October 22, 2007

Those who do not regularly read the conservative review Modern Age may be unaware of the revolt against neo-conservatism that has lately broken out in that journal. But the revolt is a fact, and a significant one at that. Modern Age is not just any old conservative rag. Founded in 1957, with Russell Kirk as its first editor, the review has long been an intellectually serious conservative review of culture, religion, literature, history, and politics. Writers in Modern Age have come from every branch of the political and cultural Right, and have included Southern agrarians and their successors, such as Andrew Lytle, Cleanth Brooks, Donald Davidson, Richard M. Weaver, and M. E. Bradford, historically-grounded cultural critics like Russell Kirk, Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, Thomas Molnar, and Wilhelm Röpke (also an economist), political scientists Peter Stanlis and Willmoore Kendall, historians Harry Elmer Barnes, John Lukacs, and Stephen Tonsor, Cold Warriors Gerhart Niemeyer, Anthony T. Bouscaren, Frank Meyer, and Slobodan Draskovich, sociologist Will Herberg, linguist Mario Pei, political philosopher John Hallowell, and classical liberals Ludwig von Mises, Felix Morley, and Arthur Kemp, and libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard. There are more names, of course, and in making a list, I have doubtless (but unintentionally) left out some important ones.


For nearly five decades, Modern Age has shied away from divisive conflicts over foreign policy, preferring to focus on higher and more lasting things. Contributions pumping up the Cold War were present but they hardly defined the journal. Now, the policies of an allegedly “conservative” Republican administration and its intellectual allies have forced a confrontation. Given the standing and prestige of Modern Age, a breakout there from neoconservatism could be very important.


I. The Revolt Begins



Credit for opening up the front against neo-conservatism at Modern Age probably belongs to George W. Carey, a well-established political scientist and student of the Constitution, with his article, “Conservatism, Centralization, and Constitutional Federalism” in the Spring 2004 issue. The piece was a welcome surprise and Carey’s analysis examines James Madison’s problematic notion of “divided sovereignty” – sovereignty shared, somehow, between or among the states and the union. Carey suggests that John Taylor of Caroline and John C. Calhoun raised questions Madison left unanswered. In the end, Carey asks, can there be such a thing as divided sovereignty, “given the authority that national government must possess to defend the nation in time of war”? [1]


Pursuing an answer, Carey contrasts “constitutional federalism” and “political federalism.” Under the former, the Supreme Court adjudicated divisions of power—a formalist path whose seeming arbitrariness created ill will, as when the Court overthrew major New Deal measures in 1933-1937. The alternative, “political federalism,” leaves the practical division of powers to the political process in the hope that Congress will protect the states and union alike. On Madison’s genial fiction (my term) of a single American people, this makes some sense. Rather inconsistently, Carey thinks, conservatives “actually embrace both paradigms,” ending in a conceptual muddle.[2]


Carey notes Röpke’s distinction between feudal and communal decentralization, observing that decentralization does not of itself solve our problems. He reasons that abandoning an obsolete formalism might allow conservatives to fight on new ground, but concedes that political federalism is as “normatively vacuous” as constitutional federalism. He recommends serious engagement with Catholic social theorists’ notion of subsidiarity.[3]


What matters here is Carey’s realization that the ground plan of American government is broken. The founders’ ideas, as handed down, are no longer useful to us. This departure is an important step, given the way in which neoconservatives ride the founding horse into town just before shooting it up.[4] Interestingly, Professor Carey called elsewhere in even stronger terms for a turn away from the founders toward “those who have identified and analyzed the full dimensions of the modern state’s aggrandizement of power, that is, to the great conservative thinkers of the twentieth century, such as Albert Jay Nock, Robert Nisbet, and Bertrand de Jouvenel.”[5]


