Shortly after the Last election, William F. Buckley, Jr., in his syndicated newspaper column, urged his fellow “conservatives” to “consider the fate of the Socialist party in American elections between 1900 and 1932. . . . Notwithstanding [defeat after defeat, the party] was deeply influential in American politics.” Buckley believes—as every proper ideologue must, especially one who isn't getting much response from the masses—that it is far more important to shape history than to win elections. As he sees it, or at least as he sees fit to argue it, socialism won in 1932 despite the fact that the Socialist candidate got less than a million votes. Thirty-two years of propaganda and agitation had paid off. Thus, if Buckley and his men keep at it, Goldwaterism may triumph in 1996 or thereabouts—considerably sooner, perhaps, since Goldwater got twenty-seven million votes last year.
There are some valid and intriguing analogies between Right and Left in American politics, but Buckley's isn't one of them. It wouldn't work even if it rested on acceptable history, which it does not. The notion that the Socialist party in the United States was succeeding while it failed has now and then been advanced by Norman Thomas himself—more, one likes to think, in playfulness and irony than in political conceit. The argument is that since the Socialists were for it all along, the establishment of the Social Security System in 1935 could be counted a victory for the party. And so with other New Deal agencies. As history and as logic, this is nonsense. The American welfare state may owe some debts to the British Labour party and the Fabian economists, but it owes nothing at all to the American Socialist party. In terms of policy and institutions, it is impossible to think of any important way in which this country would be different today if there had never been a Socialist party. And, indeed, one is almost compelled to argue that there never was a Socialist party. We have had a few socialists of some note and interest, but they never did get around to building a real political party. What they did contribute—and this was important—was some intelligent and dedicated organizers to other parties and movements. Eugene Victor Debs, Morris Hillquit, Norman Thomas, and a few others were splendid teachers and exemplars of political virtue, and some of their best students made large contributions of talent to the New Deal, the CIO, and the civil-rights movement. The Communists, of course, ran a similar school, and some of its graduates have also been influential.
But Buckley's analogy breaks down on other grounds entirely. It is a fact that some ideas contained within the socialist philosophy gained wide acceptance over the last half-century and have been given institutional form. If there had been a strong Socialist party, the process might have been speeded up a bit.1 But Goldwaterism and Buckley conservatism simply do not contain any ideas that can be given institutional form. Where socialism was, and is, a coherent social philosophy, Goldwaterism, as Karl E. Meyer has said, “is a mood, not an ideology.” Socialism addressed itself to real problems and felt human needs, and its solutions were, for the most part, feasible ones. Goldwaterism begins by denying the existence of most of these problems and could prevail only by persuading majorities of the non-existence of all wrongs and of all grievances except those of the most favored and least numerous of minorities. It is axiomatic that only those movements succeed that offer, however demagogically, hope and amelioration. Even in its coarsest, most brutalized forms, socialism has done this—as, for that matter, have most species of fascism. The bleak message borne by Goldwater and Buckley is that politics can offer nothing in the way of amelioration. Socialism's view of the human condition, or part of it, has always been basically sound—as has been, if one puts aside “dialectical materialism” and associated idiocies, its general view of history. In The Conscience of a Conservative, Goldwater—probably spoken for by Buckley's brother-in-law and collaborator, Brent Bozell, whom Goldwater called “the guiding hand” on the book—said that he refuses to consider human beings “as part of a general collectivity.” He is similarly disdainful of time itself. “The principles on which the Conservative political position is based,” according to Goldwater, “have been established by a process that has nothing to do with the social, economic, and political landscape that changes from decade to decade and from century to century.” What on earth can “process” mean in such a verbal setting? Where socialism, as one can nowadays see, has generally run more with than against the grain of history, this conservatism, with its pre-industrial domestic policies and its pre-nuclear foreign policies, not only runs against the grain of history but denies history's relevance to itself.
