Nockians Left and Right

From Victor Navasky’s NYT review of two books by or about William F. Buckley (thanks to Scott Lahti for an early link to the piece):

It is probably no accident, as the old-left journals used to say, that both Buckley and Carey McWilliams, The Nation’s longtime editor, were fans of Albert Jay Nock, who after briefly working at The Nation in the 1920s went on to found his own libertarian magazine called The Freeman (the rights to which Buckley sought unsuccessfully to buy when he began National Review). Nock started out as a left-wing anarchist and bohemian, but he metamorphosed into an anti-egalitarian who believed that journals of opinion were aimed at what he called the Remnant, the enlightened few who would influence the many.

“Bohemian” is a better description of Nock’s one-time American Magazine colleague John Reed; Nock was more of an anti-institutionalist than a party animal, and he remained one to the end (just look at the passages on marriage and organized religion in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man). “Left-wing anarchist” is misleading as well: Nock was an individualist anarchist heavily influenced by Henry George. He was far from being an anarcho-syndicalist, which is what “left-wing anarchist” might be taken to mean. Navasky probably doesn’t mean to suggest that, but the contrast he wants to draw between the the early and the late Nock is not accurate. The sharp contrast is between the Tolstoyan sensibility of the pre-World War I Nock and the partly Cram-inspired pessimistic Nock of later years.

Buckley’s relationship to Nock is pretty well known — WFB Sr. was a friend of AJN, and WFB Jr. often paid homage to Nock — but I had not known about Carey McWilliam’s admiration for him.

Postscript: For what it’s worth — we Nock aficionados can be a punctilious lot — Navasky’s dates are wrong, too. Nock worked for The Nation during World War I, not the 1920s, and even got the magazined censored when he wrote critically about Samuel Gompers. Bad for the labor-business-government war effort, don’t ya know. He launched The Freeman, with Francis Neilson as co-editor (in name, at least), in 1920.



I met William F. Buckley Jr. on just a couple of occasions. He gave a talk at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis back around 2000 — one of his last campus talks. He had some spare time in his schedule, including time for a chat with my conservative group at Washington University (which is almost next door to Concordia). What I remember most clearly of the event was a question one student asked about a local Missouri issue: whether the Ku Klux Klan should be allowed to adopt a highway. Buckley didn’t find the issue problematic — no, he said, and state governments are not under any obligation to treat such groups the same way they treat, say, the Kiwanis club or the Washington University fraternities that adopt highways.

Buckley was a brilliant writer and sparkling debater and public personality, especially in his prime. He could charm and disarm practically any opponent, and that quality allowed him quickly to win the approval of the liberal establishment he attacked — much of it, anyway.

His effect on conservatism — on what he still called individualism when he rose to fame in the early 1950s — was revolutionary. The lions of the Old Right were quite old by then, those who were still alive at all. The anti-New Deal Right needed new leadership, and Buckley seemed to be the most articulate and promising young man on the scene, by far. Buckley, however, was a committed cold warrior, a contrast to Old Right figures like Frank Chodorov, John T. Flynn, and Felix Morley, who were still active in the 1950s. Buckley usually — always, to the best of my knowledge — spoke fondly of them. But he took the Right in a very different direction, toward military intervention and a more imperial foreign (and, ultimately, with the concentration of power in the executive, domestic) foreign policy. A famous quote of Buckley’s from Commonweal magazine said that if we had to build a totalitarian bureaucracy on these shores to resist Soviet Communism, so be it.

As charming as he could be to his enemies on the left, when he chose to excommunicate a former friend or colleague from the respectable Right, he was ruthless. The anathemas he pronounced stretched to the grave and beyond, as witness his savage and inaccurate obituary for the libertarian Murray Rothbard, whom Buckley accused of being soft on Khrushchev. Without necessarily agreeing de mortuis nil nisi bonum (that one should say nothing but good things about the dead) even someone less of an admirer of Rothbard than I am might agree that the poor taste and manners on display in Buckley’s obituary reflect poorly on the man who wrote it.

Why would such a socially graceful individual as Buckley write such a thing? Maybe it was ideology: Buckley was so committed to the cold war and all the cliches of cold-war conservatism that anyone at variance with that creed, especially an outspoken “heretic” like Rothbard, could only be a monster. Buckley was a man of tremendous talents. Yet I wonder how much wisdom he had. Toward the end of his life, he found himself critical of the direction conservatism had taken in continuing to support the war in Iraq, a direction that National Review followed wholeheartedly. But the magazine Buckley founded was following the tradition he had set down. WFB may have wished that he had taught his own disciples differently. For my part, I wish he had listened more closely to Frank Chodorov in the 1950s.

