Conventionally, postwar conservatism has been said to be a mixture of traditionalism (including religious and communitarian, especially agrarian, elements), anti-Communism, and libertarianism. Peter Viereck, the man who first brought the word “conservatism” back into respectable currency — at a time when even Robert Taft called himself a liberal — had some harsh words for each of those components.
A few years after the publication of Viereck’s Conseratism Revisited in 1949 a veritable right-wing renaissance was under way. Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind saw print in 1953; Clinton Rossiter’s Conservatism in America followed two years later, the same year that National Review launched. At the time, “individualist” was still the self-designation of choice for men of the right from William F. Buckley to Frank Chodorov. But that term didn’t appeal either to traditionalists like Kirk or to some of the ex-Communists who had broken with the Party and joined efforts like Buckley’s, and soon “conservative” had won out. (Though Whittaker Chambers, for one, preferred simply to be called a man of the right.)
The 1962 edition of Conservatism Revisited was revised and expanded with the addition of a second book, The New Conservatism — What Went Wrong?, in which Viereck outlined his differences, severe differences at that, with the emerging conservative movement. Both “books” together make up a slender 192-page paperback, which also finds room for a 1954 essay on Viereck from the Times Literary Supplement. If one had to put Viereck in a generic conservative category — which, thankfully, one does not — “traditionalist” would be the best fit. He was outspoken against “Manchester liberals” and, most of all, the militant anti-communists and Cold Warriors he called “thought-control nationalists.” But he had strong words for the various kinds of traditionalists as well. Have a look:
…today’s conservatism of yearning is based on roots either never existent or no longer existent. Such a conservatism of nostalgia can still be of high literary value. It is also valuble as an unusually detached perspective toard current social foibles. But it does real harm when it leaves literature and enters short-run politics, conjuring up mirages to conceal sordid realities.
Viereck has the agrarians in mind here, but not just the agrarians: “Their unhistorical appeal to history, their traditonless worship of tradition, characterize the conservatism of writers like Russell Kirk,” he writes.
The tradition that is alive is that of “liberal conservatism.” Viereck, unlike Kirk and most other modern conservatives, does not deny that the United States has fundamentally liberal origins. Our conservatism therefore has to be a species of liberalism, if it’s actually conserving something American.
Via the Constitutional Convention of 1787, this liberal-conservative heritage of 1688 became rooted in America as a blend of Locke’s very moderate liberalism and Burke’s very moderate conservatism. From the rival Federalists and Jeffersonians through today, all our major rival parties have continued this blend, though with varied proportion and stress. American history of based on the resemblance between moderate liberalism and moderate conservatism; the history of Europe is based on the difference between extreme liberalism and extreme conservatism.
But here is where Viereck parts ways with the other side of traditionalist conservatism, the side that instead of (or sometimes as well as) romanticizing agrarianism looks back to feudal Europe:
…some American new conservatives import from continental Europe a conservatism that totally rejects even our moderate native liberalism. In the name of free speech and intellectual gadflyism, they are justified in expounding the indiscriminate anti-liberalism of hothouse Bourbons and tsarist serf-floggers. But they are not justified in calling themselves American traditionalists or in claiming any except exotic roots for their position in America. Let them present their case frankly as anti-traditional, rootless revolutionaries of Europe’s authoritarian right wing, attacking the deep-rooted American tradition of liberal-conservative synthesis. Conservative authority, yes; right-wing authoritarianism, no. Authority means a necessary reverence for tradition, law, legitimism; authoritarianism means statist coercion based only on force, not moral roots, and suppressing individual liberties in the continental fashion of tsardom, Junkerdom, and Maistrean ultra-royalism.
Practically no one, of course, claims to be an “ultra-royalist.” But the key word is “anti-liberalism.” This is the segment of the right that rejects entirely the tradition of rights and civil liberties.
The historic content of conservatism stand, 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.
Viereck concludes The New Conservatism–What Went Wrong? with an only half-facetious (or maybe not facetious at all) call LIBERTARIANS OF THE WORLD UNITE! YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT YOUR ABSTRACTIONS. YOU HAVE A WORLD TO CHAIN.”
He doesn’t quite end there (those are his caps, by the way), but continues to explain a little further: “Liberties versus ‘liberty.’ Concrete liberties, preserved by the chains of ethics, versus abstract liberty-in-quotes, betrayed by messianic sloganizing, betrayed into the far grimmer chains of totalitarianism. … Without the chaos-chaining, the Id-chaining heritage of rooted values, what is to keep man from becoming Eichmann or Nechayev–what is to save freedom from ‘freedom’?”
There’s plenty to disagree with in Viereck, but he makes a bracing change from the ideological cant of the age.
postscript: Apparently some
or all of Viereck’s The Unadjusted Man: A New American Hero is available on-line. Haven’t read it myself yet; something to bookmark.