I make bold with these assertions because, after spending a good part of the last few years observing the events that were to lead to the smash-up of Goldwaterism as a political movement in the 1960's, I have found myself moved to take one more look at the case presented by the intellectuals who supported and to a large degree built and managed the movement. In a way, this has been an exercise in sentiment. In the line of duty, I had become a Goldwaterologist, and I had come—especially as I noted the increasing skill with which the movement's strategists were contriving to achieve defeat—to find the work congenial. It is not very often, after all, that a political writer finds a man capable of such nifties as, on the subject of thermonuclear war, “If possible, overt hostilities should be avoided,” or, on higher education, “Where fraternities are not allowed, Communism flourishes.” Last November, the electorate not only denied this engaging man the Presidency, but in what I found myself coming to regard as excessive righteousness, crushed him and just about every one of his followers. With Goldwater gone and my career as a Goldwaterologist about at an end, the literature of Goldwaterism had some of the appeal of old snapshots and college annuals.
But I had, I felt, another motive—one of a contrary tendency and, or so at least I told myself, intellectually more defensible. The election had finished the Goldwater school of political reaction. It was by no means certain, though, that it had finished the Buckley school, which was with us before Goldwater, which played a large part in creating Goldwater, and which has had a considerable and lamentable impact on political discourse in this country for roughly a decade and a half. These zealots have the sense of beleaguerment that is common to their kind, and a good deal of their time has been spent complaining that their counsel is not only unheeded but unheard, that they are excluded from discourse, that they are denied access to the main avenues of communication. In point of fact, they have been heard far more than seems warranted by the interests they represent or the pertinence of what they have to say. Throughout the 50's and early 60's, a good many influential Americans have seemed to believe that the way to explore questions of public policy was to arrange a confrontation between some exponent of what the National Review calls “the Liberal line” and some literate spokesman for Buckley-Goldwater reaction. In fact, this proved a way not to encourage intelligent controversy but to avoid it, for to stage an exchange of opinions between, say, Buckley and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was to stage not an argument over available choices and alternatives but a noisy wrangle over questions that had long since been answered by history. It was to discuss, not what our relationship with the Soviet Union ought to be, but whether it was right to have any relationship at all. It was to discuss, not the priorities, limitations, and modes of government policy in such fields as civil rights and welfare, but whether the government ought to have any sort of policy. One question posed—in my mind, anyway—by the repudiation of Goldwater was whether we could shake, once and for all, the notion that there was an important political dialogue taking place in this country between, on the one hand, the writers of the National Review school, and, on the other, just about everyone else.
At any rate, I set out to re-examine the case of the rightist intellectuals—or, to get my starting bias on the record, to see if I was as right as I thought I was in believing that there really wasn't any “case” and never had been one. The inquiry met with revealing difficulties. Despite all the thrashing about they have done in recent years, few of these people have tried their hand at sustained critiques of the policies they oppose or at the kind of programmatic statements that those whom they regard as their antagonists—for example, Schlesinger, J. K. Galbraith, and W. W. Rostow—have been writing for their side over the years. Buckley has written one book attacking Yale University, one celebrating the achievements of the late Senator McCarthy, and a great deal of belligerent journalism, a representative batch of which is to be found in a 1963 book, Rumbles Left and Right, a compilation whose title perfectly catches the spirit of most of his undertakings. To say that Buckley has not fulfilled what one would assume to be his responsibility as a controversialist is not to say that he has been evasive. There is both critique and program in the following passage from Rumbles:
What would Goldwater do if he were President today? What, specifically, would [he] have the government do? Here are his most “ultra” domestic proposals. He would: 1) Get the government out of agriculture and welfare—altogether. 2) Apply anti-monopoly legislation against the big labor unions. 3) Abolish the progressive income tax. In foreign affairs, he would: 1) Eliminate foreign aid except to nations actively prepared to assist in the anti-Communist enterprise. 2) Eliminate economic and cultural exchange programs, which he views as counterfeit considering the actual relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States. 3) Continue nuclear testing. And 4) Be prepared to undertake military programs against vulnerable Communist regimes in the cause of pressing for victory over the Soviet Union. . . . Goldwater means it. If he had his way, the farmer's checks would stop coming in, the labor union leader would face a law telling him he couldn't strike an entire industry, the businessman wouldn't get his cozy little tariff [?], the apartment dweller wouldn't have his rent frozen, the unemployed wouldn't get a federal check, nor the teacher federal money, nor the Little Rock Negroes their paratroops.
