Into the Dustbin

From Chronicles, November, 1998

Ever since I committed the blunder, nearly thirty years ago, of signing up with the "conservative movement" during my first year in graduate school, a certain pattern of behavior has enforced itself on my decreasingly callow mind. The pattern is, as a colleague of mine once remarked to me, that there seems to be no other purpose of any conservative organization than to ignite a faction-fight as soon as possible and thereby destroy the organization. In graduate school the rule proved true. There was no campus chapter of Young Americans for Freedom because the leaders of that group had already fallen upon each other and dispatched the rest of the Yaffies to oblivion. The year I joined the only remaining conservative group on the campus, the Young Republicans, the ex-Yaffies decided to attack it and soon managed to leave it a shattered vessel lurching helplessly through the dark seas of the academic left. The child is father to the man, and what I observed as a mere stripling conservative back then has turned out to be something close to a law of the universe ever since. The "Right," whatever its philosophical content and whatever its political agenda, appears to be inherently flawed by tendencies to schisms and factionalism, and these tendencies go far to explain why it always loses, no matter how compelling its ideas or how repulsive its political and cultural enemies on the left. Why is this so, and what can be done about it?

That it is so remains true today. The conservative organizations that prevailed in the 1960s and '70s -- like YAF itself -- are now largely defunct or mere shells of what they used to be, and not a few destroyed themselves by their own internal factionalism. Today, there is virtually no "conservative movement" worthy of the name, apart from the ever-thriving hive of neo-conservative Beltway condotierri whose simulation of "populism" keeps their kids in private schools and high-priced cars. Even these quarters are not exempt from the law of conservative self-destruction, and most of them periodically titillate the Beltway rumor mill with stories of their own internal purges, bloodlettings, bankruptcies, and the odd embezzlement by one or another of the patriotic Christians who run them.

No one should be surprised that the Beltway Right behaves pretty much like most other people in Washington, but the inherent factionalism of the Right is not confined to it, nor is it a product of serious philosophical and political antagonisms. On what may be called either the "Hard Right" or the "Old Right," I can think of perhaps half a dozen organizations that simply cannot work with each other because of the personal loathing, jealousy, and distrust that prevails between their leaders or members. But despite some ideological differences, these groups are all in essential agreement with each other, and all of them have the same enemies. If they could work together, they might actually accomplish something, but they can't, and every effort among them to coordinate and cooperate has flopped. If the truth be told, there is very little practical purpose in anyone joining or aligning with any of them, let alone expecting them ever to accomplish any substantial goal other than remaining in useless existence. Signing up with the American Right today resembles nothing so much as picking up a loaded revolver and proceeding to shoot your own toes off one by one.

There are various explanations of the suicidal proclivities of the Right that come to mind, not least the theory that conservatism as it emerged in the 1950s was largely dominated by ex-communists of one stripe or another who insisted on importing into their new-found political allegiances the same demand for conformity and orthodoxy that had prevailed in the Party (whichever "Party," Stalinist, Trotskyist, or other, they had belonged to). The most notorious of these ex-communist grand inquisitors of the Right was perhaps the late Frank S. Meyer, a Communist Party functionary until 1945 who, once he had concluded that path was the wrong road to travel, at once set himself up as the chap who got to decide who was and who was not a "real" conservative. From the foundation of National Review in 1956 until his death in 1972, Meyer never failed to denounce, purge, read out, expel, and generally behave like the Andrei Vishinsky of the American Right. He tried to prevent the late Russell Kirk from writing for National Review, spread the rumor that his ex-Trotskyist colleague at the magazine, James Burnham, was a CIA plant, and managed, in his major political-philosophical manifesto (In Defense of Freedom), to excommunicate just about every promising mind on the American Right of his generation. Admittedly, some of these minds never lived up to their promise, and some lived to break their promises as soon as it was profitable to do so, but Meyer's insistence on an "orthodoxy" or a "mainstream" largely invented and formulated by himself helped make the movement he came to shape as uninteresting as it was unimportant and impart his own doctrinaire habits of mind to the generation of younger conservative activists whom he influenced.

But blaming right-wing self-destructiveness merely on one man is a toad that won't hop. The truth is that the tendency arises from the historical situation of the Right in almost every historical context in which any movement of the Right appears. The suicidal tendencies of the Right emerge from the fact that the Right, almost by definition, is a collection of historical losers.

Probably the first historical conflict in which "right" and "left" were the main contenders was the English Civil War of the 1640s, and while the left side of the conflict, represented by the English Parliamentarians and their myriad "Puritan" allies and supporters, was notoriously schismatic, the same was true of the Right side, represented by King Charles I and his court. Anglicans vs. Catholics, civilians vs. military, absolutists vs. constitutional monarchists, and the usual baggage of nincompoop courtiers and sycophants vs. serious advisers who had some glimmer of how to win and what needed to be done all significantly contributed to the loss of the civil war by the "Right" of the day, the eventual execution of the king himself, and the triumph for nearly a dozen years of Oliver Cromwell's dictatorship. Unlike Charles I, Cromwell dealt with his own side's tendencies to factionalism simply by kicking out or ruthlessly suppressing those rivals that bothered him.

