Older and Wiser Right

The Reactionary Radicals blog has just a week (or thereabouts) left to go, and talk has turned more explicitly to politics. I've posted about the views of two important Old Right figures: Felix Morley and Russell Kirk. They were against Bushism long before there was such a thing. (Then again, there already was Prescott Bush, and some say Samuel P. Bush had been a profiteer of sorts during World War I. See Kevin Phillips's American Dynasty for the family background.)

In the midst of the Age of Bush, when most institutions that call themselves conservative are devoted to flacking for the national-security state, it's worth looking back on figures like Morley — a man thrown down right-wing memory hole; do a search for his name at the Human Events website and you'll see what I mean — and Kirk, whose name has become an altar before which even neoconservatives will occasionally genuflect, but whose actual views on things like war and Mideast politics cannot be mentioned in polite Republican company. "Not seldom has it seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States," he once said. On the same occasion, a 1988 talk at the Heritage Foundation, Kirk shared what some other old-guard conservatives thought about the emerging type:

I offer you two specimens of the rejection of the Neoconservatives that I encounter nowadays in many quarters. My first extract is from a letter recently received from a very distinguished historian in Pennsylvania. [John Lukacs? -DM] "I have burned my bridges with most (not all) of the Konservatives, and especially with the neo- conservatives, who are selfish and uninstructed radicals and progressives, wishing to pour cement all over the country and make the world safe for democracy, well beyond the dreams of Wilson," he writes to me. "A feeling for the land, for its conservation, and for the strong modesty of a traditional patriotism (as distinct from nationalism) none of them has."

My second instance of the spreading distaste for Neoconservatives comes from a well-known literary scholar. "I would not be at all surprised to see the Neo-Cons jump ship if Dukakis is elected; they would be perfectly capable of making an accommodation with the socialist wing of the Democratic Party," he tells me …… It is significant that when the Neo-Cons wish to damn any conservative who has appealed for a grant to a conservative foundation, they tell the officers of the foundation that the conservative is a fascist…. I believe that the chief enemy of American conservatism has not been the Marxists, nor even the socialist liberals in the Democratic Party, but the Neo-Conservatives, who have sabotaged the movement from within and exploited it for their own selfish purposes."

Looking at the meager circulation figures for The American Conservative and Chronicles, compared to the massive numbers for Bush-adoring right-wing talk radio and various neocon projects, one might wonder if there really is much of a case for saying that that such small outlets represent real conservatism. But then one can look to what not only the old, libertarian right of Morley and John T. Flynn once wrote but also what the chief traditionalists of next generation — Kirk, Richard Weaver, Robert Nisbet, John Lukacs, etc. — had to say about militarism and see that there are some grounds for the claim after all. But then on the other hand, even some (though not all) of the better traditionalists found it all too easy to reach an accommodation with Wernher von Braun's America.

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3 thoughts on “Older and Wiser Right

  1. scriblerus June 2, 2006 / 2:09 pm

    I couldn’t say for sure but I wouldn’t be surprised if the “prominent literary scholar” in Kirk’s second example is Mel Bradford, whose nomination as head of the NEH in the early 1980s was undermined by Irving Kristol among others.

  2. Daniel Larison June 2, 2006 / 4:19 pm

    Whoever the scholar was, he was absolutely right about who the greatest enemy was. Looking at it in one way, I would say that the low numbers of subscribers to TAC and Chronicles almost guarantees that they must be adhering to the old conservative tradition, as few things have sold worse in the present age than a philosophy focused on restraint, order, hierarchy and authority–four things that modern men typically regard as stifling or as codewords for oppression (these would be the same people who routinely cheer on Caesarism even as they fear incipient theocracy in the backwoods).

  3. Jeremy Beer June 7, 2006 / 1:27 pm

    The historian is surely Lukacs. The phrasing of the charges is very similar if not exactly the same as that which appears in several of his books and talks. “You cannot side with the cement-pourers and the concrete-mixers and call yourself a conservative” is a classic line from an ISI talk that is regularly repeated around the office…

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