Revisions and Dissents: Essays

Paul Gottfried writes in this 2017 book:

A classical or essentialist Right is hard to find in the contemporary Western world, where journalists and other assorted intellectuals rush to denounce its bearers—or even partial bearers—as “fascists.” That may be one reason that such types rarely come into public view, outside of certain European parties that have been able to survive in a multiparty electoral system. Being on the essentialist Right is deadly in an academic or journalistic milieu that features almost exclusively quintessential leftist values. There are some isolated intellectual groups in the United States that betray a right-wing gestalt. But these groups are usually cut off from the conservative mainstream lest they endanger “conservative” institutes or publications by expressing improper ideas. This is entirely understandable given the prevalence of leftist influences in Western societies and the extent to which the establishment non-Left has absorbed leftist values and attitudes that have come from a predominantly leftist culture and educational system.

Contrary to a widespread misconception, the Right is not that side that plays up “values” in opposition to a “relativistic” Left. It is truly remarkable how tenaciously the Left fights for its “values.” Leftists believe fervently in an overshadowing vision of universal equality. Though those of a different persuasion might differ with leftists over its highest value, it is evident that a moral vision infuses the Left’s political concerns. It also makes no sense to define the Right as the side that wishes to move mountains in order to confer “human rights” on the entire world. Both the notion of human rights and the mission to impose them universally are derived from the classical Left, going back to the French Revolution. The fact that such a global mission is now thought to characterize the Right underscores the utter confusion into which Right-Left distinctions have drifted. Finally, one does not join the essentialist Right by wishing to get off the train of progress just before the present moment.

* Each time I see an adolescent blogger or pubescent columnist introduced to the viewing public as a “leading conservative,” I crack the same joke to whoever is around: “Does this teenager follow Burke or Maistre?” By now, “conservative” signifies what certain journalists and certain news commentators decide to advocate. Journalists who take Republican policy positions are sometimes described as conservative theorists, although I am still struggling to find out what exactly makes such people “conservative” or “theo-rists.” Presumably by defending the last Republican chief executive, President George W. Bush, the speaker gains recognition as a “conservative” thinker.

* The range of our life choices is far more determined by culture, heredity, and geographic location than someone who is addicted to Ayn Rand mega-novels might wish to believe.

Even more relevant to my argument is that there is nothing right-wing or even vaguely conservative about the way Libertarians approach the question of liberty. Unlike the essentialist Right’s reading of Aristotle or Burke, Libertarians understand freedom as a universally shared good to which everyone everywhere is entitled by virtue of being an individual. Although I would not prohibit others, even if I were in the position to do so, from espousing such a view, it is not clear what renders this Libertarian understanding of social relations specifically right-wing. The classical conservative view of liberty flows from the legal implications of someone’s standing in a particular society, held together by shared custom and distributed duties.

* Libertarians are seen from the Right as promoting a leftist position, which presupposes the idea of universal equality and even universal citizenship. It is therefore no surprise that Russell Kirk, Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Robert Nisbet, and other twentieth-century conservative thinkers eschewed Libertarians. The doctrinaires they scorned rejected the conservative notion of the social bond and were proclaiming principles that issued from the French Revolution.

* In Liberalism, Ancient and Modern, Leo Strauss sets out to define the essentialist conservative worldview circa 1960.¹ Its exponents “regard the universal and homogeneous state as either undesirable though possible, or as both undesirable and impossible.”² They do not like international bodies, which they identify with the Left, and “look with greater sympathy than liberals on the particular or particularist and the heterogeneous.”

* The Right affirms inherited hierarchy, favors the particularistic while being suspicious of what claims to be the universal, aims at preserving social traditions where possible, and opposes the Left by every means at its disposal. The Left takes the opposite positions on the first three points out of a sense of fairness, a passionate commitment to the advancement of equality, and a conception of human beings that stresses sameness or interchangeability. Whereas the Right believes in what Aristotle defined as the order of the household—in which elaborately defined distinctions are deemed “natural”—the Left recoils from nonegalitarian arrangements. Its advocates are delighted to have state managers and judges abolish the vestiges of inherited hierarchy.

* The Left is committed to removing, as far as humanly possible, social, racial, and gender inequalities. Furthermore, the more control it accumulates, the easier it is for the Left to reconstruct or recode those who resist its planning. German social theorist Arnold Gehlen was struck by how younger Germans in the 1960s exhibited what he called “hypermorality.”⁴ Contrary to the opinion that such youth, who frequently turned into militant antifascists, suffered from a lack of values, Gehlen noticed their hysterical moral zeal spilling over into their entire lives.⁵ This was partly due to a prolonged reaction to the Nazis, who were depicted by German educational institutions as conservatives. But Gehlen also linked the culture of moral indignation in his homeland to being cut off from any traditional communal association. In Germany, this process started with the Nazi revolution, was accelerated by a lost war, and then continued through a postwar occupation, which weakened even further any traditional German national identity.

