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IC's Top 25 Philosophical and Ideological Conservative Books
No. 24 - Frank Meyer: In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo
by Dr. Enrico Peppe
12 October 2003

This is #24 of IC's top 25 conservative books as reviewed by Dr. Enrico Peppe. Frank Meyer advocated a "fusionism" of libertarianism and conservatism, which was much criticized by Murray Rothbard, the late L. Brent Bozell, Jr., and Craig Schiller. But if Meyer was wrong, then why is Donald Devine of the American Conservative Union calling for conservatives and libertarians to unite again, much like they did in the National Review which Meyers was a part of?


William F. Buckley, having exposed his university for its Liberal imagination four years prior, founded National Review in 1955. He hired a collection of some of the greatest political theorists of any persuasion of any time and place. His editors, columnists and writers included minds whose ruminations stretched from Max Eastman’s bare-boned libertarianism through Kirk’s ordered traditionalism to Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s Carlist-imbued Catholicism.

Interspersed amongst these were L. Brent Bozell, Jr. (Buckley’s brother-in-law and the author of Goldwater’s “Conscience of a Conservative”), James Burnham, John Chamberlain, Frank Chodorov, John Dos Passos, M. Stanton Evans, Will Herberg, Francis G. Wilson and prominent others. These intellectuals had two things in common: they weren’t Liberals and they were fervent anti-communists.

Buckley’s proposal for his new journal, his “credenda,” made clear that,
“the century’s most blatant force of satanic utopianism is communism…(We) find ourselves irrevocably at war with communism and shall oppose any substitute for victory.” Buckley was more than amiable in his embrace of all anti-communist positions from extreme classical liberalism to extreme traditionalism, so long as communism was defeated.

But it didn’t work out well. His group of soldiers was strong (you might say, “set”) in their ideological underpinnings. In-fighting was rampant, editorial sessions, explosive – feelings were hurt. Freedom theorists could not find commonalities with their Order/Virtue colleagues.

Standing in the midst of this internecine struggle was Frank S. Meyer (a former communist, as were other NR staffers), a co-founding editor of the new weekly and quite probably the closest advisor-warrior-confidante of Buckley’s. Both were seeing a weakening in the with-it-ness of the magazine’s crusade due to the variegated viewpoints represented on the masthead.

And so it came to pass that fusionism was born. Meyer saw little reason to believe that libertarianism with its classical notions of individual freedom and traditionalism with its Judeo-Christian belief in order and virtue couldn’t make nice. For him, freedom is an individual goal and can best be achieved in a society in equilibrium. To this end, he edited a collection of writings, “What is Conservatism?” which attempted to show that after all, Conservatives despise all forms of Totalitarianism. Their ideological orientation is merely a means to a desired end. Many NR writers from the “conservative” spectrum were featured along with their historical forerunners.

From Meyer’s pen came “In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo,” a work designed to prove that order and virtue is concomitant with freedom. The use of concomitance as a noun is telling. What he was saying was that traditionalism can occur with libertarianism in a lesser way. He was awarding the likes of Kirk, Voegelin, and Weaver the coveted title of “Miss Congeniality.” Not that he hid the fact. He acknowledges that the traditionalists “staunchly held the line against the assault of utilitarianism, positivism, and scientism, but on another level (they) failed philosophically, deeply misreading the nature of man.”

Here’s the crux: for Meyer,
(They) “ would not see the correlative to their fundamental position: acceptance of the moral authority derived from Transcendent criteria of truth and good must be voluntary if it is to have meaning; if it is coerced by…force…it is meaningless. (They ) were willing, if the right standards were upheld, to accept an authoritarian structure of state and society. (They) were, at the best, indifferent to freedom in the body politic; at the worst, its enemies.”

He had fused two traditions for expediency so as to fight the Cold War and to propound his thesis that only the American System blended freedom and virtue. He covered himself from the obvious skew in his proposition by affirming that Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” and Weaver’s “Ideas have Consequences” were his most important influences. (NB: Meyer’s Marxist predilection for antithetical prose).

