[This article originally appeared in the June 7, 1963 issue of Commonweal.]
According to Paul Elmer More, the great strength of conservatism lies in “its trust in the controlling power of the imagination.” A paucity of imagination was the affliction of American conservatives for most of this century. But there are signs that the old vigor of conservative thought, evocative and challenging, is at work in this country once more.
For some twelve years, or a little longer, the revival of conservative ideas has stirred the muddy waters of twentieth-century intellectuality in this country. Parallel with this intellectual movement, though often unconnected with it, has gone a reawakening of popular conservatism, now clearly discernible in both political parties. And one must ask the questions, “Can some union, or at least coordination, of literary and practical conservatism be achieved? More important, can conservative principles be applied with success to the grim exigencies of this country, which may be at the crisis of its fate?”
Of ferment, there is plenty in conservative circles. But much of it is little better than squabbling. Dr. R. A. Nisbet, Dean of the University of California at Riverside, and the author of an important conservatively-inclined book, The Quest for Community, recently wrote to me of his distress at the tone of such debates. “It seems to me,” he comments, “that conservatism has fallen somewhat from the proud estate it held during the three or four years following publication of your The Conservative Mind. What bothers me increasingly is the extent to which conservatives have fallen into the old Nation and New Republic habits of mere counterpunching.”
Well may Professor Nisbet say so. This point is made in greater detail by a graduate student who wrote to me at length, with some eloquence:
I find myself very comfortable with your works. I am at home with Burke. But I am in no way at home with what masquerades as conservatism on our campus, or which reaches me through the courtesy of certain ‘conservative’ propagandists. It is all very well for us to ally ourselves temporarily with the enemy as a tactical trick for political purposes; but I cannot clasp these ‘individualists,’ these atomists, to my bosom. I am not at all comfortable when they act as if limiting government were the same as detesting government; and I tremble when they tell me that when men are freed from the influence of the State, they will develop into such splendid beings.
I think it monstrous that the conservative is asked to stand aside while the ‘individualist’ industrialist destroys everything familiar; indeed, do more than stand aside, actively defend his right to do so without the interference of the state or the community. I do not think it amazing that the populace turns to the Liberal when we offer him nothing but the consolation that the invisible hand will construct for him a materialist world beyond the dreams of avarice. I suspect that he would rather not have quite so much in the way of material goods, and have quite a bit more assurance about enjoying those he possesses. When the conservative, the man of virtue, the party of virtue, talks like a Manchester industrialist, how can we blame the people from turning to the unions and the State for help? We taught him to do so ....
I see no one who approaches the rents in our social fabric as he would the wounds of a father. My friends of the Right would create discord and disharmony so great that I doubt the Republic could survive them; or at least they talk as if they would. They sound to me very high-minded, full of sacred principles which must not be compromised, no matter what the cost. End the Farm Subsidy tomorrow! The next day abolish the Unions. Harass the Communists; and if to make that omelet a few Liberal heads are broken, so much the better. Sell all government property at auction, and stop competing with businessmen. Repeal, change, destroy! More competition—it produces more goods!
On the other hand, I see my friends of the Liberal persuasion. Innovate! Change! Destroy! For every social ill, a new law; and an administrator for every human need. Let’s get the country moving again. Produce more goods!
We have, I hope forever, managed to reject Ayn Rand and her doctrine of the Ego and his Own. But have we no more to offer than the tired doctrines of the nineteenth-century liberal, refurbished for 1968? Must we forever wear the livery of a plutocracy masquerading in the clothes of their betters? Perhaps you have already given me the only advice you can give-to prepare for the role of Don Quixote. If that is all we can do, then I suppose I must burnish my shield. But I do not want to sell my sword to those who today claim the Flight. If I must tilt at windmills, then I may as well take on all comers.