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Whither conservatism?
by George Shadroui
2 September 2003

A historical look at our country; from its roots to the conservatism of today, focusing on Buckley and Kirk. Until conservatives and Republicans reacquaint themselves with the issues of government excess and crass materialism in a serious way, we risk losing ourselves in the same materialist quagmire that destroyed socialism.


For some years now, many of us who think of ourselves as traditional conservatives have been wrestling with the direction of the conservative movement. We are mindful that the modern conservative movement, as we understood it, rallied around three basic concerns: opposition to communism and socialism, the celebration of a free economy, and the preservation of traditional values upon which the nation’s culture and future depend.

When the free world overcame communism, we did not think the battle for a better America had ended. Capitalism, for all its benefits, was never the sole end of true conservatives, as this essay will seek to show, and we did not oppose the centralization of power in the state only to surrender it to the multi-national corporation. Of course, we are not anti-government or anti-corporation. We see the need for both, but might define that need more narrowly than others. We are mindful of the services and conveniences afforded us by a commercial economy, but we do not think commercialism is the only value to which we might aspire. Our concern was ably and succinctly summed up by George Will almost 30 years ago, when he wrote:

True conservatives distrust and try to modulate social forces that work against the conservation of traditional values. But for a century the dominant conservatism has uncritically worshipped the most transforming force, the dynamism of the American economy. No coherent conservatism can be based solely on commercialism, but this conservatism has been consistently ardent only about economic growth, and hence about economies of scale, and social mobility. These take a severe toll against small towns, small enterprises, family farms, local governments, craftsmanship, environmental values, a sense of community, and other aspects of humane living. (The Pursuit of Happiness)

Before exploring these issues in more detail, let us survey the political landscape for a moment. The Republican Party - I am sorry to say – has become overly solicitous of big corporations and big government. There is no wing that I can discern that puts small business interests ahead of capitalist forces, or seeks to rescue nature or local culture from modern excesses. There is no energetic environmental movement within the Republican Party and, even more surprising, no strong push for local empowerment. The collaboration between big government and big business is a concern. Lip service is given from time to time to local and states rights, but the federal government grows, no matter who is in charge. In the meantime, we struggle to make sense of economic policies that put the American worker and the small entrepreneur at a disadvantage.

The Democrats are even more worrisome. They are committed totally to the empowerment of the federal government at the expense of individuals and small businesses. Bill Clinton might have believed the era of big government was over, but he was wrong as surely as he was misguided in so many other ways. The party of FDR and JFK has become the true party of Strom Thurmond, vintage 1948 - endlessly seeking to play the race and class cards for political advantage. The white southerners of yesteryear did it well, but nobody does it better than the left.

Where then, are we to turn, the advocates of the small farm and shop? How do we engage a dialogue that roots conservatism in the heart of the republic, and how does one salvage our culture from the demigods that parade across our media on a daily basis, unmindful of the harm they do in the name of getting more, by whatever means, no matter the damage done to our children, our local environment or our long-term cultural health?

Lost Causes

G.K. Chesterton, the great British pundit, died in 1938, just in time to miss the destruction wrought by the engines of corporate and state power he had resisted throughout his life. His argument against unbridled capitalism is found throughout his work, but perhaps most eloquently in his essay, What's Wrong with the World. He was joined in battle by T.S. Eliot, who wrote in his important essay, "Notes on A Christian Society," that a wrong attitude toward nature revealed a wrong attitude toward God.

Their concerns were taken up by the small group of southern poets and writers based in Nashville, Tennessee, who in the 1920s and 1930s launched their own movement to save traditional culture from the engines of modernity. The Fugitives, as they would be called, were an interesting group. They included such giants of literature as Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, and men of traditional mind like Donald Davidson and Andrew Lytle. Historians from across the nation would express sympathy with their world view, e.g. Richard Weaver, M.E. Bradford, Cleanth Brooks, C. Vann Woodward and Eugene Genovese.
It is no accident that they emerged as a cultural and literary force in the shadows of the Tennessee hills, not far from the Smokey Mountains. Vanderbilt was a quiet refuge in a tumultuous world. As one historian of the movement noted: "The surrounding land nurtured a conservative society whose easy manners and customs endowed the school with a gentler aspect, providing its students with a homogenous outlook and a hardy traditionalism."

