathetic to the neocons–he might even be one himself. But his book is very well researched and balanced in its presentation.

      • Thanks Andrew. I’m familiar with Ehrman’s book and have used it in classes before. I didn’t think he drew a line between Burnham and Buckley to the neocons, though. He stresses that the neocons were shaped by the liberal anticommunism of a Schlesinger or Niebuhr. Even today, I’m not sure the neocons remember Burnham, but claim Niebuhr as their “Father.”

      • Mark: Sorry, it’s been awhile since I’ve read Ehrman. I remember him emphasizing cold war liberalism as a forerunner to neoconservatism. I guess I assumed Burnham’s anticommunism would have been influential as well. But come to think of it, Burnham first made a mark amongst libertarians like John Flynn, those not really on the neocon radar.

    • Mark: The argument that neocon foreign policy views can be traced back to Burnham is made most forcefully by Gary Dorrien in his book “The Neoconservative Mind” (1993). The problem with that view, as Dorrien himself concedes in the book, is that the neocons had very little contact with Burnham and never cited him as an influence–which is not surprising given that Burnham became a conservative when the future neocons were still firmly cold war liberals. My own view is that it’s fairer to say, as both Ehrman and Justin Vaisse do, that “echoes” of Burnham can be found among some neocons (Podhoretz in the 1980s), but that Cold War liberalism, Niebuhr, and Sidney Hook were far greater influences. In the dissertation I’m currently working on I focus on yet another foreign policy influence on the neocons, one that’s been almost completely overlooked: American social democracy in the 1960s and 70s, with its strong support for anti-communism and democracy promotion. But that’s a whole other story. Cheers.

  2. As I look at this post again, I have two further observations:

    1. If the Culture Wars are wars of ideas, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised the dehumanized caricatures that frequently appear. The opponents are not people, but ideals, or ideas of ideals.

    2. I was shocked by the rhetoric of Meyer, Burnham, Schlamm, and even Buckley. I know Nash is building toward Goldwater. But I had always thought of Goldwater as a cowboy loose canon, not the product of a MAD discourse that preceded him by several years. – TL

  3. I’ve several of “those” books from my grandparents. “Ideas have Consequences” is one I keep around to remind myself of what “insanity” may be. Insanity may be too strong, but how else can the overwhelming selfishness proposed be described?

    While Weaver puts out a seemingly straightforward viewpoint, I’ve not yet understood it or what it is.

    However, and as important also is my equal consternation with the conservatives ideological opposites. But then, I find being between these two forces is not right either and in fact is more harmful in that it’s without its own thoughts and direction.

    Independence. Independent ways apart from these two bickering ones is where the future is, and hope should find its home. Accepting reality places truth in more than two choices. My fellow citizens continue accepting the limited political viewpoints of others instead of boldly going out on their own.

  4. In politics, then, when one makes “ideas the principal engines of history,” you risk turning your living, fallible, human opponents into fuzzy ideas—ghosts or phantasms of their actual selves. Your opposition was more projection than reality.

    As in these psychohistories of the right written by liberals for liberals, or in that Chris Matthews way that dispenses with the fiction of scholarliness and just cuts to calling them racists who eat the poor?

    2. I was shocked by the rhetoric of Meyer, Burnham, Schlamm, and even Buckley.

    Now, there’s something to that, but there were not politicians, statesmen. To compare apples to apples, one must look at the rhetorical excesses of contemporary thinkers/writers/intellectuals on the left to be in the same continuum. As Ratner-Rosenberg properly notes, National Review conservatism was conceived as a “para-academic infrastructure” to the prevailing leftist orthodoxy of higher ed.

    So my problem with many of these analyses of conservatism is that conservatism offers itself as a tonic, a balance–a restraining order!–vs. the currents on the left, of modernity, of “progress.” Aside from conservatism’s embrace of the classical view of human nature [vs. modernity’s belief in its perfectibility] or of the preferability of economic liberty [over more centralized schemes]–neither of which are addressed here–the right cannot be assessed at any given point without the greater context of whatever the left was up to at the time.

    For if early “modern” conservatism wanted to undo the New Deal [it did], there were plenty on the left who wanted to double down on it [and still do].

    And if modern sophisticates find Buckley’s God and Man at Yale to be quaint and jejune, it was also prescient. Forgive this source


    but it indicates how secular forces such as the ACLU were just revving up in the 1950s, losing battles that they would soon start winning within the decade. A “naked public square” seemed inconceivable at the time, but here we are, at least halfway there.

    There are a number of other areas that need inclusion here beyond the nuttier positions of the nuttier voices on the right [a call for a first strike on the Soviet Union, if ever serious, was never normative on the right]. Acid, amnesty and abortion, for instance, which although an epithet directed at George McGovern by his Democratic Party opponents in 1972, in time indeed has become the semi-official ethos of the party.

    On these and similar issues, conservatism simply follows the contours of the left, yin and yang. To study yang is of some interest [Harvey Mansfield’s “Manliness” comes to mind], but again, only as a tonic to an overweening yin.

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