Peter Viereck: Traditionalist Libertarian?

Print Friendly

The Post-World War II American intellectual conservative movement was a philosophically jerrybuilt political alliance. Its ideas were greatly influenced by William F. Buckley’s National Review, which started in 1955. The magazine’s chief ideologue was senior editor Frank S. Meyer. He propagated a rather paradoxical notion of conservatism, which he summarized as the individualism of John Stuart Mill without its moral utilitarianism. To become conservative laissez-faire liberalism only needed to be leavened with what Meyer called “an objective moral order.” This ideological stance, called “fusionism,” was typical of National Review in that it fudged, or simply ignored, issues of far-reaching philosophical importance.

For Buckleyite conservatism ideas were primarily weapons to use in a political battle against statism. It was through fusionism that National Review justified its defense of minimal government and its desire to defeat communism. Fusionism provided the theoretical rationale for a coalition of groups as different as Ayn Randian social atomists and ultramontane Roman Catholics. The primary objective of the magazine was not philosophical stringency and coherence on basic existential questions but to advance a set political agenda.

National Review published serious thinkers, including a few philosophers, but the magazine’s middlebrow intellectualism concealed deep intellectual fissures. Its economistic and individualistic editorial bias created unease among thinkers of a more traditional bent, Russell Kirk prominent among them. To Kirk, community was as important as individual liberty. Traditionalist conservatives were somewhat reassured by Buckley’s rather prominently displayed Catholicism, but it was not clear how his religious beliefs could be reconciled with his preference for untrammeled capitalism.

Partly because of the editorial priorities of National Review, the conservative movement papered over a festering philosophical confusion that would render it susceptible to manipulation and takeover. Among the most important of the inadequately addressed questions was the definition of liberty. Even so-called libertarians were divided on the issue. Some assumed, much like John Locke, that freedom is a natural condition: Freedom will flow as long as tyrants do not stand in the way. Libertarians of this type tended to be rationalistic and ahistorical and prone to radical social atomism. Others argued that genuine liberty is always the result of protracted historical effort; liberty has moral and cultural preconditions not easily achieved. Libertarians of the latter type regarded true liberty as intertwined with tradition and community. This type of libertarianism blended into the kind of Burkean conservatism that Russell Kirk espoused. Despite a superficial resemblance, the two brands of libertarianism were not versions of one and the same preference for freedom. They reflected sharply different conceptions of human nature and society.

It was National Review’s rather weak interest in issues of community and tradition that made Russell Kirk resist a formal editorial association with the magazine. Frank S. Meyer for his part scolded Kirk, insisting that reason rather than tradition must guide conservatives. Placing any restrictions on freedom other than to protect and expand it was a betrayal of conservatism.

There was another major “traditionalist” conservative in the 1950s who was even more uncomfortable with Buckleyite “movement conservatism” than Kirk. This was the historian and poet Peter Viereck (1916-2006). He had achieved prominence before Kirk, coming to attention already in 1941, when he published Metapolitics, based on his Harvard doctoral dissertation. The book argued that German National Socialism had been made possible by a gross perversion of Germany’s traditional artistic and intellectual culture. Like Kirk, Viereck had been strongly influenced by the legendary Harvard professor Irving Babbitt (1865-1933), the intellectual leader of the so-called New Humanism. Babbitt had traced the deepening problems of the West to a progressive corruption of the imagination and the moral life.

In 1951, two years before the appearance of Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, Viereck had published Conservatism Revisited. He suggested that America and the West needed a “humanist conservatism” in everything from art to statesmanship. The book suggested that Prince Metternich might, in spite of “misdeeds and misjudgments,” serve as a model for how—through restraint, imagination and balance—conservatives, in cooperation with the best of the liberals, could adapt old traditions to modern circumstances. This book was followed in 1953 by Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals, which applauded courageous opposition to Nazis and communists and criticized liberals for their evasiveness on communism and failure to defend the old values of the West. In the same year Viereck published the small Dream and Responsibility, which argued that poetry, narrowly or broadly understood, profoundly affects society and that genuine poetry, though never didactic, is incompatible with moral irresponsibility. Great art fuses creativity and moral insight.