* “Science” is to be advanced insofar as it discredits Christianity, which includes a dark side that sanctions gender distinctions and privileges heterosexual marriage. Science may also be pursued as a learning or discovery activity, providing it does not operate to the detriment of the Left’s highest good.

* Science, however, remains instrumental for the Left and is meant to serve the march toward equality. If, for example, someone cited research evidence substantiating socially significant genetic differences between genders or ethnic groups, that scientist and/or author would likely encounter considerable difficulty in academic life or as a government consultant. In the leftist universe biological science may be called on, but only as long as it does not conflict with the proper ideological ends, which is promoting approved egalitarian teachings. In the same way, the theory of evolution is fine for the Left if the information being gathered can be directed against religionists or social reactionaries.

The Darwinian hypothesis about nature hits a snag, however, as soon as someone brings up the social significance of deeply rooted gender differences that may have been necessary for the perpetuation of human and animal life. There may be no reason here to belabor the obvious, which is the selective character that evolutionary theory has assumed for the Left. The philosopher of science David Stove has addressed this topic in his instructive work Darwinian Fairytales, in which he deals with the mythic as opposed to scientific aspects that evolutionary theory has assumed for intellectuals and journalists.¹² Stove’s book highlights evolutionary theory’s continuing value as a polemical tool rather than scientific hypothesis.

* The Right has sanctified its own version of an instrumental good. Having sometimes defined itself as the political expression of the doctrine of original sin, the Right has invested heavily in certain aspects of Christianity, just as the Left has made an equal investment in its selective conception of science. Although there is no evidence that many of the great conservative theorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, starting with Burke, were orthodox Christians, their political worldviews would have been unthinkable without some kind of Christian theological foundation.

The concept of hierarchy that conservatives defended went back to the Catholic Middle Ages, in which feudal relations were freighted with sacral significance. Temporal forms of command corresponded to the order of the church that was ultimately based on the structure of Roman authority. The notion of human fallenness was invoked in an empirical as well as theological fashion to drive home the point that human beings lack the capacity or right to reinvent themselves and their social contexts. Indeed, such experiments were sinful or hubristic and likely to result in disaster. Traditional conservatives were fond of quoting Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, which affirmed that all authority is from God.¹⁴ It is not for naught that God delivered the sword into the hand of the magistrate.¹⁵ Needless to say, the “arche” or authority here invoked by conservatives was one that was handed down from one generation to the next.

* The Left has also benefited from being rooted in a Christian heritage. Friedrich Nietzsche famously scorned Christian religion as the source of the “slave morality” that begat feminism and egalitarian democracy. While the Right saw in Christianity a justification for settled authorities, the Left drew from it the vision of a world in which “the first would be last” and “the meek would inherit the Earth.” Such ideas of “social justice” could be derived from the Hebrew prophets, the Gospels, and the sharing of worldly possessions in the primitive church. Unlike the Right, however, the Left worked studiously to hide its debt to the Western religious tradition, claiming that its teachings were scientifically grounded or came from immaculately secular sources. This denial of paternity has gone so far that Marxists and cultural Marxists have tried to root out any explicitly Christian influences in their societies. Rarely does one find a more dramatic illustration of the Oedipal complex. Christopher Dawson and Mircea Eliade have both observed that the modern Left would be unthinkable without its distinctly Christian, even more than Judaic, matrix.

* Right and Left have historical identities and essentialist definitions, and it may be necessary to go into each one’s characteristics in order to make sense of our reference points. It is usually brought up in a discussion of this type that the distinction between Right and Left was formalized during the French Revolution, in accordance with where political factions were seated in the French National Assembly. Those who favored further revolutionary change swelled the left side of the amphitheater; those who felt the ferment had raged too long and had to be quieted sat on the right side. In the (classically) liberal July Monarchy of King Louis Philippe I—set up in 1830 and overthrown to make way for the French Second Republic in 1848—there were two major parliamentary factions: a party of resistance and a party of movement. This distinction encapsulates what may be seen, in an oversimplified fashion, as the basic difference between Right and Left: one is the party of standing pat or making only necessary changes, while the other party is intent on pushing change further.

* The traditional Right stood for an agrarian way of life that reflected a traditional authority structure that was typically allied to the Catholic Church or to Protestant state churches and entrenched monarchies. This conservative Right turned to the
past for what the southern agrarian Richard Weaver called its “vision of order.”

