Understanding Viereck

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.

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6 thoughts on “Understanding Viereck

  1. Marcus Epstein October 2, 2006 / 11:08 pm

    While Viereck was certainly a talented and thoughtful writer–I’d probably prefer him to what passes for the political spectrum today– His conservatism wasn’t about conserving our “Classical liberal” origins, rather it was about Conserving the New Deal.

  2. Will Hay October 3, 2006 / 1:42 am

    Historical scholarship has called into question Viereck’s interpretation of American history, at least in the excerpts here. Lockean liberalism is a solecism on stilts because liberalism did not acquire a political meaning until the late 1810s brought into English usage from the Spanish liberales. Locke’s own influence on Britain and the American colonies has been overstated. Barry Alan Shain and J.C.D. Clark both address the point from different perspectives at great length. Just as many Europeans from the 1760s followed American affairs in detail through newspaper reports, so Americans followed trends in Europe. Not all the influences on American political culture were liberal by Viereck’s lights. Sir Walter Scott is probably the most important example, and I suspect that Scott (along with Byron) had more influence than any number of political theorists.

    Viereck also sounds a little too close to Lionel Trilling’s absurd dismissal of conservative thought to be taken very seriously.

  3. Tim October 5, 2006 / 2:39 pm

    Marcus Epstein says Viereck was about ‘conserving the new deal’ not classical liberalism. I suspect he wanted to conserve some of both.

    My limited knowledge of his work would (and I am only being tentative here as my reading of him has only just begun) indicate that he was, to a certain extent, more interested in what both liberals (in the post WW2 sense) and conservatives had in common versus the extremists of the far right and far left. I suppose in the period bordering two wars (one hot and one cold) against two rival totalitarianisms this probably isn’t all that strange. He seemed concerned that political conflict between moderates would make it easier for extremists to emerge.

    Viereck’s conservatism was unique and singular in some ways, but then again so was Robert Nisbet’s, and few of us would want to question his conservative bona fides. Nisbet was quite particular in ruling militarists, the religious right and libertarians (at least of the more individualistic stamp) out of his vision of conservatism. Viereck was a bit like Nisbet, but in his conservative vision, Viereck roped in and roped out other groups. Still he has that Nisbetian style of self confident conservative self identification and that Nisbetian ‘who gives a hang’ about what other right wing factions think attitude. Like Nisbet, Viereck is no “movement conservative”, philosophy not political alliances is what interests him.

    I’m not sure Viereck would have seen it as New Deal versus Classical Liberalism. He may have been after some sort of synthesis. I can’t say for sure as I have dug as deeply as I would have liked. But a New Deal / Classical Liberal synthesis is not that strange. After all Irving Kristol in the earlier and more creative days of the Neo-conservativism argued that the working people were sympathetic to welfare state politicians (ie Democrats, Labour parties, Social Democratic parties) not because of any love of socialism or any particular animus to free enterprise, but more because they wanted a more comprehensive safety net, i.e. social insurance than classical laisser faire economies would provide. Kristol argued that support for ‘insurance welfarism’ did not mean endorsement of left welfarist social engineering.

    I suspect Viereck may have been closer to this position. Indeed this raises the speculation that Viereck, because of this hypothesised ‘New Deal minimalism’, his obvious anti-McCarthyism and (I suspect) his distrust of nativism and (I also suspect) Old Right ‘isolationism’, may have been “the first neocon”. I raise that label tentatively for two reasons. Firstly, I also suspect he would have been closer to the Establishment realists in foreign policy than the global democratic revolutionaries, and maybe he would (like many modern paleos) be appalled by the Bush administration. Secondly, I am applying the now hated label label “neocon” not in a pejorative 2000-2006 sense but more in the late 1970s / early 1980s sense, back when many on the right were happy to welcome the influx of ex-social democrat “Neocons”. It is sometimes forgotten that at that time, before the internet and the Think Tank bubble, the New Left really did dominate academic channels. And conservatives welcomed the neo-con help.

  4. Tim October 10, 2006 / 1:37 pm

    Of interest.

    The Wikipedia entry on Peter Viereck has a link to this 1941 ‘The Atlantic’ article by Viereck entitled But – I’m a Conservative.

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