Posted: September 1, 2003
merican conservatism is a complicated success story that historians rarely like to tell or explain (though they often explain it away). For even as conservatives were changing politics, leftists were changing the historical discipline. In the 1970s a new generation of historians sought to reject intellectual history in favor of history from the bottom up—a history that looked for the largely unconscious forces that moved events. Ideas—especially reified ideas—became either irrelevant or relevant merely as camouflage. This new means of explaining historical action and consciousness was wedded to a deep hatred for conservative ideas and conservative politics. As a result, conservatism was either ignored or treated as a malignancy—persistent and recurring—on the American soul.
This is changing, and rapidly. Not only have conservative historians begun fleshing out the stories that make up this history, but the very persistence of both conservative ideas and dispositions has forced the larger historical profession to take notice. While textbooks of recent American history still have little or nothing to say about National Review, though often explaining in some detail the counterculture and Woodstock, the secondary literature on post-1945 America boasts a formidable body of work on even the lesser-known figures and events of the conservative movement. The two books here reviewed are part of this growing literature that will, I suspect, force an eventual rewriting of the textbooks.
For someone wishing to understand the intellectual tensions of the post-war American Right, there is no better study than Frank S. Meyer. Like so many conservatives of his generation, Meyer became, as a young adult, a Communist—in his case a Stalinist. In the 1930s Meyer was looking for something to believe in, some coherent, intellectually beautiful system to which he could devote his considerable passion and energy. Communism not only supplied him with a purpose, a system to live and perhaps to die for, but it made him feel as though he were in the van of history. It appears that Meyer very much needed to have the right answers and to feel as though history were on his side.
There was a streak of the ideologue and evangelist in Meyer, who, throughout his life, sought to resolve every tension, answer every question, and proclaim the Truth most insistently to a confused world. As a CP member he devoted himself to educating and indoctrinating, testing fellow members for their intellectual purity. He believed that all contradictions had answers and that deeper analysis of any conundrum exposed an answer fully compatible with the party line. But an intellectual system, he believed, was sterile without a corresponding change of heart, an alteration of sentiments and affections. Meyer worked on himself and his charges—as thoroughly as any evangelical pastor might work on his congregation— steadily to strip their hearts and minds of bourgeois desires and expectations.
During the 1940s and early 1950s, Meyer made his transition from Communist to anti-Communist. He was, it seems, relentless still in his struggle for answers, even though his first god, Communism, had failed him. Aided by such works as Friedrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences, Meyer found himself drawn into a new vanguard, a small but increasingly vocal band of men (largely) who challenged both Communism and liberalism and who sought to turn their reaction into a coherent, positive answer for the modern world. Becoming, in the 1950s until his death in 1972, a fixture at National Review with regular columns and editorial control over the book review section, Meyer had both a regular forum for teaching a very large audience and a community of activists with whom he could wrangle and work.
During the final decade and a half of his life, he sought to achieve two related goals. First, he wanted to tie together the dangling threads of conservatism into a single philosophical cloth. Second, he wanted to craft a series of institutions that could give political expression to his conservative philosophy. His CP training served him well in these efforts. Not only did he craft the most politically viable conservative philosophy of his generation, creating a coherent common front for both traditional and libertarian conservatives, but he inspired a superbly disciplined group of believers who toiled in the Republican Party and in a variety of smaller institutions. Without Meyer's ideological discipline it is open for question whether the conservative take-over of the Republican Party could have happened in 1964, much less the steady rise of Reagan conservatives in the years that followed.
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Kevin Smant has illuminated much about this influential figure and the movement he helped shape in Principles and Heresies: Frank S. Meyer and the Shaping of the American Conservative Movement. This is a splendid book—well-researched, well-written, and well-balanced. In a book about Meyer's ideas and his professional relationships, Smant gives the reader the man—not an unusually complex man, but a man whose ideas sprang from deep personal needs and drives. Smant's examination of Meyer's search for purpose in the thirties establishes themes, both personal and ideological, that move throughout the biography. His passionate search for answers contributed to eccentricities. Living apart from the world he tried to understand and to shape, Meyer plunged into books, ideas, and dreams every night in his Woodstock, New York home, where he and his wife raised and homeschooled their children. As the nation prepared for bed, Meyer used his one real conduit to his ever-expanding network of contacts and friends, the telephone, to argue, to persuade, to consult. In due course, Meyer left his friends in slumber as he worked through the night on the ideas and the plans that would change the world—and preserve civilization.
