The conservative capture of anti-relativist discourse in postwar America.
Because this analysis is made difficult by the imprecision of the term "conservative," distinguishing between the cultural and political conservatism of these years is helpful. Cultural conservatives of the time wished to retain a premodern philosophical stance while political conservatives opposed Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and wished to return to a premodern laissez faire political economy. For example, well-known intellectuals such as Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, and various New Humanists were widely considered conservative, yet their conservatism was almost wholly confined to the cultural sphere, as they rarely engaged issues of public policy. (2) Rather, such figures sought to conserve the premodern Platonic dualism they felt was under attack by positivism, pragmatism, and other schools they considered "monist" and "relativist." These prewar cultural conservatives sought to defend the duality of human nature against Dewey's philosophical naturalism, but did not tie their philosophical position to a particular political stance. Their desire to conserve premodern philosophical foundationalism did not naturally translate into a desire to conserve premodern laissez faire politics.
At the same time, political conservatism was largely unconcerned with the philosophical concerns of cultural conservatives. It is common to link philosophical foundationalism with right-wing politics in the current era and assume that those who believe in eternal verities are naturally political conservatives, but this has not always been the case--the modern joining of anti-statism and philosophical foundationalism began to develop in the mid-to-late 1940s and early 1950s. (3) We tend to assume that conservatism has always existed in its current form, but this reflects our tendency to project our present political paradigms onto the past and thus overlook the protean nature of ideologies and their transformations.
If anything, the prewar conservative political tradition had tended more in the direction of philosophical fallibilism than metaphysical realism. The founder of modern conservatism--Edmund Burke. himself--relied on tradition and longstanding institutions precisely because of his distrust of the ability of human reason to apprehend the kind of eternal truths upon which the French revolutionaries based their political program. Hence, many political conservatives, following in the tradition of Burke, demanded a limitation of state growth because of a focus on epistemological uncertainty.
Such prewar proponents of laissez-faire as Friedrich Hayek, H.L. Mencken, Max Eastman, and Ludwig Von Mises adhered to philosophical views similar to Dewey's. For Dewey, knowledge did not imply the possession of timeless principles; rather, knowledge was contingent, fallible, and tied to problem solving-conceived broadly as the practice of inquiry to resolve problems confronted in any domain, whether scientific, religious, or aesthetic. Likewise, Mencken, a self-proclaimed Nietzschean, scoffed at the idea of eternal truths while the philosophy of the Austrian school economists (Hayek and Mises), with its emphasis on epistemological contingency and the importance of testing ideas by their practical consequences (seen most clearly in Mises's "praxiology"), had much in common with Dewey's instrumentalism. Journalist Walter Lippmann similarly based his 1937 critique of the New Deal on the inevitable limits to knowledge that prevented effective economic planning. (4) The most notable advocate of laissez-faire in the early twentieth century, Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner, favored limited government for reasons of economic expediency, but, under the influence of Darwinian biology, explicitly rejected the natural law tradition promoted by cultural conservatives. Furthermore, two of the major European theorists of epistemological fallibilism of the time--Karl Popper and Michael Oakeshott were led to conservative political positions by their beliefs in the limitations of human knowledge. One of the earliest and most prominent critics of the New Deal, philosopher Max Eastman, was also a committed Deweyite, who defended his instrumentalist mentor in both his early radical days and later anti-statist phase. (5)
Although certain figures, such as conservative theologian J. Gresham Machen and novelist Ayn Rand, simultaneously embraced metaphysical realism as well as political anti-statism, their atypical stance only serves to underscore the magnitude of the transformation conservatism underwent at mid-century. (6) Around 1945, the cultural and political brands of conservatism began to converge, as conservative intellectual leaders began tying their anti-statist views to a philosophical position that had previously been largely independent of politics. (7) This gave conservative political ideas wider appeal, but also created a contradiction within conservative thought: in claiming absolute truth, conservatives often rejected the free exchange of ideas as an appropriate method, leading them to support government suppression of certain "wrong" viewpoints and censorship of disreputable ideas even as they maintained their longstanding opposition to any state interference in private affairs that would infringe on individual liberty. (8)
To mask this contradiction, conservatives couched their views in oppositional terms. Finding it easier to attack relativism than to defend an alternative position, many on the Right spent their energies pointing out liberal shortcomings. In particular, they assailed the doyen of pragmatists--John Dewey--as exemplar of the liberal mentality. Political conservatism aimed for a higher intellectual cachet through spokespersons like William F. Buckley Jr., Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, and Whittaker Chambers, but they resorted to superficial attacks on liberals as amoral relativists whose ideas were responsible for genocide and war. Buckley believed that the liberal concern with method showed a lack of attention to the ends to which that method should be put. They promoted a philosophical belief in the "ephemerality" of truth. (9) The relativism implicit in liberal doctrine, added Kirk, made it a continuation of Jacobinism and other destructive persuasions. (10) Although conservatives at times attempted to define their movement in positive terms using the language of universal truth, they lapsed into default denunciations of liberal relativism and largely failed in this pursuit. They did, however, succeed in attracting many to their political movement--Americans of various backgrounds fled the "relativism" associated with political liberalism for what they perceived as the more truth-friendly political conservatism. (11)
As always, William F. Buckley Jr., the central figure of the postwar Right, led the charge to define conservatism in terms of "enduring truths." In his most notable attempt to sum up the meaning of conservatism, Buckley would claim that "Professor [Richard] Weaver's definition of conservatism as 'a paradigm of essences towards which the phenomenology of the world is in continuing approximation'," was "as noble and ingenious an effort" as any he had ever seen. (12) Liberals, on the other hand, were to Buckley
less anchored than the conservative in what we like to think of as "central and fixed" ideas having to do with liberty, order, and transcendence. The liberal fancies himself more empirical and less tied down to orthodoxy.
To Buckley and other political conservatives, those who rejected timeless truths were "relativists," and relativism was now another evil (like state power) that conservatives opposed. (13)
Since this connecting of conservative culture with conservative politics only began to solidify in the years surrounding and following World War II, the realism vs. relativism debate was one that liberals had often argued amongst themselves in earlier years. University of Chicago philosopher Mortimer Adler, who shared Dewey's vision of economic and political democracy, also denounced Dewey's pragmatism as politically dangerous. (14) The relativism of intellectuals, said Adler, had corrupted modern culture by rejecting the metaphysical truths that told humans what ends to pursue and bow they should order society. Against this "cultural disease," Adler called for a re-enthronement of metaphysics "as the supreme subject matter in the domain of natural knowledge." Anticipating Buckley, Adler argued that the American intellectual obsession with method posed a more serious threat to democracy than did the "nihilism of Hitler." Only a return to the premodern philosophy that placed metaphysics above science could prevent further cultural corruptions. (15) He was joined in his denunciation of cultural relativism by other politically liberal neo-Thomists, such as University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins and philosopher Jacques Maritain. (16)
Adler and Hutchins unquestionably shared the liberal goals of the New Dealers, but they hesitated to use the term "liberal" to describe themselves, because their cultural outlook differed so dramatically from Dewey's (whom they considered the leading cultural liberal). Adler, for instance; attacked "liberals" for their relativism in cultural matters, even as he shared their political goals of expanded state intervention to correct economic ills. Likewise, Hutchins was often attacked as a "conservative" in education, since he rejected Dewey's experience-centred method for a more content-based Great Books approach; however, in political matters he adhered to the liberal consensus, even becoming infamous in conservative circles for his dramatic assertion that, under Senator McCarthy's "reign of terror," it had become dangerous to contribute money to Harvard University and that university professors were "silenced by the general atmosphere of repression." (17) Buckley, even though he later considered Hutchins an ally in their common views on education, consistently attacked him as a member of the "liberal establishment" in political matters. (18) Like Adler and Hutchins, Maritain also hoped for further economic reforms and expanded conceptions of democracy, but believed that such political action required the "spiritual energies" of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition and its natural law teachings. (19)
Thus, the prewar debate over relativism was largely an internecine battle among political liberals. Even while sharing political goals, liberals differed as to whether or not moral absolutes were necessary for their attainment. Adler, Hutchins, and Maritain believed that the natural laws of the Thomistic tradition gave the moral certainty necessary for expanded democracy, while Dewey believed that this same goal was best served through an instrumentalist conception of the common good. In this sense, the major players involved in the prewar debate over the validity of timeless truth were political liberals in good standing. Unlike the later years, cultural and political conservatism were, at this time, distinct from one another.
