The significance of Chilton Williamson’s new book, The Conservative Bookshelf, is that it is the first general account of the conservative tradition to place what is now called paleoconservatism in the context of that tradition.  Once upon a time, the connection would have been obvious because all conservatives were paleoconservatives, or close to it.  Today, however, it is not so obvious and has to be explained, even to readers who regard themselves as “conservatives” and who labor in the delusion that Bill Kristol, David Frum, Rich Lowry, and Ramesh Ponnuru are of the same cast.

Section VI of Chilton’s book on the “present day” contains accounts of books by Pat Buchanan, Peter Brimelow, Tom Fleming, Clyde Wilson, and me, all of whom can fairly be lumped into the paleo persuasion, even if they don’t much like the term (as I don’t) or apply it to themselves, and even if we do not really deserve to be in the same book with Cicero, Burke, and Saint Augustine.  He also includes Joe Scotchie’s useful but too short book on paleoconservatism, Revolt From the Heartland.  The fly in the ointment, of course, is the inclusion of Treason, by Ann Coulter.  I have no problem generally with Miss Coulter, who is an articulate and sharp-witted (and -tongued) polemicist, and I even wrote a column defending her book against anti-McCarthy attacks by neocons (Arnold Beichman and Dorothy Rabinowitz), but I have to say that the book does not belong in The Conservative Bookshelf.  I think Chilton knows this, and his account of Treason makes it pretty clear to the reader that he doesn’t think it really belongs, either.

What did he leave out?  Well, in my book (no pun intended), he left out probably the major work of conservative political and social theory of 19th-century Britain, Fitzjames Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.  Today, you don’t hear much about Stephen’s book, published in 1873, but Russell Kirk has a chapter on it in The Conservative Mind and actually engaged in a polemic with Frank Meyer about it in National Review, back in the days when there was a conservative mind.

Stephen’s book is a rebuttal of Mill’s On Liberty, and it proceeds from the view that force—not “liberty”—is the fundamental fact of human society: that, without force (not just coercion, but any kind of constraint), human society cannot exist.  We may jabber all we want about “freedom,” “rights,” “liberty,” and the “progress of mankind,” but all these good things exist only because, somewhere, somebody holds the gun or wields the sword.  For those who know it, that’s the real message of John Ford’s great film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Chilton included James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, which is entirely appropriate, though it is not really a conservative work but a brilliant piece of social and political analysis.  I would have suggested also (maybe instead) Burnham’s later book, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, still the best account of the “neo-Machiavellian” tradition of classical elite theory as formulated by Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, Roberto Michels, and Georges Sorel.  The main insight of these thinkers is that all human societies are ruled by minorities (elites) and that “democracy,” the “consent of the governed,” and similar abstractions are largely mythical.  That thesis is vital for an accurate understanding of what happens in any society and why it is happening, but it is also an important means of evaluating and judging whether a particular society is good or bad—depending on what its elite is, how it rules, and what kind of culture it creates.  It is a mode of thinking that real conservatives, whatever they call themselves, need to know about and start understanding as they continue to sink or be pushed out of America’s new ruling class.

It will be interesting to see what sort of reaction to Chilton’s book comes from the neoconservatives, whom he generally does not bother to include (also rightly).  Whatever tradition they come out of—Straussian, Social Democrat, Trotskyist, Wilsonian—there is nothing conservative about it or them and no reason they belong in a book about the real conservative tradition.