Meyer’s Fusionism (pt. 1)

Here’s how National Review senior editor Frank Meyer described his “fusion” of libertarian and traditionalist concerns — though he didn’t use the words “fusion” or “fusionism,” terms that other people tended to apply to his position:

Closely related to the false antithesis between reason and tradition that distorts the dialogue between the libertarian emphasis and the traditionalist emphasis among conservatives is our historical inheritance of the nineteenth-century European struggle between classical liberalism and a conservatism that was too often rigidly authoritarian. Granted there is much in classical liberalism that conservatives must reject–its philosophical foundations, its tendency towards Utopian constructions, its disregard (explicitly, though by no means implicitly) of tradition — and granted it is the source of much that is responsible for the plight of the twentieth century, its championship of freedom and its development of political and eocnomic theories directed towards the assurance of freedom have contributed to our heritage concepts which we need to conserve and develop, as surely as we need to reject the utilitarian ethics and the secular progressivism that classical liberalism has also passed on to us.

Nineteenth-century conservatism, with all its understanding of the preeminence of virtue and value, for all its piety towards the continuing tradition of mankind, was far too cavalier to the claims of freedom, far too ready to subordinate the individual person to the authority of state or society.

The conservative today is the inheritor of the best in both these tragically bifurcated branches of hte Western tradition, but the divison lingers on and adds to the difficulties of conservative discourse. The traditionalist … tends to reject the political and economic theories of freedom which flow from classical liberalism in his reaction against its unsound metaphysics. He discards the true with the false, creating unnecessary obstacles to the mutual dialogue in which he is engaged with his libertarian alter ego. The libertarian, suffering from the mixed heritage of the nineteenth-century champions of liberty, reacts against the traditionalist’s emphasis upon precedent and continuity out of antipathy to the authoritarianism with which that emphasis has been associated, although in actuality he stands firmly for continuity and tradition against the rising revolutionary wave of collectivism and statism.

All that sounds, for the most part, innocuous enough.  I’ll post some more excerpts over the weekend, though, to show why fusionism didn’t philosophically satisfy either libertarians or traditionalists, though it worked well enough as a makeshift credo for conservative activists… (The quotes are from Meyer’s 1964 essay Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism, first published in the Meyer-edited lib-trad anthology What Is Conservatism? and reprinted in the Liberty Fund edition of In Defense of Freedom. What Is Conservatism? is a bit a hard to find these days; I wound up paying about $30 or $40 for a well-worn copy just recently.)


9 thoughts on “Meyer’s Fusionism (pt. 1)

  1. Tim January 26, 2007 / 10:25 am

    My understanding was that prominent “Old Right” stalwarts such as Robert Taft, John T Flynn, Garet Garrett and co generally thought of themselves as “liberals” or genuine liberals rather than as ‘conservative’ or ‘libertarian’. ‘Social’ or cultural libertarianism was not really relevant then in an era in which shared social – cultural values united both ends of the political spectrum.

    The Old Right had the ‘conservative’ label applied to them by the New Dealers but never really liked it and, in Taft’s case, resisted it. Some of the ‘Old Right’ (John T Flynn and William Borah but not Robert A Taft and Howard Buffett, for example) had progressive populist roots but fell out with the New Deal over FDR’s stacking of the Supreme Court and WW2. They saw themselves as ‘old liberals’ as much as anything else. Some of these (eg Flynn) shifted their economic thinking to a more classical liberal position later but they had often started as progressive, and indeed sometime radical, Western and mid-Western opponents of the East coast financial establishment.

    Post-war you had the emergence of let’s call them ‘new traditionalists’. These philosophically and intellectually inclined conservatives, perhaps motivated by the monumental struggles that had been fought out in Europe, welcomed the conservative label, and looked to old Europe, 18th century Europe and before, and particularly to Edmund Burke, as their intellectual inspiration. In their world view there were bigger fish to fry than FDR. The Old Righters, more ‘American’ in their perspective, weren’t generally Burkeans per se.