The liberal criticism of relativism in the prewar years gave way to conservative criticism after the war. Those on the Right began to charge liberals with "relativism" even as they continued their charges of "collectivism," "socialism," and "statism." (20) A number of important conservative thinkers helped bring about this union of conservative politics and realist epistemology. Among the most prominent was University of Chicago philosopher Richard Weaver, whose book Ideas Have Consequences became a classic of conservative thought. In the early Middle Ages, he maintained, Western humans held metaphysical certainties that gave order and meaning to existence, but, beginning with the nominalism of William of Occam, many began to believe that essences, categories, and ideas had no reality outside of their use in language. (21) Occam's nominalism had led man to reject metaphysics in favor of a purely materialistic view of the world and, in so doing, had paved the way for the modern-era abolition of the metaphysical foundation for morals. With his claim that concepts were mere words with no independent existence--only utilitarian value--Occam paved the way for later positivists as well as pragmatists who recognized no reality outside of the experiential realm. The embrace of nominalism was thus an abandonment of a belief in an independent, transcendental, and objective moral order. (22)
Unfortunately, argued Weaver, the nominalist thinking of Occam had come to saturate modern life fully. The relativist belief that man is the measure of all things was responsible for the atrocities that humanity had witnessed in the previous decade. Indeed, Weaver claimed that he had written Ideas Have Consequences "out of concern for the millions over the earth, in bread lines, in bombed homes, in prison camps, whose sufferings, material and spiritual, are traceable to the kind of pragmatism" that dominated western intellectual life. (23) Once modern humans gave up the idea of transcendent truth, nothing was justified that did not "serve convenience," and there remained no "court of appeal against subversion by pragmatism." (24) The salvation of Western society depended upon the reversal of this trend, and to conservatives fell the task of combating modern relativism by asserting ontological realism. According to Weaver, only by restoring belief in transcendence could western peoples survive the present crisis and avert further catastrophes.
Shortly after the publication of Ideas Have Consequences, Weaver tied his premodern philosophy to the premodern politics of the conservative movement. Connecting his realist philosophy to political concerns about the sanctity of private property, Weaver inspired those on the political Right to find philosophical justification for their anti-statism. Before his death in 1963, Weaver frequently wrote pieces for conservative publications such as National Review and Modern Age, and lectured to conservative gatherings sponsored by. the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists and Young Americans for Freedom.
Like Weaver, German emigre philosopher Leo Strauss became a conservative hero by promoting anti-relativism, even though his writings were concerned exclusively with philosophical questions and said nothing of the limited-government concerns of political conservatives. His attack on "historicism" and other outlooks that denied natural right (put forward by modern philosophers like Locke, Hobbes, and Machiavelli--the fathers of liberalism) energized conservatives against liberal "relativism" as much as Hayek had energized them against liberal "statism." His most important anti-relativist book, Natural Right and History, became a conservative classic, despite the fact that it contained not a word about the political concerns of 1950s conservatives. (25) In later years, disciples of Strauss, such as Allan Bloom, would gain fame and esteem among conservatives, not by engaging political issues, but by continuing their assault on cultural liberalism. (26) Clearly, a shift had occurred on the Right as conservatives now considered universal truth a movement cause as much as limited government.
National Review editor Frank Meyer attempted to cement the centrality of anti-relativism to the Right by assembling a collection of "conservative" writings in a book with the audacious title, What is Conservatism? After presenting a dozen arguments by traditionalists, libertarians, and anti-communists, Meyer summed up with a final essay in which he declared that his book showed that consensus among conservatives was "a great deal more fundamental than the divergence," and that all conservatives found this consensus in a shared belief in "the existence of an objective moral order." (27) In assembling these essays into a movement-defining book, Meyer hoped to show that the conservative tent was a wide one, but ultimately circumscribed by a view of the world that eschewed relativism. (28)
Eliseo Vivas, another philosopher who brought anti-relativism to conservatism, attacked John Dewey more directly than Weaver, Strauss, or Meyer. In The Moral and the Ethical Life, Vivas dedicated almost half of the book to arguing that Dewey's relativism had tragic implications for any society that embraced it. (29) Vivas believed that, to be authoritative, moral values had to have an "ontic" status independent of human life and that, in turn, ontic values were guaranteed by Divinity. "Values are real and antecedent to our discovery of them," bur the "secularistic direction of the Zeitgeist" threatened these values. Earlier in life, Vivas had himself adhered to Deweyan pragmatism, believing that it served to diminish intellectual provincialism and national hubris, but he had later come to believe that pragmatism posed greater problems than it solved. Pragmatism, he said, implied that there were no rational standards with which to judge one action as better than another. Dewey--the quintessential modern nominalist--in promoting these vicious amoral doctrines, was guilty of "monstrous nonsense," for, whether he knew it or not, be "advocated the destruction of all the values that [were] basically constitutive of our civilization." As a former Deweyite himself, Vivas turned against the instrumentalist philosopher with the distinctive vehemence of an apostate and even used the term "crypto-fascist" to describe his quondam mentor. (30) For Vivas, the pragmatist rejection of eternal values allowed nihilistic movements like Nazism to take root. Vivas took these views into the conservative movement where colleagues often turned to him when looking for ammunition against pragmatism. (31)
Dewey, near death when Vivas's book was released, never personally responded to his attack, but his pugnacious disciple Sidney Hook did. (32) Unlike Dewey, Hook avoided the word "absolutist" when referring to those absorbed with "eternal values," bur shared Dewey's belief that the mindset that sought truths beyond the realm of empirical verification was potentially authoritarian. According to Hook, since Vivas saw pragmatism as a set of "anti-human and barbaric" doctrines, his unspoken implication is "that those who profess them should be purged." Although the political persuasion of the "Platonists" may have changed--he was dealing with political conservatives now instead of reformers like Adler--Hook's reply remained the same: doctrinaire thinking gave rise to totalitarian behavior and the dogmatism implicit in Vivas' metaphysical certainty would lead inevitably to authoritarian politics. (33)
Although his critics blamed his pragmatic naturalism for social problems, Dewey believed that these same problems were the product of anti-naturalistic thinking. All "dogmatic absolutists," he said, had to ask themselves who was to decide the absolutes to which humans would adhere. Supernaturalists turned to the authority of an omniscient God. (34) The person in possession of absolute truth from such an authority would naturally attempt to impose that truth on others, thus contravening the democracy, openness, and pluralism upon which social advance depended. (35) Weaver, Strauss, Meyer, and Vivas had indeed denounced relativism, but had not provided a means of deciding which infallible truths were to replace Dewey's naturalist experimentalism.
Max Eastman, a stalwart of political conservatism in the 1940s and 50s, agreed with his old mentor, Dewey, and left the conservative movement because of its increasingly metaphysical character. "To advocate freedom, and then lay down the law as to how men 'should' use it," Eastman wrote in his final article for National Review, "is a contradiction in terms." (36) Eastman believed that his own theory of pragmatism, on the other hand, allowed human liberty to flourish 'since it denied permanent, final, and absolute ends, and permitted humans to choose their own mode of self-realization.