But this is sloganeering, not analysis, not even polemic, and it was the sort of thing that made life miserable for Goldwater in 1964 and led him, in the middle of his campaign, to get out yet another book—it was called Where I Stand2—explaining that this was not at all, or at least not quite, the sort of President he proposed to be. (“I favor a sound Social Security program, and I want to see it strengthened. . . . I believe the United States should make the fullest possible use of its membership in the U.N.”) Naturally, this, too, was sloganeering.
To the best of my knowledge, there have been only two half-way serious attempts by the rightist intellectuals to go beyond Buckleyan rumbles and deal critically and relevantly with public policy. One of them—The Conservative Papers, a collection of fourteen theses originally prepared for the edification of a group of right-wing Congressmen and published in book form (by Anchor-Doubleday)3 last year—has its impressive moments. But although the leader of the Congressional study group was Melvin Laird of Wisconsin, who presided over the drafting of the Goldwater platform last year, and the editors were Ralph de Toledano, a National Review regular, and Karl Hess, Gold-water's principal speech writer, most of the pieces are by people—academics in the main—who are not very closely associated with Goldwater or with the Buckley school. “The Conservative Papers,” Representative Laird explains in his introduction, “are not necessarily papers by conservatives.” This seems odd and not quite accurate—unless things have gone so far that from now on “conservative” can only be applied to thoroughgoing reactionaries. What the Congressman evidently means is that people who hold this view of conservatism may fail to find it in each of these papers. There is, for example, a spirited and closely reasoned attack on the Roger Baldwin school of civil libertarian-ism by Harry V. Jaffa, a professor of political science. It could have been written by Sidney Hook—and, come to think of it, often has been. Henry A. Kissinger ably defends the Kissinger line on foreign policy. Kissinger used to work for John Kennedy, and part of his contribution appeared in the Reporter. In these papers, and in one or two others, there is little that is specifically “conservative.” For the rest, there is some rhetoric about liberating Eastern Europe, some about holding Asia for the Free World, and a warning by a Stanford economist that “the development of the underdeveloped countries may not on balance be in the interest of the United States.” On domestic policy, there is Raymond Saulnier, a former economic adviser to Dwight Eisenhower, asking “Do Deficits Matter?” and telling us that they do. And Milton Friedman, Goldwater's main economic consultant, asking “Can a Controlled Economy Work?” His answer is yes, but not as well as a “free” economy would work.4
The contributors to The Conservative Papers do attempt to come to grips with ideas, and so, in a way, did Russell Kirk in A Program for Conservatives, published a decade earlier. One would suppose there would be several books bearing similar titles, but his is the only one I know of. It was written before Goldwater and the Buckley group, of which Kirk is an old and venerated member, had found each other. (Explaining the origins of this union, William Rusher, the publisher of National Review, has said it was “like the meeting of the Blue and White Nile.”) But as Goldwater reminds us, the passage of time means nothing out on the far right wing, and Kirk's book, which appeared in 1954, stands up about as well today as it did then, which is saying almost nothing. At the outset, Kirk, whose prose is a bit like that of the late Alexander Woollcott and who also resembles Woollcott in being a kind of combination grouch and pixie, assures us that he doesn't think he is quite the man for the job but is doing it anyway because no one else has tried: “[In] this little book, I venture into the dark and bloody ground of political policy, naked unto mine enemies, and I do this . . . because the men of affairs who ought to be applying the tenets of philosophy to the affairs of nations are doing nothing of the sort.” Chapter by chapter, he does the best he can with “The Problem of Power,” and so on, and in the end he has constructed not a program but one more argument to the effect that there is no need for any program other than to get rid of all existing programs. On every page, he offers some bit of evidence of the nakedness of which he spoke on the first page—e.g., “Without presuming to venture further into economic speculation, we ought to remind ourselves that the experience of the first half of this century indicates that augmented dollar-income tends to be offset by price increase.”
