Recent Reading

Ahead of this weekend’s “Liberty, Community, and Place in the American Tradition” conference, I’m reading Thunder on the Right by Alan Crawford, who’ll be the lunchtime speaker. Thunder on the Right, published in 1980, is an anti-New Right book written by young conservative whose own sympathies lay somewhere between Bill Buckley and Peter Viereck. Crawford was critical of both the populist tilt of the New Right and the direct-mail methods by which Richard Viguerie raised money for the cause. As the back flap of the dust jacket puts it (in terms more overblown than anything in the book itself):

Discontent, anger, and insecurity fuel these efforts. The New Right has no positive program but flourishes on backlash politics, seeking to veto whatever threatens its way of life–busing, textbooks, women’s liberation, abolition of capital punishment, gay rights, gun control, loss of the Panama Canal. Not conservative, it feeds on social protest and encourages class hostility. Its heroes are rugged frontiersmen of the new Old West; its enemies are moderate, liberals, and true conservatives of whatever party.

That could just as well be ad copy for a book by Andrew Sullivan, but Thunder on the Right is better than all that makes it sound. The book has a point: often by their own admission, the New Rightists were “radicals” and “populists,” not traditional conservatives, and they did have a much tougher agenda (for good and ill) than Republican Party or the institutionalized conservative mainstream. The threat that Crawford envisioned from the New Right never materialized, though — partly because Ronald Reagan’s victory stole their thunder (and then sold them out to establishment Republicans and neoconservatives), partly because “white flight” from the cities dampened the outrage against busing, and partly because the New Right’s rhetoric and tactics were soon co-opted by the establishment. One could see in Bush’s myrmidon supporters in 2004 much of the spirit of the New Right — but in the service of a Bonesman. What little radicalism Middle Americans were capable of turned into so much fuel for the Bush machine.

I’m also reading Peter Viereck’s Metapolitics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind, those roots being, in Viereck’s telling, Prussian militarism (“anti-democratic but not romantic nor racist”) and romantic nationalism. Richard Wagner, of course, emerges as a great villain. I’ll have more to say about Viereck, as I’ve long promised, in a month or so — I’m at work on a long-ish Viereck piece for a print outlet, about which I’ll say more when the time is ripe.

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2 thoughts on “Recent Reading

  1. John Lowell March 19, 2007 / 4:03 pm

    I’ll be interested in your sense of the Viereck book. Two excellent analyses of the roots of National Socialism are found in two very recent works one by Kershaw, the other by Evans. Any conclusion that the main outlines of National Socialism can be found only in Germany would be erroneous. Its presence in various forms in almost every European country in the years 1920-1940 attests to something more broad than exclusively German roots. The drive for ethnic exclusiveness in the newly emerged Central and Eastern European countries after WWI points more to nationalism and settling scores than militarism. The common denominator of a virulent anti-semitism in Poland, Rumania, Hungary and Slovakia points the way for us in this connection. Germany was hardly alone. The SA had cousins: The Arrow Cross, The Hlinka Guard, etc.

    John Lowell

  2. Tim March 21, 2007 / 9:15 am

    There are a couple of different editions of the Peter Viereck Metapolitics book. I have the 1941 edition which comes with excellent appendices that include correspondence with Wagner scholar Thomas Mann as well as some reviews from the period. I understand the later editions include more supplementary material.

    I’d recommend that readers should hunt online for Peter Viereck’s 2004 essay entitled “Metapolitcs Revisited” which provides some additional insights and hindsights, including some rethinking. I am sure modern readers of the original volume would appreciate Viereck’s revisit. You can find the essay (PDF format) here.

    Viereck, as an accomplished poet, naturally focuses on the spiritual dimensions of Nazism rather than the more usual political economic analyses. So he fills a gap without providing the whole answer.

    I think Viereck’s insights are welcome but all told I think he may have exaggerated and over emphasised the ‘peculiarly German’ nature of Nazism. So I agree with some of Jim’s comments above. There is certainly something to Viereck’s Germany-centric analysis, so I wouldn;t write it off. Even other fascist and indeed national socialist states had less virulent versions. But, it’s true, much of the world was on a quasi-totalitarian, if not outright totalitarian, trend at the time. Even the New Deal had it’s dark side. Still the Germans (and Russians) did get the worst of the infection, and we need to explain that.

    I think John T Flynn’s As We Go Marching provides some more international and economic perspective that Viereck lacks, and Viereck provides some of the ‘psychological’ and ‘spiritual’ dimension that Flynn lacks. All of Flynn’s analysos is good. One aspect is particularly noteworthy. His discussion of the impact of Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution is fascinating, although I have never heard it raised elsewhere. Basically Flynn says this provision (which allowed the resumption of extra-constitutional dictatorship during an ’emergency’) may have been a Trojan Horse deliberately built into the Weimar constitution by old school WW1 era militarists and reactionaries hoping to pave the way for their later resurgence. This provision was however ultimately exploited by Hitler, rather than the monarchists or the General Staff. Indeed Hitler also had the precedent of mainstream ‘democratic’ party leaders who also used Article 48 when it suited them. This kind of stuff is outside of Viereck’s focus but would seem to be relevant to the ultimate historical results.

    Also I think Ludwig Mises, writing in his 1919 book Nation, State and Economy provides some additional ‘practical politics’ reasons that help explain the long term German ‘conservative/reactionary’ trend that goes beyond just the Nazi period. Mises , like Viereck, was in a sense also seeking to find reasons for the apparent weakness of 19th century classical liberalism in Germany and Austria. Mises notes that elsewhere in the west liberalism, nationalism and democratic reform all marched side by side as brothers in arms. But what happened in Germany and Austria?

    Peter Viereck has argued that in “the Germanies”, the idea of “volk” triumphed when and where liberalism and democracy were defeated in the reaction against Napoleon. Viereck argues that the German soul was split between rival western “liberal” looking half and a northern “volkish” looking half. The ‘ugly half’ of this split personality ultimately broke out in Hitlerism. Maybe Viereck was reflecting the whole Freudian craze that reached a kind of high tide in the late 1940s and 50s when he wrote, “Monsters from the Id”. Mises, looks for a less spiritual answer. He sees nations as essentially linguistic constructs, a more down to earth interpretation.

    Liberalism and democratic thought both flourished among the German peoples of Prussia and Imperial Austria, but the multi-ethnic demographic realities of the German colonization in Eastern Prussia and the Austrian Empire meant that any advances for democratic majoritarian self rule would come at the price of retreat for the social, economic and political status of these Empire’s eastern German subjects. So (Mises argues) many liberals and indeed socialists found it easier to compromise with the Old Regime authoritarians, elsewhere seen (then) as the mortal enemy of liberals and democrats. So the German 19th century ‘broad left’ compromised rather than abandon their German speaking peers. The compromises made by the Prussian liberal democrats were ‘leveraged’ across the whole of the Second Reich as Bismark unified the central Germans.

    Although Mises doesn’t say it, in a sense it’s the Westerners, the French, British and Americans, where liberalism, democracy and (effective) linguistic homogenity worked in parallel (rather than the Germans) who may have been “the odd men out”. If Mises is right, this Austrian and German experience has probably more to tell us about the prospects of liberty and democracy in the ex-colonial Third World and the ex-communist Second World than the assembled horde of (modern) liberal and neocon “democracy experts”.

    Still the spiritual dimension in all this, a dimension Viereck (and in a sense Chesterton and Belloc before him) explores needs to be part of the equation. Man does not live (or die) by bread alone.

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