As conservative leaders such as Meyer, Kirk, and Buckley began asserting metaphysical absolutism more vigorously, Eastman felt he now had to answer the question "am I conservative?" with an emphatic "No" (or, at least not in the form it had recently taken). As a committed pragmatist, Eastman could not, in good conscience, remain in a movement that had recently made anti-relativism a defining characteristic. "There are too many things in [National Review]," he wrote to Buckley, "that directly attack or casually side-swipe my most earnest passions and convictions." While Eastman confessed that he had once been able to "collaborate formally" with the magazine because of his political goals, he now had to withdraw because, in recent years, the underlying philosophy of religious absolutism had become more assertive. Conservatism had become intertwined with a belief in an independent moral order that he did not believe existed. (37)
Although be lamented Eastman's departure from the movement, Buckley did not stint in setting up John Dewey as the arch-villain who best represented the pernicious trends towards "atheistic relativism" in academe and society at large. "The teachings of John Dewey and his predecessors have born fruit," be said, and all realms of society were contaminated with "the absolute that there are no absolutes, no intrinsic rights, no ultimate truths." (38) Buckley also consciously allied himself with previous anti-relativists, in spite of his disagreement with their politics, declaring that America needed more intellectuals like Jacques Maritain to combat those like John Dewey, for Dewey's world was one in which humans would have no ground on which to prefer one moral choice to another. Like Vivas and Weaver, Buckley saw Dewey's relativism as the source of totalitarianism and "a monument to the ravages of the first 50 years of this century." (39)
But Buckley's criticisms revealed more about his own lack of familiarity with Dewey's writings than the actual implications of pragmatism. While Buckley saw pragmatism as an "anything goes" philosophy that provided no moral insight, in actuality, moral concerns were at the center of Dewey's entire project. Indeed, one can read his whole corpus of writings as an attempt to put morals on a scientific ground and promote a naturalist ethics for broad social application. Dewey's critics assumed that science could never provide moral knowledge, but Dewey disagreed and sought to base social life on experimentalism. The scientific method, he argued, guided the community in evaluating the most worthy solutions to best serve tangible human purposes. Values, said Dewey, only exist in the context of human concern and, since one could test the value of an ethical proposition experimentally by observing its success in fulfilling human desires, ethics could be as scientific as any other field. While Dewey's critics charged that his theories "led inevitably to justifying government by brute force and to denying all those rights and freedoms which we term inalienable," Dewey asserted that his naturalism "finds the values in question, the worth and dignity of men and women, founded in human nature itself, in the connections, actual and potential, of human beings with one another in their natural social relationships." (40)
In ignoring Dewey's considerable attention to ethics, critics had erred in confusing his dismissal of absolute morals with a dismissal of morality itself While these critics demanded that morals have an independent "ontic" status, Dewey and Hook maintained that all values existed in the context of the experience of sentient organisms. To Dewey, the "absolutist" need for morals to be "eternal and immutable" was an unjustified and "childish" obsession. (41) Why, Dewey asked, should morals be timeless, unchangeable, and universally applicable in order to be valid? By making a metaphysical case for what "ought to be,'" absolutists had failed to realize that "ought" is dependent on actual conditions the needs of the situation and the actual problems that need solving. Since "timeless absolutes" could have no bearing on the needs of the situation at hand, humans had to settle value conflicts as they actually arose rather than ascribing universal status to them. (42)
Vivas had attacked Dewey for being unable to move "beyond expedience," in explaining his preference for democracy over totalitarianism, but, to Dewey, the justification for democracy was found within, not outside, the realm of human concern. Morality was futile if not framed with regard to actual conditions. Dewey believed that, when it came to ethics, absolutists ignored human needs in favour of a concern for metaphysical truths. Instead, said Dewey, values determined through experiment should guide human action. (43)
But Buckley charged pragmatism more specifically with failing to distinguish between means and ends. (44) He often said that liberalism had method but no ultimate substance, direction, or final goal towards which to strive. (45) Since liberals extended pragmatic philosophy into the political realm, according to him, their ideal state would be one in which voting and dissenting were the only politically desirable ends. Method without ends was meaningless, said Buckley, and liberalism, as a methodological approach to politics, could provide insight into how best to do something, but could not give insight as to what should be done or why. While liberalism had once been informed by a "healthy American pragmatism," he said, that it had now "deteriorated into a wayward relativism." (46) That ill-fitting adjective discloses a good deal about Buckley's style of thought--journalistic, quick-hitting, polemical, but not scholarly or deliberative.
Buckley's attack was an old one, and Dewey had responded to such criticisms by maintaining that naturalism could provide the ends towards which humans should strive. Humans, said Dewey, frame concrete, practical goals--ends in view--and the highest end in view was the human experience of growth. Growth was the end that transcended a particular situation and was achieved through the democratic way of life, in which persons would find self-realization in communal action and participation. The ethical end of democracy preceded the process of evaluation and experimentation, for democracy was itself the social method by which communities determined their values. Since democracy, in its openness, participation, and communal nature, was the form Of social organization corresponding to the method of scientific inquiry, the rejection of democratic ends was no more justified than the rejection of the scientific method. While Buckley charged pragmatism with a moral relativism that could not condemn genocide, slavery, murder, and other such "obvious evils," Dewey argued that in his schema, such things were unthinkable, as the democratic way of life presupposed a respect for the freedom of individuals to choose to grow as they saw fit.
Indeed, so strong was Dewey's commitment to moral ends that he criticized the New Deal as insufficiently devoted to the democratic ends of society. Its haphazard policy-making was not "pragmatic," because it had no working hypothesis through which to better attain the democratic goal towards which it strove. (47) Buckley and other conservatives failed to engage this basic fact of Dewey's philosophy and, once again, revealed their tendency to polemicize rather than engage adversaries.
Instead of turning to inquiry and the human need to determine values, Buckley claimed that humans should tuna to tradition. Conservatives, wrote Buckley, "make a critical assumption, which is that those truths that have already been apprehended are more important to cultivate than those undisclosed ones" that liberals sought. (48) According to him, conservatism was
the tacit acknowledgement that all that is finally important in human experience is behind us; that the crucial explorations have been undertaken, and that it is given to man to know what are the real truths that emerged from them. Whatever is to come cannot outweigh the importance to man of what has gone on before.
Liberalism, on the other hand, "denies metaphysics and relies primarily on positivism and pragmatism" for its "truths," thus making important "not the truths themselves, but the blasted search for them!" (49)
Buckley understood that, for Dewey, democracy was tied to epistemological method, bur believed that a democratic approach to truth only established truth by consensus. It created a competition between ideas, in which whatever idea a given group "voted" for was deemed true. "Democracy," be wrote, "is the lubricant of relativism" and to the degree that relativism meant leaving truth open to revision, Dewey would not have disagreed. However, Buckley continued,
Democracy (like the United Nations) is a procedure, not a policy; yet in it all the hopes of an intellectual era were vested. Many intellectuals tended to look upon democracy as an extension of the scientific method, as the scientific method applied to social problems. In an age of relativism, one tends to look for flexible devices for measuring this morning's truth. Such a device is democracy; and indeed, democracy becomes epistemology. (50)
Unlike the liberals who remained mired in the contingency of knowledge, wrote Buckley, "people should become more certain about the purposes of human existence so that they should cease to be explained purely in the methodological terms which liberalism of course relies upon exclusively." (51) While the liberal/pragmatist looked forward to future consequences for guidance, the conservative looked back to the discoveries of the past: the "settled truths" that were no longer open to debate. Absolute truths discovered in the past took precedence, in Buckley's mind, over the contingent truths of the future.
It was understandable that Buckley would focus his energies on the weaknesses of "liberal relativism" since his own alternative was highly inadequate. Buckley's traditionalist epistemology only left open the question, "which traditions?" Tradition itself could not constitute a valid epistemology, for traditions were many and often contradictory. Buckley never presented a case for tradition qua tradition as a source of authority and left unanswered the questions of which truths were settled, why they were settled, and who settled them.
The epistemological solution proposed by Mortimer Adler manifested this same weakness. Adler believed that the "Great Books" of the Western tradition contained the timeless truths that society should build upon, yet the books on his list contained ideas that flatly contradicted one another. For instance, in Adler's canon, one finds the works of both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, Kierkegaard and Hegel, and Rousseau and Burke. Which among these contradictory thinkers provided the "discovered truths" that the Western world ought to embrace? As Adler's own Great Books show, the discoveries of the past were hardly as settled as Buckley claimed. The Great Books provided readers with a variety of perspectives that dominant thinkers of the past had grappled with, not a body of settled truths. While conservative anti-relativists succeeded in making appealing charges against pragmatism as a method, they failed to provide a substantive argument for an alternative. Seeking absolutes in tradition may have left at least as many unanswered questions as did pragmatism.