Viereck was himself a poet. He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1949 for Terror and Decorum. During a long life he would be drawn more and more to poetry, publishing several collections of poems. He had a very distinctive, highly creative, playfully serious style. He saw the poetical imagination as joining spontaneity and restraint. One of his terms for the desirable union of freedom and form was “strict wildness.” Had Viereck not so thoroughly violated the prejudices of the reigning arbiters of poetry, he might have been recognized during his life as one of America’s major poets.

Like Kirk, Viereck opposed liberal statism and its moral and intellectual presuppositions. He challenged hedonistic mass culture and the secular religion of progress. Effectively to oppose them required efforts to reawaken in Western man a sense of life’s higher meaning by attending to the moral-spiritual and cultural wellsprings of civilization. Viereck called himself “a value-conserving classical humanist.” A genuine conservatism for our time would be centered, he argued, not in politics or economics but “in the world of literature, the arts and sciences, intellectual history, the universities, the humanities.” Taking up Babbittian themes, Viereck argued that it is the quality of a society’s cultural and moral life that will decide its direction.

In politics as elsewhere Viereck favored the principle of aristocracy. Even as he bemoaned the decline of America’s elites, he wanted to think well of the old Eastern Seaboard aristocracy. He was of divided mind about Franklin Roosevelt, whom he called “the Squire of Hyde Park.” He disliked the anti-aristocratic, commercial mentality of most Republicans. He preferred Dwight Eisenhower to Robert A. Taft. Although strongly opposed to statism, Viereck was cautiously favorable to social programs for the poor.

In 1956 Viereck published The Unadjusted Man, which criticized stereotyped, routinized contemporary thinking on the right or left and extolled the creativity of the genuinely independent men who find their inspiration not in the fads of the day but in the traditions of humanity. Here as elsewhere the influence of Nietzsche was discernible—the Nietzsche who wants to smash not genuine universality but stale, mediocre, formulaic renditions of the same.

Viereck had been under suspicion among Buckleyite conservatives because of his leanings in American practical politics. The publication, in 1956, of Viereck’s Conservatism: From Adams to Churchill (later renamed Conservative Thinkers: From John Adams to Winston Churchill) brought dissatisfaction with him to a head. The book was a brief survey and anthology of European and American ideas. It was not intended to set forth a definition of conservatism but broadly to inform and provide material for reflection on the subject. The book’s broad, ecumenical, and non-dogmatic approach contrasted sharply with Frank S. Meyer’s attempts to lay down the conservative line. The book gave concise intellectual sketches of a wide assortment of thinkers, including ones favorable to authoritarianism and assistance to the poor. Viereck conveyed that conservatism was quite different from unrestricted individualism and capitalism. Viereck had clearly failed Frank S. Meyer’s acid test, which was unqualified support for the minimal state, and Meyer was in no mood to be generous. He dismissed Viereck’s conservatism as “counterfeit.”

Having been declared persona non grata, Viereck saw no reason to moderate his critique of Buckleyite conservatism. To a 1962 edition of Conservatism Revisited Viereck added a substantial Afterword called “The New Conservatism: What Went Wrong?.” Here he sharpened and extended earlier critical remarks into a complete disavowal of movement conservatism. In its preoccupation with unrestricted economic freedom that movement had turned out to be not much different from 19th century Manchester liberalism. Viereck had always been a strong anti-communist and highly critical of liberals who had equivocated on Stalin and espoused anti-anti-communism. Now he asserted that Buckleyite conservatives had shown unacceptably bad judgment in excusing or even aligning themselves with Senator Joe McCarthy and a dubious populism and later in supporting Senator Barry Goldwater. Viereck attacked what he called “pseudo-conservative nationalist thought-controllers.” He reserved some of his sharpest criticisms for the American thinker whose basic ideas and intellectual temperament most closely resembled his own—Russell Kirk. Kirk had gone along with the mentioned ventures in politics, and was for that reason, Viereck asserted—“bankrupt.”

It may help explain Viereck’s apparent lack of tolerance that Kirk had through his many writings drawn attention away from Viereck as a conservative standard bearer; in the conservative movement Kirk had wholly overshadowed him.

