[The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism. By Matthew Continetti. Standard Books, 2022. 503 pages, Amazon Kindle Edition.]
Why should we be interested in this book? In the beginning glance, it appears that we shouldn’t be. Though the history of American conservatism is of terrific significance, and the author has actually accumulated a lot of information about it, he does not have an illuminating analytic framework; the “history” he states is little more than one item after another, and when he discuss intellectual matters, he is typically incorrect. The answer to our question is this: Continetti has a distinctive vision of what American conservatism need to be, obtained, for the most part, from neoconservatives. He views the political and financial ideas of Murray Rothbard and Ron Paul as inimical to the ideas he favors, and correctly so; to him, we are the opponent, albeit not the only one. We ought then to take a look at his book, if just to see what he states about us.
Continetti makes crystal clear where he stands. As a boy of twenty-two, he was utilized at the Weekly Standard, situated in an office complex he considers “an intellectual hub– the frontal cortex of the American Right.” (p. 10) Also, to be found at this address was “the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) It was a little think tank cofounded by the magazine’s editor that because its beginning in 1997 had promoted for a defense accumulation, containment of China, and program modification in Iraq.” (p. 10) The editor mentioned is Continetti’s father-in-law, Costs Kristol, and throughout the book Continetti shows a loyal fan of that apotheosis of neoconservatism. In sum, American hegemony, perpetual war, and a customized New Deal that acknowledges the free market however requires the State to promote virtue and welfare: that is the course to be followed.
Continetti does not restrict his support for war to the current past and the present; it is a motif present through the entire course of the book. He sees, and this is a real if hardly original insight, that elitism, the view that an educated and rich upper class needs to keep the masses strongly in line, and populism, the view that knowledge resides in the American individuals, have actually been clashing stress within American conservatism. In Continetti’s viewpoint, the excesses of populism are particularly to be feared, particularly when people have the audacity to oppose war. He states, “Antiwar populists and Progressives joined forces. They assaulted the intervention [of Woodrow Wilson in World War I] They said that shadowy organization and political interests lagged it. They regreted the altering group makeup of the country brought on by immigration from eastern and southern Europe. Their works were often anti-Semitic.” (p. 27) Away with those bigots!
Continetti is less than surefooted when he writes about the concepts of the Progressives. He states that Wilson “shared the view of historian Charles Beard, who had composed in 1913 in The EconomicInterpretation of the Constitution[ sic] that the nation’s founding file was the item of a group of self-centered males mostly thinking about protecting themselves from revolt.” (p. 25) This is not Beard’s thesis: Beard argues rather that the of the constitution wished to safeguard personal effects, mainly bonds, from decline by state governments; not, as Continetti has it, to secure against a revolt. Additionally, Beard does not declare that the were self-centered.
The author’s accuracy does not improve when he reaches the 1920s. He tells us that “the primary figures of the intellectual Right scorned politics … The ‘New Humanists’, for instance, were a group of literary critics who prompted their audience to go back to the ‘fantastic custom’ of Western civilization. The leaders of the motion, Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More … were philosophical rather than political.” (p. 34). Babbitt in reality has a good deal to state about contemporary politics, as Continetti would have found had he opened his books.
Continetti knows H.L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock, however he refuses these terrific figures of the Old Right: “Nock’s and Mencken’s exacting standards were indicated to expose the inadequacies of their country and its residents. They were stylish and memorable writers, however they were oddballs estranged from the beliefs and behaviors of their countrymen. They pined for a left age of chivalry and Nietzschean self-assertion that had never existed in the United States.” (p. 39) It is unexpected that he attributes to Nock a “snappy” design. By the method, it’s also surprising that he calls Belloc and Chesterton “Anglo-Catholic authors.” (p. 50) Obviously, he does not know that “Anglo-Catholic” describes a motion within the Anglican Church and does not mean “English Roman Catholics.”
In Continetti’s coverage of the Great Anxiety, the Austrian school of economics attracts his notice, however he much chooses the less principled Chicago school. “Mises’s commitment to liberalism led him to frame the choice in between liberalism and socialism as either-or [How awful!] For Mises, any expansion of federal government’s limited function was a surrender to bureaucracy and statism. He had little use for the empirical approaches and real-world nuance of the Chicago scholars.” (p. 55) When he says that Mises’s criticism of socialist central preparation was that the organizers “could not potentially represent all the variables in an economy,”(p. 55) readers knowledgeable about the computation argument will discover it difficult to reduce a smile.
If Continetti is less than enthusiastic about Mises, this is as nothing compared to his revulsion from the primary group opposing American intervention in World War II, the America First Committee: “Its spokesman, Charles Lindbergh was … an icon to noninterventionists in the Midwest but a villain elsewhere. His refusal to knock the moral wickedness of the Nazis polarized audiences. He rubbed shoulders with Fascist sympathizers and anti-Semites … America First could not escape the odor of Nazism.” (p. 67)
As you may anticipate, Continetti is an ardent Cold Warrior, and he has this to say about the most severe of the anti-Soviet crusaders: “The magnificence of [James] Burnham’s vision, the clearness of his expression, the force of his argument, and the iciness of his prose were overpowering. The ManagerialTransformationbecame a best seller … Burnham turned into one of America’s most famous writers on foreign affairs. In 1947, he published The Battle for the World, in which he declared that America was engaged in World War III whether it liked it or not. Burnham worried that America lacked the will to eliminate.” (p. 85) Continetti does not tell us that Burnham preferred a preventive nuclear war against Russia.