But more important than this account of the man is Smant's deft analysis of Meyer's work—his web of influence and his struggle to define a vital center for American conservatism. Smant's book adds greatly to our knowledge of the inner workings of National Review, the rise of the New York Conservative Party, the evolution of the Young Americans for Freedom, and the political struggles within the Republican Party in the 1960s. We learn about his complex relationships with other conservatives, about Meyer's influence over younger conservatives and his struggles with peers like James Burnham. Perhaps most impressive is how Smant uses these personal relationships to help trace and explain the evolution of Meyer's political thought.
It's as a popularizer and defender of a conservative political philosophy that Meyer deserves most of all to be studied today. It is odd that a man so prone to a doctrinaire attitude, who often seemed unwilling to tolerate even small challenges to his orthodoxy, would craft for his generation the most powerful and politically viable expression of American conservative political philosophy. Often described as "fusionism," Meyer articulated a philosophy that balanced or perhaps blended the ideas of traditionalists and libertarians. Many have argued over the years that Meyer's philosophy is logically incoherent; best understood as a politically useful compromise that made possible a common front of anti-liberals. M. Stanton Evans, who wrote the foreword for this book, argues for its coherence. Smant seems unpersuaded, noting throughout how Meyer shifted the emphasis from traditionalism to libertarianism, as the circumstances required. There is, of course, another alternative. Conservative philosophy, by its very nature, may be unsystematic, embracing broad principles that stand in tension with one another, forcing a continuing re-balancing relative to changing circumstances.
To oversimplify greatly, Meyer argued that the great objective of Western Civilization, the good toward which our culture has pointed, is the freedom of the individual. To Meyer's mind this emphasis on freedom (a libertarian emphasis) sat comfortably with the traditionalist focus on virtue, because true virtue requires that one choose a virtuous path. In his regular columns, Meyer seemed as ready to emphasize the need for order as for liberty, stressing again the intimate connection between these apparent antinomies. But no matter how Meyer or others sought to calibrate this balance, a rather significant divide separated Meyer's philosophy from traditionalist thinking. Meyer insisted, as so many classical liberals had before him, that society is an abstraction and that its purpose is to support the individual, not the other way around. But an altogether different anthropology serves as the foundation for traditionalists who insist that all individuals belong to some larger group—family, town, church, union. Furthermore, traditionalists see no hope of developing a whole person except by beginning with one's primary obligations to others.
Smant notes, helpfully, the rocky relationship between Russell Kirk and Frank Meyer. Their cool relationship prevented, in my estimation, what was potentially the most useful discussion of their day—for Kirk and Meyer had much to learn from each other. Meyer's intemperate review of Kirk's book, The Conservative Mind, probably did irreparable damage to the relationship. Absurdly, Meyer argued that Kirk's emphasis on tradition might lead to a powerful, centralized state. Kirk wrote an equally unfair review of Meyer's book In Defense of Freedom, losing his important analysis in ad hominemattacks. One can't but assume that had Meyer been less ideological he might have found much in Kirk's communitarianism that would help him shore up a rather flimsy philosophical anthropology. Similarly, Kirk's version of conservatism needed, then and now, to find a useful accommodation with American culture so that it might elevate rather than simply complain.
In the end, it seems from Smant's account, Meyer made some important steps toward Kirk's position (and the position of Meyer's mentor, Richard Weaver). Just before he died, Meyer was baptized into the Catholic Church, accepting communion in the great, mysterious Body of Christ. Meyer accepted that the individual is never fulfilled except as part of a larger body, in full submission to an unchallenged authority.
If one of the tensions in American conservatism is the problem of freedom, the other is the problem of equality. Semantic quicksand swallows so many of the arguments, and Meyer never seemed up to the challenge. Interestingly, Smant devotes almost no attention to this question. One might have hoped, for instance, that Smant would review and adjudicate the brief but spirited exchange in National Review between Meyer and Harry V. Jaffa about Lincoln. No sorting out is possible here, but Meyer took a negative view of Lincoln because he centralized power. For Meyer it was simply axiomatic that 1) the founders wrote the Constitution to prevent a strong federal government, and 2) that any strengthening of the federal government must come at the expense of individual freedom. But this places Meyer in the paradoxical position of claiming that Lincoln, the author of the Emancipation Proclamation, was an enemy of freedom. Moreover, the Constitution's limits, as understood by Meyer, would have tolerated gross violations of freedom in many states for the foreseeable future.
It seems that Lincoln serves as the flashpoint for conservatives who want to argue about whether equality is central to the American tradition, as Jaffa asserts, as well as what relationship equality has to freedom. Smant loses an opportunity to sort out the competing views, provide a consistent language for discussing the issues, and adjudicate the debates. At the very least, he ought to have examined more systematically Meyer's view of equality and placed that view back into the debate about the nature of American conservatism.