Victor Milione, 1924-2008: A Scholar and a Gentleman

I was saddened to hear of the death on Monday of E. Victor Milione. He was president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute for a quarter of a century, from 1963 to 1988; indeed, it would not be wrong to say that he built the organization. He had been one of the first scholarly young men recruited by Frank Chodorov in 1953 when ISI was still the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, though Milione was always more of a traditionalist than a libertarian. Meeting Mr. Milione and chatting with him at some length on two occasions was one of the true pleasures of my year at ISI.

He was an impressive individual: maybe a little over five feet tall, slightly built, and of course quite old, but titanic in the stature of his character and erudition. He had committed most of Tocqueville to memory, and he had a similarly commanding knowledge of 19th century British statesmanship. The first time I met him, for example, he explained to me Lord Salisbury’s concept of “military credit” and applied it to our present situation in Iraq. (Unfortunately, according to Milione, who opposed the Iraq War before it began, we now had to win the war at almost any cost, lest our military credit be ruined and other nations be emboldened to challenge us in the future. I can’t agree with Milione’s assessment, as much as I respect his learning.)

In our last conversation, in October, he asked me to look up a passage from Tocqueville that he remembered but couldn’t quite place. It’s a measure of the strength of his memory, and the feebleness of mine, that I’ve completely forgotten the passage that, age 83, he remembered very clearly. He remembered it clearly enough, in fact, that I was able to find the passage by putting it into the Google books search engine. His memory was superb, but not quite perfect: the passage he had recalled turned out not to be from Tocqueville after all, but from Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics.

I didn’t get a chance to relay that information to him, regrettably, but it’s a small loss to a life that was as rich as Victor Milione’s. He wasn’t simply a gentleman of a breed that has since disappeared, because he was of an exceedingly rare breed even in 1953. He exemplified the Remnant that Frank Chodorov had set out to educate, and Victor Milione served that Remnant himself all his life.

Two Takes on Twilight at Monticello

I bought Alan Pell Crawford’s new book, Twilight at Monticello, on Friday (along with Jacob Heilbrunn’s They Knew They Were Right). I’m looking forward both to reading it and, I hope, reviewing it somewhere. But you don’t have to wait for my review: you can get two opinions of the book from Bill Kauffman, writing in The American Conservative, and Michael Grunwald in the Washington Post. Here’s a snippet from Kauffman’s review:

How wonderfully coincident that just as [Ron] Paul is speaking the hauntingly resonant language of the early Republic, Alan Pell Crawford, Hoosier boy cum historian of his adopted Old Virginia, has published Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson, a superb and revealing study of Thomas Jefferson in retirement (if not ever repose) that makes Jefferson—the older, wiser, even more radical Jefferson—newly and provocatively relevant.

Crawford did his time on the Hill, working for Sen. James Buckley (“a genuine conservative”) and none other than Congressman Ron Paul (for whom he will vote). In 1980, he anatomized the swindle known as the “New Right” in Thunder on the Right, which made him, for a time, something of a darling of the liberal Left. He would later marry, raise a family, put down roots in Richmond—all those things the New Right claimed to support in those hysterical fundraising letters its bilkers-in-chief composed between cruises at the Brass Rail.

Crawford fell in love with Virginia, the Ancient Dominion, and in 2000 published Unwise Passions, an evocative study of the scandal-ridden Randolphs of Virginia.

Twilight at Monticello is Crawford’s best book and a humanizing corrective to the recent tide of Jefferson damning. This is Jefferson in his late autumn, brooding on the parlous state of republicanism, delighting in the presence of his family, tormented by boils on his backside. His death is rendered with especial poignancy. (In his final months, Jefferson used opium to allay a painful urinary ailment. Imagine the DEA breaking down the doors to Monticello! The medical marijuanans could do no better than to enlist Jefferson.)

Crawford will be giving a talk on his book at the CATO Institute on Feb. 19.

Don’t Idealize Trotsky

Sound advice from Clive James, who reveals a new reason to like Pablo Neruda:

Pablo Neruda was instrumental in smoothing the assassin’s path [to planting an ice ax in Trotsky’s melon] but never wrote a poem on the subject: something to remember when reading the thousands of ecstatic love poems he did write. They are full of wine and roses, but no ice ax is ever mentioned. Admirers of Neruda don’t seem to mind. The same capacity for tacit endorsement is shown by Trotsky’s admirers, who even today persist in seeing him as some sort of liberal democrat; or, if not as that, then as a true champion of the working class; or anyway, and at the very worst, as one of those large-hearted Old Bolsheviks who might have made the Soviet Union some kind of successfully egalitarian society had they prevailed. But when it became clear that the vast crime called the collectivization of agriculture would involve a massacre of the peasantry, Trotsky’s only criticism was that Stalin’s campaign was not sufficiently “militarized.” He meant that the peasants weren’t being massacred fast enough.

Still doesn’t make me want to pick up the new Clive James book, Cultural Amnesia, though. (Say, looking at Wikipedia just now, I see that James used to feature on Tony Wilson’s “So It Goes.” I had no idea.)

