New Work Examines Suppressed Conservative Political-Intellectual Heritage
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Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, by Justin Raimondo. Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan. Burlingame, Calif.: Center for Libertarian Studies (P.O. Box 4091, Burlingame, CA 94011), 1993. Softcover. 289 pages. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $17.95. ISBN: 1-883959-00-4.
Much attention has been given in recent years to ideological quarrels among factions of the American Right. Traditionalists, nationalists, and libertarians are feuding with internationalists and neo-conservatives. Charges that the forces of the Old Right are threatening to drag conservatives into the fever swamps are countered with accusations of treason and takeover by social democratic interlopers. The casual observer might assume that political movements are simply given to internecine rhetorical squabbling, and that nothing of consequence is really at stake here. Reclaiming the American Right is a useful antidote to such a faulty conclusion.
Justin Raimondo, a San Francisco writer and veteran libertarian activist, has written a timely and very worth-while, yet sometimes problematic, revisionist history of the American Right. In contrast to conventional treatments of American conservative ideology and politics that begin with the post-war period, this book begins with a focus on the period between the two world wars, and continues through to the present.
Raimondo's polemical book is directed primarily to the reader who is already sympathetic toward, or even involved in, right-wing politics. Yet, this ambitious and often radical reinterpretations of the history of the "conservative movement" demands a somewhat more detailed and scholarly examination, one that is beyond the scope of a work of this kind. As a result, Raimondo sometimes needlessly confuses issues of philosophical subtlety with substantive political disputes.
This book attempts to address a critical problem of late twentieth century American conservatism: the American Right today has revealed itself as a flaccid and relatively inconsequential political force. Writes Raimondo:
After taking over the Republican Party in the sixties, and then capturing the White House in 1980, conservatives are baffled to discover that the power of the federal government to tax and regulate, and invade every aspect of our lives, has not lessened but increased over the last decade. Bewildered, frustrated, and demoralized, the men and women of the Right are asking themselves: What went wrong?
Raimondo lays out the root of the problem in his introduction. The Right, he contends, was beset with three waves of defectors from the political Left: ex-communists who gathered during the 1950s around the young Bill Buckley and his National Review; liberals and Social Democrats who were repelled by the isolationism and counter-culture of the New Left, and defected from the Democratic Party in the late-1960s to become "neo-conservatives"; and an array of "neo-con" think-tanks and publications that arose during the 1980s. As a result of these "three invasions from the Left, loosely grouped along generational lines," the conservative movement was detached "from its moorings in American political culture" and was transformed from an isolationist and laissez-faire movement into a globalist crusade to crush Communism by any means necessary, including the imposition of totalitarianism at home. In several chapters, Raimondo carefully examines the Right prior to these invasions – that is, the Old Right that had formed in opposition to the New Deal and American entry into World War Two. After focusing on the remnant of the Old Right that managed to survive during the Cold War, he follows with an analysis of the contemporary political scene. He concludes his book by considering the development of an effective opposition to the welfare-warfare state.
Raimondo's analysis of the leftist incursion and injection of universalist and internationalist ideologies into the conservative intellectual body during the 1950s is one of the best and most useful on the subject. It is rigorous and yet accessible to even the casual reader.
In his treatment of these three "invasions," Raimondo traces their roots on the far Left to their positions of influence on the Right. His description of the messianic opposition to the Soviet Union by the ex-Leftists at National Review as a quasi-religious quest is quite accurate, as an afternoon perusal through back issues of that magazine at any good library will confirm. In his description of the intellectual evolution of neo-conservatives "from Trotsky to Shachtman to Reagan" Raimondo brings to light information hitherto unavailable in a single source. Regrettably lacking is any mention of the influence of German emigré Leo Strauss on the contemporary neo-conservative worldview, which might be interesting in light of the claim of some neo-cons that Strauss provides a coherent philosophical basis for what often seems to be a loose collection of political positions or, less generously, sheer opportunism.
The only serious flaw in Raimondo's examination of the role of ex-Leftists in the American conservative movement during the formative postwar period (particularly after 1955 and the founding of National Review) is his gross misinterpretation of James Burnham as political theorist.
Raimondo presents Burnham as a prototypical neo-conservative, an enthusiast of the rising managerial class, and a man obsessed with power. While this description may satisfactorily summarize the typical neo-conservative, it does not apply to Burnham. However wrong-headed some of his political prescriptions may have been, a fair evaluation of Burnham's intellectual career is in order here.