Even more damning for Buckley, some of his views substantiated the consistent pragmatist charge that "absolutism" led logically to the political enforcement of an established orthodoxy. From the time of his appearance in public life with God and Man at Yale, critics denounced Buckley's ideas as "fascistic." According to Frank D. Ashburn, Buckley's politics demanded a "return to authoritarianism," while the young Yale graduate's ideological kin were Dr. Goebbels and the hooded Klansmen of the South. Buckley's "notion of freedom is the right to do what he approves," wrote Robert Hatch in the New Republic, and his ideas, like those of other absolutists would lead inevitably to the political enforcement of truth. Another critic of Buckley, Selden Rodman, claimed that absolutism and free speech were inversely correlated, and, since Buckley believed in absolutes, he necessarily opposed free speech. (52)
But while these charges were unsubstantiated when leveled against Weaver, Meyer, or Vivas, these charges were somewhat justified in Buckley's case. Buckley concluded that it was a superstition to believe "that the free exchange of opposite ideas midwives the truth." (53) Under the influence of his mentor at Yale, Willmoore Kendall, Buckley came to believe that the open society, most famously associated with John Stuart Mill, was unsustainable and that there should be a limit to acceptable speech and opinion.
Willmoore Kendall has now become a legendary figure in the story of early conservatism. (54) Universally regarded as brilliant, the child-prodigy Kendall entered college at age 13, graduated four years later, and then attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. (55) After returning from England, Kendall completed a Ph.D. in political philosophy at the University of Illinois after which he worked in government intelligence during the war. He accepted a professorship at Yale in 1947 and published groundbreaking works on democratic majoritarianism, John Locke's theories, and the role of virtue in political order. (56)
Kendall's philosophy was most notable for its rejection of the entire "rights" tradition that was so central to American political discourse, including those rights cherished by the Left (for example, free speech) and the Right (for example, private property). Instead of a politics devoted to preserving rights, Kendall proposed a politics devoted to enforcing the unobstructed will of the majority. In his doctoral dissertation and best-known book, John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority Rule, Kendall turned the English philosopher on his head by rejecting the idea that Locke Championed individual rights, and argued instead that Locke believed in the need for a democratic majority to curb minority rights in the name of the greater social good. (57) The majority, in general and in the long run, said Kendall, would tend towards proper application of the moral law: This meant that Locke was right to make majority rule the central principle in political organization since the power of the majority was the greatest force for political justice and harmony. (58)
While these hyper-democratic sentiments might seem to have allied Kendall with many liberals who emphasized the primacy of democratic rule, Kendall used majority rule to justify a "closed society" in which some opinions were deemed "out of bounds." If the American system truly exalted the will of the majority, wrote Kendall, then an anti-communist American majority would remain well within its constitutional and ethical rights in suppressing the speech and actions of those in the communist (or any other) minority. Communist ideas lay outside the bounds of permissive speech in Kendall's mind, and were thus not entitled to protection from the will of the majority. The Bill of Rights, he said, "did not anticipate something like the Communist Party." (59)
He vigorously attacked the idea of the "open society," believing that such a society implied that all ideas were equal when, in reality, the democratic consensus would determine which "settled truths" were no longer open to debate. Kendall's "The 'Open Society' and Its Fallacies" was his most direct attack on both John Stuart Mill and Sir Karl Popper, the two most prominent advocates of openness. To Kendall, Weimar Germany perfectly illustrated the flaws of the open society in that a commitment to unrestricted free speech had allowed Hitler's ideas to receive an equal hearing in public discourse when they should have been declared "outside the bounds of acceptable discourse" and suppressed. A commitment to openness and the rights of an evil minority, according to Kendall, had created the greatest disaster in human history--World War II. Would it not have been preferable to have restricted the free speech "rights" of a few Nazis? (60)
Kendall attacked openness as not only undesirable, but also unattainable. While some might have claimed that a society should remain open to all ideas, Kendall believed this to be a logical impossibility since, in the end, every society had limits on speech, and, whether explicit or not, every society required some kind of orthodoxy, a frame of limitations within which the exchange of ideas and opinions could take place. The founding fathers, for instance, whose wisdom Kendall revered above all others, spoke of "self-evident" truths that created the starting point for political discussion and were themselves outside the realm of debate. Ultimately, "unlimited freedom of speech and the open society" were "not real alternatives," wrote Kendall; they were a fantastic illusion. The only option was to select democratically which orthodoxies to embrace and then suppress out-of-bounds opinions accordingly. (61)
Kendall summed up his political philosophy and its relationship to McCarthyism in a much-repeated anecdote from which conservatives drew inspiration in later years. The Yale faculty called a meeting to discuss McCarthyism. After listening for two hours, Kendall raised his hand and told of an exchange he had recently had with a campus janitor: "'Is it true, professor, dat' dere's people in New York City who want to ... destroy the guvamint of the United States?' 'Yes, Oliver, that is true,' Wilmoore had replied. 'Then why don't we lock em' up?'" Kendall told his colleagues that he had heard more wisdom in that insight than be had during the entire faculty meeting. (62)
This closed-society view deeply informed Buckley's outlook. (63) In God and Man at Yale, Buckley had argued that Yale's founding ideals (Christianity and individualism) should form the boundaries of acceptable discourse for the university. (64) Without such limits on speech, said Buckley, students were left with the liberal idea that there are no final truths--an unacceptable situation that would lead to nihilism. Thus, he opposed academic freedom to the extent that it meant that "all ideas should start equal in the face." (65) Certain truths were settled and deserved a privileged position in academic inquiry.
While, in his first book, Buckley had suggested that his Kendallian ideas be applied to a private institution (Yale), after the founding of National Review, Buckley favored extending these ideals to society at large by legally restricting "unacceptable speech" in the public sphere when conditions demanded it and published contributions from those who shared this view. (66) "The classical attempt to defend freedom of speech," wrote political philosopher Walter Berns in a National Review article, "is a piece of bad political philosophy." Like Kendall (a fellow Straussian), Berns claimed that the First Amendment was an "afterthought" to the Constitution and that the Bill of Rights needed to be kept in perspective as less than binding. (67) In the National Review, opposition to unrestricted free speech became a guiding principle.
The clearest example of conservative support for Kendall's closed society is seen in their sustaining of Joseph McCarthy in his crusade to rid American institutions of the "Communist menace" by using government force to restrict basic American civil liberties. The National Review editors opened up their pages for McCarthy to publish his anti-communist rants, and Buckley and his brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell, published a book-length defense of the senator and his actions under the title McCarthy and His Enemies (1954). (68) Even though McCarthy was sometimes reckless in his tactics, they argued, his overall goals were justified and his "courage" admirable. "A general dedication to free speech," Buckley said, "does not commit a society to making available to its enemies the instruments of its own destruction," and if a conflict arose between a fundamental societal value and free speech, the wise society would take the side of the fundamental value. On that premise, McCarthy's suppression of Communist speech was justified in the name of majority rule and social preservation. (69)
Conservative support for McCarthy seemed to confirm liberal fears that, indeed, philosophical absolutism led inevitably to tyranny. In their McCarthyism, said Dwight Macdonald, the "doctrinaire right" had shown precisely what the logical outcome of their position was. (70) Buckley's critics often overstated his "totalitarian" propensities, but his adherence to Kendall's theory of the closed society and his support for McCarthy made the charges at least partially true.