    The Buckleyite “New Right” certainly worked closely with this group although not all the new traditionalists were happy with the demands of the Cold War. At the same time the Buckleyites made their peace with the Eastern business establishment and brought in to their ‘big tent’ right-wing populists who remembered the Old Right’s anti-New Deal stance but who had forgotten the Old Right’s isolationism. Joseph Stromberg, one of the few historians interested in right wing politics in this period, argues (see here) that McCarthyism was central to this gestation process for the New Right. It enabled a purge of Old Right isolationism in the name of ideological purity, it fuelled a grass roots mobilisation against the FDR-Truman-liberal establishment which mainstream GOP figures (including Ike) were happy to ride with, but in the end (as both the pro-McCarthyite John T Flynn and anti-McCarthyite Lawrence Dennis predicted) the McCarthy train would be stopped once it started to threaten establishment business interests. The Army McCarthy hearings more or less validate the Dennis / Flynn predictions. After that ‘pure McCarthyism’ survived in the John Birch Society before itself being purged from respectable conservatism by William F Buckley.

    In a sense “fusion” required “fission”, i.e. the splitting off from the conservative movement of “undesirable” elements, especially old school isolationists (who didn’t take the global crusade against communism seriously) and McCarthyists (who took the global crusade against communism too seriously). The second group was used against the first until they themselves, largely victorious, had worn out their usefulness.

  2. Joe Populist January 26, 2007 / 10:26 pm

    I’m sorry to write in your blog, but I can’t find any email to send you something privately. You’d better served reading Perlman’s book, “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus”, how the the political coalition that defeated the New Deal coalition of farmers, workers and small business owners was formed. Also, Kazin’s books on the 60’s, “The Populist Persuasion”, about how the right wing co-opted populist rhetoric in defense of unpopulist economic ideas, and “America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960’s.” Finally, Michael Lind’s book, “Up from Conservativism”, which outlines why the middle class is moving away from a political movement whose economic agenda is to destroy middle class economic security. I’m not sure if there is any book that describes the rise of neo-conservativism—which the Republican version of the “neo-liberalism” of the Clinton wing of the Democrat party—except Buchanan’s book, “Where the Right went Wrong”.

    I can understand your fascination with libertarianism, as I was enthralled with it myself when I was in college, but it’s really an empty shell. But even more importantly, I can’t understand why you are so determined to include them under the conservative umbrella, as aside from Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform (which promotes tax scams not tax cuts) they have little practical appeal outside of the beltway.

  3. Joe Populist January 26, 2007 / 10:28 pm

    Where does Russlell Kirk fit into your history?

  4. Daniel McCarthy January 27, 2007 / 2:56 am

    Thanks for the comments. Tim, I hadn’t known that Lawrence Dennis was anti-McCarthyite; that’s very interesting. I agree with your analysis — most of the journalists / men (and women) of letters we call the Old Right today thought of themselves as liberals (or in the case of Nock and Chodorov, radicals) and accepted the “conservative” label, which was intended as a slur, only reluctantly, if at all. Even many of the early post-war conservatives initially resisted the term: Buckley was calling himself an “individualist” in the early ’50s.

    Around that time, a few thinkers did embrace the term and tried to separate it from the Old Right libertarian types. In answer to Joe’s question, this is where Kirk fits in, along with Peter Viereck, and Clinton Rossiter. Kirk became the best known of these “New Conservatives” (they were “new” in contradistinction to the old, libertarian Right) and is often regarded as paradigmatic, but I see in Kirk several layers. After all, during and before World War II, he was very much an Old Right type. (And it’s perhaps worth recalling here that although there’s a pedigree running from the Old Right to modern libertarianism, or at least some modern libertarians, several of the Old Right’s writers were actually highly critical of capitalism and capitalists — Nock had a Jeffersonian distaste for stock-jobbers and industrialists; Mencken thought they were philistines; Flynn was for the little guy. Kirk’s anti-industrialism isn’t so far removed from some of their views. For good measure, I ought to note that these criticisms of capitalism usually didn’t imply support for government intervention in the economy.) Viereck, and to a lesser extent Rossiter, thought that the conservative movement that was developing in the ’50s wasn’t authentically conservative, and Viereck especially hated McCarthy and didn’t much like Goldwater. Kirk, on the other hand, was tolerant of McCarthy and enthusiasic about the senator from Arizona.