James Burnham began his life in politics as a member of Leon Trotsky'S Fourth International, which (theoretically) offered Marxists an alternative to the "bureaucratic deformations" of Stalinism. After a number of crises involving the historical record of the Soviet Union and Trotsky's insistence on defending the Soviet "worker's state" "against the Stalinists, and in spite of the Stalinists," Burnham broke with Trotsky and, indeed, with orthodox Marxism.
In 1941, Burnham published The Managerial Revolution, a work that analyzed the past from a historical perspective similar to the dialectic of the Marxists. However, Burnham identified the postcapitalist system not as one of liberating socialism, but as a new method of exploitation: rule by a rigid managerial elite that choked out all hopes of liberation and possibility of freedom. He identified this trend in the Soviet Union, in Europe's fascist or authoritarian regimes, and in New Deal America. He was particularly sagacious in incorporating a description of the concurrent rise of managerial dominance in the private economy, fueled by a growing trend toward separation of business control from business ownership. Burnham would eventually drop the flaw of dialectic (George Orwell criticized him for "predicting the continuation of anything that is happening"), and concentrate on the essential nature of the new elite in his analyses.
Raimondo is simply incorrect in imputing to Burnham a partisanship for the managerial class. He claimed agnosticism on this point in his major work, and it is clear that he regarded the new class as exploitative by its nature. Raimondo goes so far as to quote Burnham making this precise point: "I am not writing a program of social reform, nor am I making any moral judgment whatever ... " Further, Burnham's analysis is rooted in the observations of earlier thinkers as diverse as Max Weber and Simone Weil, neither of whom is usually associated with totalitarian politics. In addition, Burnham's critique of the managerial class has been taken up by Samuel Francis, whom Raimondo praises, and, at least by implication, the Frankfurt School critics in their assessment of the domination of society by the emergent "New Class."
Raimondo's' excoriation of Burnham as a partisan of raw power is another spurious characterization. Burnham was a "Machiavellian" in that he believed that politics must be understood in terms of power struggles. He almost certainly misapplied this in over-estimating the Soviet danger, but it is unfair to contend that Burnham was obsessed with whomever appeared to be most powerful simply because he utilized a methodology that attempted to elucidate the underlying realities of political conflicts.
Contrary to the portrayal provided by Raimondo, Burnham was actually an early critic of the neo-conservatives. Raimondo's disdain of Burnham is likely rooted in Burnham's early, fervent support for the Cold War, a position that typically also meant support for curtailment of domestic liberties as part of the effort to expand the garrison state of the emerging American empire.
Aside from his mischaracterization of Burnham, it should be emphasized that Raimondo's basic point about how the American Right was co-opted by one-time Leftist intellectuals who continued to adhere to key Leftist premises is essentially correct. Hence, the modern Right seeks "liberal ends through conservative means." Thus, a "conservative" such as Jack Kemp may claim to reject liberal programs to, for example, equalize the economic status of different ethnic groups. Nevertheless, he will support ostensibly "conservative" programs to achieve this same goal. By contrast, the traditional or "paleo-"conservative rejects both the goal and the means, recognizing that social hierarchies are natural and desirable in any healthy society.
Given that both the contemporary Left and Right accept the egalitarian premises that prevail in today's society, the paleo-conservative view is now widely castigated as simply beyond the pale of allowable discussion. Pointing up the essential similarity between establishment Left and Right was the allegedly conservative "Reagan revolution," which, in spite of dark mumblings of some liberal critics, was led by a geriatric actor who proudly, and skillfully, presented himself as a political heir to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.
Much of this can be explained by the Cold War establishment consensus that developed in America in the aftermath of the Second World War. An essential feature of the Cold War anti-Communist American Right was its collaboration with Cold War liberalism. As a result of this alliance, conservatives largely failed to challenge the basic philosophical underpinnings of American liberalism. (Recent scholarship, particularly that of Elizabethtown College professor Paul Gottfried, verifies Raimondo's conclusions.)