But was the connection between philosophical absolutism and McCarthyism a necessary one? Would a fixed-truth mentality always lead to the suppression of "heresy" (unorthodox opinions) as Hook and Dewey had claimed? The case of Whittaker Chambers, a conservative icon and leading intellectual, shows that the problem was more complicated than many liberals thought. Although Chambers probably endured more vituperation for his "absolutism" than any other figure on the Right, his philosophical views differed from those of other conservatives. Chambers divided human societies and persons into two distinct categories: those with faith in God, and those with faith in man. But this classification only divided persons according to the use of their intrinsic religious disposition and said nothing about metaphysical certainty or settled truths. Although he, like Adler and Weaver, looked nostalgically upon the medieval age, Chambers did so for different reasons: Weaver admired the pre-nominalist mentality of the medieval peoples, while Chambers admired how they placed God at the center of their lives (in contrast to the "man-centredness" of modern times). (71)
Unlike most in the debate over pragmatism, Chambers's primary concern was not the battle for or against "timeless truths," but the battle between materialism (man) and the soul (God). Faith-in-Man philosophy, he believed, was inevitably materialistic and, therefore, inevitably tyrannical. Materialism led people to see humans as objects of control, like any other material object in the universe, and this devaluation of the person, rather than epistemological relativism, led to totalitarianism. Dewey, who rejected the materialist label, might not have disagreed with Chambers on this point. (72) While Buckley looked to tradition as the epistemological source of absolutes, Chambers only claimed, without elaboration, that religion gave a belief in something called a soul that could recognize mass slaughter as ah objective evil. (73) Chambers, then, turned to religion not to guarantee metaphysical certainties (as Weaver, Adler, and Buckley did), but to give a transcendent value to the human person.
Yet in spite of the important distinction between the "two faiths" outlook of Chambers and the "enduring truths" realism of Buckley, liberal pragmatists treated them as of the same nature and given to the same oppressive tendencies. (74) In moving from Communism to conservatism, wrote Hannah Arendt and John Strachey, Chambers had not moved far at all. He had rejected the certainties of Communism, claimed Arendt, but had now taken up the certainties of anti-communism with equal vigour (what these were, she did not say) and, having achieved "transcendent" knowledge, Chambers believed that be "kn[e]w the end and therefore [could] decide freely about the means." John Strachey, in an article entitled "The Absolutists," called Witness the "latest addition" to an absolutist literature industry. His black/white worldview was similar to the Communist worldview: both were "competing absolutist faiths" that felt justified in using "totalitarian means in order to fight totalitarianism." (75) Chambers, according to Arendt, favoured the police state, total government surveillance, suppression of free speech, and the silencing of all viewpoints but his own. In this, he posed a "clear and present danger to society." (76) Arendt and Strachey set their own "experimental" attitude in contrast to the "absolutists of both left and right." (77)
Other liberals, although more restrained and sympathetic to Chambers than Arendt or Strachey, largely agreed with their diagnosis. While Chambers had claimed that "Faith in Man" posed the most serious threat to western civilization, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. argued instead that
only those who believe in absolute values can achieve the conviction of infallibility which permits tyranny and murder; and that, if there is anything from which the pragmatist flinches, it is the hypostatization of his own tentative, fragmentary, and incomplete views into dogmatic fanaticism. (78)
It was not relativism that had created Stalin and Hitler, but fidelity to abstract principle. Granville Hicks believed that Chambers was not even eligible to fight communism, for one cannot fight dogma with dogma and only pragmatic openness was capable of meeting the threat of communism. (79) In their ascription of a philosophy of metaphysical' certainty to Chambers, his liberal assailants proved themselves as unfamiliar with his actual ideas and policy positions as Buckley had been with regard to Dewey. Chambers noted this, and claimed that Arendt in particular had based her attack on "flimsy evidence" and "preposterous" assumptions. (80) Arendt claimed that Chambers wished to enforce his "absolute political ends," but provided no evidence for the charge. (81)
If Buckley and others at National Review had, through their support for McCarthy, confirmed the liberal suspicion that anti-relativism meant oppression, the case of Whittaker Chambers shows that there were exceptions. Chambers openly and frequently denounced both McCarthy and his methods, and the continued support National Review gave to the Wisconsin senator kept Chambers from joining the magazine until after McCarthy's death. (82) Chambers recognized that McCarthy was hardly an ally in the anti-communist cause, but a threat to it. "One way whereby I can most easily help Communism," he wrote, "is to associate myself publicly with Senator McCarthy." (83) Like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Chambers recognized that those who posed the greatest danger to his cause were often those who claimed to be a part of it. Just as Schlesinger believed that the naivete and pro-Soviet attitude of Henry Wallace threatened to ruin liberalism, so Chambers believed that the recklessness, demagoguery, and bullying of McCarthy threatened to ruin conservatism. (84)
But Chambers proved more tolerant than his fellow conservatives in other ways as well. Unlike Kendall and Buckley, who believed that communists should have their legal rights restricted, Chambers argued that they should be allowed to travel, speak, and enjoy the liberties of any other citizen. If conservatives would not afford this privilege to those with whom they disagreed, he said, at some point "it might be the spokesmen of the Right whose freedom ... is restricted." Chambers even said that his nemesis, the accused communist spy Alger Hiss, deserved the protection of civil liberties that were due to all Americans. (85)
But even had Chambers adhered to the same principles of metaphysical certainty as Buckley, it is not logically necessary that be would have demanded the imposition of his absolutes, as Hook and Dewey claimed, for it is possible for a person to believe they know the ultimate ends that humans should desire (in other words, Christian conversion, salvation, or the classless society), but also believe in the freedom to accept or reject those ends. One can respect the means of liberal society (freedom), while deploring the ends to which those means may be put (for example, material gratification, bedonism, atheism). To claim otherwise was to make an unwarranted connection between epistemology and political theory.
What Hook, Dewey, and other pragmatists had asserted, then, was not a logical necessity, but a hypothesis that, as good pragmatists, they should have left open to empirical verification. They had claimed that "supernaturalism" or "dogmatic absolutista" necessarily entailed the authoritarian desire to compel others to accept those beliefs. The supernatural mindset, claimed Dewey, is "absolutist and totalitarian," but the pragmatists who denounced Chambers did not bother to test this hypothesis in practice. (86) If they had, they would have found millions of religious Americans, absolutely convinced of the truth of their creeds, who were nonetheless strongly committed to religious freedom and political pluralism. Hook had earlier complained that Vivas had put forward the hypothesis that "secularistic naturalism coarsens moral sensitivity and blinds those who hold it to the tragedies and injustices of our time" without bothering to test the claim. (87) And yet, applying the same assertion to supernatural absolutism, Hook had succumbed to the same error. Pragmatist claims that belief in absolute truth led inevitably to authoritarianism and suppression of alternative views thus failed both in theory and in practice. (88)
But Buckley made the same mistake as his pragmatist adversaries, and, by tethering metaphysical realism to a rejection of the closed society, he played right into their hands. Like pragmatists, he overlooked the possibility that one could believe in final truths but also wish to leave others free to accept or reject those truths. The closed society and epistemological absolutista were not as connected as either Buckley or Dewey liked to believe. Libertarian journalist John Chamberlain understood this when asking rhetorically, "Is it so impossible to separate the 'public philosophy' (the things that are Caesar's) from the 'private philosophy' (the things that are God's)?" (89) A closer examination of the thought of Chambers and others like him would have showed that it was not.
Buckley later confessed that his support for McCarthy had been a mistake --Chambers had been right--but he never repudiated the general Kendallian principles upon which it was based, thus creating an important contradiction that plagued the conservative movement for the remainder of the century. (90) From his early libertarian mentor, Albert Jay Nock, Buckley came to believe the Jeffersonian maxim that "the legitimate powers of government extend only to those acts that are injurious to others," and that governments act unjustly when they go beyond this core function. From Kendall, on the other hand, he came to believe that individual freedoms must be curbed in the name of virtue and majoritarian consensus. These two principles were in fundamental conflict: Buckley was committed to individual rights (Nock), but also committed to curbing individual rights in the name of public orthodoxy (Kendall). Buckley consistently declared the efficacy of markets over planning in economic affairs, but rejected that same efficacy when it came to the marketplace of ideas. Ultimately, the two mentors who affected Buckley the most also provided him with the irreconcilable impulses that made his commitment to both individual freedom and metaphysical truth seem contradictory indeed. (91)
As conservatives came to embrace anti-relativism in the postwar years while maintaining their previous commitment to anti-statism, Buckley's contradiction became that of the movement as a whole. In the mid-twentieth century, liberals had been those who advocated using government to achieve the liberal values of economic justice and racial equality, while conservatives were those who believed the government should not promote values at all. But as the anti-relativism adopted by conservatives in the postwar years expanded its influence within the movement, conservatives advocated using government power to enforce their vision of truth.