II. The Form Misplaced?


In the Summer 2004 Modern Age, Richard J. Bishirjian continued the fray. But here the ball of revolt, if kicked anywhere, rolled back toward the starting line. Bishirjian makes a case against the idea of a New World Order, that is, against a left-wing ideology of American international messiahship. On that level the essay succeeds. Our confidence is shaken, however, when Bishirjian lists as “realistic” students of foreign affairs “Norman Graebner, Richard Gamble, James Stoner, Jeremy Rabkin, Michael Ledeen, Robert Nisbet.” Graebner, Gamble, and Nisbet, certainly, but Michael Ledeen? We are not reassured when Bishirjian writes that leaving things to the UN and America’s “intellectual ‘idealist’ classes” may cause, in Iraq, “greater chaos than that which was replaced by American arms.”[6] Since it is precisely American arms that unleashed the current chaos, the middle ground Bishirjian seeks may prove elusive. His “national interest” policy, as expounded here, resembles the Bush II policy shorn of idle talk about liberations and exported democracy. (Later, as we shall see, Bishirjian takes his critique farther.)


III. The Form Regained


If Bishirjian struck only a glancing blow, Jeremy Black’s review of Andrew Bacevich’s American Empire took up where Carey left off.[7] Soon enough, George A. Panichas, editor of Modern Age for over two decades, took a hand in things. In “Restoring the Meaning of Conservatism” (Summer 2005), he invokes Richard Weaver, F. R. Leavis, Irving Babbitt, Russell Kirk, and T. S. Eliot, in a search for the proper use of language and concepts.[8] In recent years, Panichas writes, “the word conservative has undergone diverse changes,” even conversion into “another saleable commodity, subject to constant alteration by theorists and ideologues…” The conservative vision gives way to “quantitative and pragmatist versions severed from noumenal and metaphysical ingredients,” and yields to “a progression of invasive doctrinal revisions…”[9]


Conservatism needs rescuing “from the tribe of neoterists who have their own ambitions and who will conveniently twist and transform the conservative impulse or norms.” The “crisis of conservatism” is thus “also a crisis of standards, language, and point of reference.” Under “an ersatz conservatism,” a “neo-Jacobin fever” engulfs our politics, “as metaphysical principles, discriminations, are wantonly undermined, both on the left and on the right…” Conservatism becomes “empty in content, robbed of its living tradition and importance by blatherers and usurpers.” Conservatives must “restore to their true function the forgotten texts of conservatism,” the works of Weaver, Kirk, Babbitt, and T. S. Eliot, “that justify the continuity of the word’s significance.” Such renewal is necessary because “the conservative as conservator guards against violations of our reverent traditions and legacy, and is, in fine, a preserver, a keeper, a custodian of sacred things and signs and texts… [10]


George Carey rejoined the battle with “The Future of Conservatism,” in the Fall 2005 Modern Age, a focused frontal assault on the ghastly and bloated American presidency. He questions the Bush II administration’s conservative credentials, observing that the shoving-aside of traditional by neo-conservatism began under Ronald Reagan. The Bush foreign policy, “best described as Wilsonianism on steroids, has its roots in the traditions of the Democratic party…” Traditional Conservatives like “Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, or Richard M. Weaver” would not have bought the Iraq war. Neo-conservatives have changed “the character of the Republican party,” while employing inherited conservative rhetorical tropes.[11]


The key for Carey is presidentialism. Armed with great powers and leverage, the presidency becomes the source of enormous patronage and pork. The powers and rewards controlled from the White House are massive and following the party line is essential for members of Congress. Presidential supremacy, long favored by Progressives, has triumphed and “conservative” Republicans now embrace it, particularly overseas, where executive powers find few real limits. The president, as holder of the sole (more or less) elective national office becomes symbolically and practically the center of American life.


The results are not pretty. Carey observes that “presidential aspirants are pathological”; only the great office can satisfy their “steely egotism and overwhelming ambition.” Once elected, “strong” presidents enlarge “the prerogatives and powers” of the office. The parties channel power, allowing presidents (aided by Congress) to expand federal activities across the board. Under one-party dominance, the incentives all favor “gaining and retaining power”; there are no “makeweights.” There is, however, “a single, strong-willed individual,” who can overawe legislators and make institutional gains for the executive branch. “A base politics virtually devoid of principles” is the overall outcome, with the institutional incentives favoring presidential wars, which further build the office.[12]


In the same issue, James Patrick Dimock’s piece on Richard M. Weaver undermines the notion that in his Ethics of Rhetoric (1953), Weaver made Abraham Lincoln a model for conservatives. Dimmock thinks it odd that Weaver, who believed that Edmund Burke “epitomized middle-of-the-roadism and liberalism,” would have said much in Lincoln’s favor. As a Christian Platonist, Weaver admitted the strength of Lincoln’s arguments from definition, but saw his “failure” as “dialectical”: Lincoln’s “sin was in ably advancing a false vision of the good.” [13] It is striking that serious criticism of the neo-conservatives’ icon and Second Founder, Abraham Lincoln, can still appear in Modern Age.


