August 28, 2008
Austin Bramwell and Gerald Russello have taken different sides on whether American conservatives need a “canon of great books” to guide them. While Bramwell has disputed the value of this project, Russello aided by Dan McCarthy has argued on its behalf. Despite my forty-year involvement as a scholar dealing with the American Right and, more recently, the faux Right, I find myself unable to come down fully on either side. There are two reasons for my indecisiveness. Although Russell Kirk, the early Buckley, Frank Meyers, James Burnham and other exponents of what was called “American conservatism” in the 1950s are well worth reading, Bramwell is correct that they are not particularly useful for understanding today’s “conservatism.” In fact there is less continuity between these conservative founding fathers, whatever their own differences might have been, and the current “movement” than there is between the Weekly Standard and Humphrey Democrats of the 1960s. Reading the proposed canon yields about as much insight into the current “conservatism” or yields about as much instruction concerning how to take the conservative movement back as do the sermons of a seventeenth-century Anglican divine for those trying to reorganize the British Tory party. Bramwell exaggerates their stale, off-putting qualities, but he is on target when he remarks that the old founding fathers are no longer effective in drawing people to the right.
My second reason for indecisiveness is that the thinkers in question are worth studying, but not for the reasons suggested. One should study them for what they have become, namely, erudite theorists, piquant stylists, and/or interesting writers about a period of time that now belongs to history. Ascribing these characteristics to those whom Russello and McCarthy seek to praise is by no means a putdown. I would consider my life well spent if I too landed up in the same category. But such an honor has nothing to do with the present “conservative movement,” or with leading that movement back to a largely mythic past. In fact being a progenitor of the present movement may not be an honor at all, considering where its talking heads have taken the US”and considering where they might drag us during a McCain (and Lieberman?) presidency.
There were continuing references to conservative founding fathers in the 1980s, while the neoconservatives were taking over the Right. While this ritualistic practice (or the fact that Heritage showers praise on Kirk) does not discredit those being quoted, it does suggest that paying homage to past conservative writers has not saved the Right from alien appropriation. Having our canon will not change the direction in which the American Right has gone and will likely continue to move. Moreover, the present power elite have been issuing their own, well-publicized hagiography. Last year NR printed their list of the ten greatest conservative works, and Kirk and his Conservative Mind were not even on it. At the top of this list were the neocon darlings Allan Bloom and Harry Jaffa. The current movement has its own inspirational reading, which may or may not overlap ours, but what it recommends receives far more attention than any canon that our side might call to public attention.
That said, there are scholarly reasons for studying Kirk, Rothbard, Weaver, Burnham and other figures associated with postwar conservatism or libertarianism. Their works are still worth pondering although not necessarily for political direction. But perhaps that shouldn”t matter. The movement that some of our readers would like to revive is now on a life-support system. And those who may eventually succeed in redirecting the conservative movement would not likely be students of a “canon.” They would be people of action often driven by outrage, but in all likelihood not those devoted to the aesthetics of Russell Kirk. It is also an unfortunate fact that most of our canon writers who were then around did little or nothing to prevent the straying of their movement. And most of those who in the 1980s ran to collaborate with the neoconservatives claimed to be loyal disciples of the “great thinkers” of postwar conservatism. This is not so much a criticism of those who would figure in our canon as it is recognition of the results of the unequal distribution of power. Having our own canon or referring back to older ones would not affect this reality.
Like Russello, but unlike Bramwell, I wish to praise those conservative greats, whether or not they drive young people away from what is already an illusory “conservative movement.” James Burnham, Robert Nisbet, and Murray Rothbard, among many others, shaped my view of the democratic managerial state, and I consider these figures to have been brilliant analysts of their age. All of them are important for me in the same way as Pareto and Weber, namely, as relevant social thinkers who helped explain our historical direction. I was also newly impressed by Kirk, when I encountered Russello’s interpretation of his aesthetic dimension. The presentation of Kirk as an anti-modernist, with one foot in classical European conservatism and the other in postmodernist theory, made me appreciate the subject of Russello’s monograph—no less than the author. In any case all such thinkers have much to teach, even if their value is no longer related to a now misrepresented “American conservatism.” Their best writings recall Thucydides” description of the study of great events, by helping to “make us wise for all time.”