Friday, December 22, 2006

The Path Not Taken: Viereck’s Humane Conservatism

Reading Peter Viereck’s writings on conservatism from 1949 to 1962 I am painfully aware of what a marvelous possibility was entirely lost and instead replaced by a vicious, hate-filled, righteous, right-wing radicalism that is for the most part simply a disguised advocacy for the reigning business class. Viereck is so unusual he is hard to believe, particularly in the politically divisive atmosphere largely created by right-wing radicalism since the late 1970s (yes, I know it’s virtually obligatory to blame the current poisonous political atmosphere equally upon Democrats and Republicans but this is nonsense; just compare the prominence and effectiveness of the viciousness of the right in dealing with a relatively good president, Clinton, with the relative passivity and respectfulness accorded a singularly bad president, George W. Bush).

Viereck is someone you have to read to believe because he is such an unusual American political animal. He defines conservatism, as do most dictionaries, as a reverence and respect for the traditions, customs and practices of one’s own country or locality. This recognizes that in some part conservatism is relativistic; it is not simply a specific set of socio-political beliefs, like liberalism or socialism, but a tendency to support whatever has been best in the slow organic development of one’s own society. (Viereck as a Western Christian conservative does emphasize the ‘freedom’ of the individual, so his conservatism is not completely relativistic.) But to give a flavor for what is relativistic in his American conservatism here are a few quotes (from Conservatism Revisited, Revised and Enlarged Edition, 1962, Collier Books, pp. 125-143:
…romanticizing conservatives refuse to face up to the old and solid historical roots of most or much American liberalism…. In contrast, a genuinely rooted, history-minded conservative conserves the roots that are really there, exactly as Burke did…. American history is based on the resemblance between moderate liberalism and moderate conservatism…. The Burkean builds on the concrete existing historical base, not on a vacuum of abstract wishful thinking. When, as in America, that concrete base includes British liberalism of the 1680’s and New Deal reforms of the 1930’s, then the real American conserver assimilates into conservatism whatever he finds lasting and good in liberalism and in the New Deal…. [I]n America it is often the free trade unions who unconsciously are our ablest representatives of the word they hate and misunderstand: conservatism. The organic unity they restore to the atomized ‘proletariat’ is… providential…. So we come full circle in America’s political paradox; our conservatism, in the absence of medieval feudal relics, must grudgingly admit it has little real tradition to conserve except that of liberalism—which then turns out to be a relatively conservative liberalism.(last emphasis added)
So a real American conservative accepts our liberal tradition including some New Deal reforms and sees the conservative benefits of trade unions. Of course right-wing apologists for the business class like William F. Buckley would repackage 'conservatism' with their own contradictory set of beliefs and successfully sell this to the American public as 'conservative'. In a later post I'll quote some of Viereck's choicest descriptions of the Buckleyites' pseudo-conservatism; but here's one to whet your appetite: "right-wing nationalist thought control."

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