As 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.