In his account of the onset of the Cold War, Continetti has much to state about Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss, and in his account of that popular case there is a surprising detail. Chambers in 1939 notified Adolf Berle, a famous law teacher and advisor to Roosevelt then serving in the State Department, that he had actually dealt with Alger Hiss as a Soviet representative. The surprise is that he calls Berle a Communist travel companion (p. 85, repeated on p. 89) and shortly later on, he names Berle as one of those New Dealerships, together with Harry Dexter White, whom “the Right blamed for Soviet gains.” (p. 90) The allegation is naturally incorrect, as anybody with the tiniest familiarity with the period would understand. Though Berle was a New Dealership, he was a firm anti-Communist, and I’m uninformed of anyone who has recommended otherwise.
The author commits a couple of pages to an account of a number of books that influenced the post-World War II Right, and here again he does something remarkable. In a brief conversation of Richard Weaver’s Concepts Have Effects, he says: “Rejecting the existence of God, the reality of great and evil, and transcendent, unconditional standards of right and incorrect was a one-way ticket to the charnel home of Europe and the ruins of Japan. Concepts Have Repercussionswas unique in that it did not find these intellectual mistakes in the current past. The errors had actually been committed much earlier … Weaver blamed the fourteenth-century theorist William of Ockham.” (p. 103). The exceptional thing Continetti has actually done is that he does not point out nominalism, the primary product in Weaver’s criticism of Ockham. It’s naturally false that Ockham denied the presence of God and the truth of good and wicked; he held a divine command theory of ethics.
Offered his support for the Cold War, it is to be expected that Continetti would applaud William Buckley’s efforts to expel from the Right those who supported a noninterventionist diplomacy. The noninterventionist views of Franklin Roosevelt’s fantastic critic John T. Flynn were not welcome in Buckley’s National Review; Buckley’s principal guide in diplomacy was James Burnham, who was taken part his advocacy of preventive war versus Russia by Frank Meyer and Willi Schlamm. Continetti does not talk about Flynn in this connection, however he explains at some length Buckley’s opposition to the John Birch Society. “After Robert Welch’s American Viewpointrequired United States withdrawal from Vietnam in August 1965, Buckley decided to break with the group unequivocally. Weak point in the face of communism was the final straw.” Continetti can not see how ridiculous it is to accuse Robert Welch of being soft on communism.
In this book of surprises, it is tough to pick a winner, but one contender is this: “Reagan … went to Eureka College, in Eureka, Illinois … He read Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. By the time he graduated, his individualistic, Christian, democratic world view was totally formed.” (p. 194) One wonders how Reagan handled this. He attended Eureka between 1928 and 1932, and Mises’s significant works did not start to appear in English translation till the mid-1930s. Maybe Reagan read them in the initial German. And if his individualistic world view was completely formed, why was he a supporter of the New Offer?
Continetti rightly worries the influence of Allan Blossom’s The Closing of the American Mind. He states that “Blossom wrote that the university had actually deserted the theory of natural rights that informed the American founding.” (p. 311) This misrepresents Blossom’s view by omission. Bloom believes that the Lockean principle of rights that affected the American starting daddies already surrendered to relativism, because it broke with classical viewpoint, as analyzed by Leo Strauss; the abandonment of the theory of natural rights in the modern university is a more stage in this break. Continetti once again mishandles things in his remarks about Bloom’s good friend Alexandre Kojève, “the French philosopher whose lectures on G.W. F. Hegel had reintroduced the framework of the Hegelian dialectic into European idea. History, in this understanding, was the unfolding story of the state’s recognition of male’s freedom.” (p. 321) Kojève, in his very influential lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, did not embrace the familiar understanding of Hegel’s Lectures on the Viewpoint of Historythat history is the progressive realization of liberty; Kojève’s lectures would barely have actually had much effect had he abided by this conventional interpretation. To the contrary, he argued that for Hegel, history ends in the “universal homogeneous state,” which is not the realm of flexibility but is a condition as bad as it sounds. And though Kojève’s lectures were indeed important, it is silly to state that he reestablished Hegel’s dialectic into European idea. I shall give just another example of Continetti’s unusual skill for reversing the theses of books he talks about. He states that “Mancur Olson, in his Reasoning of Collective Action( 1965) mentioned that the American economy had a free-rider problem: the bulk took advantage of public goods whose complete expense they did not pay.” (p. 272) Olson’s thesis is the reverse: owing to the free-rider problem, large groups can not produce public products from which they would benefit.
I kept in mind at the start that Continetti has no usage for Rothbard and Ron Paul. Their failing was that they “opposed the ‘globalism’ of a ‘neoconservative’ foreign policy that looked for to preserve Pax Americana.” (p. 369). Pat Buchanan, Sam Francis, and Joe Sobran are other transgressors. Indeed they opposed neoconservative globalism; and for a few of us, that is a badge of honor.