The Fugitives were arguably the most important regional movement to emerge in the United States since Emerson and Thoreau walked the New England woods almost a century before. They were determined to turn back the forces of industrialism, not in the name of enslaving the poor, but in liberating man. Their dreams could not be counted on a horizon of smokestacks. They articulated this view in an anthology called, I'll Take My Stand, which has survived, amid charges of romanticism, as one of the more important cultural critiques of the past century.

The historian Eugene Genovese, in his short but important study, The Southern Tradition, put in perspective the Agrarian agenda. The movement was about preserving a regional culture, a way of life rooted in land and tradition. The Agrarians were not opposed to modernity, but to its excesses. Wrote Genovese: "Southern conservatives have condemned not science, reason, material progress and individualism, but, rather, the cult of scientism, atheistic and pantheistic rationalism, and a material progress that has resulted in the alienation of the individual from self and society."
By the 1930s, the nation had changed so dramatically that the Agrarians were viewed in many quarters as throwbacks disconnected from reality. Merrill Peterson, the great Jeffersonian scholar, has suggested that in adopting Jefferson as their model, the Fugitives failed to acknowledge that the Virginian had accommodated himself to the uses of industrial and state power. Richard Hofstadter likewise suggests that the notion of an agricultural America rooted in tradition, self sustaining and noble, was pure mythology; the Agrarian ideal had ceased to exist long before the 1930s, a victim of Westward expansion, rural greed and frontier atrocities.
Nothing the critics have said obviates the concerns of the Agrarians, however, who were well aware that rural folks were not immune to the dominant cultural forces blowing through the nation. Nor is there any denying that Fugitives were out of step with the times. The historian C. Van Woodward has observed that by mid 20th century, cities in Southern metropolitan areas were growing at three times the rate of comparable cities in other parts of the country. For every three city dwellers in the South in 1940, there were four by the end of the decade. Moreover, in 1930, there were 5.5 million southerners employed in agriculture, a number that drops to 3.2 million by 1950.

But lost causes can still be important. Genovese, once a staunch leftist, found much about southern conservatism to applaud. For starters, the Agrarians were "premature environmentalists" whose concern about the impact of industrialized life on the environment is an important theme in I'll Take My Stand.

The opening essay, by John Crowe Ransom, set the tone. Ransom, like Chesterton, sought a world filled not with ambitious men, but with contented citizens. Whatever its drawbacks, European culture, at least beyond the great cities, had reconciled itself to nature. Men and women found their spot between the rock and the shade tree and then "willed the whole in perpetuity to the generations which should come after. This had been in many respects the thrust of human society, in which man concludes a truce with nature, and he and nature seem to live on terms of mutual respect and amity…..But the latter day societies have been seized - none quite so violently as our American one - with the strange idea that the human destiny is not to secure an honorable peace with nature, but to wage an unrelenting war on nature."

Davidson argued that true artistic accomplishment is - in the final analysis -- a product of rural life and cannot be severed from spiritual and traditional forces that beat in the heart of nature.

Several other essays argue against the logic of progress as defined in an urban or industrial setting.

It is, in fact, impossible for any culture to be sound and healthy without a proper respect for the soil, no matter how many urban dwellers think their victuals come from groceries and delicatessens and their milk from tin cans.

So wrote Andrew Lytle who sought to combat the negative images of southern rural life that were prevalent in the great centers of commerce. Lytle was not impressed with the notion that progress came parading in the garb of the New Deal or any other government-inspired innovation. While it is true that modern conveniences afford us more time - the crucial question is time for what? Is the time spent in a way more meaningful than learning how to live in harmony with nature? Is our dream of modernity a life in which the body and mind atrophy, food is less healthy, our lives imitate popular trends, our relationships are formed with celebrities we will never meet, our wants determined by advertising that tries to convince us to fill our homes with marginally useful products?

"Prophets do not come from cities promising riches and store clothes. They have always come from wilderness, stinking of goats and running with lice, and they spoke of a different kind of treasure, one a corporation head would not understand," Lytle observed.