Avoiding any detailed explanation of the final neo-conservative split with the far Left, Raimondo focuses instead on neo-conservatives as liberal critics of capitalism and as democratic internationalists. Underlying this break, which came in the late 1960s and was initiated by the concerns mentioned above, was a specifically Jewish consciousness and self-identification of many (and perhaps most) neoconservatives. Recognizing this self-identification is important, as it has played a major and possibly essential role in shaping neo-conservative political positions, as well as serving as a pretext to denounce conservative opponents of neo-conservative positions as "anti-Semitic." (Columnists Patrick Buchanan and Joseph Sobran, and the late scholar Russell Kirk; come to mind.)
Paul Gottfried, a prominent critic of neo-conservatism (and himself Jewish) emphasizes this point in his thorough study, The Conservative Movement:
Among the factors that led [Norman] Podhoretz and many other neo-conservatives to disengage with the Left, their Jewishness was certainly significant. From 1969 on, Commentary [edited by Podhoretz and published by the American Jewish Committee], included strongly worded polemics that presented the [anti-establishment] "Movement," particularly black radicalism, as a danger to American Jews. Critics like Earl Raab and Nathan Glazer stressed the inevitable anti-Jewish character of the policies advocated by the New Left and its liberal followers.
An analysis of the neo-con break from liberalism is interesting because it sheds some light on the ongoing conflict between neo-conservatives and paleo-conservatives that have raged in the wake of the collapse of Soviet Communism and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. These intramural "conservative wars" (discussed in the last section of the book) stem not, as some neo-cons would have the public believe, from dislike of Jews per se, but from two competing worldviews that are contending-as the glue of anti-Communism dissipates – for hegemony on the Right: one largely rooted in Jewish identity and interests, and another strongly emphasizing a Christian European and Anglo-American historical-cultural tradition.
In the next section of the book, Raimondo provides an informative examination of the Old Right that is particularly important because it introduces to a new generation of Americans a significant intellectual-political movement that was suppressed and is now all but forgotten. The American "Old Right" is not only significant as an important part of an American conservative and right-wing tradition (that includes, – Cor example, Southern Agrarianism), but it is also relevant because it provides a timely and damning critique of the political structures that support the welfare-warfare state with which America has been saddled since the New Deal era.
In addition to well-done treatments of such "Old Right" stalwarts as H.L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov, and the Old Right Chicago Tribune, Raimondo devotes separate chapters to two once very influential journalists, Garet Garrett and John T. Flynn. In these chapters (three and four), Raimondo explores the life, work and impact of each man.
Garet Garrett was a widely published journalist who specialized in writing about financial affairs. In 1915, The New York Times assigned him to cover the war in Europe. After the war, he published his first novel, and went on to write on a range of subjects. He envisioned America as an independent republic of free men. Garrett opposed immigration on racial and cultural grounds, and opposed the inflationary Federal Reserve System, recommending instead a 100 percent gold standard currency. (An interesting feature of his outlook was simultaneous support for both laissez faire and autarchy in economics.) It is no wonder, then, that when Roosevelt initiated his attack on domestic liberties and began to move America toward war in Europe, Garrett was among his most eloquent critics.
After World War II, Garrett remained an active critic of "New Deal" America. He published The People's Pottage, a famous collection of essays (recently reissued by the Noontide Press under the title Burden of Empire). Before his death in 1954 he finished The American Story, an ode to the uniquely American way of life. Raimondo captures well the life and spirit of Garrett, combining a biographical overview with a good analysis of his writings. Flynn receives similar treatment.
In the years following World War I, John T. Flynn was a "liberal," which meant that he was an isolationist and a supporter of laissez-faire economics. He had a prolific career, with scintillating essays and books ranging from attacks on Franklin Roosevelt (The Roosevelt Myth) to works on the fate of the republic (The Decline of the American Republic and How to Save It). Raimondo's provides a thorough and particularly interesting discussion of Flynn's important role as a member of the national committee of the non-interventionist America First Committee (1940-1941). He goes on to trace Flynn's active life through the Korean War and beyond. As Raimondo summarizes "Flynn ended his career in 1960, at the age of seventy-nine ... He died in 1964 as Buckley and his followers were eradicating the last remnants of the Old Right, his works largely forgotten."
As Raimondo goes on to explain in his treatment of the Old Right during the 1950s and 1960s, during this period anti-Communist globalists headed by William Buckley effectively expelled libertarians, "Objectivists," John Birch Society adherents, and others, from the "official" conservative movement. All the expellees, Raimondo points out, seemed to have one thing in common: opposition, at least residual, to the growing American welfare-warfare state that was being justified by the alleged threat of the Soviet Union.