In the Winter 2006 Modern Age, Dimock soldiered on, arguing that Weaver meant in part to warn conservatives off the Burkean path of compromise, which would inevitably lead them away from principle, toward the center. The 2004 election “demonstrated the distance ‘conservatism’ has traveled toward the middle, with both candidates in favor of a massive consolidation of police power… federal management of the economy; military adventurism,” and so on. [14] (These are indeed the children of centrism, whether Burke answers for them or not.)


In the same issue, Arthur J. Versluis treats “The Revolutionary Conservatism of Jefferson’s Small Republics[15] – a topic seemingly remote from the revolt under discussion. In fact, Versluis nicely draws out the implications of a decentralist American tradition to show that vision’s utter incompatibility with neoconservatism. He credits the Left in recent decades with having had a clearer critique of the centralizing warfare state than did conservatives. The piece seems a worthy addition to the reassessment going on at Modern Age.


The Winter 2006 issue also featured part two of editor George Panichas’s “Restoring the Meaning of Conservatism.” Against those who doubt that conservatism can be renewed, as things stand, he writes that it must be renewed. For, “in a hubristic age,” it is conservatism’s task “to scrutinize socio-political and cultural conditions as they exist” and to answer the “need for metanoia, for deliberation, for inner searching… in dissent and in continuity.” [16]


IV. Second Barrel Fired



The campaign for “the meaning of conservatism” was gaining momentum. Much of the Spring 2006 Modern Age was given over to it. Bruce F. Frohnen, who is, among other things, editor of an excellent collection of Antifederalist writings, contributes “The Patriotism of a Conservative.” Denying that patriotism is really the last refuge of scoundrels, he distinguishes real from false patriotism. Of late, he notes, “Conservatism has come to be identified with… almost blind support for the nation.” Appealing to Burkean principles, Frohnen sees conservatism as “rooted in love of the familiar.” This disposition matters more than “the military virtues,” which, however “[n]ecessary for defense… are not sufficient, and may be dangerous to continuation of the nation’s essential character.”[17]


That patriotism is false, in Frohnen’s view, which forms part of a civic religion. He sees Henry VIII’s subjection of the English Church as the beginning of a perilous trend: “In Britain political religion was part of a more general tendency toward Parliamentary supremacy…” But the project of civic religion is central to neoconservatism, “adding to the government’s centralizing tendencies.” Friends of “political religion” view “men as naturally anti-social…” [18] This of course brings Frohnen to the neoconservative (and Straussian) political scientist Walter Berns.


Frohnen writes that for Berns, “the Constitutional space between the laws and the gods provides the opportunity for the state itself to take on the character of a religion.” According to Berns, Lincoln’s job was “to make the nation declared in 1776 an object of our passions…” (This is already peculiar, since no nation was “declared” in 1776.) Since ordinary men will not “leave commerce” to fight for the state’s aggrandizement, they must learn “useful lies” and “secular myths of glorious virtue.” And so, Frohnen writes, Berns proposes “a state of messianic importance,” such that we must prove our “worth” to it. And so, rhetorically, America becomes “earth’s last great hope,” “the bearer of universal principles,” and so on. [19]


Whatever else this doctrine is, Frohnen writes, it is not conservatism. Certainly, the war in Iraq cannot be shown to come within any real notion of American interest. Conservatives, at their best, have been aware of “war’s dangers to ordered liberty, as well as to civilized life itself.” Some were reluctant to engage in the Cold War. Frohnen notes Senator Taft’s desire to remove American troops from Europe and Russell Kirk’s opposition to “the war in Vietnam from its very beginning.”[20]