Thomas Eagleton, RIP

The pro-life and antiwar Democratic Senator who was George McGovern’s running mate until word of his psychiatric treatment — including electroconvulsive therapy — died Sunday at age 77. We could use a few Democrats (or heck, Republicans for that matter) more like him. He once co-wrote a book called War and Presdiential Power: A Chronicle of Congressional Surrender. He didn’t put up with any crap from neocons during the Iran-Contra hearings, either, as this exchange reproduced in John Patrick Diggins’s new biography of Ronald Reagan reminds us:

Eagleton: Today I asked were you at any time in the fundraising business.

[Elliott] Abrams: We made our solicitation to a foreign government.

Eagleton: Were you then in the fundraising business?

Abrams: I would say we were in teh fundraising business. I take your point.

Eagleton: Take my point? Under oath, my friend, that’s perjury. [Abrams had earlier denied raising funds in the Middle East to support the Contras.] Had you been under oath, that’ s perjury.

Abrams: Well, I don’t agree with that, Senator.

Eagleton: That’s slammer time.

Abrams: You heard my testimony, Senator.

Eagleton: I heard it, and I want to puke.

Peter Viereck, RIP

One of the great minds of 20th century American conservatism died on Friday. From the LA Times obit:

Peter R. Viereck, a historian, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and political philosopher who was spurned by the modern conservative movement despite his central role in its birth, died May 13 at his home in South Hadley, Mass., after a long illness. He was 89.

Viereck was the author of nine volumes of poetry, including "Terror and Decorum: Poems 1940-1948," which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1949, and "Archer in the Marrow: The Applewood Cycles of 1967-1987," an epic poem 20 years in the writing.

…Viereck also was a political thinker, whose provocative 1949 book, "Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt Against Revolt," defined the modern conservative movement.

"This was the book which, more than any other of the early postwar era, created the new conservatism as a self-conscious intellectual force," historian George H. Nash wrote in his 1976 book, "The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America."

"It was this book which boldly used the word 'conservatism' in its title — the first such book after 1945. At least as much as any of his contemporaries," Nash wrote, "Peter Viereck popularized the term 'conservative' and gave the nascent movement its label."

Last year, Viereck was featured in a New Yorker magazine profile that renewed interest in his political writing from the 1940s and '50s. Called "The First Conservative: How Peter Viereck Inspired — and Lost — a Movement," the October 2005 article by Tom Reiss provoked heated reaction from the mainline conservative journal National Review.

"The true story is that Viereck was onstage during the creation of modern conservatism, but only in the opening scene," National Review political reporter John J. Miller wrote. "Then he walked away, never to be heard from again, except occasionally as a heckler."

That last remark, of course, speaks immensely in Viereck's favor. Though I disagree with Viereck on several points myself — his defense of the New Deal, for one — he is to be celebrated both for his humane conservatism and for his early sense of the dangers inherent in the populist-militarist spirit of the Cold War right. He wrote in the author's note to the 1962 edition of Conservatism Revisited:

Today the new conservatism has at least half way degenerated into a facade for either plutocratic profiteering or fascist-style thought-control nationalism, that same fascist nationalism against which the book [i.e. the first edition of Conservatism Revisited] had proposed liberal-conservative unity.

That liberal-conservative unity was both Lockean and Burkean. He was read out of the conservative movement for his heresies, including his criticisms of Joe McCarthy and Barry Goldwater. (Both of whom I like in some of their aspects; but the great arc of Cold War conservatism was away from liberalism — in the older sense of the word — and decency and toward bloodshed and hardened ideology.) A prophet is without honor in his own movement. See Tom Reiss's terrific New Yorker essay on Viereck from last year — "The First Conservative."

Profumo and the Song of the Day

John Profumo, former British secretary of war and center of a sex-and-spies scandal in the early ’60s, has died. He was cut from a cloth very different from that of today’s politicians, as the New York Times obit remarks:

…after his fall, he withdrew permanently from public office, refused to discuss the scandal that ruined him as a politician and, instead, turned to charitable work among the poor in the hardscrabble East End of London. He achieved a degree of rehabilitation in 1975 when he was honored as a Commander, Order of the British Empire.

Unlike more modern politicians, he refrained from publishing memoirs or even rebutting allegations about his association with Christine Keeler, a prostitute he met at an upscale party.

I haven’t seen “Scandal,” the 1989 film based on the Profumo affair, but I do know Dusty Springfield’s “Nothing Has Been Proved,” from its soundtrack, which summarizes the story in about 4 minutes and 40 seconds. But if you’re going to dabble in ’80s Dusty (beyond “What Have I Done to Deserve This,” that is), the melancholically exuberant “In Private” is the tune I’d recommend, and that’ll serve as the song of the day.