Viereck’s remarks confirmed Buckleyite conservatives in the belief that he was not nearly critical enough of the reigning liberal order. Was he not even pandering to representatives of that order by always describing his own position as being of the “center” and not of the “rightist extreme”?  Be that as it may, Viereck so often described his politics in this manner that he seemed to regard his preferences as also representing an Aristotelian mean between extremes, that is, as having a morally universal sanction. But how could Viereck be so certain that the political mainstream he favored coincided with the kind of morally authoritative middle envisioned by Aristotle and that Kirk’s political leanings were so antithetical to Aristotelian moderation as to wholly discredit him? Did Kirk have no valid reasons for being less comfortable than Viereck with the political middle of the day? Could it not be argued, for example, that Goldwater was more respectful of traditional American constitutionalism than other leading Republicans of the day? The harshness of Viereck’s condemnations were all the more baffling in that Viereck had in other contexts complained so often about the failings of America’s elites. Given those shortcomings, was it so compromising for Kirk and others to view the current political mainstream with suspicion?

Viereck’s life-long desire to portray himself as a centrist was probably due in part to his wanting to mark distance between himself and his father, who was the German-born George Sylvester Viereck , a poet and writer. Viereck senior was a prominent advocate of German-American friendship, even after the ascent of Hitler. He was imprisoned during the war. Peter Viereck’s repeated criticisms of rightwing extremism and anti-Semitism may have been his way of assuring others that, no, in his thinking he was not his father’s son.

Viereck ended the 1962 Afterword to Conservatism Revisited by criticizing the purely abstract “freedom” of ideologues of the right or left and making a Burkean-style defense of historically achieved freedom. True conservatism, Viereck wrote, is not an ism. In considering the appropriateness of particular arrangements it attends to the needs and circumstances of time and place. Real freedom has prerequisites. In particular, it requires that human desires be controlled. They must be restrained externally by laws and other institutions but, most importantly, by internal moral checks. Real civil liberties depend, he wrote, on “the good and wise and necessary chains of rooted tradition and historic continuity.”

On the central issue of liberty Viereck and Kirk had very similar views. Kirk shared Viereck’s strong prejudice against an unhistorical and chiefly economistic argument for freedom. Both men were strong defenders of the Anglo-American constitutional tradition. Kirk wrote at even greater length than Viereck on the historical origins of liberty and on the values above and beyond “the dreams of avarice.” It is for the sake of life’s higher values that we most need liberty. Viereck and Kirk agreed that the roots of political liberty are moral-spiritual and more generally cultural. It is the free but disciplined creativity of moral actors, artists and thinkers that provide the ultimate support for political and economic liberty. What finally protects civilization against stultification and rigidity is what Viereck called “inner liberty.” He wrote more extensively and incisively than Kirk about that kind of liberty and its relation to the arts. With regard to the arts and more generally to the topic of creativity Viereck often sounded like a philosophically less “technical” version of the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce (1866-1952).

Kirk and Viereck shared a significant and common weakness. They would have been in a better position to defend their traditionalist conservatism against critics siding with “reason,” had it not been for their strong and well-justified prejudice against rationalism and for their consequent not-so-proper suspicion, even stronger in Viereck than in Kirk, that all reason may be of the unhistorical, purely abstract sort. In one place Viereck whimsically and absurdly declared a fundamental opposition between conservatism and theoretical coherence and stringency. Here he was simply wrong. It had not occurred to him that in arguing so passionately against rationalism he must be using some other kind of reason, which in fact he was doing. But, like Kirk and so many other conservatives, Viereck was not greatly interested in epistemology or other “technical” philosophy. Traditionalist conservatism would have been much strengthened if it had recognized the existence of the more truly philosophical reason whose natural office it is faithfully to articulate what is known in historical experience—rationality at a higher level than abstract, pseudo-rationality.

It was a misfortune for American conservatism that Viereck’s run-in with National Review should have alienated him from the conservative movement and the conservative movement from him. Viereck had much to offer in an area where, despite Kirk’s best efforts, the movement was and continued to be weak: in its understanding of what most profoundly shapes the direction of a society. It was narrowly political criteria that made Frank S. Meyer excommunicate Viereck. But from Viereck conservative readers might have learnt that in the long run politics is less important than other activities. And if they had found his political leanings unsatisfactory, they might, in accordance with Viereck’s own sense of priorities, have decided to give the offending ideas less attention than his insights in other areas.

The post World War II American intellectual conservative movement tended to derive its sense of proportion from the assumption that politics holds the key to the future. Everything else, including ideas and culture, were seen as incidental to what really matters and fascinates: politics. Viereck was more perceptive. A conservatism that gives first place to politics will, he argued, “at best fail and transform nothing at all.”