The Magazine

Alive and Well

A historian of modern conservatism ponders the future.

Dec 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 15 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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The first renaissance, sparked by the 1944 publication of Friedrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, "consisted of libertarians and classical liberals, resisting the threat of the ever-expanding State to individual liberty, free market capitalism, and the individual initiative in the economic realm." It was carried forward by, among others, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, the Chicago school led by Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker, and the supply-side theorists of the 1980s.

The second renaissance was that of the "new conservatism" or "traditionalism." Alarmed by secularization and the spread of mass industrialized society, these thinkers "urged a return to traditional religious and ethical absolutes and a rejection of the moral relativism that had allegedly corroded Western values and produced an intolerable vacuum filled by demonic ideologies." Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences (1948) and Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind (1953) serve as foundational texts. Although neither is properly classified among the traditionalists, Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin both provided intellectual support for the new conservatives by producing ground-breaking scholarship that exposed weaknesses and blind spots inhering in modern philosophy and discovered reservoirs of wisdom in ancient and medieval thought.

The third conservative renaissance was led by anti-Communists, many of whom were ex-Communists and ex-Trotskyists. They "brought to the postwar American right a profound conviction that America and the West were engaged in a titanic struggle with an implacable adversary-communism-which sought nothing less than the conquest of the world." The towering figure among them was Chambers, whose testimony was crucial to the conviction for perjury of Alger Hiss, a distinguished member of the liberal establishment and, as the opening of the Soviet Union's archives indisputably established, a Soviet spy. Chambers's masterpiece memoir, Witness, examines not only the momentous military confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, but the decisive contest over man's spiritual life contained in the contest between liberal democracy and communism.

Nash enlivens his account with portraits of an intriguing cast of relatively forgotten journalists and scholars who made substantial contributions to the post-1945 conservative renaissance. These include John Chamberlain, a daily book reviewer in the 1930s for the New York Times who, 20 years later, became National Review's lead book reviewer; the brilliant and iconoclastic political theorist Willmoore Kendall;
historian Forrest McDonald, a pioneer in the recovery of the Founders' intellectual outlook and political achievement; E. Victor Milione, whose leadership at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute over the course of several decades enabled it to become a home to both libertarians and traditionalists; social scientist Ernest van den Haag, who developed a conservatism that was empirical and skeptical, "grounded not in religious faith but upon a recognition of the limits of reason in the pursuit of social betterment"; and the political scientist Francis Graham Wilson,
author in the early 1950s of The Case for Conservatism, which took issue with the already well-established consensus among university professors and throughout the elite that New Deal liberalism was self-sufficient and the only intellectually respectable alternative to communism.

At the same time, Nash makes emphatically clear that no one contributed more to the conservative renaissance than William F. Buckley Jr. Columnist, author of dozens of books of fiction and nonfiction, long-running TV talk show host, bon vivant and, most influentially, founder in 1955 of National Review, the flagship organ of modern American conservatism and editor in chief from its inception until 1990, Buckley robustly united in his own larger-than-life personality modern conservatism's free market, traditionalist, and anti-Communist strands. And critically, as Nash recounts, Buckley provided at the office, and in the pages, of National Review a welcoming home to representatives of conservatism's disputatious factions. Buckley was able to fuse them not only through the force of his extraordinary gifts but because, at bottom, they shared the conviction that 20th-century liberalism generated urgent threats to freedom at home, and blinded its proponents to grave threats to freedom abroad.