A program for Conservatives was a sequel to Kirk's The Conservative Mind, which is a kind of anthology of the work of writers, mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries, whom Kirk admires. The selections are interspersed with Kirk's observations that this, by George, is the kind of thinking there ought to be more of nowadays. Upon reading it, in 1954, the late Whittaker Chambers, who despised the liberals as much as Buckley did, but could not bring himself to a full identification with Buckley's position, wrote to his friend Duncan Norton-Taylor: “We must give Russell Kirk an A for effort in The Conservative Mind. But looked at coldly—what confusion is brewed by slamming into one pot John Adams, John Randolph, John Calhoun, James Russell Lowell, Henry Adams and George Santayana. [For some reason, Chambers omitted Edmund Burke and other Englishmen and Europeans in Kirk's pantheon.] Informed the book is; worthy it is—a worthy master's thesis. . . . But if you were a marine in a landing boat, would you wade up the sea-beach at Tarawa for that conservative position? And neither would I!”
Chambers's letter appears in a recent posthumous collection of odds and ends called Cold Friday 5 edited by the friend to whom the letter was addressed. It has quite a few moving things—particularly a reminiscence of Columbia College in the early 20's—and a good many reminders of the humorlessness of the man and of his pathetic inability to deal with ideas as he wished to be able to. But he had enough feeling for politics and for history to know that what the friends of his later years were calling a “conservative position” not only was not conservative but was not even a position. “There is in [American] history,” he wrote Buckley, “not one single touch of conservatism. How could it be otherwise? Conservatism is alien to the very nature of capitalism. . . . We are living in one of [Capitalism's] periods of breathless acceleration of change. Science has been, from the beginning, the ideological weapon of capitalism . . . and is now asserting . . . an exclusive dominance.” This is wanting in lucidity and qualifiers, but the general sense is right. Chambers comes even closer to the truth in a letter to Willi Schlamm, a fellow ex-Communist who had also teamed up with Buckley: “History tells us that the rock-core of the conservative position, or any fragment of it, can be held realistically only if conservatism will accommodate itself to the needs and hopes of the masses—needs and hopes, which like the masses themselves, are the product of machines. . . . A conservatism that cannot face the facts of the machine and mass production, and its consequences in government and politics is foredoomed to futility and petulance.”
Futility and petulance—this seems exactly what the Buckleyites were reduced to in their boom years of 1963 and 1964. From A Program for Conservatives, Kirk, becoming more Woollcottian all the time, moved on to such works as The Surly, Sullen Bell, Old House of Fear (a mystery novel) and, in 1963, Confessions of A Bohemian Tory, a work of pure futility, which contains admiring reports on the Spanish infanta, Maria Teresa, Professor Frederick Wilhelmsen—Hillaire Belloc's “chief American disciple” and the author of Hillaire Belloc: No Alienated Man—Otto Von Habsburg, and Barry Goldwater (“So far as any man is competent to contend against our sea of problems, Mr. Gold-water is endowed with the sort of brain that is required for the modern presidency.”) Such illuminations, he advises us, are the product of “[My] gothic mind, medieval in temper and structure. . . . I had told myself, ever since I had begun to think about such matters, that I admired the intellect of the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries; and now I came to realize that this was false. . . . I did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what I sought was variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful. I despised sophisters and calculators; I was groping for faith, honor, and prescriptive loyalties. I would have given any number of neo-classical pediments for one battered gargoyle.” Thus National Review's featured columnist and authority on “the modern Presidency.”
