The Magazine

Right Then

Burnham, Meyer, and the varieties of conservative experience.

Sep 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 02 • By GREGORY L. SCHNEIDER
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James Burnham and the Struggle for the World
A Life
by Daniel Kelly
ISI, 443 pp., $29.95

Principles and Heresies
Frank S. Meyer and the Shaping of the American Conservative Movement
by Kevin J. Smant
ISI, 390 pp., $29.95

BACK IN 1994, in a much-discussed essay in the American Historical Review, Columbia University's Alan Brinkley insisted that historians' preference for liberal and progressive interpretations had caused them to neglect the phenomenon of American conservatism. In the years since, several important books have studied the political success of conservatism. But few have taken up the ideas and personalities that shaped the movement.

Daniel Kelly's "James Burnham and the Struggle for the World" and Kevin J. Smant's "Principles and Heresies: Frank S. Meyer and the Shaping of the American Conservative Movement" begin to fill the gap. Both are fine biographies of crucial figures in American conservatism after World War II. Both combine biographical and intellectual history to make important contributions to our historical understanding.

But beyond the historical interest, the question about what we should learn from these books remains unanswered. Are either of their central figures important anymore for understanding contemporary American conservatism? Do James Burnham and Frank Meyer still have anything to tell us?

Both Burnham and Meyer began as Marxists, with Meyer the more dedicated Communist and Burnham, a professor of philosophy at New York University, the more sophisticated intellectual. Both became disenchanted with communism in the 1940s. Burnham left Communist sectarian politics to write his influential "The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening in the World" in 1941. Meyer, troubled by his growing doubt of communism's efficacy, left the party at the end of World War II.

Burnham quickly became an architect of the Committee for Cultural Freedom, a CIA-funded organization of anti-Communist intellectuals, and wrote about the "struggle for the world" that constituted the Cold War. Meyer spent his time out of the public eye, voraciously devouring works on classical liberal thought, philosophy, and history. He contributed to the libertarian Freeman in the early 1950s and became book-review editor of the conservative American Mercury. In 1955, both men became affiliated with William F. Buckley's National Review, with Burnham acting as Buckley's intellectual mentor and Meyer, within a year of the new magazine's appearance, taking over as the books editor. Meyer died of cancer in 1971, and Burnham suffered a stroke in 1978 that ended his public career nine years before his death in 1987.

Burnham's three books on communism--"The Struggle for the World" (1947), "The Coming Defeat of Communism" (1953), and "Containment or Liberation?" (1953)--articulated a globalist conservative anti-communism, but his most famous book is probably the 1964 "Suicide of the West," his last original work. In "James Burnham and the Struggle for the World," Kelly argues convincingly that what unified all of Burnham's work was an Augustinian skepticism and a fear of the "Caesarism" endemic in the growth of the managerial state and the rise of executive power. His recognition of the totalitarian nature of communism, combined with his skepticism about liberalism's ability to deal with the threat, fed his growing pessimism and belief that the West had failed.

THROUGHOUT the late 1950s and early 1960s, Meyer wrestled with the diverse and contradictory strands of conservative thought, and his real contribution to conservatism was his success at uniting for practical ends the feuding factions of the Right. Traditionalists, such as Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver, emphasized social order and prescriptive tradition as necessary ingredients of a virtuous society, while individualists and classical liberals, such as F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, defended the individual person and freedom as ends in themselves. Meyer was more sympathetic to the latter view. He attacked Kirk's "The Conservative Mind" in the July 1955 Freeman as "another guise for the collectivist spirit of the age." So too, "In Defense of Freedom," Meyer's 1962 book, prefers the classical liberal position of individual freedom to the conservatism of Russell Kirk.

But, as Smant argues in "Principles and Heresies," Meyer also recognized the positions shared by libertarians and social conservatives--as shown by the conservatism beginning to sweep across college campuses in the early 1960s.

Meyer always acted as a mentor to young people, often talking with them late into the night, and was much loved as a speaker on campuses and among the leaders of Young Americans for Freedom. Meyer's "fusion" of traditionalism and libertarianism allowed conservatives to put aside disputes and get on with the necessary work of constructing a political movement.