Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt Against Ideology,
by Peter Viereck.
With a major new study of Peter Viereck and Conservatism by Claes G. Ryn
(Transaction Publishers, 2005, 205 pages)

book cover imageDevelopments in recent American politics have raised questions
about the intellectual roots and philosophical depth of conservatism.
The direction of American foreign policy, for example, has
inspired debates about the meaning of American conservatism.
George Carey, in a Fall 2005 Modern Age article,
suggests that American politics has turned away from conservative
principles. Liberalism is the paramount political ideology
in America. This may come as a surprise to those who equate
conservatism with the Republican Party and who measure the
success of the conservative movement by election results.
Republicans control the policy-making branches of government
and they have gained ground on the Supreme Court. In the
mass media, conservative voices seem to be present more today
in popular print, on the radio, and on television than ever
before. Conservative books commonly become best sellers and
conservative think tanks and foundations have burgeoning
budgets. But it may be that many conservatives have lost
touch with the intellectual roots and engendering purpose
of their political movement. They conflate fleeting election
politics and media exposure with the enduring work of maintaining
Western civilization. In the formative institutions of American
culture, the academy, the arts, the church, and the family,
conservative values are in retreat. How does one make sense
of these competing notions of conservatism’s political
and cultural vitality?

Peter Viereck’s Conservatism Revisited is
a good place to begin an assessment of recent political and
intellectual trends. Books like this one, originally published
in 1949, remind political conservatives that there are intellectual
prerequisites to the work of politics and that conservatism
often comes in irreconcilable varieties. Viereck, born in
1916, is best described as a traditional conservative who
is out of step with many contemporary notions of political
conservatism. His book, which surveys conservative thought,
illustrates that intellectual conservatism does not always
mesh with what passes for political conservatism, and that
the conservative intellectual movement was never monolithic.
Moreover, one can begin with conservative intellectual assumptions
and end up, as was the case with Viereck, with what many
political conservatives, then and now, would consider liberal
politics. Viereck and Russell Kirk, for example, share many
of the same theoretical assumptions but often end up supporting
significantly different public policies.

Viereck may come across to some readers as enigmatic. On
the one hand, he claims to advocate a Burkean prejudice for
tradition and the wisdom of the ages. Yet he is a bit like
Camus in that he sees rebellion in a positive, if qualified,
light. To understand how Viereck can support both claims,
one must realize that, in his view, to be conservative in
an age that has seen liberalism and progressivism triumph
means that rebellion is necessary. Viereck’s rebel,
what he calls the “unadjusted man,” is a natural
aristocrat who rejects democratic culture insofar as it undermines
society’s connection to the higher things that Burke
believes are embedded in a nation’s traditions and
customs. His 1973 book, The Unadjusted Man: A New Hero
for Americans: Reflections on the Distinction between Conforming
and Conserving
, argues for a conservative rejection
of modern culture and way of life.

But his is an historically informed and philosophically
grounded rebellion, one that seeks to embrace the classical
and Christian understanding of the human condition not to
overthrow it. This is evident in his defense of the American
Framers’ constitutionalism. The preservation of traditional
American constitutionalism means rebellion against contemporary
progressive ideologies. In light of the progressive push
toward democratic egalitarianism, he suggests that, “To
prevent majority rule from becoming majority despotism, every
stable society has certain traditional institutions acting
as brakes on precipitous mass action.” Viereck defends
Metternich as a model of conservatism rightly understood
and he rates Burke, Irving Babbitt, and John C. Calhoun as
sound conservatives. He does not find the personality or
politics of Barry Goldwater and Joe McCarthy to be consistent
with conservative principles. In American politics he believes
that Adlai Stevenson represents the balanced synthesis of
liberalism and conservatism. Viereck describes him as “Mill
plus Burke; Jefferson plus John Adams; civil liberties and
open-mindedness plus a noblesse-obligated, traditional,
and very American spirit of aristocracy, a Periclean-democratic
aristocracy.” This is not a view that would sit well
with conservatives then or now.

The subtitle of the book, “The Revolt Against Ideology” signifies
that conservatism is not an ideology but a disposition of
the mind and character, a view he shares with Kirk. Yet he
is critical of Kirk, whom he calls “bankrupt” because
he believes that Kirk was “morally evasive” about
McCarthyism and nostalgic about the past.Kirk confuses “concrete
living roots with abstract yearning for roots.” Viereck
explains what he considers to be two primary conservative
characteristics: “a distrust of human nature, rootlessness,
and of untested innovations” and “a corresponding
trust in unbroken historical continuity and in traditional
frameworks within which human affairs may be conducted.” His
brand of conservatism is one that balances tradition and
change. Viereck is both a Pulitzer Prize winning poet (1949
for Terror and Decorum) and an historian; he believes
that good literature is essential to shape the imagination
in a way that connects individuals to universality. But Viereck’s
conception of universality is not a stagnant ahistorical
standard divorced from the complexity of changing circumstances.
Universality is, as Irving Babbitt explained, a “oneness
that is always changing.” No particular art form can
capture beauty for all time and no particular political form
can capture justice for all time.

Contrary to most twentieth century conservatives, Viereck
favored much of the New Deal because he believes that it
preserved community and established ways of life at a time
when radicalism was making headway in American culture. He
argues that, “The Burkean conservative today cherishes
New Deal reforms in economics and Lockean parliamentary liberalism
in politics, as traditions here to stay.” He opposed
much that passes for political conservatism because it confuses
economic libertarianism for cultural conservatism. Viereck’s
work ends up being too conservative for most liberals and
too liberalfor most conservatives. Yet, it contains the
philosophical texture of Edmund Burke’s political theory
and Irving Babbitt’s New Humanism. Many conservative
readers will have to suppress their political prejudices
in order to discover the theoretical and historical insights
that Viereck provides. Liberal readers should appreciate
that he supports liberal political ideas as the outcome of
historical and philosophical realism.

One of the highlights of the book is a lengthy study of
conservatism by Claes G. Ryn that describes and analyzes
Viereck’s conservative thought and places it in the
larger framework of intellectual conservatism. Ryn’s
study is a book in its own right and it provides systematic
analysis of conservatism in a way that Viereck does not.
Ryn’s assessment of Viereck’s work is largely
positive but he does not hesitate to criticize him for philosophical
shortcomings, such as his partial understanding of reason.
Ryn also notes Viereck’s tendency to spark unnecessary
disputes. He demonstrates how Viereck’s intellectual
temperament created, in certain cases, opposition to his
ideas when they should have been met with agreement. In the
final analysis, however, Ryn finds Viereck’s work to
be a significant contribution to the conservative intellectual
movement because it seeks to reconcile permanence and change
in a way that accounts for both universality and flux.

Conservatism Revisited is not an integrated work
but a collection of essays on related topics. Each part does
not hang together in every instance as an outcome of an unfolding
organized argument. One has to sift the text for what are
its gems, intuitive insights into the nature of politics
and the human condition, and synthesize them. In this sense,
Viereck is a poet first and a systematic historian second.
Apart from the content of the book there are a few glaring
problems. The book is poorly edited. It contains numerous
typographical errors and leaves one wondering if an earlier,
less refined version of the manuscript mistakenly went to
press. In addition, the book has no index. While this was
the case with earlier editions, adding an index would have
improved and further justified the new edition. While these
problems detract from the book, they do not outweigh Viereck’s
contribution to the conservative intellectual movement.

Michael Federici is a professor of Political Science
at Mercyhurst College.

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