American Conservatism’s Lost Soul
The Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar American Right
By Paul Edward Gottfried
Publisher: Northern Illinois University Press
Pages: 178 pages
Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.
Did conservatism gain the whole world (i.e., the White House) and lose its own soul? What an odd question! Conservatism, as every reasonable person knows, never had a soul to lose. It has always been the buttress of the establishment, the protector of the haves from the have-nots, the ideology of privilege and prerogative.
Out of ignorance, mendacity, or tendentiousness (and sometimes all three at once), leftists purvey the above caricature with the fervor of a Mussulman on jihad. Unbelievable as it may seem, however, mutterings of a similar nature can be heard on the Right itself these days. Not so much the chestnut about haves and have-nots; rather, one hears grumblings about the movement’s lack of depth, its abandonment of principle, its enamoredness with power and perquisites – its loss of soul. (And these grumblings predate the Contragate scandal.)
This will surprise those who view conservatism as a monolithic ideology. Everyone knows, of course, that the Reagan Administration has been rife with squabbling, disagreement, and struggles for power worthy of the Ottoman Empire. These, however, are mainly family quarrels among people agreed upon a common goal. The discontent I refer to cuts deeper, to the very quick of conservatism.
One might expect Paul Gottfried’s The Search for Historical Meaning to be discussed only in the ivied buildings and book-burdened studies where philosophers and political theorists meet to swap tales of their arcane explorations. Hegel’s influence on selected conservative thinkers is not the stuff of hot copy. But Gottfried’s book is a beast with two heads, one facing toward the academy, the other turned toward the arena where polemics rage. In praising the historical consciousness of an earlier conservatism, Gottfried exposes the flaw in Reaganism: it has repudiated historical vision and bartered its soul for a mess of power, prosperity, and policymaking. Gottfried calls himself a “historical conservative” – one who looks to the past for wisdom, insight, traditional values, and the empirical testimony of ancestral experience. He argues that a “sense of a living past” is vital if conservatism aspires to a higher calling than that promulgated by the computer-drones who scurry through the halls of right-wing think-tanks.
What scuttled the “historical conservatism” that figured so prominently in the conservative intellectual revival after World War II? As Gottfried points out, this variety of thought, whether in its Burkean or Hegelian form, was never the main force in postwar conservatism. More powerful was what might be called “free-market conservatism,” whose proponents focused on economics and public policy and cared most deeply about capitalism, growth, and progress. Their heroes were Adam Smith, the Classical Liberal theorists of the 19th century, and such contemporary thinkers as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek. The free-marketeers spoke not of specific men linked to their ancestors in a web of traditional values and immemorial custom, but of abstract Man, freed of external restraints and guided by the rational pursuit of self-interest. The lessons of the past did not brook large in their thinking.
One can easily overemphasize the differences between the two forms of conservatism. Both deplored the continuing dominance of New Deal liberalism, and both feared that America was shambling down the road to socialism. Together they sounded the alarm against the spread of communism and bemoaned the frailty of will besetting the West. Both warned of government encroachment upon the freedoms enjoyed by Americans. By sharing a common foe – the Left – and by accenting their agreement on certain issues, they could coexist – if at times uneasily – under the same conservative rubric.
With Reagan’s election the free-marketeers swept to power. There was a government to run – policies to establish and legislation to craft. Lawyers, political scientists, economists, and public-policy experts flocked to Washington to fill appointive slots and crowd the corridors of think-tanks and institutes. Who needed historians, classicists, metaphysicians, or men of letters? Action, not reflection, was the order of the day; present and future, not the past, mattered. “Policy” was the magic word, and it made the cadres on The Hill and along The Avenue shiver with anticipation at the possibilities that hovered within reach.
The free-marketeers discovered allies in a rather peculiar band of latecomers to Reaganism: those clothed in the hastily tailored apparel of “neoconservatism.” The neoconservatives wanted a piece of the action – and got it.
That the neoconservatives spoke a language the free-marketeers could understand is evidenced by Peter Berger’s The Capitalist Revolution. Although Berger is not a propagandist of capitalism in the style of Michael Novak or George Gilder, his protestations of scientific empiricism pale beside the enthusiasm of the recent convert. Capitalism, he avers, is “a gigantic horn of plenty” that brings abundance to the impoverished and promotes liberty and democracy in the bargain. That Reaganites will enthuse over Berger’s conclusions does not mean that the work is merely a celebration of the market. Berger is a scrupulous scholar. Although he believes in the superiority of capitalism, his “fifty propositions about prosperity, equality and liberty” are tendered as hypotheses “within an ongoing empirical inquiry.”