The responses to Meyer by right-wing intellectuals following the 1962 publication of his book were numerous and vehement. While, on the surface, NR’s editorial stance was calm and determined, the Meyer furor would be read in the opinion section of the journal and in other conservative publications.

Of the many answers to Meyer’s political philosophy of fusionism, three stand out as prime:

(1) Murray Rothbard – the late, great libertarian concluded that fusionism did not actually exist! He admitted that Meyer was a libertarian – of sorts. Rothbard says,
“ In the one area where (he) differed substantively from the libertarian position, reason as being ‘within tradition,’ I submit that the attempt was so badly fallacious that it can only be explained as a heroic or desperate (depending on one’s point of view) attempt to find a face-saving formula to hold both very different parts of the conservative movement together…fusionism often seems like an attempt to paper over the contradictions within the…movement…Intellectually the concept must be judged a failure…”

(2) L. Brent Bozell,Jr. – the late, brilliant Catholic traditionalist excoriated Meyer’s meld. For Bozell, “freedom” was not sine qua non for seekers of virtue. Nash reports this beautifully: “What, after all, was virtue? If as Bozell argued, it meant conformity with human nature and the divine pattern of order, then Freedom was not necessary to virtue per se. An act could be virtuous even if it were instinctive or coerced. The quest was less important than the achievement. To Bozell, freedom, defined as ‘the urge to be free from God,’ was not the highest value. Ideally we should try to limit it, for ‘true sanctity is achieved only when man loses his freedom – when he is freed of the temptation to displease God.” One sees clearly that Bozell was out of place at NR. In 1966, he founded the journal, “Triumph.” He broke intellectual connections with the American conservative movement in favor of the European type of the Carlists. He brought Thomas Molnar and Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihn with him.

(3) Craig Schiller – He presents the most incisive analysis of Meyer. In his provocative and underrated book, “The Guilty Conscience of a Conservative,” (I plead guilty to hagiolatry!) he asserts that there are three Frank Meyers:
In Schiller’s prose: (Three)…emerge: the pragmatist, calling libertarians and traditionalists to a temporary coalition against their common enemies; the classicist, seeking reassertion of the Western tradition as it existed…prior to the nineteenth century; and the radical, rejecting the experience of the West in favor of one true system of American fusionism…Meyer the pragmatist…was invaluable to the American Right. Meyer the classicist may, without too much presumption, be dismissed as a wishful thinker; while Meyer the radical, condemning the Hebrews, Greeks, and Medieval Christians for their failure to anticipate James Madison’s theories of Government, is as good an example of any of a conservative provincialist.”

On May 13th of this year, Donald Devine, of the American Conservative Union, sent an urgent memorandum to Conservative leaders and activists, in which he asked that Fusionism return. The most prominent of his talking points was his request for conservatives to produce a magazine like the NR of old, using the Buckley-Meyer “formula.” (The reader can read the entire memo on my Third Way website).

Devine admits of the demise of NR as a Reaganite publication as that replaced by a Republican Establishment (Neocon?) journal. He feels that neither paleo nor neo, but libertarian and traditionalist, “ a fusionist conservative magazine puts the Reagan agenda back of the political battlefield.”

If a new journal emerges and the old fusionism returns, the credit should go to Meyer. For all its flaws, “In Defense of Liberty” apotheosized a time – an era when “satanic utopianism” perished.

(NB: Frank S. Meyer converted to Roman Catholicism shortly before his death).

This is the second of 25 books Dr. Peppe will be reviewing as part of the top 25 conservative books on political philosophy and ideology. Seminal books such as "The Federalist Papers" and "The Wealth of Nations" are not included in this list because they are already on most lists of the top books. Click here for the rest of IC's top 25 books.

Dr. Enrico Peppe is a retired educator who runs the website The Third Way. A widower with too much time on his hands, he spends most of his time reading and thinking about the conservative movement, studying Catholic theology, working on his "Third Way" website, listening to Sinatra and Miles Davis, and admiring Ann Coulter.

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