“A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs
who, however, has never learned to walk.”

—Franklin D. Roosevelt

This is a very disturbing book, concluding that “America will one day be ‘one with Nineveh and Tyre,'” and that the general principles of conservatism will only reappear “when circumstances favorable to civilization return.” The remnant, or paleoconservatives, are “without real hope” of political or cultural power, their only function being to express “iconoclastic exuberance” over unpopular causes in a spirit “far more Nietzschean than neo-Thomistic.” This gloomy conservatism is the fruit of a movement whose magnificent development (described in five brilliant chapters) was arrested and finally destroyed by a force Paul Gottfried calls “neoconservatism,” whose chief concerns are for the money and power that flow from a connection with the political establishment of Washington, D.C. Gottfried’s neoconservatives are not just the Democratic, Cold War liberal intellectuals who shifted right in the late 1960’s; they include most of the writers for National Review, the staff of the Heritage Foundation, and indeed most leaders and intellectuals commonly identified as “conservative.”

This revised edition of The Conservative Movement is actually two books. The first five chapters, following the original edition (coauthored with Thomas Fleming), display even more thorough research and still keener scholarly insight this time around. The last two chapters by Professor Gottfried alone are new, and read much more like investigative journalism than academic analysis. They are also responsible for the difference between the mild optimism of the first edition and the deep pessimism of the second.

Early chapters describe the development of The Conservative Movement from its “neither organized nor coherent” origins during the New Deal through its consolidation by William F. Buckley, Jr., Frank Meyer, and National Review in the 50’s, the Goldwater movement in the 60’s, the academic conservatism of the 60’s and 70’s, the intellectual revolt of the neoconservatives, and the populist revolt of the New Right. Gottfried’s narrative is indispensable to an understanding of conservatism, even if one can quibble with some of the details, and very useful for anyone wishing to understand the movement that culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan.

I grew up in the ferment that was “the movement” around National Review in the 1950’s and attended St. John’s University, which Professor Gottfried identifies as a center of conservative activity. After having rejected some of the strident early rhetoric of the magazine I was brought by Meyer to the fold, won by both his philosophy and his activism. Meyer’s “synthesis of ideas that included absolute truths and personal liberty” seemed the right equation and did indeed become what Gottfried calls “the vital center of the conservative culture of the 1950’s.” While documenting the dominance of fusionism within the intellectual conservative movement, Gottfried properly chides its partisan, populist, defiant tone, its exclusionism (Meyer denounced George Wallace), its activism (“almost all of National Review‘s staff participated in political campaigns”), and its optimistic conviction that “things could be set right.”

Paul Gottfried argues convincingly that neoconservatives and others in their embrace cooperate with one another in funding projects, in getting jobs, in publishing each other’s books, and in controlling institutions; he also shows some people to have made a lot of money. But the important question to ask about Washington conservatives is surely “Have they kept the principles of the movement and tried to advance them given their opportunities?” not “Have they received lucrative grants?” Detailing where they went wrong on policy is much more worthy of scholarly analysis than investigating their bank accounts.

As for the wisdom of conservatives involving themselves with the Washington policymaking community, the problem is certainly a vexed one. Do you preach truth from an ivory tower and let the country go reeling to the left, or do you try to guide it rightwards at the expense of principle? There is a great danger in the latter course, and it is possible that Washington conservatives have indeed gone too far. The Heritage Foundation, in pressing its “empowerment” theme, is often close to the line but, in my view at least, generally avoids crossing it. Still it is helpful—if not always pleasant—to have someone like Professor Gottfried around to chide us, though his strictures certainly do not justify our giving way to Nietzschean despair.

By the end of his book, Gottfried seems to mean by “neoconservatives” all optimists who call themselves conservative: if so, count me in. Earlier on, however, he suggests a better definition: neoconservatives are conservatives who “remain qualified defenders of the welfare state” and who support a “vision of a global democratic order.” I suggest an operating definition of a true conservative as one who rejects the welfare state by supporting local and private institutions and judges foreign policy by whether it meets American interests—and of a neoconservative as a person who rejects only the excesses of the welfare state and argues for a make-the-world-safe-for-democracy internationalism. It seems to me that from this distinction three things follow.

The first is that the John Randolph Club “agreements,” as reported in The Conservative Movement, will not do. “On immigration and trade policy, [libertarians and traditionalists] have united behind the principle that no policy should be adopted unless conducive to political liberty in the United States.” This is simple evasion: unless policies regarding trade and immigration are going to be made by local governments, what other than the welfare state can execute them in their increasing complexity? If fusionism’s simple formula of “libertarian means applied by a conservative society for traditional ends” is to be replaced, much more theoretical work is required.

The second is that a former neoconservative who accepts conservatism, however defined, should be regarded by his new associates as a “real” conservative: “neoconservative” cannot become a permanent castigation. In Gottfried’s early chapters, Irving Kristol is excused from the internationalist charge. lie quotes Russell Kirk’s opinion that Kristol is “not a neoconservative at all . . . but a conservative.” He speaks favorably of Kristol, Midge Decter, and Gertrude Himmelfarb when discussing their views on social issues. Yet, by the closing polemical chapter, all arc back in the neoconservative cage, along with almost everybody else.

Kristol supports one of my two postulated conservative tenets, yet is only a qualified supporter of the second (although with less qualifications every time I read him). What to do? Excommunicate him for ideological incompleteness? Which brings me to point three: if people (including neoconservatives) tend in our direction, by all means let us welcome them and try to move them the rest of the way. I just cannot accept that neoconservatives move conservatives leftward.

Contrast the pessimism of the conclusion to the revised edition of The Conservative Movement with the qualified optimism with which the first edition ends: “Before giving in to anything like despair, conservatives in the 1980’s [and 1990’s] might take considerable comfort from contemplating their forty-year rise to power.” While both the power and the comfort are today diminished, still conservatism in the 80’s did roll back (however temporarily) the welfare state; that achievement, though insufficient, emphasizes the need for private and locally devised solutions to domestic problems and for a foreign policy based on considerations of a just national interest. Conservatives did not require foundation grants the first time around, and we will not need them the second. 


[The Conservative Movement, Revised Edition, by Paul Gottfried (New York: Twayne Publishers) 214 pp., $26.95]