Berger releases a cat that conservatives – of whatever persuasion – would prefer to keep in the bag: “The notion of capitalism as conservative is misleading. On the contrary, from its inception capitalism has been a force of cataclysmic change in one country after another. Capitalism has radically changed every material, social, political, and cultural facet of the societies it has touched, and it continues to do so.” That is a repugnant, scraggly old alley-cat that spits, bites, and scratches; once set free, he is exceedingly difficult to rebag. Most free-marketeers flee from the repellent creature, for he renders dubious their claim to the title “conservative.” The traditionalist (I prefer this term to Gottfried’s “historical conservative,” which is not exactly the same thing) hesitates. He is not surprised by Berger’s lauding of capitalism’s “creative destruction,” for he knows the toll it takes on traditional societies. The cat, he reasons, ought to be recognized for what it is: an empirical observation. But the traditionalist’s devotion to the rights of private property dissuades him from speaking freely of his aversion to capitalism. Then, too, how could he attack capitalism without giving aid and comfort to the detested leftists? The unbagged cat presents him with a ticklish problem.
Who better to offer a solution than Robert Nisbet, a scholar who for 30 years or more has probed the clash between tradition and the modernity of which capitalism is a part? Nisbet’s usual elegant and lucid analysis is oddly missing from Conservatism. He, too, is vexed by Berger’s cat. Few self-professed Burkeans have warmed to Adam Smith; Russell Kirk’s magisterial The Conservative Mind, for example, scarcely mentions the philosopher of the “Invisible Hand.” Granted, the gap between Burke and Smith has often been exaggerated, but Nisbet collapses the differences, seeing in one man the mirror image of the other.
Nisbet evinces a confusion not uncommon among traditionalists today. For years he could nurture the traditionalist creed, skirt the issue of capitalism, and unite with free-marketeers in decrying the depredations of the Left. But in the 1960s the New Left mounted an attack on the American order in terms vaguely reminiscent of traditionalists’ reservations. Assailing the American faith in progress and economic development, New Leftists called for decentralized government, a check on growth and development, and protection of the natural environment. At times, one wondered if they had been reading I’ll Take My Stand, the most compelling defense of traditional society enunciated in 20th-century America. Distressed by the proliferation of no-growth extremism, Nisbet responded in 1980 with a History of the Idea of Progress, a clarion apologia for an idea that had been, until the 1960s, a key component of leftist ideology for two centuries. Free-marketeers, banking on Berger’s “gigantic horn of plenty,” shared this longstanding faith in progress, although the lineaments of their approaching Utopia differed from that of the leftists. But traditionalists wished a pox on both their houses.
Nisbet ranks Alexis de Tocqueville only slightly below Edmund Burke in his pantheon. Did the great French thinker espy Berger’s cat? As Michael Hereth shows in his recent book, Tocqueville returned from his famous trip to America with an apprehensiveness over the rising “aristocracy of manufacturers”; at home he held his own land’s emerging industrialists in low regard. He feared that the scramble for wealth would enshrine avarice and reduce republican institutions, in Hereth’s phrasing, to “only a hollow shell.” He dreaded the prospects of arrogant men of immense wealth exercising control over the lives of vast armies of workers. While rejecting the socialists’ solutions, he believed, as Hereth points out, that a democratic polity could best survive with an economy of small industrial establishments, whose limited scale would prevent the wielding of abusive power. Tocqueville’s disquietude retains its grip on traditionalists; as Nisbet remarks, “for conservatives the thought of a corporation like AT&T prior to recent divestiture…can be as difficult to accept as the whole Federal bureaucracy.”
Of 20th-century conservatives, none stands higher in Nisbet’s estimation than Irving Babbitt, the subject of a collection of essays entitled Irving Babbitt in Our Time. Babbit lived through the “glory days” of untrammeled capitalism, and before his death in 1933, witnessed its collapse amidst breadlines and empty factories. According to David Hoeveler, a contributor to the Babbitt collection, “Babbitt’s social conservatism embraced capitalism. But it never waxed eloquent in that embrace.” A man of probity, refinement, and good taste, Babbitt preached the virtues of civility: self-restraint, moderation, and cultivation of an “inner check” that enables man to stifle the baser impulses of his animal nature. The coarse, grasping capitalist buccaneers of his day affronted his vision of the good life. What could be done about them? Property rights being sacrosanct, only this: “Our real hope of safety lies in our being able to induce our future Harrimans and Rockefellers to liberalize their own souls, in other words to get themselves rightly educated.” Like most 20th-century traditionalists, Babbitt preferred to keep the cat in the bag and try to ignore its yowling.
