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The Return of Conservatism

ISSUE:  Spring 1978
The Superfluous Men: Conservative Critics of American Culture, 1900-1945. Edited by Robert M. Crunden. Texas. $14.95.

After a hiatus of nearly two decades, interest in American “new conservatism is back in fashion. During the 1950’s “New Left” Clinton Rossiter, Peter Viereck, Russell Kirk, and Robert Nisbet, among others, had created a mini-academic industry for the analysis and, at times, dissemination of the “new conservatism.” The prominence of radicalism and the “New Left” during the 1960’s as well as the national political triumph of liberalism, however, made the American academy a most inhospitable place for any serious investigation of conservatism, much less its propagation. During this decade conservatism was viewed as exotic, reactionary, anachronistic, and irrelevant. The academy, nevertheless, to a certain extent does follow the election returns, and during the past several years there has been a growing interest in American conservatism. John Diggins’s 1975 book Up From Communism, a study of the thought of Will Herberg, Max Eastman, James Burnham, and John Dos Passos, as well as George Nash’s comprehensive The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America (1976), for example, exhibit a willingness to take recent American conservatism seriously. Robert M. Crunden’s edition of some pre-1945 writings of American conservatives is another indication that the intellectual community will once again have to confront a conservative challenge to the liberal and radical orthodoxy which has been dominant during the past several decades.

The reasons for this renewed interest in conservatism are, as Crunden points out in his introduction, both simple and complex. It is perhaps impossible to explain fully the reasons for the shift in mood within a nation, but there are at least some obvious reasons for the growing popularity of conservatism during the 1970’s which has even carried along some elements within the intelligentsia and made the study of American conservatism a fit topic once more for investigation. The disenchantment with the “best and the brightest’s” Vietnam War, the evident failure of many of the social programs spawned during the Johnson years, the social excesses of the 1960’s, and the exorbitant growth of government during the past 15 years have led many Americans to question whether liberalism itself isn’t seriously flawed. The growing disenchantment with liberalism has coincided with a more positive view of the 1950’s, a decade without any Ralph Naders leading crusades to have the federal government eliminate all the foibles and petty vices of mankind, nor was it a time when we were supposed to consider a Mark Rudd, a Rap Brown, or a Staughton Lynd serious social critics.

What is perhaps most interesting about Crunden’s book is the hints it gives regarding possible future interpretations of American conservatism. For Crunden, the importance of pre-1945 American conservatism lay in its critique of culture. Its politics, he claims, was completely irrelevant. Crunden, a professor of history and American civilization at the University of Texas, believes American conservatism of this period was best represented by a person such as Albert Jay Nock, about whom Crunden published an excellent study in 1964. Conservatives, he would have us believe, valued religion, the classics, agriculture, leisure, and elitist educational institutions. Conversely, they opposed materialism, capitalism, industrialization, urbanization, plutocracy, utilitarianism, and mass democratic politics. His selection of essays and excerpts from books of George Santayana, Ralph Adams Cram, Albert Jay Nock, H. L. Mencken, Donald Davidson, Frank L. Owsley, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Walter Lippmann is designed to show that these conservatives were, with the exception of Lippmann, “superfluous.” First of all, they were cultural elitists alienated from contemporary mass society and with nothing to say of practical value for, or interest to, the American public. Secondly, except for Lippmann, they were not interested in politics, and, according to Crunden, the essence of their conservatism lay in the belief that the most important things in life could not be obtained through politics and that governmental activity interfered with the enjoyment of culture and the articulation of cultural values.”They often made excellent debating points,” he writes, “but they were generally and perhaps rightly ignored by most Americans because what they said often had little bearing on the actual daily processes of government.” Evidently, Crunden believes the role of conservative intellectuals should not be to exercise power but rather to criticize from the sidelines the activities of liberals and collectivists and to yearn for another society, whether it be classical Greece, medieval France, or the antebellum South, in which tradition, authority, religion, art, and the social graces were highly valued. To Crunden, it is precisely the superfluous political character of the conservatives which enabled them to have been important cultural critics of American life.

One can seriously question Crunden’s interpretation of pre-1945 American conservatism while recognizing the value of collecting within one volume some of the most important statements of early 20th-century cultural conservatism. His error is in believing that cultural conservatism was the only variety of conservatism worth taking seriously. Another editor could just as easily have selected essays demonstrating the importance and relevance of political conservatism. One pre-1945 conservative who immediately springs to mind is the historian, essayist, and journalist Herbert Agar. Agar’s essays, “Private Property or Capitalism” and “The Task for Conservatism,” both published in 1934, were brilliant attempts to resuscitate American conservatism based on the principle of the widespread distribution of property. There was also the important collection of articles entitled Who Owns America?

A New Declaration of Independence, edited by Agar and Allen Tate in 1936, which attempted to formulate a conservative economic, political, and social program involving the repudiation of both Marxism and plutocracy, the encouragement of economic and political decentralization, the revival of small-scale farming and small business, and the wide-spread distribution of productive property.

The warnings of the pre-1945 politically conservative intellectuals regarding the growth of political centralization, the continuing dispossession of the farming and shopkeeping classes, the growing dependence of many Americans on remote economic and political bureaucracies, and the debasement of political discourse by zealous reformers are not merely of antiquarian interest. If modern American conservatives are often politically inarticulate, it is in part because they are generally unfamiliar with the writings of those who should be their mentors. American conservative intellectuals of the first half of the 20th century were not, as Crunden believes, solely morose and snobbish aesthetes pining for a past golden age. Instead, many were doing their best to reconcile conservative social values with modern industrialization and urbanization. That they have not been widely remembered should not detract from the importance of their effort.


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