V. Bring Up the Twelve Pounders!


T. H. Pickett’s “War, Power, and Supremacy” (Summer 2006) casts discouraging words at Lincoln before taking on the entire warfare state. Pickett notes some longstanding bad habits of American rulers, such as finding foreign commitments “beyond existing resources.” Another is to turn military exercises, once underway, into great moral crusades. Lincoln did this with the concept of union, and conducted “a merciless and bloody war of attrition…” In our time, as morality is increasingly equated with “unrestrained desire,” anything standing athwart a utopian future jangles the nerves of U.S. officials, who see themselves as liberating humanity from every past oppression. This, says, Pickett, “is a recipe for perpetual wars in pursuit of humanitarian ideals like worldwide democratization.”[21]


19th-century American foreign policy, Pickett writes, kept within certain limits, but limits no longer impress American leaders. He makes a disturbing comparison between America in 2006 and Germany in the decades before World War I. There, too, was much raw power combined with ideological manias. There is a “chilling resemblance,” he says, arising from “the internal dynamics in which phantasms of cultural superiority enhance aspirations to global supremacy.”[22] The price of an arrogant foreign policy will be paid, Pickett, suggests, no matter the actors’ nationality.


Richard Sherlock’s “Secret of Straussianism” (Summer 2006) brings us to a serious fissure within the conservative movement. Even if it doesn’t go far enough,[23] the essay may start a much needed fight. Sherlock sets the context by naming a number of (more or less) conservative thinkers working in the mid-20th century: Jacques Maritain, Yves Simon, Charles N. R. McCoy, John Hallowell, John Wild, Herman Dooyeweerd, and Eric Voegelin. (Wild, Dooyeweerd, and Voegelin certainly had followers, enough perhaps to make up “schools,” but none succeeded as spectacularly as Strauss did.)


Sherlock notes the successes and limitations of the trademark Straussian doctrine of “secret writing,” as well as Straussians’ professed belief in natural law and natural rights. The latter may, he writes, amount only to “the rhetoric,” without “the substance, of natural right.” Strauss evidently wanted something with which to oppose the modern world’s nihilism, but his project was only “rhetorical.” Hence, the fixation of many Straussians on the Declaration of Independence as a philosophically binding text. “Strauss himself rejected all the answers advanced during the revival of natural law or natural right in the 1950s.” In the end, therefore, “the Straussian secret is ultimately a check drawn on an empty account.”[24] (One could add that the whole “rights” song-and-dance seems aimed at sustaining some regime that Straussians merely like, long after the shine has worn off its heroic founding.)


We come now to George Panichas’s hard-hitting editorial, “Restoring the Meaning of Conservatism: Final Reflections” (Summer 2006). Here is the voice of an honest traditional conservative fed up with neoconservative heresies. Introducing the issue, he writes, “the debate continues between traditional conservatives and ambitious usurpers.” At stake is the defense of “the canons of conservatism… against present-day pretenders,” who have sown “rampant confusion in the ranks…”[25]


Conservatism, Panichas writes, has been “annexed by a disordered Zeitgeist” that “seeks to eradicate the need for roots and the roots of order…. “ As a result, “committed conservative believers must struggle to hold on to… their faith in the face of armed doctrines and violent heresies.” This puts conservatism at “the cross-roads of its destiny…” Its internal enemies possess “positions of power, resources, and influence,” from which bastions they make conservatism “monistic and superficial, simply another plaything for hucksters and upstarts emptied of organic meaning and historical memory” – leaving conservatism “at the mercy of hollow men…” Genuine conservatism must not, he writes, be reduced to a tool of “partisan advantage or materialist interests.”[26] But how can it be rescued?


On this point, Panichas cites Carey’s view that conservatives “should never swear undying allegiance to either political party.” He notes, with reference to Pickett’s essay, “the larger context of the military-industrial complex that Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against at the end of his presidency.” Conservatives must shun the “spirit of imperialism.” Nor can they “worship at the mega-technic shrine of the ‘terrible simplifiers’” of a new type. Conservatives cannot yield “prudential politics” to “ideologized politics” and must reassert principles in the face of “millenarian strategems.”[27] This lays out the issues rather sharply, in the language and tradition of Russell Kirk, among others.