How can the traditionalist defend tradition while ignoring one of its prime destroyers? Industrial capitalism simply cannot be squared with the values he cherishes. Berger’s blunt admission of capitalism’s destructiveness cannot be wished away. To fall back on the sacred rights of property will not suffice. When the great traditionalists of the past hymned the glories of property, they meant land, not many-tentacled corporate conglomerates. John Taylor of Caroline, for one, inveighed against the “paper aristocracy” of the early republic, and a century later the
Southern Agrarians blasted capitalism with a vehemence that startled even Marxists.
Perhaps it is too late for American traditionalists. Perhaps it was already too late in 1607 when a group of enterprising Englishmen landed on the banks of the James River, their minds afire with dreams of quick and easy profits. America has always been hospitable to “modern” men who wish to shake off the trammels and burdens of the past. Most American conservatives have championed individualism, insisting upon, as Gottfried observes, “the liberty and rights of the individual stripped of corporate and historical identity.” Americans did not invent modernity and capitalism, but they took to them like the proverbial duck to water. Outside the South, the traditionalist has usually had to seize tradition by force of will, and since 1865 even Southerners have had a hard go of it. There seems scant hope now as the 20th century creaks toward its demise.
Perhaps one can draw inspiration from the example of Irving Babbitt. In a culture that insults one’s sense of what is good and just, the “inner check” provides a means of cultivating traditional values and virtues for oneself. But to expect a social and cultural transformation from this would be to indulge in wishful thinking.
Alexis de Tocqueville possibly offers something more than self-cultivation and stoic endurance. Born into an aristocratic family of the ancien regime, he was hurled by the Revolution into a strange and alien world. Tocqueville learned to live in that world and refused to engage in bootless schemes to restore the past; besides, he knew that the old order had been rampant with flaws of its own. As shrewd observer he analyzed the new regime, and as politician he sought to apply his findings, as Hereth notes, to “the quest for a reasonable order, an order that expresses the freedom and dignity of man.”
The traditionalist faces an unpalatable present and an unpromising future, but they are all he has. But like Tocqueville, he can pursue his own “quest for a reasonable order.” He can accomplish little alone, but he can always hope that a latter-day thinker-politician like Burke or Tocqueville (instead of the Goldwaters and Reagans he has been forced to swallow) will arise to provide leadership.
There is another option, though the traditionalist will probably see it as a leap from the frying pan into the fire. For free-marketeers, the ultimate evil is socialism; the traditionalist knows better. His 19th-century forebears directed their most heated ire not at socialism, but at utilitarianism, Manchester liberalism, social Darwinism, and assorted other apologies for the new economic order. Certainly they despised Marxism, but they discerned in some types of socialism an ethos not unlike their own. Nisbet casts an approving glance at two of these: guild socialism and “Catholic socialism in France and Germany.” He comments: “Both are clear revolts against capitalism but also, unlike the main line of socialist thought, against the unitary, collectivist socialism set in the modern nation.”
Might the traditionalist consider joining forces with the heirs to such forms of socialism? How this could be accomplished I cannot say, for the obstacles are legion. But before dismissing the suggestion as sheer lunacy, he might ask himself a simple question. Who best approximates the traditionalist vision: Dorothy Day or the president of General Motors? Christopher Lasch or Milton Friedman? Robert Coles or Irving Kristol? Even united with kindred spirits from the Left, the traditionalist could entertain little hope of altering electoral patterns. Yet such an alliance would grant him two things: release from the debilitating connection with capitalism’s devotees and mitigation of the anguish he feels as a superfluous man, fated to fecklessness in a hostile culture.
I have yet to mention the most important consideration of all: Christianity. The traditionalist must resist a temptation spelled out by Nisbet: “It is religion as civil religion that seems to be the closest to a common essence of conservative belief…. ” Nisbet himself advocates this position, as did, sadly, Burke, Tocqueville, Babbitt, and a host of other traditionalists, past and present. To view Christianity as, in Nisbet’s words, “a valuable pillar to both state and society” is inevitably to chain it to this world. Down that road lies despair, for only a transcendent faith offers any ultimate hope. In the end, only religion matters, and one suspects that when a person stands before the Throne of Judgment it counts little whether he is a traditionalist or not.
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