[The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism. By Matthew Continetti. Basic Books, 2022. 503 pages, Amazon Kindle Edition.]
Why should we be interested in this book? At first glance, it appears that we shouldn’t be. Though the history of American conservatism is of great importance, and the author has amassed a great deal of information about it, he lacks an illuminating analytic framework; the “history” he recounts is little more than one item after another, and when he touches on intellectual matters, he is often wrong. The answer to our question is this: Continetti has a distinctive vision of what American conservatism should be, derived, for the most part, from neoconservatives. He views the political and economic ideas of Murray Rothbard and Ron Paul as inimical to the ideas he favors, and correctly so; to him, we are the enemy, albeit not the only one. We ought then to have a look at his book, if only to see what he says about us.
Continetti makes crystal clear where he stands. As a young man of twenty-two, he was employed at the Weekly Standard, located in an office building he regards as “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 small think tank cofounded by the magazine’s editor that since its inception in 1997 had advocated for a defense buildup, containment of China, and regime change in Iraq.” (p.10) The editor mentioned is Continetti’s father-in-law, Bill Kristol, and throughout the book Continetti proves a faithful follower of that paragon of neoconservatism. In sum, American hegemony, perpetual war, and a modified New Deal that recognizes the free market but calls for the State to promote virtue and welfare: that is the path to be followed.
Continetti does not confine his support for war to the recent past and the present; it is a motif present through the whole course of the book. He sees, and this is a real if hardly original insight, that elitism, the view that an educated and well-off upper class needs to keep the masses firmly in line, and populism, the view that wisdom resides in the American people, have been clashing strains within American conservatism. In Continetti’s opinion, the excesses of populism are particularly to be feared, especially when people have the audacity to oppose war. He says, “Antiwar populists and Progressives joined forces. They assailed the intervention [of Woodrow Wilson in World War I]. They said that shadowy business and political interests were behind it. They lamented the changing demographic makeup of the nation caused by immigration from eastern and southern Europe. Their writings were often anti-Semitic.” (p.27) Away with those bigots!
Continetti is less than surefooted when he writes about the ideas of the Progressives. He says that Wilson “shared the view of historian Charles Beard, who had written in 1913 in The Economic Interpretation of the Constitution [sic] that the nation’s founding document was the product of a group of selfish men primarily interested in shielding themselves from revolt.” (p. 25) This is not Beard’s thesis: Beard argues rather that the framers of the constitution wished to protect personal property, principally bonds, from devaluation by state governments; not, as Continetti has it, to protect against a revolt. Moreover, Beard does not claim that the framers were selfish.
The author’s accuracy does not improve when he reaches the 1920s. He tells us that “the main figures of the intellectual Right scorned politics. . .The ’New Humanists’, for instance, were a group of literary critics who urged their audience to return to the ’great tradition’ of Western civilization. The leaders of the movement, Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. . .were philosophical rather than political.” (p.34). Babbitt in fact has a good deal to say about contemporary politics, as Continetti would have discovered had he opened his books.
Continetti is aware of H.L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock, but he scorns these great figures of the Old Right: “Nock’s and Mencken’s exacting standards were meant to expose the inadequacies of their nation and its citizens. They were snappy and memorable writers, but they were oddballs estranged from the beliefs and behaviors of their countrymen. They pined for a departed age of chivalry and Nietzschean self-assertion that had never existed in the United States.” (p.39) It is surprising that he attributes to Nock a “snappy” style. By the way, it’s also surprising that he calls Belloc and Chesterton “Anglo-Catholic writers.” (p.50) Apparently, he does not know that “Anglo-Catholic” refers to a movement within the Anglican Church and does not mean “English Roman Catholics.”
In Continetti’s coverage of the Great Depression, the Austrian school of economics attracts his notice, but he much prefers the less principled Chicago school. “Mises’s commitment to liberalism led him to frame the choice between liberalism and socialism as either-or [How dreadful!]. For Mises, any expansion of government’s limited role was a surrender to bureaucracy and statism. He had little use for the empirical methods and real-world nuance of the Chicago scholars.” (p.55) When he says that Mises’s criticism of socialist central planning was that the planners “could not possibly account for all the variables in an economy,”(p.55) readers familiar with the calculation argument will find it difficult to suppress a smile.
If Continetti is less than enthusiastic about Mises, this is as nothing compared with his revulsion from the main 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 denounce the moral depravity of the Nazis polarized audiences. He rubbed shoulders with Fascist sympathizers and anti-Semites. . .America First could not escape the stench of Nazism.” (p. 67)
As you might expect, Continetti is an ardent Cold Warrior, and he has this to say about the most extreme of the anti-Soviet crusaders: “The grandeur of [James] Burnham’s vision, the clarity of his expression, the force of his argument, and the iciness of his prose were overpowering. The Managerial Revolution became a best seller. . .Burnham became one of America’s most famous writers on foreign affairs. In 1947, he published The Struggle 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 fight.” (p.85) Continetti does not tell us that Burnham favored a preventive nuclear war against Russia.
