With the death of Ernest van den Haag on March 21, 2002, the conservative movement lost one of its most redoubtable intellectual warriors in the decades after World War II. And the University Bookman lost one of its longtime friends and supporters.
Like so many of conservatism’s postwar “founding fathers,” van den Haag was a former radical and refugee from totalitarian Europe. Born in Holland and raised in Italy, he was a twenty-three-year-old Communist and law student at the University of Florence when Mussolini’s Fascist government imprisoned him in 1937. He spent most of the next two years in solitary confinement. Upon his release, he made his way to France, where he briefly studied psychiatry at the Sorbonne, only to be arrested by the French as an “enemy alien” in the early months of World War II. In 1940, as the French regime collapsed before the Nazi onslaught, van den Haag escaped from his French concentration camp and crossed into Spain—literally dodging bullets along the way. From there he traveled to Portugal and thence, by ship, to the United States. It was an adventure reminiscent of the movie Casablanca.
When van den Haag reached America, his speaking knowledge of English was nonexistent. His first jobs were as a busboy and vegetable seller in New York City. Somehow he gained admission to the graduate school of the University of Iowa, from which he earned a master’s degree in economics in 1942. Returning to New York, he met Sidney Hock, whom he credited with converting him from Communism. “I was a youthful fool,” van den Haag remarked years later about his student days in Europe. After encountering Hook (who seems to have become something of a mentor) the immigrant from Italy abandoned Marxist radicalism forever.
After serving in the U.S. Office of War Information during World War II, van den Haag settled down to an academic career in New York City, including teaching positions at New York University, the New School for Social Research, and Fordham University. Although he earned his doctorate in economics at NYU, the fields of sociology, psychology, and social philosophy interested him more. During the 1950s and 1960s he was a rara avis in academia—a credentialed social scientist and unabashed conservative. Even more improbably, after being psychoanalysed he became a psychoanalyst himself—a profession that he practiced on the side for nearly threedecades.
In 1957, while having lunch with Sidney Hook, van den Haag chanced to meet William F. Buckley, Jr., who sent him a copy of National Review. Before long, the learned professor was contributing articles to Buckley’s magazine, an association that endured for the next forty-five years. As his reputation grew among conservatives, so did his ties to the conservative insurgency. In 1960, he contributed to the inaugural issue of the University Bookman and remained associated with its work for many years. He was also an active trustee of the University Bookman’s sponsor, the Educational Reviewer. He belonged to the Philadelphia Society and served as its president in 1978–1979. In the 1980s, he was affiliated with the Heritage Foundation. At Fordham University he was the John M. Olin Professor of Jurisprudence and Public Policy for six years.
As a disciplined academic, van den Haag authored several provocative books, including such gems as The Jewish Mystique (1969), Political Violence and Civil Disobedience (1972), and Punishing Criminals: Concerning a Very Old and Painful Question (1975).
The latter volume established him instantly as a leading authority on American criminology. In the next two decades he acquired a reputation as one of the most formidable scholarly advocates of the death penalty for the crime of murder.
The emigré social scientist also published more than 200 articles. The short essay, in fact, was the perfect vehicle for his potent mix of fearless iconoclasm, relentless logic, and erudition. And fearless he was, challenging liberal and leftist sacred cows down the line: from the United Nations to the minimum wage, from sex education to pornography, from feminism to foreign policy, from Brown v. Board of Education to the handling of urban riots. At times, his defiance of conventional thinking bordered on the outrageous, at least to liberal sensibilities. Asked, in 1972, why he preferred Richard Nixon to George McGovern for the presidency, he replied briskly, “I would rather be governed by a knave than by a fool.”
As on the printed page, so on the public platform, van den Haag combined analytic trenchancy with a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of pertinent expertise. The one-time law student loved disputation. He was willing, he said, to debate anybody about anything. In the 1980s he often did so under the auspices of the Heritage Foundation. Time and again, his opponents were both appalled and confounded by what one of them called his “irreverent unorthodoxy.” Like the Roadrunner in the cartoon, he always seemed to be a step ahead of his adversaries. By the time they had grasped the subtleties of his argument, he had sped on to another point.
William F. Buckley, Jr. once described van den Haag as a “tuning fork of reason in the cacophonous world of social science.” But not everyone on the Right liked the sound that his “tuning fork” made. In 1960 he startled readers of National Review with a defense of Keynesian economics. In 1979, again in National Review, he published a scathing critique of libertarianism. Idiosyncratic on the issue of abortion, he asserted that a human embryo was only potentially human during its first three months of existence. Hence he would allow abortions until a recognizably human fetus was formed. On these, and other, issues he was unafraid to be a deviationist.
Most troublingly for many conservatives, van den Haag throughout his career seemed impervious to the truth claims of religion. In 1950, he asserted publicly that religion could not be “logically justified,” although he granted that religion was a “useful” and “necessary” “opiate,” essential for the stability of a free society. This was a strictly pragmatic argument that he apparently never disavowed. He also strenuously rejected the idea of natural law. Nature does not tell us how to live, he countered; it merely gives us choices. “I do not know where nature got the authority to tell me what to do,” he declared. Asked a few years ago why he felt that murder was bad, he replied simply, “I feel it.” His intuition told him so. He added that he had not found a better answer.
Not surprisingly, in his later years, van den Haag—ever the contrarian—asserted (contra Christianity) that people own their lives and are therefore free to end their lives if they so choose. Although by no means a libertarian, he nevertheless contended in the late 1990s that people should have the “right to die” without governmental interference.
In essence, van den Haag’s was a deeply skeptical and secular brand of conservatism, grounded not in religious faith but upon a recognition of the limits of reason in the pursuit of social betterment. Perhaps, having nearly lost his life as a young man in thrall to an orthodoxy, he could never again commit himself to another one.
Or did he? Toward the end, his intimate friend William F. Buckley, Jr. discerned signs that the irreverently unorthodox émigré was mellowing on the subject of religion. In a letter to Buckley in the mid-1990s, van den Haag announced that he was a “convert” to Roman Catholicism “in substance but not in form.” “I stayed away for a long time from the Church,” he added, “except in the most formal sense, and I am only now making my way back.” How he reconciled this turn with his public positions on natural law and suicide, he evidently did not say. But in 2002, just a few weeks before his death, he requested a Catholic funeral, which in due course he received. In the end, this urbane and worldly scholar apparently saw—and at last transcended—the limits of his own agnosticism.
With his heavy European accent, trademark cigars, and aura of the bon vivant, van den Haag was an unforgettable figure on the conservative scene. But those who knew his writings will remember him most for his withering dissection of the pretentious political orthodoxies of our age. At a time when conservatism was out of fashion among the intelligentsia, he gave conservatives a bracing example of mental rigor, forensic tenacity, and the courage of unconventional conviction.
George H. Nash is author of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America and a multi-volume biography of Herbert Hoover.