book cover imageThe Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar American Right
by Paul Edward Gottfried.
Dekalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 1986,

Revised edition 2010. Paper, $24.

Few prominent postwar conservative thinkers have credited Hegelian concepts as a major influence on their own political thinking. Was Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770–1831) not a state-worshipper whose antidemocratic ideas would later spawn Marxist-Leninism and fascism? Given this apparent connection between Hegel’s political thought and the rise of modern totalitarian ideologies, conservatives have tended to distance themselves from his influence. Yet in this lucidly argued study, Dr. Gottfried, a professor of history and senior editor for The World & I, persuasively demonstrates that many of these same writers actually incorporated “Hegelian assumptions about the dialectical nature of reality, the unique Western heritage of freedom, and the legitimacy of political power” into their work.

Recounting the hostile anti-Hegelianism of some of the architects of the postwar conservative intellectual movement, Gottfried observes that, despite some unquestionably conservative elements in Hegel’s thought, they typically decried his influence on the subsequent direction and substance of Western philosophy. The leading Burkean conservative, Russell Kirk, in his magisterial history of conservative ideas, The Conservative Mind (1953), for example, described Hegel as at best “a conservative only from chance and expediency.” The principles of the founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke; Kirk contended, have little in common with Hegel’s Categorical-Imperative determinism, and worship of the abstract state. While “Marx could draw upon Hegel’s magazine; he could find nothing to suit him in Burke,” he concluded.

Taking aim from a different direction, Leo Strauss (1899–1973) identified Hegel’s historicism with social-cultural determinism and moral relativism. Hegel’s work, he maintained, had prepared the way for Marx, Nietzsche, and the other modern atheists. The late Frank S. Meyer, for his part, repeatedly attacked Hegel as a historical determinist and worshipper of the state.

Yet, notwithstanding such “ritualistic anti-Hegelianism,” Gottfried makes a compelling case for the proposition that “Hegelianism became a shaping influence on postwar American conservatism.” Included in his examination of those self-described anti-Hegelians whose cultural and political outlook nevertheless reflect a Hegelian component are, among others, such distinguished thinkers as Will Herberg (1902–1977), Sidney Hook (1902–1989), Karl Wittfogel (1896–1988), Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), and Meyer. Since all had explicitly disavowed Hegelian doctrines, though, Gottfried’s task of exposing an intellectual genealogy connecting these contemporary thinkers with the ideas of this German historicist theorist is made especially difficult. He confesses that their Hegelian thinking was not a product of any first-hand study of Hegel, but instead had been acquired indirectly as a result of their youthful flirtations with Marxist ideology. To make his case, he is forced to “probe beyond their stated beliefs to uncover the Hegelian source of their thinking.” As a consequence of this approach, he discovers that their philosophy of history parallels that of Hegel. Even while they attributed their ideas to less controversial sources than Hegel, they had imbibed Hegelian thinking from the intellectual environment in which they were nurtured.

His analysis of the Hegelian influence on the postwar American intellectual Right leads him to examine the broader issue of what he calls the present “conservative farewell to history.” He sharply reproaches the Straussians, neo-conservatives, libertarians, and policy analysts at some conservative think-tanks for “neglecting the sense of history . . . long basic to the conservative movement.” Like Marx, he points out, these “conservative activists wished to change the world and no longer to philosophize about it.”

Whereas the Burkean conservatives who helped found the movement in the Fifties, among them Kirk, Peter Viereck, Peter Stanlis, Herberg, and such Southern conservatives as Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, and Richard Weaver, “all appealed to the historical past in order to vindicate the political-cultural values,” the present generation instead strive to shape conservatism in an antihistorical direction. Adopting a wholly modernist outlook, they are concerned entirely with immediate public policy outcomes or glorifying “abstract individuals or abstract ideals.” As a consequence, conservatism is presently undergoing a cultural narrowing. A valuable antidote for this growing presentist and non-theoretical tendency, in Gottfried’s view, lies in a renewed appreciation of “the sense of a living past” found in Hegel.