If kirk is bonded futility, James Burnham is a forced and bogus petulance. The big “conservative” book of 1964 was Burnham's Suicide of the West,6 and he is by far the most intelligent and articulate of the Buckleyites. Indeed, alongside him, Buckley is a naif. Why Burnham chooses to devote himself to outrages against common sense I cannot pretend to understand, but the fact is that he does so—with analytical brilliance when that serves his purpose, with simple distortion when that will advance the argument. It is a difficult argument to advance. It is Burnham's thesis that a rampant liberalism in the United States and Western Europe is forcing its death wishes and self-hatred on “Western civilization.” He does not quibble over whether his West is “declining,” “decaying,” “losing,” or “breaking up.” He says that one fact alone is to the point: “Western civilization has been contracting.” He demonstrates this by counting the square miles over which Western flags (British, French, Belgian, Dutch, and so on) no longer fly and the millions of souls who no longer have or can express allegiance to Western nations, or to Western ideals as they are understood by Burnham. A few more square miles of “contraction” will do us all in. For this, “liberalism” is entirely to blame,7 because it “permits Western civilization to be reconciled to dissolution; and this function its formulas will enable it to serve right through to the very end, if matters turn out that way.” He says he is just about persuaded they will turn out that way.
There are few ways of looking at life in society so outlandish or so poorly focused on reality that they do not afford occasional insights of some interest and value. In any prevailing set of orthodoxies—in any “consensus”—there is bound to be much that is absurd, pretentious, and the product of merely expediential and rationalizing logic. Flaws are to be found by almost anyone willing to look for them and equipped with critical tools of just about any kind. Some approaches yield more than others, but there are few that yield nothing. And if the aim is to score direct hits, it helps to stand a fair distance back from the target so that one risks no danger of being hurt by one's own fire. The more a man considers himself free to regard society as a target, the more he will shoot and the better his chances of getting an impressive score. Buckley, Burnham, and the rest have now and then come upon truths of which we have been unaware or to which we have been indifferent. Buckley, for example, is the only writer I know of who has taken a really hard look at the strange career of Edward Bennett Williams, the celebrated Washington lawyer who has a Midas touch for fighting “Civil Liberties” angles for the defense of anyone from Joe McCarthy to Frank Costello, from Adam Clayton Powell to Bernard Goldfine. Burnham's assaults on the rhetoric of liberalism can be amusing and effective. But the yield of their approach has been, in both relative and absolute terms, extraordinarily low. The whole school has produced less in the way of interesting analysis than has come, for example, from the mind of one man like Paul Goodman, whose outlook on American society may seem to some of us just about as dizzy as theirs. Over the years Goodman has had true and important things to say about American values and about American institutions of many kinds. From the rightist intellectuals we have had, so far as I am able to tell, almost nothing but insults to the intelligence.
1 Or slowed down. Socialism got a bad name early, and whenever it has been possible to identify an idea with it, the effect has been damaging. “Socialized medicine” is an example. Practically everyone is against it, and practically everyone is for “health insurance.” A more powerful Socialist party might simply have bred increased resistance to anything it endorsed.
2 McGraw-Hill, 127 pp., $2.95.
3 Paperback, 280 pp., $1.45.
4 Friedman, an economics professor of the University of Chicago, seems to be highly respected in the profession, and I am surely in no position to question his qualifications. Nevertheless, I cannot help wondering about a man who can make a statement such as the following one from Capitalism and Freedom: “Few trends could so undermine the very foundations of our free society as acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money as possible.”
5 Random House, 327 pp., $5.95.
6 John Day, 320 pp., $4.95.
7 Not only for this but for everything else. He gets off on Senator McCarthy and says McCarthy was never his beau ideal of a politician. But that was because “McCarthy was in large part a liberal creation, as his liberal and suitably anti-McCarthy biographer, Richard Rovere, has concluded.” I never concluded anything of the sort. There is not a sentence in my Senator Joe McCarthy that will support this absurd assertion.