Finally, we return to Richard J. Bishirjian, to square accounts. His piece in the Winter 2007 Modern Age (not yet online) takes the fight to where it (partly) belongs with a vigorous indictment of the World War II (Greatest) generation. In Bishirjian’s view, that generation’s secular and power-centered—I would add “imperial”—assumptions undermined the Reagan administration, committing it conceptually to big projects of the sort defended by Professor Ellis Sandoz in the essay paired with Bishirjian’s.[28] The Bush II administration’s related innovations, Bishirjian says, “threaten the future freedoms of American citizens.”[29] These are the fruits of World War II liberalism, as continued, one might add, via the Cold War liberalism of which neo-conservatives are the heirs.


VI. Will the Traditionalists Embrace Their Lost Traditions?



These essays are not a bad beginning for a revolt long overdue. Perhaps, as the great New Left sociologist C. Wright Mills said in a different context, “we are moving again.” The new trend is in a real sense a return to where Modern Age began. I have particularly in mind Felix Morley’s “American Republic or American Empire,” published in the inaugural issue of the journal (Summer 1957). In this essay, Morley addressed war and peace, centralization vs. decentralization, and republic vs. empire – all in an utterly un-Homeric but eminently conservative fashion.[30]


Morley noted America’s “vested interest in preparation for war.” Having an external threat was now a necessity, one that fit nicely with the dogma of full employment and the federal duty to supply it. Massive spending on defense allowed for a massive expansion of the capital goods industries, leaving the whole economy “geared to preparation for war.” [31]


Morley likewise stressed the incompatibility of American institutions with empire. A government committed to the “superiority among Powers” condemned by Charles Pinckney, required the leeway to craft a flexible, moment-to-moment foreign policy. In a system such as ours, it must constantly deceive the public. Further, imperial politics demanded centralization, with more and more issues kicked up to the federal level. Such massive and rapid centralization in a formally democratic system would cost us “the substance of self-government.” [32]


“The larger the numbers involved,” the less ascertainable the popular will becomes; and so, under democratic forms, “a self-perpetuating managerial elite” arises, paying verbal tribute to democracy. Our federal, republican structure would give way before imperial necessities and emergencies. That, or we would have to abandon the path of empire. Either route might be better than the current public dishonesty. Morley concludes that “our political scientists, at least, should face the issue squarely.”[33]


Except that things have gotten much worse, Morley’s essay remains a useful guide to where we stand today. And lest anyone imagine that his comments were just the latter-day grumblings of a quasi-libertarian, I note that, introducing the first issue of Modern Age, Russell Kirk wrote, “Mr. Morley’s essay, in particular, may stir up a healthy controversy over the American role in the century.”[34]


VII. Conservatives Ought to Conserve


There is much to be learned from forms of conservatism not beholden to a new world religion centered on the American state. We cannot surrender the serious insights of such writers as Weaver, Kirk, Bradford, Wilhelmsen, and others, to left-over Cold Warriors. It is no small thing for Modern Age now to sponsor an uprising against boarding parties and hijackers of the conservative label. The revolt is a trend to watch and encourage. Its success would restore to conservatism the goal set for it (and for Modern Age) by Russell Kirk in 1957: “conserving the best elements in our civilization.”[35]


Joseph Stromberg writes frequently on political philosophy.


[1] George W. Carey, “Conservatism, Centralization, and Constitutional Federalism,” Modern Age, 46, 1-2 (Winter/Spring 2004), pp. 49.


[2] Ibid., pp. 56, 51-52. Madison’s Single People theorem is at the heart of his confusions, a point not to be pursued here.


[3] Ibid., pp. 55-57.


[4] On the uses of “founders,” see Nicholas Xenos, “Leo Strauss and the Rhetoric of the War on Terror,” Logos, 3, 2 (Spring 2004), at http://www.logosjournal.com/issue_3.2/xenos.htm . Short version: certain thinkers cherish those times when Great Men, ruthlessly exercising executive emergency powers, violate and replace existing laws and orders. Such men – Lincoln, Churchill, etc. – are our “real” founders and must be admired and imitated. It is hard to see why.


[5] George W. Carey, “America’s Founding and Limited Government,” Intercollegiate Review, 39, 1-2 (Fall 2003/Spring 2004), pp. 21-22.


