George H. Nash. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. Wilmington DE. ISI Books. 2006. 379 pages. $20.00.
“An intellectual movement in a narrow sense [conservatism] certainly was, yet one whose objective was not simply to understand the world but to change it, restore it, preserve it.” It was this task that ignited an intellectual movement—a movement which Dr. George H. Nash has recounted in his timeless masterpiece.
Dr. Nash is a widely acclaimed scholar, lecturer, writer, and student of the conservative movement whose lucubration led him to first publish this magnum opus in 1976. His goal—which he achieved masterfully—was to tell the story of how and why the American Right went from seemingly disparate and fissiparous factions in the early days following World War II to the potent, formidable force by which Americans came to know it in the 1980s.
Dr. Nash first imparts to the reader the magnitude of the divide among the formerly rudderless Right in the early days following 1945. And it is indispensable for one to grasp the chasm between the factions in order that one may truly appreciate the Right’s subsequent unification and metamorphosis into a respectable movement.
Three factions comprised “the Right” in those early days: “classical liberalism” or libertarianism, “traditionalism,” and “anti-Communism.”
Libertarianism or “classical liberalism” operated within the confines of the great liberal tradition espoused by John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill among others. It was this faction that claimed unrivaled minds such as F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and the so-called Austrian School of economics.
At the other end of the spectrum of the right lay the “traditionalists” or “new conservatives,” chief among whom was the redoubtable Russell Kirk. The desideratum of the traditionalists was the restoration of the political pursuits of virtue and ethics, which was, so they believed, emblematic of the “Great Tradition.” Moreover, they lionized Edmund Burke—at times ad nauseam—which itself invited animadversions from some on their own side.
And finally, there was the ferocious “anti-Communism” faction, which proudly touted such matchless minds as James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers. This faction was particularly unique, for it strongly magnetized disaffected ex-radicals. Indeed, it was not uncommon at all to find apostates of the Communist religion among this faction of conservatives.
Professor Nash illuminates the obvious fact that the Right had no dearth of great minds. And yet, he points out, the ideological propensities of these minds seemed to be in an incorrigible decline. Nevertheless, conservatism made a fascinating comeback.
And while the book gives the Right’s recovery the fair and analytical recount that any scholarly work should, even the commendable impartiality of professor Nash fails to dilute the sheer wonder that this remarkable rebound evokes.
But conservative intellectualism was hardly even a movement in the early days of the post-World War II era. It was more of an eclectic, multifaceted group of brilliant thinkers who lacked any intellectual platform or any real sense of discernable direction other than disdain for the excesses that characterized the statists’ status quo. The Right had a considerable amount of principle at this time, but lacked a real purpose.
However, it didn’t take long for this to change. The quasi-movement came to recognize that its own disorganization, infighting, and tiny platform would ultimately have dreadful consequences. Indeed, it became a common understanding among conservative intellectuals that if their desire to change the course of the country remained a mere velleity, it would mean more than just the death of an ideology. And thus, as professor Nash shows the reader, the various factions began to organize their own thinkers into respectable organizations, journals, and academic societies.
The Mont Pelerin Society; the Foundation for Economic Liberty; intellectual journals like Russell Kirk’s Modern Age, the Freeman, and, of course, William F. Buckley’s National Review were all the result of the new Right, a quasi-intellectual movement, understanding the reality that dissemination of their ideas would first be required for revival.
If there is one theme that runs throughout professor Nash’s book it is this: that the conservative intellectual movement was not an end in itself. Their goals were quite the contrary, in fact. Abstract arguments about liberty, constitutionalism, the “Great Tradition,” and so on were indeed important. But if principle was important, political power was paramount. For without the political power to implement ideas, academic debates were just that—academic. This realization, it seems, was the Great Awakening of the Right.
And no one understood the Right’s precariousness better than Frank S. Meyer. Meyer recognized that traditionalism and libertarianism, standing on their own, would not withstand the statists’ deviousness. Thus, Professor Nash explains:
He insisted that conservatives must absorb the best of both branches of the divided conservative mainstream. This was the true heritage of the West—‘reason operating within tradition’ (p. 176).
Consequently, he and others pushed for a new amalgamation between the factions of freedom and traditionalism, which came to be termed fusionism. And though Meyer hated the term, it was an idea that quickly took root amongst many of the Right’s intellectuals.
While it was indeed Meyer who was fusionism’s progenitor, it was William F. Buckley Jr. and his National Review that best embodied it. Indeed National Review became the megaphone through which conservatives—whether traditionalist, anti-Communist, or libertarian—came to voice their ideas.
The conservative intellectual push, while still saddled with much to accomplish, was becoming a formidable intellectual movement that could no longer be insouciantly dismissed by the liberal establishment.
Although conservatism was rising in esteem, again, it is clear from professor Nash’s book that the respect of the New York Times and university academics was not the goal of the intellectuals of the new American Right:
Its goal was not conventional power and prestige but the implementation of ideas for the simple reason, as we have already seen, that they wanted the civilized world to survive.
But some, such as Whittaker Chambers, were not overly optimistic at this prospect. In 1954, Chambers wrote to William F. Buckley Jr.:
No, I no longer believe that political solutions are possible for us. . . . The enemy—he is ourselves. That is why it is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within [emphasis added] (p. 127).
Readers cannot help but notice that this was written in 1954—quite early in the post-war conservative intellectual movement. And while certainly not shared by all conservatives, or even a majority, such gloom and lachrymose nostalgia within its ranks begs an inquiry into how the Right managed to survive at all, given the fact that conservatives lacked a political candidate until Goldwater in 1964, and victory eluded them until Reagan in 1980.
Perhaps this can be explained, in part, by a quotation from Buckley in the midst of a wave of calls for appeasement, recognition, and coexistence with the Soviet Union: “. . . Better the chance of being dead, than the certainty of being Red. And if we die? We die.”
One cannot help but think that Buckley, as well as many other conservatives, felt similarly about the fight for the preservation of Western civilization on America’s own soil—better to ferociously fight and lose the ideological war than not to fight it at all.
Maybe Chambers was correct—perhaps the Left had already won and any efforts at resistance were futile. But even so, the Right kept its spirits high if for no other reason than for its cognizance of the fact that its ideas and principles were timeless. And while the modern, liberal age may have rejected them, this was to say nothing about the rightness and truth of the principles themselves. Therefore, with the stakes so high, the cause of the conservative demanded nothing less than a fight à outrance.
It was this belief that carried the movement through the radical ’60s, tumultuous ’70s, and into the triumphant ’80s, making for decades of rich history in the process. And herein lies the Conservative Intellectual Movement’s magnificence. It tells the story of the conservative intellectual movement, albeit from a scholar’s perspective, and highlights the purpose and principles that kept most conservatives vibrant, notwithstanding the magnitude and seemingly hopeless nature of their task.
Moreover, the story professor Nash tells in this conservative classic is one that clearly illuminates a movement replete with a sense of duty; a duty to receive the torch of civilization— a torch stained with the fingerprints of timeless thinkers, matchless sages, and courageous leaders—with honor, reverence, and resolve regardless of portents of its future.
And while Ronald Reagan would not utter them until many years later during his Second Inaugural Address, his words capture the burden that the conservative intellectual movement assumed, and assumed with zeal, decades before in order that the torch’s flame may continue to rage: “If not us, who? And if not now, when?”
This article appears also in the Summer 2017 edition of The Arch Conservative in print.
— Ross Dubberly is Assistant Editor at The Arch Conservative.