Ransom conceded that the engines of change will not be stilled, but it was his hope that they might be slowed down. Davidson acknowledged that art can be created in urban centers, but asks if mass produced art does not, in the end, lead to a deterioration of value and content. Robert Penn Warren knew the day was coming when the sins of racism would have to be confronted, but he nevertheless offered a kinder interpretation of the relationship between southern white and black cultures than the rest of the nation allowed.

As Genovese observed, the noble efforts of the Agrarians to confront the excesses of commercial culture got lost, unfortunately, in the upheaval over civil rights. Massive resistance in the South to the rightful claims of African American citizens did great harm not only to the racial relations of our nation, but also to the very idea of local and states rights. Genovese tackled this issue head on precisely because he believed the Agrarians were part of a great American tradition on behalf of a kinder, more thoughtful way of life. Rural communities and small towns across the nation had earned a place at the table of American democracy.

Whither Conservatism?

The Agrarians understood, intuitively, that they were on the losing side of history. The great engines of change - industrialism, modernity, consumerism - could not be turned back by fine phrases and poetic sentiment. Nevertheless, they articulated a perspective that would find a constituency as the excesses of the 20th century became more pronounced. They were the precursors of the modern environmental movement, as we have noted, and that movement would emerge as a major political force in the 1950s and 1960s. They would also find a hearing in the pro-business, pro- free enterprise conservative movement that William F. Buckley Jr. launched in full force in the 1950s.
Buckley rallied a new conservatism (and won criticism from the old conservatives like Peter Vierek for his efforts) that brought three strains of thought into a cohesive, albeit strained, alliance. Prior to Buckley, conservatism was a hodge-podge of ideas with no real constituency. Republican candidates and presidents were generally pro-business, but had no coherent vision or philosophy relative to the role of government.
Buckley changed that. First, he brought into the fold prominent anti-communists such as Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham and Max Eastman. He also engaged the free marketers, who focused on the dangers of expanding government to business. They were students of Hayek and Von Mises and would later take solace from Milton Friedman. Most interestingly, Buckley mobilized traditional conservatives like Russell Kirk, who, while being anti-communist and pro-free enterprise, rooted his concerns more deeply in the soil of American history than either of the other two wings.

If Buckley is the "patron saint" of conservatives, Russell Kirk was certainly the dean of scholarly conservatism. His classic, The Conservative Mind, remains the definitive work on the roots of Western conservatism over the past 200 years. Interestingly, despite their friendship, Buckley and Kirk are a study in contrasts. Buckley spent most of his time in New York, while Kirk was a quiet scholar living in rural Michigan. Buckley was a celebrity, Kirk an obscure historian. Buckley named as friends some of the most prominent liberals of the age, while Kirk opened a seminar for shaping new conservative thinkers. Buckley had wit, style, glamour; Kirk was almost sullen at times, a man uninspired by the modern trends with which he was forced to contend.

Kirk argued that conservatism was about a great deal more than making the world safe for consumers. And he said as much on a number of occasions, perhaps most emphatically in the very book that conservatives tout as their classic - The Conservative Mind.

And Burke, could he see our century, never would concede that a consumption-society, so near suicide, is the end for which providence has prepared man. If a conservative order is indeed to return, we ought to know the tradition which is attached to it, so that we may rebuild society; if it is not to be restored, still we ought to understand conservative ideas so that we may rake from the ashes what scorched fragments of civilization escape the conflagration of unchecked will and appetite.

Kirk was so concerned about this issue, in fact, that he brings it up repeatedly in TCM. He suggests that the entrepreneurial spirit, unleashed and untempered, posed a danger to traditional culture. He takes head on the pro-capitalist wing when he laments: "to complete the rout of traditionalists, in America an impression began to arise that the new industrial and acquisitive interests are the conservative interest, that conservatism is simply a political argument in defense of large accumulations of private property, that expansion, centralization and accumulation are the tenets of conservatives."

