Untimely Observations

More Canon Wars

Keith Preston is correct that one could easily look to monarchists and authoritarian conservatives for critiques of “liberal democracy.” But for better or worse, such critics were not libertarians, and to the extent that Schmitt was unhappy with liberal democracy, it was because this hybrid regime resembled the political worldview of someone like Ludwig von Mises. This source of libertarian inspiration, if Keith recalls, wrote in defense of universal government, at least initially adored the League of Nations, and like Hayek, believed that only democratic governments were morally legitimate. 

What Schmitt found odious about liberal democracy were precisely those features that libertarians now celebrate, to wit, a self-constructing individualism, the concept of universal rights and universal government, and the materialist understanding of human happiness. Although I personally endorsed Ron Paul for president, I would never claim that I was representing Schmitt or Eric Kuehnelt-Leddhin, let alone Joseph de Maistre, when I took this expediential stand. As someone influenced by Schmitt more than Mises or Ron Paul, I find it hard to act out of individualist, libertarian motives or beliefs. Nor do I find anything in Schmitt or European counterrevolutionaries that would ever lead me toward a philosophically based libertarian position.

Now that Keith has explained his position in detail, I find that we do indeed have common ground. I agree with his interpretation of what the Left aims at in the long run, namely global homogenization, the leveling of traditional hierarchy, social planning and at the end of the road, total control over systematically deracinated individuals. But on the way, the left offers even more fun and games, with the unleashing of the Christian heresy of multiculturalism and the flooding of the West with hostile alien populations.

But getting back to the criteria to be applied in choosing reading matter: We book-listers of the Right should consider whether it is possible to embrace some critics of the leftist project without endorsing the Left itself. Here I am certainly not speaking of someone like Lenin whom one would never take for a rightist. I am speaking specifically about those who take the autonomous individual for their moral and sociological reference point. Those who start from this position often land up sounding like the Left.  As I try to show in After Liberalism, most present-day libertarians are philosophically of the Left and should not be identified too closely with even conservative bourgeois liberals of the 19th century. On the other hand, I would not deny that libertarian critics can sometimes be useful in exposing leftist lies. Moreover, there are self-professed libertarians like Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe who produced more than enough grist for our mills in their economic and historical tracts. I would only stress my reservations about treating libertarians as a group as certified members of the intellectual Right.

On another note I did (mea culpa) omit Thucydides and other classical historians from my list but did so inadvertently. As a teacher of classical Greek and an avid reader of Thucydides, I could not possibly think of a more serious historical thinker (except possibly for Jacob Burckhardt) than this Athenian aristos and onetime naval commander. In fact I would place Thucydides at the top of my list of worthwhile ancient authors for his luminous insights as well for the reason that Hobbes gave for translating him (however ineptly). Although I enjoy the anecdotal and didactic aspects of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, its author is not in the same league conceptually or methodologically with the progenitor of the Histories.

The comments about the need to stress “Anglo-Saxon” political authors even at the cost of ignoring other ones are perplexing. Are we to favor such writers because they’re more Nordic than Russian or Italian authors? It is appalling to me that anyone with more than room-temperature intelligence would use such a bizarre measuring stick. Perhaps, however, we are being asked to emphasize specifically British writers because they bear directly, as Russell Kirk maintains, on our conservative traditions. Some Britishers do but others don’t. Why should we prefer as conservative guides John Stuart Mill or Richard Cobban, to Maistre, Schmitt or Soloviev?

While there are English writers from whom we can learn, is it necessary to value Mill and Locke more than continental conservatives or liberal conservatives? Should I relish two very influential non-conservative thinkers mentioned because they came from the British Isles? And though I would agree that the original design of our Constitution, the Common Law, and our literary, linguistic heritage are largely British, it doesn’t follow from this that continental Europeans are foreign to our political traditions. And with due respect to the neoconservative journalists glorifying the “Anglosphere,” our heritage is European and not simply “Anglo-American” or (God save from such tendentious terms!) “Anglo-Saxon democratic political culture.”

Although currently at work on a book about Strauss, I don’t feel compelled to include any of Strauss’s major works on the suggested list. That is because I find nothing distinctly rightwing or markedly conservative about these works, although some of them, and particularly Strauss’s work on Hobbes, have instructional value. I would readily assign them in a graduate political theory class, but that’s neither here nor there. I simply believe Strauss’s rightwing tendencies have been vastly exaggerated, often for journalistic reasons; and after reading lots of his writings, I have come to doubt that he was an advocate for classical civilization against late modernity. Although still open to opposite conclusions, there is too much in his work that causes me to believe differently.

Moreover, like Richard and Keith, I see no reason to tread the same water again that the conservative movement was treading 25 years ago, on the journey that took us to our present discontents. We’ve already had our share of Voegelin, Strauss, Hayek, etc., and the present movement, I would suggest, indicates the effect of these icons in diverting attention from other, perhaps more fruitful sources of conservative thinking. In the case of Strauss, it does not demean an important political thinker to underline the demonstrable fact that he was not a man of the Right. His disciples who became leaders of the neoconservative camp were less erudite and far more obnoxious than their master. But politically and to some extent philosophically, they were not far apart from him.