Nevertheless, whatever conservatives had sacrificed in philosophical coherence, they gained in rhetorical advantage. In making the anti-relativist cause their own, Buckley and his confreres put liberals on the defensive in moral and religious matters in ways that still resonate. (92) Conservatives would henceforth have in their arsenal the charge of "moral relativism" to fire at political adversaries whenever concerns about societal decadence arose even if they were never able to square this anti-relativism with anti-statism in the political realm. These sentiments found their first political expression in the Goldwater campaign and the grassroots movement that coalesced behind the Arizona senator's candidacy. From that point on, culturally conservative Americans with liberal sympathies often joined the conservative movement even if they found themselves uncomfortable with the movement's anti-government agenda. (93)
This is not to suggest that the conservative postwar capture of anti-relativist discourse was total. Such well-known liberal intellectuals as Richard Hofstadter and Christopher Lasch continued to make trenchant critiques of Deweyan pragmatism long after 1945. Pockets of liberal anti-relativism persisted, as did pockets of conservative pragmatism--as seen in the work of such recent conservative fallibilists as W.V.O. Quine, Richard Posner, and Andrew Sullivan--but mid-twentieth-century America saw an epistemic shift in which the attitude of metaphysical certainty associated with cultural conservatism merged into the conservative political movement and paved the way for right-wing political victories in later decades.
(1) In this paper the year 1945 is often used heuristically to represent the general time this epistemic shift occurred, with the understanding that this transformation was gradual, and that a specific turning point cannot be attached with precision to any single year.
(2) For a fuller analysis of the New Humanists, see J. David Hoeveler, The New Humanista: A Critique of Modern America, 1900-1940 (Charlotlesville, 1977).
(3) To refer to the anti-relativist position, I will variously use the terms "'foundationalism," "'metaphysical realism," or "'absolutism." These are terms that conservatives themselves used to describe a general belief in universal truths and values beyond the contingent, positive findings of science. Opposite these foundationalists stood a variety of pragmatists and fallibilists who rejected the idea of universal truth, and were often referred to as "relativists" by their adversaries.
(4) Walter Lippmann, An Inquiry into the Principles of the Good Society (Boston, 1937). Lippmann, however, would later revise his position and accept a form of metaphysical realism in his book The Public Philosophy (Boston, 1955).
(5) See, for instance, Max Eastman, "The Reaction against John Dewey," National Review (here after cited as NR) (21 Jun 1958), p. 9.
(6) The Southern Agrarians were a special case. Their conservative critique, although primarily cultural, did have a political component, but differed from that of prewar pro-capitalists like Sumner, Hayek, and Mises. The Agrarians opposed both the expansion of state power and industrial capitalism on the grounds that both destroyed Southern cultural forms and traditions. Hence, their position, to the degree that it can be considered political, had less to do with the economic concerns that preoccupied prewar conservatives and more to do with their general opposition to encroachment on traditional Southern cultural patterns. See "Twelve Southerners" [authorship stated as; John Crowe Ransom, et al.] "Southern Agrarians and the Defense of Region," in Gregory L. Schneider, (ed.), Conservatism in America, Since 1930 (New York, 2003), pp. 9-15. More recently, Paul V. Murphy, in his book The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2001), has tried to make a more tangible connection between the Agrarians and the conservative political movement, but, as Michael Kreyling of Vanderbilt University notes, Murphy largely fails in this quest, as he is only able to point to one tenuous linkage--a common resistance to racial integration. See Kreyling's review of Murphy in The Journal of American History 89 (2002), pp. 697-98.
(7) Previous historians, such as George Nash and Donald T. Critchlow, have explored the tensions between the "libertarian" and "traditionalist" strands of the conservative intellectual movement, but their schemas fail to account for the evolution of conservatism itself as well as the diverse nature of the constituent strands. Metaphysical certainty was but one trait among many new conservative concerns in the postwar years that might be considered "traditionalist." Nash and Critchlow give little attention to the idea of a conservative epistemology and ignore the implications and tensions created by this new aspect of conservative thought. See George Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, since 1945 (New York, 1976); and Donald T. Critchlow, The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Right Made Political History (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2007).
(8) While I focus on a transformation in the meaning of conservatism in this article, Gary Gerstle provides a parallel thesis of the other side of the spectrum in "The Protean Character of American Liberalism" (American Historical Review 99 (1994), pp. 1043-73). To Gerstle, liberalism began the century as an ideal that encompassed broad moral questions, but had transformed by the 1930s such that purely economic concerns "dominated the New Deal's language of political mobilization and conflict." By then, moral questions associated with race, gender, ethnicity, immigration, and culture were largely ignored. Gerstle focuses on the intellectual debates among leading liberal figures, such as John Dewey, Herbert Croly, Horace Kallen, and Robert and Helen Lynd, that produced this transformation. As the outbreak of the Cold War cemented liberal concerns with class to the exclusion of other issues (pp. 1071-72), I contend in this article that it also brought the new concern with anti-relativism to conservatives.
(9) William F. Buckley Jr., Upfrom Liberalism (1959; New York, 1968 edn.), pp. 5, 24, 98-106, 111-16, and 152.
(10) Kirk, "Burke at Work," NR (18 Dec 1962), p. 477.
(11) George M. Marsden, "Afterword: Religion, Politics, and the Search for an American Consensus," in Mark Noll, (ed.), Religion and American Politics (New York, 1990), p. 387.
(12) William F. Buckley, Jr., "Notes toward an Empirical Definition of Conservatism," 10 Oct 1963, in Buckley, The Jeweler's Eve: A Book of Irresistible Political Reflections (New York, 1969), 11 ;and Buckley, introduction to Did You Ever See a Dream Walking: Conservative Thought in 20th Century America (New York, 1970), pp. xvii.
(13) A half-century later, when asked what it meant to be a conservative, Buckley replied, "allegiance to founding ideals and rejection of the relativism seen on the other side." C-Span interview with Buckley for "Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley: The Conservative Mind and God and Man at Yale,'" C-Span American Writers Series, 30 Jun 2002; and Buckley, "For Dr. Kilpatrick, on his 85th," NR (1 Dec 1956), p. 7.
(14) Mortimer Adler interview with Mike Wallace, American Broadcasting Company, 1958, Fund for the Republic, The Mortimer J. Adler Archive, available from Radical Academy website. In this same interview, Adler even expressed his disgust for the conservative movement: "I regard that right wing as the most reactionary and subversive force of good government you could have in this country. That right wing would want to restore us to the kind of primitive, unjust, laissez-faire capitalism--the kind of robber-baron capitalism of each man for himself, devil take the hindmost which does not conform to the idea of political liberty in the good life, in the good society." This, he said, stood in contrast to his own belief that a "free and classless society ... could be brought about by economic and political democracy."
(15) Mortimer J. Adler, "God and the Professors," Vital Speeches of the Day (1 Dec 1940), pp. 100-102.
(16) Other liberal thinkers, such as Lewis Mumford and Waldo Frank, also criticized pragmatism, but not from the philosophically foundationalist point of view that Hutchins, Adler, and Maritain did. Instead, they criticized Deweyan pragmatism on the grounds that it stifled imagination and failed to account for the tragic aspect of human existence. Hence, their critique of pragmatism resembled more that of Reinhold Niebuhr than Mortimer Adler. Lewis Mumford, "The Corruption of Liberalism," The New Republic (hereafter cited as TNR) (29 Apr 1940), pp. 568-73; Waldo Frank, "'Our Guilt, in Fascism," TNR (18 May 1940), pp. 603-8; Sidney Hook, "The Failure of the Left," Partisan Review (hereafter cited as PR) (May-Jun 1943), p. 166.
(17) Robert Maynard Hutchins, "Are Our Teachers Afraid to Teach?" Look (9 Mar 1954), p. 28; and R.M. Hutchins, "Freedom of the University," Ethics (Jan 1951), p. 95.
(18) William F. Buckley, Jr., Up From Liberalism, pp. xxv, 19, 60. Buckley even dedicated an episode of Firing Line to Robert Maynard Hutchins entitled, "Re-evaluating a Famous Liberal" in which he applauded Hutchins's educational methods, but disputed his politics (broadcast 3 November, 1989, Program S0832, Firing Line Collection, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University).