[6] Richard J. Bishirjian, “Origins and End of the New World Order,” Modern Age, 46, 3 (Summer 2004), p. 203.


[7] Jeremy Black, “A Potent Imperium” [Review of Andrew J. Bacevich, American Empire],” Modern Age, 46, 4 (Fall 2004), pp. 356-359.


[8] George A. Panichas, “Restoring the Meaning of Conservatism,” Modern Age, 47, 3 (Summer 2005), pp. 195-200.


[9] Panichas, “Restoring the Meaning of Conservatism,” pp. 195, 197.


[10] Ibid., pp. 198-200.


[11] George W. Carey, “The Future of Conservatism,” Modern Age, 47, 4 (Fall 2005), pp. 292-293.


[12] Carey, “Future of Conservatism,” pp. 295-298.


[13] James Patrick Dimock, “Rediscovering the Heroic Conservatism of Richard M. Weaver, Part I,” Modern Age, 47, 4 (Fall 2005), pp. 305, 307 (and 309).


[14] James Patrick Dimock, “Rediscovering the Heroic Conservatism of Richard M. Weaver, Part II,” Modern Age, 48, 1 (Winter 2006), pp. 18-20.


[15] Arthur J. Versluis, “The Revolutionary Conservatism of Jefferson’s Small Republics,” Modern Age, 48, 1 (Winter 2006), pp. 6-12.


[16] George A. Panichas, “Restoring the Meaning of Conservatism, Part II,” Modern Age, 48, 1 (Winter 2006), p. 4.


[17] Bruce F. Frohnen, “The Patriotism of a Conservative,” Modern Age, 48, 2 (Spring 2006), pp. 105-106, 109. On the danger defenders present to their own society, see Georges Dumézil, The Destiny of the Warrior (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970)..


[18] Frohnen, “Patriotism of a Conservative,” pp. 111-112.


[19] Ibid., p. 113-116 (Berns quoted, 114).


[20] Ibid., pp. 117-118.


[21] T. H. Pickett, “War, Power, and Supremacy,” Modern Age, 48, 3 (Summer 2006), pp. 199-200, 203.


[22] Pickett, “War, Power, and Supremacy,” p. 207. In The German Problem Reconsidered (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982), David Calleo discusses the late Imperial German constellation of forces – Protestant clergy, Nietzschean technocrats, militarists, and middle class expansionists – which bears an eerie resemblance (within certain limits) to our situation.


[23] Claes G. Ryn, “Leo Strauss and History: The Philosopher as Conspirator,” Humanitas, XVIII, 1-2 (2005), pp. 31-58, is much more confrontational.


[24] Richard Sherlock, “The Secret of Straussianism,” Modern Age, 48, 3 (Summer 2006), pp. 211-213, 215, 217.


[25] George A. Panichas, “Restoring the Meaning of Conservatism: Final Reflections,” Modern Age, 48, 3 (Summer 2006), p. 195.


[26] Ibid., pp. 195-196.


[27] Carey quoted, ibid., pp. 197-198.


[28] Ellis Sandoz, “The United States in the World Arena,” Modern Age, 49, 1 (Winter 2007), pp. 82-85. The projects include Reconstruction (1865-1877), the Open Door, and the Marshall Plan, and, apparently, the Korean and Indo-China wars. Mercifully, the Reaganites did not actually carry out many projects on that scale.


[29] Richard J. Bishirjian, Modern Age, 49, 1 (Winter 2007), pp. 86-90 (quotation at 86).


[30] It is remarkable that Morley, who had a classical education, did not find it necessary to embrace “realism,” perpetual war, martial values, and authoritarian government – trappings now said (in some circles) to be the inevitable lessons of classical studies.


[31] Felix Morley, “American Republic or American Empire,” Modern Age, 1, 1 (Summer 1957), pp. 20-24.


[32] Morley, “American Republic or American Empire,” pp. 29-30.


[33] Ibid., pp. 30, 32. Some did face the question, but arguably came out on the wrong side. See, for example, Harvey C. Mansfield, Machiavelli’s Virtue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998 [1966]).


[34] Russell Kirk, “Apology for a New Review,” Modern Age, 1, 1 (Summer 1957), p. 2.


[35] Kirk, “Apology for a New Review,” p. 2.


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