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Meyer's most consistent adversary at National Review, James Burnham, is the subject of Daniel Kelly's biography, James Burnham and the Struggle for the World. Of the two men, Burnham commands the greater interest since his wide-ranging books from the early 1940s through the late 1960s influenced thinkers of all political stripes. Like Meyer, Burnham found Communism attractive as a young man, though for Burnham it was the more flexible and cerebral Trotsky who most appealed. From his early years Burnham thought of himself as a hardheaded realist, one requiring empirical evidence and following that evidence wherever it took him. So despite their common Marxist origins, Meyer and Burnham always looked at the world very differently: Meyer the ideological purist and Burnham the pragmatic realist. Even after Trotskyism no longer worked for him, Burnham still emphasized the analysis of power rather than ideas, and his most impressive works remain his first two—and least conservative— books. In The Managerial Revolution (1941) Burnham argued that the world was entering a new era where the control of the capitalists would give way to the rule of managers, of organizers, of planners, of bureaucrats. Here Burnham was working within an evolving literature that emphasized the growing complexity and interdependence of modern society, polity, and economy—a literature with which, sadly, Daniel Kelly seems unfamiliar. In this book, Burnham wrote about a systemic change that would inevitably alter the world's economy and society, moving it inexorably toward greater collectivism. Marxist thinking would, in ever lesser degrees, shape Burnham's categories and thus his analysis. In his second book, The Machiavellians (1943) Burnham wrote what might be his defining argument. Drawing explicitly on Italian devotees of Machiavelli, Burnham stressed the role of power, rather than ideas, in meaningful governance. The empirical sciences, like history, were the best guides to ruling—not the elusive axioms of ideology or any comprehensive system of ideas. Burnham pronounced, in 1943, his rejection of ideology, of idealism, in favor of a realistic and often negative view of umans and human potential.
Burnham found himself in the company of conservatives by the 1950s as his aggressive anti-Communism, directed especially at the Soviet Union, put him increasingly at odds with the weaker version of anti-Communism permeating the thinking of the liberal intellectual establishment. Despite his anti-ideological focus, Burnham found common cause with the founders of National Review. While his columns and books covered a wide array of subjects, including race relations, cultural matters, and domestic politics, it was in foreign policy that Burnham made his mark in the world, forging a view of international relations that stressed self-interest and power politics. From within this framework, Burnham focused on the liberal democracies' increasing failure of will, their inability to defend themselves or even to define the good for which they stood. Burnham was a serious thinker whose ideas and, perhaps, his life, warrant serious study. Daniel Kelly's book fails him. In this wordy, digressive, sometimes pointless narrative, Kelly never gains command of the material. One discovers this early on as Kelly labors over the scantiest resources from Burnham's youth, managing only the most speculative and uninteresting analysis. In order to categorize Burnham's ideas, Kelly offers vague labels—Augustinian, Niebuhrian, Machiavellian (at least this one has a very specific source), to name those most used. The biggest problem with these labels is that they are never earned. Kelly barely talks about Augustine or Niebuhr, much less explaining in any precise way the connection between their ideas and Burnham's supposed appropriation of them. Kelly's propensity for offering superficial labels extends to the many complicated tensions in Burnham's thinking, which, in Kelly's hands, seem more like rampant inconsistencies rather than the result of a deep thinker working with extremely complicated material.
Much more disappointing, however, is the narrow historical prism through which Kelly examines his subject. Burnham's ideas touch so many complicated debates of his time, which Kelly largely ignores. For instance, the most influential writer on foreign policy during Burnham's life was Walter Lippmann, who often wrote on precisely the same subjects that occupied Burnham. Lippmann is never mentioned in this overly long book. The list of other omissions would require more space then allowed in this review. The universe of ideas in Kelly's book is very small, giving Burnham an unfairly provincial quality.
Less significant, but rather strange given the author's stated reason for this biography, is the sterile and unrevealing examination of Burnham's significance within National Review and the larger conservative community. Kelly devotes a good bit of space to this subject, but he never tells the story. Episodes, speculations, and a good bit of rather undigested data—these Kelly provides in sufficient volume. While Smant's biography of Meyer gives the reader both the man and his ideas and influences, Kelly gives us neither James Burnham's life nor his ideas.
I recommend reading Burnham's books rather than this book on Burnham. Nonetheless, recent conservative history is very important and, as Smant's book shows, knowledge of our past has much to teach us about the evolution and struggle of ideas. Whatever else these two books expose, the American conservative movement has, since 1945, been rich with competing beliefs. Telling the history of conservatism not only reminds conservatives of the concrete historical sources of contemporary ideas but also exposes the power of ideas to form, deform, or reform the world we inhabit.