* All political-ideological groupings in the nineteenth century had accompanying social foundations. Liberalism was the “idea of the bourgeoisie,” just as socialism attracted the working class and sympathetic intellectuals. Conservatism originated in modern European history as an aristocratic reaction to the French Revolution, while the Left defined itself initially as a defender of this revolutionary process—together with the rationalist thinking that supposedly fueled the engine of progress. The sides that were taken were both social and ideological, and the two characteristics traveled together. In an earlier age it would have been difficult to think of distinctive worldviews apart from the concrete interests of the groups to which they were attached. Ideologies, however, eventually assumed a life of their own.

* Universalism, equality, human rights, and managed democracy will likely remain the order of the day in first-world countries. Freedom will be allowed to survive to whatever extent it can be made compatible with equality. Christian institutions will be tolerated to whatever extent they teach the required values and instill obedience to a leftist state. This will happen—at least partly—because the modern state has expanded its power base at the expense of intermediate institutions, including churches and communities. But this success also stems from the now triumphant leftist vision, which encompasses every aspect of human life.

* The Right, that is, the authentic one, is far more splintered than the Left for a number of reasons. It controls few if any institutions in Western countries and, even worse for its future, possesses no identity that its current representatives would all recognize as their own. The Right is not only untethered but also burdened by the infighting of its constituent groups. Mainstream “conservatives” in the meantime have become an integral part of the public discussions in the national media. These designated “conservatives” enjoy journalistic acceptance as the respectable opposition and provide televised sound bites and political best
sellers in an age of mass communication.

The success of this artificial Right stems at least partly from the backing of moneyed interests, whether in the form of corporate donors or leaders of the Republican Party. Those who receive this largess are now the sole recognized occupants of the visible opposition, and they have been sedulous in keeping out of their political conversation unseemly reactionaries. This media-approved Right has nothing to fear from what lies outside the mainstream. The nonaligned or classical Right, call it what one will, cannot even agree on what defines its “Rightness.” Its competing representatives are all holding tight to fragments of what was once a pristine conservative worldview. But that may be where the common ground ends. The traditionalists are beset with quarrels about what exactly the “true teachings” are.

* The true or essentialist Right simply wants to stop what is generally viewed as the train of progress and, if possible, reverse its direction. Although there were once unifying visions of order among classical conservatives, these orientation points have disappeared and been replaced by pure desperation.

This continuing loss of ground is disheartening for those who are struggling against a hostile age, and comparable developments have overtaken the independent Right—or those groups that comprise one—in Western European countries. In Germany at the time of national reunification in the early 1990s, the national Right vibrated with excitement over the prospect of a unified country. Germans would at last be able to put off their sackcloth and ashes and would no longer have to view themselves as a pariah nation. Their reference point as a people would no longer be their humiliating defeat in 1945, nor would they would have to talk in a ritualized fashion any longer about the “burden” of their entire history, as a prelude to Auschwitz. Once again, Germans could be a proud nation, as they were at the time of their unification in 1871.
Never did national conservatives anywhere miscalculate so badly. Former Communist functionaries and agents of the Communist secret police streamed into government positions in the Federal Republic, exchanging their pro-Soviet Communist identities for cultural Marxist ones. A party of the Left became a major force in German politics, and it was made up of hastily disguised Communists like
the leader of the Party of Democratic Socialists, Gregor Gysi. Indeed, even the current chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, turns out to have been an obliging Communist, almost up until the moment when the Berlin Wall fell.
Hoping to protect themselves against the anxieties voiced by Western journalists and politicians about a resurgent German nationalism, German chancellors from Helmut Kohl down to Angela Merkel have put funds and energy into a government-organized “crusade against the Right.” This enterprise has turned out to be little more than a witch hunt against the opposition directed by embattled Leftists—including longtime Communists—but no significant outcry against this intimidation has been raised. Furthermore, no politician hoping to make a career in Germany would express patriotic sentiments too loudly or suggest that he or she is not eagerly awaiting Germany’s further absorption into the European Union (EU). German elites have been pushing their country dramatically toward the Left ever since reunification.