    The Buckleyite Right rejected Viereck and Rossiter completely, and only hestitantly and with reservations accepted Kirk (who had similar reservations about the Buckleyites, mostly on account of their classical-liberal rhetoric). Buckley wrote a really brutal review of Kirk’s book Academic Freedom for the Freeman magazine; the review is on-line in the Buckley archive at Hillsdale, which unfortunately doesn’t allow direct links. The defining characteristic of the early National Review, of course, and a far greater influence than either Old Right libertarianism or Kirkian traditionalism, were the ex-Communists: NR co-founder Willi Schlamm, former Trotskyite James Burnham; former CP member Frank Meyer; ex-spy Whittaker Chambers; and several more.

    No wonder latter-day American conservatism sometimes appears to be so mixed up: in one sense it began with proto-libertarians who didn’t think of themselves as conservatives, and in another sense it began with ex-Communists who, whatever their other virtues, were not exactly “conservatives” in any traditional sense. The New Conservatives had the best claim to being conservatives in a Burkean or European sense, but they never caught fire as a movement, except as an adjunct to Buckleyite or “fusionist” Right. Neither Viereck nor Kirk liked classical-liberal economics or Cold War militarism, but they term they tried to revive wound up being defined by just those qualities.

    Of course, several details complicate the picture. Some Old Rights did become Cold Warriors — Flynn did in part; Rose Wilder Lane wound up supporting the Vietnam War (and even reporting on it for a women’s magazine, if I recall); and Paul Palmer, a friend of Nock and Mencken’s who became editor of The American Mercury before moving on to Reader’s Digest, was making essentially Cold War-conservative arguments back in the ’30s and ’40s, when he wrote to Nock that he thought American communists’ civil liberties should be curtailed so as to prevent the government from later curtailing everyone’s civil liberties as a pretext for fighting communism. John Lukacs likes to make hay about the fact that many of the America Firsters, including Robert Taft, became Asia Firsters, opposed to Cold War interventions in Europe but eager for them in China.

    It seems to me that in the very earliest days of the conservative movement, the continuities with the Old Right are actually quite strong. Certainly many Old Rightists, including Frank Chodorov, initially saw Bill Buckley as following in their tradition. If I recall correctly, before he launched NR he had been offered the editorships of both the American Mercury and the Freeman, and he was for a short time a sub-editor or contributing editor to the Freeman (whose chief editors were Suzanne La Follette, John Chamberlain, and Henry Hazlitt, all of whom had solid Old Right credentials). Pre-NR institutions of the Right, though there are just a few of them, show the pedigree as well: Human Events, which was founded a few years earlier, was co-founded by Old Rightists Felix Morley (who defined himself as a classical liberal) and eventually incorporated Frank Chodorov’s ‘zine analysis; and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (my new employer) was originally the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, which got its start, in turn, from Chodorov and Human Events. I belabor the point just because there are so many neocons and establishment Right types who would like to pretend that the Old Right never existed, or if it did it had nothing to do with today’s conservative movement.

    Joe calls our attention to the development of conservatism as a mass movement. I’ve read Rick Perlstein’s book, Before the Storm, and I agree that it’s a terrific history of the popular Right. I actually don’t see any real disjunction between the intellectual movement that I’ve been talking about and the early mass conservative movements built around McCarthy and Goldwater (and, earlier, Robert Taft). On the contrary, just look at the huge popular followings of several of the Old Right figures I’ve mentioned: Nock had a bestseller with his Memoirs; Rand (whom I’ve neglected up above — on purpose) had a tremendous success with The Fountainhead; John T. Flynn, Garet Garrett and many of the others had huge popular readerships. “Individualist” literature was abundant in America. Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner were still quite popular as well, I believe. Statist liberalism was more popular, especially among farmers who’d been bought off by the New Deal and big-city workers who were influenced by socialist agitators. But, you know, while Mencken and Rand were definitely not pro-worker, many of the other Old Right types kind of were. Nock and Flynn, for example, had both been muckrakers, after all. And Henry George, the leading economic light for Nock and Chodorov, was definitely not a shill for big business; he was an anti-statist (including anti-tariff) economic populist.