In his account of the onset of the Cold War, Continetti has much to say about Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss, and in his account of that famous case there is a surprising detail. Chambers in 1939 informed Adolf Berle, a famous law professor and advisor to Roosevelt then serving in the State Department, that he had worked with Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent. The surprise is that he calls Berle a Communist fellow traveler (p.85, repeated on p.89) and shortly afterwards, he names Berle as one of those New Dealers, along with Harry Dexter White, whom “the Right blamed for Soviet gains.” (p.90) The accusation is of course false, as anyone with the slightest familiarity with the period would know. Though Berle was a New Dealer, he was a firm anti-Communist, and I’m unaware of anyone who has suggested otherwise.
The author devotes a few pages to an account of several books that influenced the post-World War II Right, and here once more he does something remarkable. In a brief discussion of Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, he says: “Denying the existence of God, the reality of good and evil, and transcendent, unconditional standards of right and wrong was a one-way ticket to the charnel house of Europe and the ruins of Japan. Ideas Have Consequences was unique in that it did not locate these intellectual errors in the recent past. The mistakes had been committed much earlier. . .Weaver blamed the fourteenth-century philosopher William of Ockham.” (p. 103). The remarkable thing Continetti has done is that he does not mention nominalism, the principal item in Weaver’s criticism of Ockham. It’s of course false that Ockham denied the existence of God and the reality of good and evil; he held a divine command theory of ethics.
Given 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 foreign policy. The noninterventionist views of Franklin Roosevelt’s great critic John T. Flynn were not welcome in Buckley’s National Review; Buckley’s principal guide in foreign policy was James Burnham, who was joined in his advocacy of preventive war against Russia by Frank Meyer and Willi Schlamm. Continetti doesn’t discuss Flynn in this connection, but he describes at some length Buckley’s opposition to the John Birch Society. “After Robert Welch’s American Opinion called for US withdrawal from Vietnam in August 1965, Buckley decided to break with the group unequivocally. Weakness in the face of communism was the final straw.” Continetti cannot see how silly it is to accuse Robert Welch of being soft on communism.
In this book of surprises, it is difficult 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 fully formed.” (p.194) One wonders how Reagan managed this. He attended Eureka between 1928 and 1932, and Mises’s major works did not begin to become available in English translation until the mid-1930s. Perhaps Reagan read them in the original German. And if his individualistic world view was fully formed, why was he a supporter of the New Deal?
Continetti rightly stresses the influence of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. He says that “Bloom wrote that the university had abandoned the theory of natural rights that informed the American founding.” (p.311) This misrepresents Bloom’s view by omission. Bloom thinks that the Lockean concept of rights that influenced the American founding fathers already surrendered to relativism, in that it broke with classical philosophy, as interpreted by Leo Strauss; the abandonment of the theory of natural rights in the modern university is a further stage in this break. Continetti again botches things in his remarks about Bloom’s friend Alexandre Kojève, “the French philosopher whose lectures on G.W. F. Hegel had reintroduced the framework of the Hegelian dialectic into European thought. History, in this understanding, was the unfolding story of the state’s recognition of man’s freedom.” (p.321) Kojève, in his very influential lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, did not adopt the familiar understanding of Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History that history is the progressive realization of freedom; Kojève’s lectures would hardly have had much impact had he adhered to this conventional interpretation. To the contrary, he argued that for Hegel, history ends in the “universal homogeneous state,” which is not the realm of freedom but is a condition as bad as it sounds. And though Kojève’s lectures were indeed important, it is silly to say that he reintroduced Hegel’s dialectic into European thought. I shall give just one more example of Continetti’s unusual talent for reversing the theses of books he discusses. He says that “Mancur Olson, in his Logic of Collective Action (1965) stated that the American economy had a free-rider problem: the majority benefited from public goods whose full cost they did not pay.” (p.272) Olson’s thesis is the opposite: owing to the free-rider problem, large groups cannot produce public goods from which they would benefit.
I noted at the beginning that Continetti has no use for Rothbard and Ron Paul. Their failing was that they “opposed the ‘globalism’ of a ‘neoconservative’ foreign policy that sought to maintain Pax Americana.” (p.369). Pat Buchanan, Sam Francis, and Joe Sobran are other offenders. Indeed they opposed neoconservative globalism; and for some of us, that is a badge of honor.