Those who have only a passing acquaintance with the history of post-World War II conservatism are not likely even to have heard of Francis Graham Wilson.  Yet, before the emergence of William F. Buckley, Jr., and National Review or the publication of Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind, Wilson had already marked out the grounds for an intellectual conservatism firmly grounded in the natural-law teachings of the Catholic Church.  The chief reason for Wilson’s relative obscurity resides in the fact that he was a reserved individual, a professor of political philosophy most at ease in academic surroundings pursuing his scholarly interests.  In the course of his academic career—11 years at the University of Washington (1928-39) and 28 at the University of Illinois (1938-67)—he wrote six books, the most notable being a fine American political-theory text, The American Political Mind (1949), and Public Opinion (1962), the work he treasured most.  The Case for Conservatism (1951), which seems to have attracted more attention than any of his other works, is very short, consisting of three lectures he gave on this subject at the University of Washington.  He had an abiding interest in Spanish thought and culture, which prompted his last published book, Political Thought of Modern Spain (1967).  At the time of his death in 1976, he was working on a manuscript entitled “An Anchor in the Latin Mind.”

Political, Philosophical, and Cultural Renewal, a collection of 14 articles—most of them written in the late 30’s and early 40’s and five of them never previously published—represents only a very small fraction of what Wilson produced for a variety of professional journals over the course of his career.  Nevertheless, the volume provides a comprehensive view of the foundations of Wilson’s political thought, as well as insight into why it changed so markedly over the decades.  Part one, consisting of three articles, deals with Wilson’s views of human nature and his appraisal of modern competing ideologies whose distinctive characteristics, in his view, are attempts to explain and predict the dynamics of change.  The five essays that compose Part two are all concerned with aspects of conservatism—its theoretical foundations, political character, sense of realism, and ethical nature.  Part three, a less cohesive group of essays, deals with the political thought of Thomas Jefferson, the sources of pessimism in American politics over the decades, the treatment of public opinion in The Federalist, problems associated with the meaning of democracy and its justifications, and the fatal shortcomings of “open society” theories.  

Even the most casual reader will soon realize that the Francis Graham Wilson who authored the essays written before and during World War II was probably a firm supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.  While Wilson does not deal extensively with contemporary politics, there are clear indications of his partisan leanings.  At one point, for instance, by way of commenting on the resurgence of the “organic conception” of society, he has nothing but praise for Roosevelt’s third inaugural address.  “As Roosevelt interprets the organicity of the American nation,” he writes, “there is a continuity in the structure and morals of our society.”  He compares Roosevelt with Edmund Burke: “When Roosevelt speaks of the mind, the body, and the future of the nation, he is speaking as Burke might speak today.”  He concludes that Roosevelt’s conception of the organic society “is, withal, a doctrine of conservative nationalism.”  Moreover, Wilson did not believe that conservatism was wedded to modern capitalism, at least in the form it had assumed in the United States.  On this score, he refers to various papal encyclicals to justify his position that the “current system of capitalistic production” clearly stands in need of “fundamental” change.  He was most critical of “industrial and financial leaders” who, “like the old French aristocracy,” shunned their “true responsibilities of leadership.”

In what sense, then, did Wilson write as a professed conservative?  His answer, circa 1941, would rely heavily on the Thomistic differentiation between primary and secondary change.  As he stresses in his “Theory of Conservatism,” there is “a primary and secondary conservatism.”  “The primary or fundamental conservatism,” he asserts, “is broad in nature, though it is constantly intermingled with the secondary or non-essential features of change.”  By way of illustration, he points out that “The conservative may well insist on the principle of private property while not maintaining the present system of the relations of production.”  Consequently, he claims that conservatism is not necessarily a defense of the status quo; it can accept and, indeed, even advocate any number of “secondary changes.”  But this is not the case with respect to primary change: Conservatism, he holds, is a “defense of primary elements in the social structure,” such as property, family, and religion.  From this vantage point, the New Deal could be characterized as producing only secondary changes.  And, beyond any question, this is the way in which Wilson viewed it.

Reading through Wilson’s essays, however, you can predict that a collision will occur; at some point, Wilson will come to see that what he takes to be secondary change is in fact undermining the primary or fundamental elements of the social structure.  Even those essays written before and during World War II emphasize basic tenets of a Christian conservatism that separate their author from the philosophy underlying the secular welfare state.  Central to Wilson’s thought is a belief in a divinely ordained moral order knowable through reason, which allows men to “discover and develop the moral consciousness . . . inherent in human nature” and through which they can realize “their moral dignity” and inherent rights.  But Wilson perceived that, as liberalism moved into the 20th century, it had come to embrace positivism, thus rendering it incapable of providing the “moral order” that could “sustain the freedom of individuals” through a “rational balance” between the competing demands of “liberty for the person and authority for the state.”  He agreed with Reinhold Niebuhr that

the burden of proof is on those who now contend that a purely positivist or scientific conception of right and human dignity will preserve the necessary restraint on power and renew the conscience of those who rule.

Wilson could also see at an early juncture that “The deepest conflict of our time is probably to be found between the Marxian materialism and the Christian-democratic denial of the slavery of the spirit.” 