    I haven’t read Lind’s book or Kazin’s, but I’ve read other book by liberals arguing how poorly “conservatism” has served middle-class and blue-collar Americans — Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas, for example, and one or two of those horrible Barbara Ehrenreich books. I think there are some valid points in their criticisms, but those points don’t really contradict anything in thoroughgoing libertarianism: serious libertarian thinkers have been aware all along, from the Old Right through Murray Rothbard to some of the more radical left-libertarians of today (see for example Kevin Carson’s mutualist blog), that big business and big government are frequently partners in crime. Libertarianism is not the same thing as being pro-big-business or pro-corporations. Fundamentally it’s about being anti-government, which includes opposing corporate welfare and all the special perks and privileges that big business gets.

    I wouldn’t agree that libertarianism is a “hollow shell.” What has government done that’s been so great for populist interests? It looks to me like populists should be a whole lot more critical of government power. Just consider this: why would government *ever* side with blue-collar workers and small farmers and businesses over big businessess and the rich? A poor politician is practically a contradiction in terms, and that’s been true the world over for just about all of human history — and it’s more true the more power government has. You only find poor politicians in places where the state has little power to affect the economy. Money and power go together; but if you restrict political power, there’s a better chance that money will change hands in a voluntary and fair way — though that certainly won’t mean that every small farm or business prospers and everyone gets the job he wants.

    p.s. My email address is The blog template doesn’t seem to have any convenient way to incorporating the address into regular posts, although maybe that feature has been added since I last looked at the set-up.

  5. Joe Populist January 28, 2007 / 12:38 am

    What’s the Matter with Kansas is one of the worst books around, I agree. The title implies there is something the matter with Kansas. More correctly, Frank might want to ask, “What’s the matter with the Democrat Party?” that so many Kansas farmers, workers and small business operators abandoned it so quickly when it was hijacked by the New Left. His bias shows in his premise, and the books insides just confirms the bias implicit in the title.

    Michael Lind is actually a Russell Kirk conservative, and of course, Kevin Phillips was a political adviser and speech writer for Nixon. Kazin has sold gold left-wing roots, but has written some very refreshing revisionist history that is critical of the his old comrades in the Left. He has just written a new book on Williams Jennings Bryan that reconsiders Bryan’s religion in the context of his concern over the growth of economic and political oligarchy.

    LIbertarianism is just plain old fashioned. It fit in nicely with the passionate swinging 60’s, in fact you could argue in some ways that the 60’s counterculture was “libertarian” in a cultural sense. But in it’s practical political application—which is the only thing I’m interested in—Libertarianism is little more then apologetics for Corporate Power and Tax Cut Scams.

  6. Tim January 30, 2007 / 11:39 pm


    My understanding of Lawrence Dennis’s position r.e. “McCarthyism” (not really the best name for it) comes from two sources. Ronald Radosh’s “Prophets On The Right” (an excellent book) and Dennis’s own (circa 1969) book “Operational Thinking for Survival”. Dennis, of course, had been on the receiving end of the FDR WW2 “brown scare” so presumably he was sensitive to “red scares” too.

    As I understand it Flynn, and other Old Right writers, had also been buffeted by the brown scare propaganda but not actually indicted like Dennis was in the 1944 Great Sedition Trial cum circus. Flynn, and I suppose some of the others, seem to have taken some schadenfreude delight in seeing their former pink tormentors McCarthyite inspired woes.

    Dennis probably would have labelled McCarthyism, more correctly, as Trumanism, or maybe ‘me too Trumanism’. Dennis said : “Accepting the Truman doctrine for a holy war on communist sin all over the world commits America to a permanent war emergency.” (Radosh adds) Witch hunts and loyalty tests “ostensibly aimed at the communists, are counted on to take care of the opposition.” Communists would only take power following economic collapse or disastrous war so ‘anti-communist’ measures were “silly and futile”, and ‘anti-communist conservatives’ should really be antiwar, rather than hawkish. “Burning witches or lynching subversives” would not save America from the consequences of it’s policies. “Any Russian spy dumb enough to get caught by our FBI is good riddance for the reds.” (Quotes from Radosh ‘Prophets’).

