The Example Of Viereck

Nov 30 2011 @ 12:23pm

It's a matter of shame to me that I never really engaged the political and philosophical arguments of 14647748_125924620444Sullivan, Bartlett, Frum et al.) What Viereck reveals is that in some ways, the new leftist critiques of conservatism (like Corey Robin's stimulating, if uneven, series of essays) have a point.

The conservative criticism of today's GOP that I and others have engaged in is not new. It was there at the beginning of the "movement" in the post-war period and has never really left. In other words, there is a distinctive conservative strain of non-violence, pragmatism, restraint and limited government that is at peace with the New Deal. How else to expain Eisenhower or the first Bush or Reagan in some moods?

Equally, there has been a long tradition of the kind of conservatism that is ascendant today: relishing violence and war, ideological, revanchist and in favor of limiting government but not of limiting other forces inimical to liberty, like rentier classes, or a fusion of corporate interests and legislation. Here's Viereck calling out the American right for its lack of conservatism in 1949:

"Most ["conservatives"] are so muddled they don't even know when they are being 19th-century liberal individualists (in economics) and when they are being 20th-century semi-fascist thought-controllers (in politics). Logically, these two qualities are contradictory. Psychologically, they unite to make America's typical pseudo-conservative rightist …

[Russell Kirk] and perhaps half of the new conservatives are bankrupt … How can one attribute bankruptcy to a growing concern? Indeed, this new American right seems a very successful concern. On every TV station, on every mass-circulation editorial page, the word "conservatism" in the 1960s has acquired a fame, or at least notoriety, that it never possessed before … Which is it, triumph or bankruptcy, when the empty shell of a name gets acclaim while serving as a chrysalis for its opposite?

The historic content of conservatism stands, above all, for two things: organic unity and rooted liberty. Today the shell of the "conservative" label has become a chrysalis for the opposite of these two things: at best for atomistic Manchester liberalism, opposite of organic unity; at worst for thought-controlling nationalism, uprooting the traditional liberties (including the 5th Amendment) planted by America's founders."

Sound familiar? What better description of neoconservatism at its worst than "thought-controlling nationalism". There's a great profile of Viereck in The New Yorker, from 2005. And here is his first essay on conservatism, written for The Atlantic when he was only 23. The New Yorker profile prompted a riposte from John J Miller at National Review. In it, in the immortal words of Frank Meyer, the right line on Viereck was established early on:

"Viereck is not the first, nor will he be the last, to succeed in passing off his unexceptionably Liberal sentiments as conservatism."

Again: sound familiar? Then this point, made by Viereck in 1949:

‘Religion’ is a house with many mansions, finding room not only for literal but for symbolic interpretations of church dogma.

The key difference between Viereck and his immediate successor, William F Buckley Jr was also a fascinating one. Viereck did not want to uproot the New Deal and despised McCarthyism. Buckley was his opposite in both respects. This is what Viereck said of McCarthy:

He corrupted the ethics of American conservatives, and that corruption leads to the situation we have now. It gave the conservatives the habit of appeasing the forces of the hysterical right and to looking to these forces — and appeasing them knowingly, expediently. I think that was the original sin of the conservative movement, and we are all suffering from it.

We still are. In our end is our beginning, as another actual conservative once put it.