Back From CPAC Round 1

I’m back at the place I hang my hat in Arlington, Virginia, after giving my talk at CPAC (not to the main session, but the ISI’s reception) on the state of campus conservatism, which spun off of this article. The event itself was highly successful, in that it coincided with Ann Coulter’s talk but still drew a near-capacity crowd of about 70 people, most of them students. The talk itself wasn’t as good as I would have liked it to be, but then I do make it a point to say that I’m a writer, not a speaker, and my talks tend to be drafts for articles. Or perhaps more accuratley, they tend to be some notes for an article amplified by a lot of ad-libbing. This isn’t just owing to sheer laziness on my part: I really dislike canned speeches, and even a good speech engagingly read still rings hollow to me.

For that reason, I also haven’t attended any other CPAC talks so far: I don’t really care what Mitt Romney’s or Rudy Giuliani’s professional speechwriters think will be most effective for them to say. I would have liked to have attended the Ron Paul / Tom Tancredo reception yesterday but didn’t get into town in time.

My talk recycled some material from my earlier American Conservative piece on the subject. I again cited James Lawrence’s experience — his fellow conservative students at NC State thought he was displaying some leftward tics when he wrote an article criticizing Harry Truman’s nuking of Hiroshima — as an example of how poorly conservative students know their own movement’s history, since one of the seminal texists of modern American conservatism, Richard M. Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, was written in response to the phenomenon of “total war,” as waged by the Allies and Axis alike. I led off the talk, in fact, with a quote from Weaver, taken from Visions of Order, in which he denounced total war and the things it made young American men do overseas. I didn’t name the source of the quote and asked the audience what leftest they thought might have uttered such unpatriotic sentiments. Michael Moore, maybe? Noam Chomsky?

I also cited an example from a book review I’m now working on that illustrated that university faculty, even some considered to be well-versed in and sympathetic to conservatism, don’t know one Nobel Prize-winning economist from another. I brought up the case of Morgan Wilkins, a one-time intern for the College Republicans National Committee who ran afoul of the party’s own political correctness, as an example of how limiting the CR-mindset — which, after all, has to look out for the good of the party, never mind if that means shying away from controversy — can be for campus conservatives. The CRs, I acknolwedge, are highly effective at building up their organizations and supporting candidates, but they can’t be expected to provide a very good institutional home for philosophical conservatism, which is impractical at best and impolitic at worst. On campuses, conservatism needs organizations that are not bound by party lines. That’s true off campus as well, of course.

I then gave some of the history of non-partisan conservative campus activism, starting with Frank Chodorov and the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists and continuing with Young Americans for Freedom. That material was largely drawn from my TAC piece.

The new material I really wanted to talk about, but which I don’t think I conveyed as well as I’d have liked, had to do with the argument that the intellectual rigor of Marxism and the Communist Party in the West was profoundly influential in creating the conservative movement — that Marxist scholarly discipline made men like Frank Meyer and James Burnham all the more effective when they became anti-Communists. Though I didn’t talk about it, this line of thinking derives from a reconsideration of Douglas Hyde’s book Dedication and Leadership. Hyde was a Communist Party organizer in the UK; he later became a Christian and an anti-Communist. His book describes the techniques Communists used to turn raw human material — poorly educated laborers, for example — into effective Communist cadres, who were expected to study their Marxism seriously (albeit at their own level) as well as enacting it in the real world. Men of the Right throughout the latter part of the 20th-century were fascinated with Communist organizing priciples; not only did Hyde write his book, but Frank Meyer wrote one along similar lines, The Moulding of Communists, and even the anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard liked to consider what he called “libertarian Leninism” as a strategy for organizing cadres. Even today, Hyde’s book comes highly recommended from some D.C.-based organizations that cater to young conservatives.

The trouble with this is that Hyde places too much emphasis on Communist activism and not enough on Communist indocrination or education. Conservative actvists, then, frequently learn the wrong lesson from the book; they begin emulating Communist techniques — such as having members pass out literature in public in order to force those members to make a public commitment to the ideals of Communism and to compel them to devleop the ability to defend those ideals among laymen — but miss the importance of education in cadre-formation. This matters because, in the end, Communist organizing techniques failed in the West. But Communist indoctrination and mental discipline had tremendous consequences, both on the academy and in creating doctrinally sophisticated anti-Communists.

(There is a problem here, to be sure: these anti-Communist intellectuals arguably still had more in common with their former comrades than they had with conservatives or classical liberals who lacked a Communist background. They created an anti-Communist movement, epitomized by National Review, rather than a truly conservative one.)

I suggested that conservatives on campus should look toward the kind of serious study of their classic texts that Communist cadres used to perform. I think I remembered to point out — actually, I said it during the Q+A, rather than the main talk — that unlike the Communists, securing consensus in line with party doctrine is not the objective for conservatives, who should cultivate a more open, non-ideological understanding of their texts. Students should, for example, feel free to disagree with what they read and to look for differences and inconsistencies within the right-wing canon — though ideally, they should dig deeper and try to discover why the texts say what they do before rejecting anything they say. I gave the example of Richard Weaver’s seemingly idiosyncratic objections to jazz, a form of music he thought entirely unwholesome. Students don’t have to conclude that Weaver was right to execrate jazz, but they ought to understand what his reasoning was and what its philosophical pedigree is.

The best way to approach these texts in a rigorous fashion, I argued, was through reading groups. I gave a hand-out of about 21 canonical titles and secondary texts, arranged as a mock syllabus, as an example of how these books might be studied. It was better, I insisted, to read them too slowly rather than too quickly; the point was not to speed through the books and check them off a list, but to digest them thoroughly and incorporate them into one’s own outlook.

So that was the gist of the talk. It actually was videotaped — though I’m not entirely sure by whom or why — so footage may surface at some point. The questions from the audience were much more intelligent than any of my replies; I won’t go into the details for now, however. I’ll have to develop my thoughts about Communism, cadre organizing, and intellectual discipline at greater length some time. I’m not advocating Maoist brainwashing or “self-criticism” sessions, but I think structured reading of classic texts is what’s needed to develop more philosophically sound campus conservatives — I think it will have the advantage of creating more committed campus conservatives, as well, though their conservatism would be more like Richard Weaver’s than George W. Bush’s. All of which is to the good.

Tomorrow: CPAC round 2, the fusionism panel.

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