    Radosh also wrote an excellent scholarly introduction to one of the reissues of Flynn’s “As We Go Marching” that is worth checking out. The main quibble I have with Radosh’s Prophets book is that he argues Dennis moved on to a more classical liberal free market economic position by the 1950s. I haven’t read Dennis’s newsletters from that period, which Radosh cites, but this description seems at odds with Dennis’s “Operational Thinking for Survival” book which is strongly “Keynesian” in it’s economic analysis and even includes an appendix aimed against Henry Hazlitt. I suppose Dennis moved in a more private capitalism direction, away from his pre-war corporatist socialism (which he labelled variously socialism and fascism), but he doesn’t ever seem to have become (or ever been) an Adam Smith tie guy.

  7. Tim January 31, 2007 / 4:59 am

    I might not have made it clear enough. The quotes in my third paragraph above are all from Dennis being quoted in Radosh’s book.

  8. Joe Populist February 9, 2007 / 4:38 pm

    You wrote: “What has government done that’s been so great for populist interests? It looks to me like populists should be a whole lot more critical of government power. Just consider this: why would government *ever* side with blue-collar workers and small farmers and businesses over big businessess and the rich?”

    What the government has done for working class? That’s frankly, a stupid question. It was government entitlements that made the working class into the Middle class. Not the “free market”, which improverished the masses in the “Gilded Age” of the late 19th Century, the high point of “libertarianism”, or as it was known back then, “laissez faire”.

    Much of the original People’s Party platform (railroad regulation, monetary reform, the subtreasury, the farm bureau credit) was enacted by the New Deal, and those agricultural reforms made the sort of “abundance” that Nixon was able to brag about in the famous “Kitchen Debates” with KrNikita Khrushchev. It was collective bargaining that uplifted the industrial worker to negociate fairly with capital for 40 hour week, for pensions and health insurance.

    In my political life, I’ve come in intimate contact with out-and-out Marxists and neo-Marxists. The resemblance of Marxism to Libertarianism is astounding, No more astounding then your lack of understanding of what build the Republican majorities of the last 20 years. No it wasn’t libertarianism, it was entitlements.

  9. Joe Populist February 9, 2007 / 5:02 pm

    Tim sed: Just consider this: why would government *ever* side with blue-collar workers and small farmers and businesses over big businessess and the rich?”

    Government has sided with these folks in a hundred different ways, for instance the progressive income tax. The ideas that those who benefit the most from freedom should pay the most is as American as Apple Pie.

    What really broke the New Deal coalition was the “New” Left and their “Identity Politics” … People of Color, Feminism, Gay Sexual Liberation, well-to-do urban sophisticates who attacked religious based values concerning family and intimacy.
    All this came to a head in 1968 riots at the Democrat Convention, and in with the quota system in the 1972 Democrat Convention and the McGovern candidacy.

    The Republican Party—the right—is an uneasy coalition of the original upper 20%–the old Country Club set, the Dixiecrats, and the blue collar urban ethnic voters offended at their displacement by radical elitists in the Democrat Party. Things that built this coalition WERE “Big Government” largely social engineering projects championed by the “New” Leftists, things like urban renewal, or forced busing. It’s this elitist social engineering that alienated and destroyed the New Deal, not “Laissez Faire” economics. Much of this is documented in Kazin’s books on the civil wars of the 60’s and the adoption of populist rhetoric by the right against Big Government social engineering.

    I’m waiting for you to point out a single “libertarian” issue that has proved a popular motivation for 35 years of Republican victories. The only thing I can think of is the ‘tax revolt’ in California, and Grover Norquist’s anti-tax scams of the last 10 years.

    In large part, libertarianism has ridden the populist resentement against “Big Government”, but any single program advanced by the “libertarians” such as Social Security “Deform” has been rejected by huge majorities.

    Your history of “Fusionism” sounds of interest to a handful of “true-believers” within the right-wing, but not really of much interest to anyone concerned about electing anyone.

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