This was not all that set Wilson apart from the “progressive” tenets of New Deal ideology.  He accepted inequality and hierarchy as givens, “part of the pattern of existence” that conservatives, unlike radicals or revolutionaries, accept “as a normal fact in social life.”  He acknowledged limits to effective “reform” or lasting change through public policy—that is, to what could and could not be accomplished through the agency of government.  In this regard, he wrote that “our ideas of public policy arise ultimately from the assumptions we make about the nature or the quality of men.”  In contrast to utopians, reformers, and even liberal democrats, he emphasized that conservatives are not inclined to underestimate “the capacity of men to do evil” or to overlook what history teaches, namely, that “human nature is a mixture of rational and irrational behavior . . . a blending of cooperation and recalcitrance.”  He pointed out that progressivism professes to trust men, not because they possess God-given moral sensibilities, but because it considers them “malleable” and “educable,” fully capable of adjusting to the new social order that progressivism would impose.  

Wilson’s essays written after World War II reveal how little he finds in liberalism that is to his liking.  In an address to Georgetown graduate students in 1949, he assails the relativism of liberalism and the proposition advanced by its intellectual guardians “that anyone who urges a standard for public opinion, or interpretation of a rational order of life is, by definition, anti-democratic.”  He finds incredible the view, derived from the “open society” theory, that “Only a system of reasoning that does not assume that men can reach the truth is compatible with the participation of all men in the political process.”  In his article “Conservative in Crisis”—using Cicero’s De Officiis as a point of departure—he goes so far as to maintain that liberalism stands a world apart from Cicero because it has no moral standards to determine whether society is facing a crisis or not.  In an unpublished essay, “The Political Philosophy of Conservatism,” written at some point in the early 1960’s, he holds that the “barbarism of the modern world of politics” in the West, brought about by liberalism’s relativism, secularism, and class warfare, finds its origins in the ideologies that propelled the French Revolution.  He comes to appreciate, as he never did before, the profundity of Burke’s Reflections.

In these essays, we see the basic reason for Wilson’s sharp move to the political “right,” his repudiation of the New Deal and, more generally, the centralized welfare state.  While he acknowledged that “economic conditions were intimately related to [the] spiritual effectiveness of men,” he also believed that “Christian conservatism” should strive to “make the economic aspects of life a subordinate phase of the force of Christian morality.”  As early as 1942, however, he perceived that “economic humanism,” whose origins were purely secular, was now displacing Christian morality.  Increasingly, Christians came to regard economic problems as “purely political in character”—that is, problems that could only be handled by the state.  What added to his disillusionment were those politicians who used religion merely as a “technique for the control of the mass for the specific political purposes of the ruling class.”  Religion was thus debased, and appeals to its morality were little more than another political ploy in the “struggle for power.”  These developments, on his showing, only exacerbated one of the worst evils: class warfare.  At the same time, Wilson—like Albert J. Nock—lamented that society was being “absorbed by the state.” 

We might say that Wilson was politically naive for failing to see from the outset the Machiavellian uses to which religion was being put by politicians.  Yet, for his generation, the displacement of religion by economic humanism was not so readily apparent, having come about only with the emergence of the centralized welfare state.  Even today, this displacement is not generally recognized; millions of good Catholics and Protestants believe it is their Christian duty to support the very politicians, mostly “progressives,” who shamelessly employ such tactics.  We might instead question whether Wilson’s conservatism was as realistic as he contends in his short essay on the “Emergence of a Conservative Realism” (1940).  Even on this score, though, we cannot be too harsh: Unlike some prominent leaders of the post-World War II conservative movement, Wilson was never taken in by Marx, Lenin, or Trotsky.

Finally, we are obliged to ask: Is there, as the title of this volume suggests, reason to believe that Wilson envisioned a “cultural renewal”?  The closest he comes to anticipating such a development is found in his essay “The Conservative in Crisis.”  Here, Wilson contends that once “progressive man” has “lost his progress”—once he can no longer rely “on the undeviable stream of progress” through scientific advancement and the like—he must squarely face

the ontological question which came so easily and naturally to the classical man and the Christian.  He must decide what he is, and whether there is anything in him that supervenes the grimness of the day.

Or more generally:

Secular progress alone withers in time of crisis, while under those conditions moral duty grows, the eternal order becomes more real, and humankind stands above the contingencies of disaster.

Wilson penned these words in the mid-1950’s, but whether he continued to believe them is questionable, given the domestic turmoil of the following 20 years.  What is not questionable are the Catholic foundations of his conservatism, which convey a reassuring message: No one, no matter how debased, is beyond redemption.  Thus, the possibilities of cultural renewal for Wilson may well have come down to a matter of faith.  

 This is, on the whole, an interesting literary collection that should be of special interest to serious students of post-World War II conservatism, particularly those exploring the foundations of Catholic conservative thought, which has emerged as an important force in American politics.


[Political, Philosophical, and Cultural Renewal: Collected Essays, by Francis Graham Wilson (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers) 263 pp., $49.95]