(19) Jacques Maritain, "Religion and the Intellectuals III," PR (Apr 1950), p. 324.
(20) While George Nash focuses on conservative "traditionalism," the impulse he described went beyond just adherence to tradition: rather, it was rather a general opposition to the liberal method that denied timeless truth. When conservatives spoke of conserving tradition, they usually referred to the "permanent things"--the metaphysical certainties that traditions delivered. Nash, conservative Intellectual Movement, pp. 57-83.
(21) Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago, 1948), p. v. That political liberals and socialists endorsed and applauded Weaver's book highlights the degree to which cultural conservatism remained separate from politics at the time of its publication. See, for instance, W.A. Orton, [review], Commentary (14 May 1948): 119. Also see the praise given by Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr that appears on the dustjacket of the 1959 edition. At the time of the book's release, there was nothing politically conservative about what Weaver had written.
(22) Weaver, Ideas, pp. 2-5.
(23) Weaver, [Letter to the Editor], New York Times (21 Mar 1948), p. 29.
(24) Weaver, Ideas, pp. 35-40.
(25) Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago, 1953).
(26) Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York, 1987).
(27) Frank S. Meyer, "Summing Up: Consensus and Divergence," in Frank Meyer, (ed.), What Is Conservatism? (New York, 1964), p. 210.
(28) While he did include an essay by the fallibilist economist Friedrich Hayek, the essay only served to reinforce his thesis, since the piece was entitled "Why I Am Not a Conservative." See Meyer, What is Conservatism ?, pp. 88-106. Hayek's estrangement from conservatism over the new anti-relativism approximates that of Max Eastman (see below), and both cases reveal the degree to which conservatism had transformed to take on the anti-relativist characteristics that both Hayek and Eastman deplored.
(29) Eliseo Vivas, The Moral and the Ethical Life (Chicago, 1950).
(30) Ibid., pp. viii-ix.
(31) See, for instance, Russell Kirk. "John Dewey Pragmatically Tested," NR (21 Jun 1958), p. 12; and Nash, Conservative Intellectual Movement, pp. 47-48.
(32) Not coincidentally, Hook had earlier come to the defense of pragmatism when it was under attack from Adler, and he now saw Vivas's attack as "reminiscent of the line taken by Mortimer Adler'" ten years before. Sidney Hook, "A Case Study in Anti-Secularism," PR (Mar-Apr 1951), p. 233.
(33) Ibid.; Sidney Hook, "The Failure of the Left," PR (May-Jun 1943), p. 167; John Dewey, "Anti-Naturalism in Extremis," PR (Jan-Feb 1943), p. 36; and Sidney Hook, "The New Failure of Nerve I,'" PR (Jan-Feb 1943), p. 2. For a retrospective on his earlier debate, see Sidney Hook, "Religion and the Intellectuals II." PR (Mar 1950). p. 229.
(34) Dewey, "Anti-Naturalism," p. 37.
(35) Ibid., p. 36; and Edward A. Purcell, Jr., The Crisis of Democratic Theory: Scientific Naturalism and the Problem of Value (Lexington, Kentucky, 1973), pp. 219-23. For a discussion of the degree of conversion among postwar intellectuals and the new seriousness with which religiously based metaphysics were treated, see the four part symposium "Religion and the Intellectuals,'" that appeared in the February, March, April, and May-June, 1951 issues of Partisan Review.
(36) Max Eastman, "Am I Conservative?" NR (28 Jan 1964), p. 57.
(37) As quoted in William F. Buckley, Jr., "Notes Toward," pp. 22-3.
(38) Buckley, God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of 'Academic Freedom ' (1951; Washington DC, 1986), p. 25.
(39) Ibid., p. 160: and William F. Buckley, Jr., George Rice, Jr., Robert Dubois, and Bob Gordon; Radio Panel, "On Academic Freedom and Other Topics," Crossexam, recorded in early 1960s (exact date uncertain). Available at Intercollegiate Studies Institute Lecture Library website. In the "National Review Statement of Intentions'" in Schneider, (ed.), p. 196, Buckley placed the "disciples of Truth" (like himself), opposite the "Social Engineers" (like Dewey).
(40) Dewey, "Anti-Naturalism," p. 28, 32.
(41) Sidney Hook, "A Case Study in Anti-Secularism.'" PR (Mar-Apr 1951), pp. 232-45.
(42) Dewey, "Anti-Naturalism," pp. 36-37. Dewey generally referred to those who attacked him as "anti-naturalists," but often called them "absolutists" as well. If "relativism" had become the favoured epithet conservatives applied to liberals, then "absolutism" became the favoured epithet liberals applied to conservatives.
(43) Quoted in Nash, Conservative Intellectual Movement, p. 48.
(44) This contention, of course, was an old one and had been most famously articulated by cultural critic Randolph Bourne, who saw Dewey's support of World War I as a consequence of this fatal flaw in pragmatic thinking. Dewey's disciples, said Bourne, "are making themselves efficient instruments of the war-technique, accepting with little question the ends as announced from above." Dewey's philosophy may have provided the means of "intelligent control," but lacked the "poetic vision" necessary to appropriate ends. Values, in Dewey, were subordinated to technique. Randolph Bourne, "Twilight of the Idols." (1917) in David Hollinger and Charles Capper, (eds.), The American Intellectual Tradition, volume II: 1865 to the Present, (New York, 1997, 3rd edn.), pp. 181-88.
(45) In his polemical quest to capture anti-relativism for conservatives, Buckley had, by the late 1950s, begun to use the terms "liberalism" and "pragmatism" interchangeably.
(46) Buckley, Up From Liberalism, pp. 134, 168; and Buckley, "On Academic Freedom and Other Topics." Buckley did not explain why, in his view, pragmatism had once been "healthy," when that thought ran counter to all of his writing on the subject.
(47) Robert Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithaca, New York, 1991), p. 441.
(48) Buckley, Up From Liberalism, p. 133.
(49) Ibid., p. 132.
(50) Buckley, "The Breakdown of Intellectuals in Public Affairs," in George B. de Huszar, (ed.), The Intellectuals: A Controversial Portrait (Glencoe, Illinois, 1960), p. 495.
(51) Ibid., p. 133; and Buckley, "On Academic Freedom and Other Topics."
(52) Frank D. Ashbum, "Isms and the university: Two Reviews of God and Man at Yale," Saturday Review (15 Dec 1951), p. 45: Robert Hatch, "Enforcing Truth," TNR (3 Dec 1951), p. 19; and Selden Rodman, "'Isms' & the University." Saturday Review of Literature (15 Dec 1951), p. 18. Some of those, like McGeorge Bundy, showed the ambiguity of their own commitment to pragmatism as they attacked Buckley's absolutism even while declaring his views "absolutely wrong." McGeorge Bundy, "The Attack on Yale," The Atlantic (Nov 1951), p. 51.
(53) Buckley, "Remarks on a Fifth anniversary," 1 Jan 1960, in Buckley, Rumbles Left and Right: A Book About Troublesome People and Ideas (New York, 1963), p. 86. The free exchange of ideas, says Buckley, "does not yield truth or edification."
(54) Jeffrey Hart and Priscilla Buckley both dedicate entire chapters of their memoirs to Kendall and his eccentric personality. See Jeffrey Hart, The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and its Times (Wilmington, Vermont, 2005): and Priscilla Buckley, Living it Up with National Review: A Memoir (Dallas, Texas. 2005).
(55) Kendall was regarded as brilliant by liberals as well as conservatives. His work, according to political scientist Eugene Forsey, was "highly important," perhaps even "revolutionary," and constituted a "major contribution to the history of democratic political theory." See Eugene Forsey, [review of Willmoore Kendall's John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority Rule,'] The American Journal of Sociology (Jun 1942), pp. 136-37.
