Developments in recent American politics have raised questions about the intellectual roots and philosophical depth of conservatism. The direction of American foreign policy, for example, has inspired debates about the meaning of American conservatism. George Carey, in a Fall 2005 Modern Age article, suggests that American politics has turned away from conservative principles. Liberalism is the paramount political ideology in America. This may come as a surprise to those who equate conservatism with the Republican Party and who measure the success of the conservative movement by election results. Republicans control the policy-making branches of government and they have gained ground on the Supreme Court. In the mass media, conservative voices seem to be present more today in popular print, on the radio, and on television than ever before. Conservative books commonly become best sellers and conservative think tanks and foundations have burgeoning budgets. But it may be that many conservatives have lost touch with the intellectual roots and engendering purpose of their political movement. They conflate fleeting election politics and media exposure with the enduring work of maintaining Western civilization. In the formative institutions of American culture, the academy, the arts, the church, and the family, conservative values are in retreat. How does one make sense of these competing notions of conservatism’s political and cultural vitality?
Peter Viereck’s Conservatism Revisited is a good place to begin an assessment of recent political and intellectual trends. Books like this one, originally published in 1949, remind political conservatives that there are intellectual prerequisites to the work of politics and that conservatism often comes in irreconcilable varieties. Viereck, born in 1916, is best described as a traditional conservative who is out of step with many contemporary notions of political conservatism. His book, which surveys conservative thought, illustrates that intellectual conservatism does not always mesh with what passes for political conservatism, and that the conservative intellectual movement was never monolithic. Moreover, one can begin with conservative intellectual assumptions and end up, as was the case with Viereck, with what many political conservatives, then and now, would consider liberal politics. Viereck and Russell Kirk, for example, share many of the same theoretical assumptions but often end up supporting significantly different public policies.
Viereck may come across to some readers as enigmatic. On the one hand, he claims to advocate a Burkean prejudice for tradition and the wisdom of the ages. Yet he is a bit like Camus in that he sees rebellion in a positive, if qualified, light. To understand how Viereck can support both claims, one must realize that, in his view, to be conservative in an age that has seen liberalism and progressivism triumph means that rebellion is necessary. Viereck’s rebel, what he calls the “unadjusted man,” is a natural aristocrat who rejects democratic culture insofar as it undermines society’s connection to the higher things that Burke believes are embedded in a nation’s traditions and customs. His 1973 book, The Unadjusted Man: A New Hero for Americans: Reflections on the Distinction between Conforming and Conserving, argues for a conservative rejection of modern culture and way of life.
But his is an historically informed and philosophically grounded rebellion, one that seeks to embrace the classical and Christian understanding of the human condition not to overthrow it. This is evident in his defense of the American Framers’ constitutionalism. The preservation of traditional American constitutionalism means rebellion against contemporary progressive ideologies. In light of the progressive push toward democratic egalitarianism, he suggests that, “To prevent majority rule from becoming majority despotism, every stable society has certain traditional institutions acting as brakes on precipitous mass action.” Viereck defends Metternich as a model of conservatism rightly understood and he rates Burke, Irving Babbitt, and John C. Calhoun as sound conservatives. He does not find the personality or politics of Barry Goldwater and Joe McCarthy to be consistent with conservative principles. In American politics he believes that Adlai Stevenson represents the balanced synthesis of liberalism and conservatism. Viereck describes him as “Mill plus Burke; Jefferson plus John Adams; civil liberties and open-mindedness plus a noblesse-obligated, traditional, and very American spirit of aristocracy, a Periclean-democratic aristocracy.” This is not a view that would sit well with conservatives then or now.
The subtitle of the book, “The Revolt Against Ideology” signifies that conservatism is not an ideology but a disposition of the mind and character, a view he shares with Kirk. Yet he is critical of Kirk, whom he calls “bankrupt” because he believes that Kirk was “morally evasive” about McCarthyism and nostalgic about the past. Kirk confuses “concrete living roots with abstract yearning for roots.” Viereck explains what he considers to be two primary conservative characteristics: “a distrust of human nature, rootlessness, and of untested innovations” and “a corresponding trust in unbroken historical continuity and in traditional frameworks within which human affairs may be conducted.” His brand of conservatism is one that balances tradition and change. Viereck is both a Pulitzer Prize winning poet (1949 for Terror and Decorum) and an historian; he believes that good literature is essential to shape the imagination in a way that connects individuals to universality. But Viereck’s conception of universality is not a stagnant ahistorical standard divorced from the complexity of changing circumstances. Universality is, as Irving Babbitt explained, a “oneness that is always changing.” No particular art form can capture beauty for all time and no particular political form can capture justice for all time.
Contrary to most twentieth century conservatives, Viereck favored much of the New Deal because he believes that it preserved community and established ways of life at a time when radicalism was making headway in American culture. He argues that, “The Burkean conservative today cherishes New Deal reforms in economics and Lockean parliamentary liberalism in politics, as traditions here to stay.” He opposed much that passes for political conservatism because it confuses economic libertarianism for cultural conservatism. Viereck’s work ends up being too conservative for most liberals and too liberal for most conservatives. Yet, it contains the philosophical texture of Edmund Burke’s political theory and Irving Babbitt’s New Humanism. Many conservative readers will have to suppress their political prejudices in order to discover the theoretical and historical insights that Viereck provides. Liberal readers should appreciate that he supports liberal political ideas as the outcome of historical and philosophical realism.
One of the highlights of the book is a lengthy study of conservatism by Claes G. Ryn that describes and analyzes Viereck’s conservative thought and places it in the larger framework of intellectual conservatism. Ryn’s study is a book in its own right and it provides systematic analysis of conservatism in a way that Viereck does not. Ryn’s assessment of Viereck’s work is largely positive but he does not hesitate to criticize him for philosophical shortcomings, such as his partial understanding of reason. Ryn also notes Viereck’s tendency to spark unnecessary disputes. He demonstrates how Viereck’s intellectual temperament created, in certain cases, opposition to his ideas when they should have been met with agreement. In the final analysis, however, Ryn finds Viereck’s work to be a significant contribution to the conservative intellectual movement because it seeks to reconcile permanence and change in a way that accounts for both universality and flux.
Conservatism Revisited is not an integrated work but a collection of essays on related topics. Each part does not hang together in every instance as an outcome of an unfolding organized argument. One has to sift the text for what are its gems, intuitive insights into the nature of politics and the human condition, and synthesize them. In this sense, Viereck is a poet first and a systematic historian second. Apart from the content of the book there are a few glaring problems. The book is poorly edited. It contains numerous typographical errors and leaves one wondering if an earlier, less refined version of the manuscript mistakenly went to press. In addition, the book has no index. While this was the case with earlier editions, adding an index would have improved and further justified the new edition. While these problems detract from the book, they do not outweigh Viereck’s contribution to the conservative intellectual movement.
Michael Federici is a professor of Political Science at Mercyhurst College.
Posted: March 20, 2007
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Volume 44, Number 4 (Fall 2006)