A Reviewers Notebook: The American Conservative Movement
DECEMBER 01, 1988 by JOHN CHAMBERLAIN
Before he was elected to the U.S. Senate, the late John P. East of North Carolina was a professor of political science. A man of great scholarly attainments, he took time out from active politicking to produce a book, The American Conservative Movement (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 279 pp., $18.95), about the seminal thinkers he considered most responsible for the resurgence of the American conservative movement. His choices were seven scholars: Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Frank Meyer, Willmoore Kendall, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and Ludwig von Mises.
In investigating his seven choices, East discovered that they had a most important common religious denominator. They were one with Plato in accepting the certainty of a mysterious creator who was responsible for man as he is, a creature capable of “ascent” but also prone to lapses. Some of the seven were Christians, some preferred to let their belief in a creator stand without reference to Christ and the Incarnation. As for Mises, who wrote purely as an economist, he said his classical liberalism had never pretended to be more than a philosophy of earthly life. Even so, he said “it is not to be denied that the loftiest theme that human thought can set for itself is reflection on ultimate questions . . . the liberals do not disdain the intellectual and spiritual aspirations of man.”
Since Senator East’s seven thought as one on first principles, there is an inevitable repetition in their biographies. But the surprising thing is that minor differences make for some rather exciting cross currents of argument.
Frank Meyer, for example, who became a Roman Catholic before his death, had bones to pick with Russell Kirk on the subject of Edmund Burke. He conceded that Burke was right in standing against the excesses of the French Revolution. But if Burke had lived at the time of the so-called Glorious Revolution in the Britain of 1688, he would have been wrong to stand on what Meyer calls “the multitudinous wrappings of code and custom.”
The New Conservative, said Meyer, “is shaped by such words as ‘Authority,’ ‘order,’ ‘community,’ ‘duty,’ ‘obedience.’ ‘Freedom’ is a rare word; ‘the individual’ is anathema. The realities of this suggested society are a mixture of those of eighteenth century England and medieval Europe—or perhaps, more aptly, they are those of Plato’s Republic with the phi-losopher-king replaced by the squire and the vicar.”
For all his contentiousness, Frank Meyer took it upon himself to hold libertarians, classical liberals, and conservatives old and new together when they went to the polls. East doesn’t think Meyer should be called a “fusionist” (he was, at the last, a Christian thinker). But he realized that there were practicalities involved when it came to elections.
Willmoore Kendall was another fractious soul when it came to differing with colleagues on subservient matters. A believer in close textual analysis, Kendall was convinced that John Locke, the instigator of the peaceful 1688 revolt against the arbitrary Smart kings, was a “majoritarian.” That was enough to damn Locke in Kendall’s eyes. But the American Founding Fathers, who, like Locke, were fighting the presumption of a king to tax as he chose, were not worried by Locke’s majori-tarian views. They were sure that, with proper exemptions in a Bill of Rights, no majority would ever dare to discriminate against minorities in a way that might deny the “rights of Englishmen.”
Leo Strauss of the University of Chicago set innumerable students to thinking about their political institutions. Strauss’s concern was for a “spirit” that might be described as “serenity” or “sublime sobriety.” He talked of “piety” as the “humble wonder at mystery.” The good citizen, in Strauss’s view, should dedicate himself to “piety and service.”
Tossing the word “service” into the argument must lead to some confusion. The entrepreneur, as Adam Smith insisted, was more often than not a serviceable entity to all of humanity even when he was dominated by selfish aims.
George Nash, who contributes an introduction to Senator East’s book, speaks of East’s desire to recall American conservatives to their religious roots. Hence the common denominator of picking a religiously motivated six, and a fellow traveler (Mises), for special study. What bothers me about the selection of the seven is that they were not the pioneers of the American conservative movement. I caught up with the seven after an early contact with Henry Hazlitt, Max Eastman, Don Levine, Frank Chodorov, Whittaker Chambers, Leonard Read, Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, Ayn Rand, Garet Garrett, Claude Robinson, and Murray Rothbard. The list is long, and could be made longer.
Nash says of East that he would be the first to acknowledge that his seven “were not the only architects of the conservative renascence.” East, says Nash, favored his seven because they “did the most to infuse American conservatism with intellectual substance and coherence—who made it, in short, a formidable movement of ideas.”
One does not cavil with the statement that Willmoore Kendall, Frank Meyer, and the restof the seven had “substance” and “coherence.” But to imply that Henry Hazlitt, for instance, had less to do with infusing the conservative movement with substance and coherence than Kendall or Meyer is simply to create a one-sided impression. Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, a perennial best-seller, is certainly full of substance and reads with a beautiful coherence.
I like to give pioneers their special due. I like to recall that Don Levine’s Plain Talk magazine printed a map of the Russian Gulag long before Solzhenitsyn became a household word. I like to remember the work of William Henry Chamberlin in exposing the man-made famine of 1930 in Stalin’s Russia. He certainly changed minds about Communism. American conservatism has had many roots, some of them religious, some not. Even atheists (Max Eastman and Ayn Rand) have contributed to it.