Strauss and his disciples are among the major intellectual factors blamed for the present conservative flight from history. Since he associated historical thinking with the relativization of moral values, Strauss concluded that society could be spared from moral disintegration only by the elimination of historical consciousness and a return of philosophy to the ideal standards of reason. He castigated the “destructive and pervasive” influence of historicism upon modern society. His famous attack on Burke, in which he denounces the great statesman for taking his moral bearings from history rather than nature, and equating the good with the ancestral, was an indirect attack on traditional, historically minded conservatism.

The neoconservatives receive anequally severe critical drubbing from Gottfried. George Will, Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz are berated for groping “awkwardly for historical and philosophic roots as” they seek “to justify American society as it is presently constituted” (by which Gottfried means they defend the welfare state and praise the spread of secular and egalitarian values). Neoconservatism is reproved sharply as a “largely hand-to-mouth political philosophy” derived for the most part from “the work of certain Straussians.”

The Straussians reject the notion that historicism can be compatible with the affirmation of transcendent moral values, while the neoconservatives are absorbed wholly with transitory public policy issues and an uncritical celebration of material progress. Both groups exhibit a marked distaste for historical conservatism. Historically conscious conservatives, for their part, however, recognize that living traditions are indispensable to a well-ordered and civilized society. The principles of the good life are found in traditions constituted by the accumulated and filtered experience of many generations of ancestors striving to rise above what is arbitrary, or selfish, in their souls. Particular acts of courage, charity, honesty, faith, and duty provide concrete examples of individual efforts to overcome personal bias and advantage. By drawing upon this vast body of historical experience, a person discovers evidence of “the permanent things,” that is, universally valid moral standards.

In his defense of historical thinking, Gottfried joins with the neo-Hegelian Claes Ryn, whose book Will, Imagination and Reason (Regnery, 1986) Gottfried’s thesis both supplements and complements, in laying the epistemological foundation for a value-centered historicism. Both thinkers reject the worship of abstract reason and the radical antihistorical bias of the Straussians, neoconservatives, and libertarian individualists. Genuine philosophic knowledge, they recognize, is dialectical, conjoining what is universal in the human experience with the historical, through the intuitive, synthesizing power of the moral imagination.

Ryn argues that the remedy for the current theoretical bankruptcy of modern conservatism lies in a rediscovery of the theory of reality found in the works of the American humanist Irving Babbitt (1865–1933) and the neo-Hegelian Benedetto Croce (1866–1952). For Gottfried, a route achieving similar ends can be taken through a renewed understanding of Hegel’s historical consciousness.

No higher compliment can be paid to a work of scholarship than to acknowledge its influence on one’s own thinking. Because of a prejudice deeply embedded in me by the inveterate anti-Hegelian sentiments of most American cultural conservatives, I had concluded that Hegel’s work could contribute little of value to contemporary conservative thought. Gottfried’s powerful arguments to the contrary have convinced me that I was thoroughly wrong in this assumption and that Hegel, properly understood, is indispensable to the revival of genuine historical thinking within the conservative movement. “The passing of the historicist tradition from the postwar conservative movement has left a theoretical void that may eventually embarrass American conservatives . . . ,” Gottfried cogently warns, “Having by now largely lost a shared vision of the past, conservatives may soon find themselves without any vision except that of dehistoricized persons who seek to enrich themselves and the gross national product through the tireless pursuit of self-interest.”

If conservatism is to endure as a shaping force on American cultural and political life, then conservative principles must be grounded on sound ethico-aesthetical doctrines. Gottfried is among the younger generation of historically conscious conservatives who have taken on the task of building a body of conservative thought upon a moral epistemology which until now has received scant attention even in conservative circles. Having made a significant stride toward laying the groundwork for an intellectually reinvigorated conservatism, Gottfried’s examination of Hegel’s influence on postwar American conservatives deserves an attentive reading.  

W. Wesley McDonald is an associate professor of political science at Elizabethtown College.