The Left, whether Puritan, Jacobin, Bolshevik, or other, can do that because it generally represents history's winners, a rising social force that actually has an agenda with concrete interests and ideas, and sooner or later the victorious mainstream simply cuts adrift the nuts, crackpots, and perennial malcontents that deflect it from its main purpose. But the Right, whatever the historical context, tends to be composed of history's losers - people whose interests, ideas, and values represent a social and political order that is on the wane. If it were not on the wane, there would be no emergence of "right" and "left" sides at all and hence no significant conflict between them. But precisely because the interests and ideas of the Right side are declining, it has immense difficulty in coming up with any practicable, concrete program by which its obsolescent wishes can be realized, and because it generally represents the losing side of history, it tends to attract folks who are losers in many different respects—conspiracy nuts who worry about the fringe on the flag while the substance of their national sovereignty and civilization is being destroyed; crackpots who have invented their own secret cures for AIDS and cancer; fanatics who have drafted vast, unreadable manuscripts exposing the real cause of everything that's going wrong in the Bankers, the Jews, the Masons, or the Clinton White House; and, inevitably, the sad sacks who have no social life whatsoever other than the potato chip-and-soda pop soirees in which history's discards get to know one another as human beings.

In the United States, prior to the 1930s, it was not so. The Right back then was the organized political expression of a dominant social and political class, a class that sported at its top families like the DuPonts and at its bottom such happy warriors as Sinclair Lewis' George Babbitt and his friends. It was a class that dictated the tastes and manners of the day, was determined to keep immigrants out of the country, maintain the Constitution and the Free Enterprise System, put America First, preserve the white, Christian, Republican character of the nation, and crush the Bolsheviks and labor agitators wherever you could find them. As a ruling class, it was an amalgam of the Old Stock Protestant Establishment and the plutocracy that rose to national power after the Civil War. However poorly defined its ideas and however vapidly expressed its ethic, it was nevertheless a real class that really had something to conserve, and it generally knew that it could not conserve it unless it also conserved the social and cultural fabric through which it exercised social power.

In the Great Depression and New Deal, this bourgeois ruling class was effectively dislodged from social and political power. Its top ranks, if they survived at all, soon allied with the emerging managerial elites in state and corporation, and its bottom ranks, stripped of any real prospect of preserving or restoring the social order in which they had played a significant part, simply drifted. It was mainly those middle and bottom ranks of the old bourgeois elite that for the next forty years would effectively define "conservatism" and the Right as they were known to the generation between Herbert Hoover and Barry Goldwater. Unable to articulate its own ideas and values very effectively, it welcomed ideological allies in journalism and the academy that could express them, but the journalists and the academics were not for the most part of the same class or culture. Hence, the "conservatism" they defined displayed all the symptoms of rootless intellectualism and attracted all the odd and awkward personality types that could not fit anywhere else and would not fit with each other.

Once "conservatism" is decoupled from the social order and the social class that it naturally represents, it becomes simply one more ideological ghetto, angrily hunting down and kicking out those who deviate from its sectarian commandments and every now and then hurling a few mudballs at whoever passes by, and the kinds of personality it tends to attract are precisely those that are unable to work together for any serious purpose. It ceases to defend authentic tradition because authentic tradition has ceased to exist in a coherent form, and what it defends is "traditionalism." It ceases to defend authentic liberty because the rooted liberty that once pertained in the defunct social order is no longer meaningful, and what it defends is "libertarianism." It ceases to defend the people, culture, and institutions of the old order because they too have ceased to exist coherently as a fabric or have been conscripted into the new order, and what it defends is simply a pallid ghost of what was once a living civilization.

All it can do is worry over who is and who is not a "real conservative," which merely means who does and who does not let the self-appointed swamis of the Right do his thinking for him. Depending on the personal strength and success of the particular swamis that lead them, the cults of "movement conservatism" may flourish indefinitely, continue to publish their endless series of unreadable tracts and sermons to their own choirs, and actually meet the payrolls of their staffs, but no one—least of all the swamis in charge—ever expects to gain substantial power or take charge of the rudders of history.

Is there anything that can be done to cure the incessant self-destructiveness of the Right or remove the causes of its own suicidal tendencies? Probably not, as long as the "Right" insists on defining itself in terms of social and historical forces that have already lost. The only thing it can do is try to grasp the truth that those forces have lost and that what they represented cannot be restored and, instead of presenting itself as the champion of lost causes, to align itself with new forces able to challenge the established order and to do so in terms that will neither be co-opted by the new regime nor deflected by the phantoms of the old. Once in a while such a movement appears, but invariably it only excites the wrath of the "Right." It is too "populist," it appeals to Mass Man, it is too "statist," it is too "radical," or it deviates from the ideological orthodoxy of the Right in some other arcane way. Sooner or later, such a movement is either captured by its allies on the Right and simply becomes one more phone booth into which all the malcontents and oddwads try to cram themselves, or else it ignores them, wishes them a good day, and proceeds to make a little history all by itself, on its own terms and for its own purposes. But, of course, when the movement does the latter, it ceases to belong to the "Right" at all and actually begins to evolve into one of history's winners.