[This review was published in the Fall 2011 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 393-397.]
Reappraising the Right: The Past and Future of American Conservatism
George H. Nash
ISI Books, 2009
George Nash established his scholarly credentials early and over a period of several decades has produced a large volume of serious work that has included his three-volume biography of Herbert Hoover and his much-acclaimed The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (1976, revised 1996). Although most of his writing finds expression in books, this present work is a compilation of speeches and articles that go back as far as 1980. He has long ranked high as a speaker and historian among what many would consider the intellectual elite of the American conservative movement. It is easy to see why. Nash started out at a high level and has stayed there: among his other credentials, it is sufficient to recite that he was graduated summa cum laude from Amherst College and received his Ph.D in history from Harvard. In 2008, he was awarded the Richard M. Weaver Prize for Scholarly Letters.
The title, referring to a “reappraisal,” is somewhat of a misnomer, since so much of the book consists not of a recent reassessment but of writings going back over several years. The book is rather a compendium of Nash’s accounts of conservative personalities and institutions during his lifetime of close contact with them. All of the speeches and articles were presented before groups or published in outlets where an “outsider’s criticism” would not have been expected or appropriate. This has meant that many of them have amounted to encomiums celebrating their subjects. While readers will readily appreciate that this has placed Nash in a position where he has been under implicit pressure not to make a truly independent analysis, readers who wish to find out about or revisit such figures as Friedrich Hayek, Whittaker Chambers, Russell Kirk, Forrest McDonald, Senator John East, Richard Weaver, Ernest van den Haag – and several others – will find this book both inviting and informative. Even though Nash’s vocabulary occasionally sent this reviewer scurrying for his dictionary (or to the computer to Googleize a word), the book is easy reading.
Special emphasis is given to certain subjects, in what we might consider “islands” within the book. One of these is Part Two, which consists of five chapters dealing with William F. Buckley, Jr., and the beginning years of his National Review magazine. The selection of this for special emphasis reflects Nash’s own strong identification with the traditionalist, and often Roman Catholic, wing of American conservatism. This identification is so compelling that a reader might conclude that the personalities, think tanks and publishing outlets associated with that traditionalism (which in its foundational writings as penned by Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk harks back to the medievalist worldview that preceded the modern age) have been far and away the preeminent intellectual elite of the post-World War II American Right. (Many of these figures came to their traditionalism by way of transition from an earlier fervent embrace of Marxism-Leninism.) Whether they indeed have been preeminent depends, of course, upon one’s point of view. Nash informs the reader of several other strands of thinking within the Right that diverge widely from the traditionalism; and each of these, of course, has had articulate spokesmen. It should be noted that Nash has been sympathetic to the “fusionism” endorsed by Frank Meyer, which sought to bring the traditionalism into harmony with free-market individualism; and this sympathy serves for Nash as a meaningful bridge to the other components of the American Right. (Someone seeing the fusionism with a critical eye will be inclined to question whether it is not a bringing together only of the more superficial aspects of the various worldviews, since the medievalist consensus based on hierarchy, the centrality of religion, and a landed economic base is so very different from the classical liberalism, and its offshoots, that displaced it.)
A second “island” is Part III, which examines “Conservatism and the American Jewish Community.” A third is four chapters devoted to “Herbert Hoover: A Neglected Conservative Sage?” It is good to mention these because each Part contains thoughtful material that will interest readers who want to know more about recent American conservatism. Because these “islands” seem to cover subjects that stand unto themselves, their inclusion in this book is almost certainly explained by the fact that the book is really a volume of collected writings as distinct from an integrated explication of a thesis (such as “reappraisal”). That this is so doesn’t detract from their value in themselves.
Nash’s final chapters come to a discussion of the “predicament” of the American Right today. He sees that the working coalition of disparate groups, welded together during the Cold War by the imperatives of opposing Communism, has “seemingly devolved into a rancorous jumble of factions.” But he points back to the broad base of intellectual and political work that has been accumulated, and expresses some hope that “the intellectual Right [can] revitalize its roots and recover its philosophical moorings.” He mentions globalization and multiculturalism, and instead of seeing them as forces to be countered as posing a threat to the continued existence of Western civilization, perceives the challenges they pose primarily in terms of whether the factions of the Right can find ways convincingly to persuade others from different cultures of the value of a creed that seeks “freedom, virtue and safety.” This means that, looking forward, he sees the essence of conservatism as mostly creedal, not as formed by bonds of consanguinity, shared memory and a long-developed value consensus. It would suggest that conservatism as traditionalism has undergone a radical metamorphosis into something that it has long considered its opposite.
An exploration of all of the things brought to mind by Nash’s discussion would take us far beyond the intended length of this review. Before we conclude, however, there is one thing in particular that needs to be mentioned. Nash speaks of “the conservative coalition – libertarian, traditionalist, anti-Communist, neoconservatives and New Right.” Conspicuous by its absence (at least to this reviewer, although perhaps to no one else) is the lack of any “well rounded classical liberalism” among the strands of ideology. Nash hasn’t sensed the absence, even though his study of Herbert Hoover might well have suggested to him that there is much more to the “philosophy of individual liberty” than is encompassed within the narrow confines of today’s “libertarianism.” It isn’t Nash’s fault that a fully adequate classical liberalism isn’t within his purview; it is the fault, if we may call it that, of the intellectual history of the past two centuries. Several things happened that restricted classical liberalism’s development. Instead of explicating the many nuances of a complete philosophy of civilized living, classical liberal thinkers came, in the mid-nineteenth century, to see themselves as formulating a “science of economics.” Their preoccupation with economics blocked, in effect, the blossoming of a philosophy that would encompass not just economics, but law, aesthetics, art, music, literature, and more. This tunnel vision occurred at the same time as much of the Western intelligentsia threw itself into an alienated coalition with disaffected groups, forming the ideologies and movements of the Left. Others, mainly in Europe, turned toward an antimodernist mysticism and anti-liberalism, as described so well by Julien Benda in La Trahison des Clercs. The result was an atrophying of classical liberal thought. That atrophy is one of the primary facts about the American Right today.
Reappraising the Right is a valuable book, not for its reappraisal as such but because it allows a reader to revisit so many of the personalities and movement outlets that have been prominent within American conservatism since the end of the Second World War. Among these personalities is George Nash himself, a scholar and genuinely nice guy.
Dwight D. Murphey