If there were any doubt about Kirk's own view, it is clarified in two important lectures that he delivered in the early 1990s before the Heritage Foundation, arguably the most important think tank in the country. Kirk celebrated the memory of Donald Davidson, one of the original Agrarians. Davidson, Kirk argued, sought to save the American south from the rampant consumerism that had, by the 1990s, degraded American culture. He stood up against the centralized state that sought to control education and the economy, and against private interests that sought to homogenize America and thus rob it of its regional flavor. Davidson and the Agrarians resisted the marching orders of commercial and state power.

So I do commend to you, ladies and gentlemen, the genuine conservatism of the Twelve Southerners. It is not the only mode of conservative thought, but it is an important mode. The authors of I'll Take My Stand did not propound a rigorous ideology or display a model of Utopia: their principal purpose was to open our eyes to the illusions of Modernism. The Southern Agrarians proclaimed when I was a child that the southern culture is worth defending; that society is something more than the gross national product; that the country lane is healthier than the Long Street; that more wisdom lies in Tradition than in Scientism; that Leviathan is a devourer, not a savior.

Kirk could be accused of not always understanding the realities of wielding power in a modern industrial state, but he nevertheless did not abandon his traditionalist approach. How we live and work is important, he suggested. The now over-used cliché, quality of life, was central to his perspective. That is why, in another lecture, he celebrated Wilhelm Roepke, who had been the architect of the post-war German recovery.

"Roepke was a principal champion of a humane economy: that is, an economic system suited to human nature and to a humane scale in society, as opposed to systems bent upon mass production regardless of counterproductive personal and social consequences. He was a formidable opponent of socialist and other `command’ economies; also a fearless, perceptive critic of an unthinking `capitalism.'”

Kirk was hardly alone. Whittaker Chambers, Malcolm Muggeridge, James Buckley — and others — all expressed sympathy for the cultural critique that Kirk outlined. In his essay, "Cold Friday," Chambers assumes almost a Jeffersonian mantel as he walks us around the farm and the fields, notably the one for which his essay was named. He calls “Cold Friday” a defiant field, with two of its sides too steep for modern farm machines to navigate, and he suggests that this obstinate geography had a symbolic meaning -- a retreat from the great emotional upheavals that had wearied him. Chambers ties respect for the land directly to the fight against collectivist forces. "So I meant Cold Friday to be a base for my children not only against the forces of revolution in the world, but also against the climate of materialism which breeds revolutionists," he wrote. He listened for the eternal things.

Spring has come to us again-a spring that I scarcely expected to see. Twice at night the wild geese have passed over. There have been three such flights, since one night I dreamed that I saw hundreds flying overhead, so in the way we hear so much without ever quite waking to its meaning, I may have heard these wild geese honking without waking.

Students of Chambers know that he disassociated himself somewhat from the label conservative and that he was critical both of the south and of Kirk. He even applauds the ingenuity of the industrial power unleashed by the North. Yet the contradictions in his own life are telling. Like many people living in modern societies but still tied to what Yeats has called "the memory of Nature," Chambers was at war with himself. Chambers conceded that capitalism uproots our sense of place, yet he rooted himself and his own survival precisely in a place that he calls "Cold Friday." He opposed the materialist energies of the left, but then applauded the materialist energies on the right. All the while, he candidly acknowledged that the great issue confronting Western civilization was one of spirit and faith, not only the free market. (In this respect, he was a precursor, perhaps, of Solzhenitsyn). When he dismissed the concerns of Kirk as "irrelevant buzz" he was refusing to embrace an answer to the most fundamental question he asks: What in the West is worth saving? Kirk had an answer, but one not easily accepted in our age of excess.
Until conservatives and Republicans reacquaint themselves with these issues in a serious way, we risk losing ourselves in the same materialist quagmire that destroyed socialism. We cannot return to the age of Jefferson, but we might revive a cultural dialogue through which the excesses of capitalism and the state might be tempered, and the reclamation of our communities reenergized. It is not simply conservatism that is at risk, but the very idea of self governing individuals who need not be crucified on a cross of centralized power, wherever that power might reside.

George Shadroui is a Memphis based writer who has been published in more than two dozens newspapers and magazines, including National Review and Frontpagemag.com.



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