(56) Kendall may best be remembered for his "cantankerous streak" that destroyed his most cherished friendships. "One by one," wrote one of his conservative confreres, Kendall "stopped speaking to his colleagues"--this applied, obviously, to his associates at Yale with whom he disagreed on nearly everything political, but also to his conservative allies who rejected one or more of his idiosyncratic positions. See Priscilla Buckley, Living It Up, p. 17; and Jeffrey Hart, "The 'Deliberate Sense' of Willmoore Kendall," The New Criterion (Mar 2002), pp. 76-82.
(57) Such a dramatic revision of standard Lockean interpretation was particularly revolutionary in the postwar years when "liberal consensus" ideas largely dominated the study of the American past. Scholars from Louis Hartz to Richard Hofstadter saw Lockian liberalism as the guiding ideal of the entire American political tradition, and Kendall challenged the very foundation of this paradigm. Louis Hartz, Richard Hofstadter, and Daniel Boorstin are widely viewed as the most important "consensus" historians. See, especially, Hartz's exemplary book, The Liberal Tradition in America (New York, 1955).
(58) Willmoore Kendall, "The Two Majorities," Midwest Journal of Political Science (Nov 1960), pp. 317-345.
(59) Kendall, "The Open Society and Its Fallacies," The American Political Science Review (Dec 1960), pp. 972-79.
(60) Kendall, "Open Society," p. 977.
(61) Ibid., pp. 976, 979.
(62) Buckley, introduction to 1977 edition of God and Man at Yale (Washington, DC, 1977), pp. vi-vii. Also see Nash, Conservative Intellectual Movement, pp. 120-22, 229-31; John A. Murley and John E. Alvis, eds., Willmoore Kendall: Maverick of American Conservatives (Lanham, Maryland, 2002); and Buckley's novel The Redhunter (Boston, 1999).
(63) Buckley, God and Man, p. vi. "Kendall had greatly influenced me as an undergraduate," Buckley wrote.
(64) Ibid., pp. 157-59.
(65) Buckley, "On Academic Freedom and Other Topics."
(66) In general, though, Buckley came to believe in the right of disagreement except in extreme circumstances. See William F. Buckley, Jr. debate with Bishop James A. Pike on Firing Line, "Prayer in the Public Schools," 23 Apr 1966, Firing Line Collection, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, Box 50 (218), folder 002, 19.
(67) Walter Berns, "Baloney and Free Speech," NR (22 Apr 1961), p. 367.
(68) Buckley and Bozell, McCarthy and His Enemies: The Record and Its Meaning (Chicago, 1954).
(69) Buckley, "Let the Intellectuals Take it from Here," NR (17 Jun 1961), p. 371.
(70) These National Review "conservatives" wrote critic Dwight Macdonald, were actually "McCarthy nationalists" and their pseudo-conservative absolutism would inevitably lead to the diminishing of civil liberties. Dwight Macdonald, "Scrambled Eggheads on the Right: Mr. Buckley's New Weekly," Commentary (Apr 1956), pp. 367-69.
(71) Whittaker Chambers, "The Middle Ages," Life (7 Apr. 1947), pp. 67-84: and Chambers, "Medieval Life," Life (26 May 1947), pp. 65-84.
(72) Dewey, "Anti-Naturalism," pp. 28-31.
(73) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (New York, 1952), p. 82.
(74) Ibid., p. 4.
(75) John Strachey, "The Absolutists," The Nation (4 Oct 1952), pp. 291-93.
(76) Hannah Arendt, "The Ex-Communists," Commonweal (20 Mar 1953), pp. 595-99. Other liberals made the comparisons between Chambers and Hitler a matter of routine. See John Strachey, "The Absolutists," The Nation (4 Oct 1952), pp. 291-93. Also See Kingsley Martin, "The Witness," The New Statesman and Nation (19 Jul 1952). For Strachey, Chambers's view that Communism was "absolutely evil" made him an "absolutist." Needless to say, this statement oversimplified Chambers's view, but even if true, it shows that Chambers's absolutism was of a much different order than the metaphysical realism of Buckley, Vivas, and Weaver.
(77) Strachey, "Absolutists," pp. 292-93.
(78) Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., "Whittaker Chambers and His Witness," Saturday Review (24 May 1952), p. 41. Also see Philip Rahv, "The Sense and Nonsense of Whittaker chambers," PR (Jul-Aug 1952), p. 473.
(79) Granville Hicks, "Whittaker Chambers's Testament," New Leader (26 May 1952), p. 66; and Elmer Davis, "History in Doublethink," Saturday Review (28 Jun 1952), pp. 91-92.
(80) He refused even to answer the charges made against him, and only noted that, in making them, Arendt was behaving less like an intellectual and more like "one of those Central European women who has read too much and has nothing to sustain it except an intensity which shakes her like an electric motor that is about to shake loose from its base." Whittaker Chambers to Nora De Toledano, 19 Mar 1953, in Notes from the Underground: The Whittaker Chambers-Ralph de Toledano Correspondenee. 1949-1960, (ed.), Ralph de Toledano (Washington DC, 1997), pp. 108-09. De Toledano believed that Arendt wrote the piece for personal gain. According to De Toledano, Arendt had attacked Chambers because her husband held lingering communist sympathies. Nora De Toledano to Whittaker Chambers, 22 Mar 1953, ibid., p. 112.
(81) Arendt, "Ex-Communists," p. 597.
(82) Like Chambers, conservative poet T.S. Elliot also refused to join National Review because of its ties to McCarthy. See Hari, Conservative Mind.
(83) Chambers to William F. Buckley. Jr., 7 Feb 1954. Odyssey of a Friend. Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr., 1954-1961. (Washington DC. 1987). p. 26; Chambers to Ralph de Toledano, 6 Apr 1953. Notes From the Underground. p. 115: and Chambers to Henry Regnery, 14 Jan 1954, in Chambers. Odyssey of a Friend, pp. 24-25. One reason that some liberals had been so adamant about Hiss's innocence was their feeling that Chambers' accusations had created the hysteria that made McCarthy possible; now, ironically, Chambers. like Dr. Frankenstein. repudiated the monster be had created.
(84) See Schlesinger, The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (Boston, 1949).
(85) Chambers. "The Hissiad: A Correction." NR (9 May 1959). pp. 45-46.
(86) John Dewey, "Anti-Naturalism," p. 36.
(87) Hook, "Case Study," pp. 234-35.
(88) The editors at Commonweal noted this in their piece "The Critics and the Absolutes" (20 June 1952), p. 259. They pointed out that the "intolerance and closed mind" that liberals attributed to Chambers was not a "necessary philosophical adjunct of belief in unchanging absolutes," but a psychological phenomenon quite distinct from one's personal beliefs.
(89) John Chamberlain, "All Over the Lot," NR (24 Oct 1959), p. 430.
(90) William F. Buckley, Jr., "The End of Whittaker Chambers," Esquire (Sep 1962). He also acknowledged that McCArthy had hurt the anti-communist cause by his exaggerations. C-Span interview with Buckley, 30 Jun 2002, "Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley; The Conservative Mind and God and Man at Yale," C-Span American Writers Series.
(91) Buckley's ambivalence towards John Stuart Mill (a hero at times and a villain at others) reflects his own ideological self-contradiction. While Mill consistently argued for limiting government in the name of individual liberty, Buckley wished to have his libertarian cake and eat it too. He favoured imposing orthodoxy using government power, while also keeping government power out of the private sphere. See, for instance, Buckley, Up From Liberalism, p. 154.
(92) Note that the term "values voters" today generally refers to cultural conservatives, as if values played no role in informing liberal political positions. This shows the degree of rhetorical success conservatives have achieved in identifying their cause with anti-relativism.
(93) George M. Marsden, "Afterword: Religion, Politics, and the Search for an American Consensus," in Noll, (ed.), Religion and American Politics, p. 387. For a sample of Senator Goldwater's anti-relativist rhetoric, see Goldwater, "Conscience of a Conservative," in Schneider (ed.), Conservatism in America, pp. 211-12.
Hyrum Lewis is on the History faculty at Brigham Young University Idaho. He has previously taught at Skidmore College in New York, California State University at San Bernardino, and Brigham Young and Boise State universities. He received his PhD in American intellectual history from the University of Southern California.
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2008|
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