* The treatment of Bismarck, as illustrated by Steinberg’s work,¹⁸ points to a problem that I myself encountered as a young man writing about German history. The difficulty of my task was already evident when I was doing graduate work at Yale in the mid-1960s. No matter what aspect of German history was under consideration, we were expected to uncover a path leading to the Third Reich. All German history was considered “tragedy” or—as underlined in A. J. P. Taylor’s The Course of German History¹⁹ and William M. McGovern’s From Luther to Hitler: The History of Fascist-Nazi Political Philosophy²⁰—the prelude to a disaster inflicted on the world by an unusually nasty people who had been perpetually taken in by horrible leaders and diabolical intellectuals. From Bismarck to Hitler, a world historical catastrophe was always just around the corner between the Rhine and the Elbe. We were also urged to assume that the Germans and Austrians were exclusively responsible for the Great War.
According to Fritz Fischer, who pioneered studies stressing Germany’s premeditated plan to unleash a European-wide war on the way to becoming a world power, “Hitler was no operational accident.”²¹ From Fischer’s perspective, all of German history since Bismarck’s work of unification had been preparation for the Nazi catastrophe.²² As a graduate student I was treated to the less than friendly admonition that believing any other account of the outbreak of World War I was to belittle the German problem.²³ Such a move would send a dangerous message—or so the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has underlined for more than forty years—that the Germans were not required to abjure their national identity as a precondition for world peace. According to Habermas, nothing less than a repudiation of the German past would cleanse his country of its inherited evil ways and protect surrounding countries against further eruptions of Teutonic violence.²⁴
In my periodic discussions with teachers and later, colleagues, it seemed that veracity mattered less than moralizing. Stress was placed on the therapeutic effect of certain narratives…
[Harry Elmer] Barnes’s summary explanation for the outbreak of the Great War comes closest to my present view on the subject:

“The basic causes of the war were general ones such as nationalism, imperialism, militarism, for which no single country can be held either uniquely or primarily responsible. They were fanned and intensified by both future belligerent sides and sprang from German militarism, French revenge aspirations, British navalism and imperialism, the century-old Russian ambition to get control of Constantinople and the Straits. Whatever the case earlier, Germany was far less prepared for war in a military sense in 1914 than Russia and France. General Buat [a French commander] admits that in 1914 the French active army was 910,000 to 870,000 for Germany with nearly twice the population of France; and Repington, the English military critic, admits that the German army in regard to equipment, military manoeuvres, and leadership was inferior to the French. This was especially true in the artillery branch. The active Russian army [at the time] numbered 1,284,000.²⁹”

Although Barnes made regrettable statements after World War II that downplayed Nazi atrocities, these indiscretions do not detract from his understanding of World War I. All too often, his positions taken at different times about different events are dishonestly run together in a way that makes Barnes’s defensible views on World War I appear to be a prelude to his later depreciation of Nazi crimes.

* The more than a million Russian troops that appeared on the Austro-German border just before the outbreak of war were not placed there for decoration. The Russians were preparing for a conflict with the Central Powers, and with special vigor after French president Raymond Poincaré promised military assistance from his country during a visit to St. Petersburg during the third week of July.

* Noting shared responsibility for the war does not require us to defend the Schlieffen Plan—as modified by the chief of the German General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke—in 1914.³⁵ Moltke’s success in getting the German government to move its armies through a neutral country, Belgium, in order to carry out a flanking motion around the bulk of the French forces, led to predictable disaster. Indeed it may have doomed the German side during the first week of the struggle.³⁶ This strategy required the occupation of an intensely hostile Belgian population, a reaction that might have been expected since the Germans were obliged to move
through a fervently Francophile region of Belgium.³⁷ Moltke’s military venture also provided the English war party with an excuse to declare war on the Central Powers.

* For example, history should not be practiced as a form of political advocacy; the area of study that the historian concentrates on should provide enough intellectual and emotional stimulation so that he does not have to yield to partisan enthusiasms; and someone doing history should aim at Sachlichkeit, objectivity, even if this ideal can never be more than distantly approximated in practice.

* Unlike “democratic” France and “liberal” England, the German Empire, we are told, was “autocratic” and “militaristic” and therefore had no scruples about unleashing World War I. But as Barnes reminds us, France had a much larger and better equipped army, with a much smaller population, than did Germany in 1914. Although there was an established principle of ministerial responsibility in relation to the National Assembly, and although France held direct elections for its exec-
utive head, this did not prevent the French government before World War I from behaving militaristically and belligerently. French president Poincaré, who tried to goad Russia into war against the Central Powers, was more given to saber rattling
than German chancellor Theobald Bethmann-Hollweg. Although Bethmann- Hollweg was technically only responsible to his sovereign, he tried in vain to conciliate the British—who viewed Germany as a dangerous rival—and even succeeded in scaling back the German naval program by 1912. Certainly the British had a better-developed parliamentary system than their German cousins, but this did
not prevent a minority of the Liberal cabinet after 1905 from engaging in adventurous continental diplomacy in order to isolate Germany. Moreover, these “conversations” were carried out behind the backs of the Commons, that is, behind the backs of seventeen members of the ruling cabinet who would have opposed the actions of the war party.⁶³
Nor should we assume, as Barnes and Walter Karp⁶⁴ point out, that the US government, which was supposed to be paradigmatically democratic and pacifistic, behaved in a restrained manner during World War I. Neither major party in the United States stayed neutral in the war; both were demonstratively pro-British. Nor did our leaders—except for the principled secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan—make serious efforts to stay out of the European strife or push peace initiatives when they were still possible. Although President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of State Robert Lansing—who took over for William Jennings Bryan after
he resigned in 1915—were effusively pro-British and turned a blind eye to the starvation blockade imposed by the British on the German civilian population, their opponents attacked them as insufficiently pugnacious. Republican leaders were furious that Wilson waited until April 1917 before plunging his country into the war. The subsequent suppression of civil liberties in “democratic” America went well beyond anything that occurred in “autocratic” Germany or Austria-Hungary, where opposition to the war did not result in the protestor’s immediate arrest and where enemy newspapers were still openly circulated.