Because he seems largely indifferent to the Soviet Union as a real military and political threat, it is surprising that Raimondo makes no mention of the body of scholarship – loosely described as "Cold War revisionism" – initiated by William Appleman Williams in his The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. Other Cold War revisionists of note include Ronald Radosh and Gabriel Kolko, whose Politics of War deserves particularly close attention. [Radosh's Prophets on the Right is available from the IHR for $5.95 plus $2 shipping. (check www.ihr.org for current availability and price; ed.)] The political disposition of these revisionists was decidedly to the Left; in fact, many were associated with the 1960s New Left, which may account for their omission from this study of conservative politics. At one point, Cold War revisionism was widely recognized as an important historical trend, portraying the US as aggressively imperialistic, a view foreshadowed by Garrett, Harry Elmer Barnes and others.
Journal readers will appreciate Raimondo's sympathetic discussion of revisionist historians, including Harry Elmer Barnes, Charles A. Beard, William Henry Chamberlin, Charles Callan Tansill, and George Morgenstern. Given the reflexive, implacable hostility by today's academic and media est.ablishment toward Second World War revisionism of any kind, Raimondo's treatment is welcome. In this brief section – entitled "The Revisionists: Getting the Truth Out" – he focuses primarily on revisionist works that indict Franklin Roosevelt for maneuvering the United States into war.
In chapter eight, Raimondo provides some original and noteworthy revelations about Ayn Rand. According to Raimondo, "the overwhelming mass of evidence" shows that Rand was strongly influenced by, and probably borrowed stylistic and thematic elements from, a book by Garet Garrett in writing her well-known novel, Atlas Shrugged. Although she claimed not to owe any philosophical debts – a claim which shows either patent dishonesty or sheer stupidity – Rand apparently was also influenced deeply by Isabel Paterson, whose classic book, The God of the Machine, is touched on by Raimondo.
Raimondo's final section deals with the political prospects for today's paleo-conservatives, whom he regards as upholding the spirit of the Old Right. While it is true that the paleo-conservatives have much in common with the Old Right as a matter of political interest, many "Old Right" personalities actually had much in common with the tradition of eighteenth century liberalism. Among today's paleoconservatives, this tradition is largely non-existent.
Chris Woltermann, in the Winter 1993 Telos, describes paleo-conservatism as a modern phenomenon, tracing its roots to such twentieth century European conservative theorists as Bertrand de Jouvenel and Eric Voegelin. There is also a tendency among many paleo-cons to employ sociobiological arguments, which are clearly of contemporary origin. At the same time, though, they emphasize an understanding of history – a perspective that includes a thorough-going skepticism about human nature that has its roots in classical thought. Also characteristic of paleoconservativism is a distrust ·of the doctrine of human rights and the corollary role of the state as protector. With decentralist tendencies and a distinct distrust of supranational agencies, they prefer instead to see power removed from government hands.
The political positions derived from such a worldview are clearly similar, if not identical, to those advocated by the Old Right. Indeed, Raimondo quotes a passage from paleo-conservative Thomas Fleming that echoes Garet Garrett's critique of post-war America: "There is not much left of the Old Republic, which has bloated into a cancerous and swollen empire that threatens to devour all life and energy that still exists."Yet after endorsing this view, Raimondo's most ambitious recommendations are support for Patrick Buchanan as a presidential candidate and the recapturing of the conservative movement under the inspiration of the Old Right. However praiseworthy these goals may be, a much more radical political program than Raimondo outlines here would seem necessary to dismantle the enormous welfare-warfare state he decries.
Despite some oversimplification, Reclaiming the American Right deserves a wide readership. The issues it treats are vitally important, both on an intellectual-ideological plane, and politically. For any effective right-wing movement to achieve even tentative success, its roots must extend back into the American political-intellectual tradition much further than 1950. Despite new and destructive trends since the New Deal, such as the "Civil Rights" revolution, an effective movement will need to come to terms with the Old Right critique of the welfare-warfare state, which is the center of the malignancy that penetrates the American body politic. Unless that is dismantled, America will never again be healthy.
Additional information about this document
|Title:||New Work Examines Suppressed Conservative Political-Intellectual Heritage, Book Review|
|Sources:||The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 14, no. 5 (September/October 1994), pp. 41-44|
|First posted on CODOH:||Dec. 10, 2012, 6 p.m.|