* Another example of the victor’s history being given a Manichean twist has been the tendency of the recently deceased Harry V. Jaffa and his well-placed disciples to play off the “democratic statesmanship” of Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln against what was allegedly autocratic leadership. The heavies in this hagiography are predictably the Germans, the antebellum South, and the Muslim enemies of the state of Israel. Yet those who entered the democratic pantheon may have gotten there because of good fortune as much as for any other reason.

* The attempts in the nineteenth century to compare Bismarck and Lincoln were fully understandable. But we must also consider that one of these giants was obviously more successful than the other in gaining the admiration of a later generation. This may have been partly due to the vagaries of fortune rather than humanitarian behavior. Bismarck, who is now far less admired than Lincoln, shed far less blood in achieving his national goal. Let us say counterfactually that Lincoln saved the American Union at an enormous price, but did not free slaves after he sent armies to quell the southern rebellion. Would he still enjoy his present divine-like status?

* I used to gripe (and perhaps still do) about a lightweight book published by Republican Party journalist Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism.⁸³ I was annoyed by the attention this work received in a field in which true researchers usually labor for a pittance. Unlike diligent but largely unrecognized scholars, Goldberg drew copious comments from the national press and parlayed his writing efforts into big bucks. I was especially turned off by the ludicrous comparisons of prominent Democratic politicians to Italian fascists and by the forced parallels between Hillary Clinton and German Nazi officials. Most horrifying of all, this screed remained on the New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction from February 2008 through April 2008 and even reached first place by March 8, 2008.⁸⁴
Since then it has dawned on me that there is nothing about this publishing coup that should have offended me. Goldberg produced propaganda for his party masked as historical analysis and sold his well-packaged product to FOX News junkies and Republican Party loyalists. Recently, Republican presidential candidate senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) paid homage to Goldberg’s interpretation by accusing the Democrats of being “the home of liberal fascism.”⁸⁵ It was as a Republican commentator, not as a scholar of fascism, that Goldberg achieved mass sales and obtained lucrative invitations to speak. The author achieved what he was hoping to
accomplish in a media culture. To paraphrase an old adage, nothing succeeds as thoroughly as success.

* The preface to the second edition might well be Bagehot’s most truly conservative commentary. There he insisted that there was nothing inherently just or moral about extending the vote, if it would weaken constitutional liberty and the quality of national leadership. Englishmen should not have been congratulating themselves on having a “newly enfranchised class.” As Bagehot put it:

We have not enfranchised a class less needing to be guided by their betters than the old class [of small property owners]; on the contrary, the new class needs it more than the old. The real question is, Will they submit to it, will they defer in the same way to wealth and rank, and to the higher qualities of which these are the rough symbols and the common accompaniments?²³

As a much younger person, I quoted these lines almost verbatim when the US Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.²⁴ Even while acknowledging that the black vote had been deliberately depressed for many decades in violation of the US Constitution, self-styled conservatives need not have rejoiced, which many of them did, that a massive black vote was being mobilized with federal assistance. One effect of that added vote was electoral support for laws and executive acts that reduced traditional restraints on the federal government. The Voting Rights Act also led to measures that increased government surveillance over what has be-come a greatly restricted liberty of association. Although Bagehot regarded the Reform Act of 1867 as almost unstoppable, he certainly didn’t believe that sanctified its passage.²⁵ Nor did Bagehot equate “justice” with extensions of the franchise,
particularly if the effect of the widened suffrage would be a leap into the dark. The Reform Act was something that he knew he and his allies could not hold back, but as an advocate of “rule by the best,” he was justified in questioning what he viewed as a falling away from his ideal.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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