The Year the Right Was Reborn - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

The Year the Right Was Reborn


In the throes of the French Revolution, as Jacobins guillotined the nobility and installed the goddess Reason on a throne in Notre Dame Cathedral, civilization might have seemed irretrievably lost. Yet today France, while troubled, is more resistant to woke ideology than the English-speaking world is; indeed, the French think of wokeism, rightly, as an American export.

The cultural revolution that the U.S. has suffered for several decades has not entailed organized bloodshed on the scale of the French Revolution, though it has unleashed waves of violent crime. If this revolution is less immediately threatening to life and limb, it is no less pernicious to civilization itself. The Christian religion, Western history and classical learning, the traditional family, and the very notion of national borders and citizenship are all under sustained attack by highly educated men and women who have turned against their patrimony. They are spoiled heirs and heiresses, ungrateful, resentful, yet only dimly aware of just how completely the advantages they enjoy depend on the forefathers whose names and likeness they now dishonor.

Conservatives can be pardoned if they sometimes think that all is irretrievably lost here, or soon will be. Even at the beginning of the post–World War II conservative intellectual movement, the situation seemed bleak. The book that Richard Weaver published in 1948 as Ideas Have Consequences was originally intended to be called The Fearful Descent. The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk, was at first titled The Conservatives’ Rout. At the start of the Eisenhower years, when Kirk’s book appeared, some conservatives were already prepared to abandon the intellectual struggle and adopt an Epicurean mode of life, if not the Epicurean philosophy. They would tend to their own gardens and cherish a small circle of friends, grateful to be spared from the storms raging nearby—for however long they were spared.

But 1953 was a turning point. Three books published that year, including Kirk’s, showed that intellectual restoration was still possible. While The Conservative Mind still reflected Kirk’s keen awareness of what conservatives had lost, the work was itself an act of recovery—and its reception among critics and the public proved that there was much wider interest in reclaiming civilization than any conservative would guess from a gathering in his own backyard. Kirk’s historical scholarship, wedded to his literary brilliance, showed that the conservatism of Edmund Burke was neither quaint nor a mere precursor to nineteenth-century liberal utilitarianism. The Burkean tradition of political thought had exponents on both sides of the Atlantic, from Burke’s time to the age of T.S. Eliot, which was then the present. 

The Conservative Mind gave cohesion and historical depth to the “new” conservatism of the postwar era. Americans heard from liberals such as the Harvard political theorist and historian Louis Hartz that their country had no authentic conservatism of its own—that its only tradition was to be found in the philosophy of John Locke. No conservatism could challenge American liberalism; here there could only be disputes between different phases of liberalism.

Kirk refuted that, and his refutation had the effect of giving the name “conservative” to what until then had been a disjointed reaction to postwar liberalism that often traded under the sociologically misleading label of “individualism.”

And a conservative sociologist, Robert Nisbet, revealed just how misleading that label was in his masterpiece of 1953, The Quest for Community. For Nisbet, what was distinctive about conservatism was its connection to the non-commercial intermediary institutions of society. While socialists and other collectivists put their faith in the state as the instrument for fulfilling mankind’s destiny, and classical liberals or libertarians looked to the market, for conservatives the great intermediary institutions of church, family, and civil society were the locus of human happiness and the heart of civilization. The America of the 1950s longed for the recovery of community—but Nisbet warned that this longing would be diverted into new schemes of secular salvation through the state if the radical philosophy of Rousseau prevailed over the sociologically conservative thought of Alexis de Tocqueville. 

Kirk gave amnesiac conservatives back their memory of themselves. Nisbet clarified the terms of the more than merely political struggle between the great ideologies (a word that Nisbet accepted more readily than Kirk did). The émigré intellectual historian Leo Strauss, in his great work of that same year, Natural Right and History, mapped the fundamental philosophical lines of battle, between the classical understanding of reason, nature, and natural right and the modern project of enslaving nature to human will, with the attendant loss of belief in right and wrong as natural (rather than manmade) categories. His views on liberalism and Burke were different from those of Kirk and Nisbet, yet conservatives welcomed Strauss’s work as a serious contribution to the great intellectual struggle.

There were other important books that year, including Weaver’s Ethics of Rhetoric. The conservative intellectual revival extended beyond publishing, however. Conservative students would not be relegated to reading these books alone in their rooms or discussing them with only a few friends—instead a new organization, the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, would connect them across campuses as well as within them. A society of individualists might have been a paradox, but the thought of men like Kirk, Nisbet, Strauss, and Weaver shows how the mission of educating for liberty, rightly understood, could be much broader than the term “individualist” implied. Even “conservative” might be too narrow as an exclusive label, though conservatism was at the core of ISI.

The great books of that remarkable moment seventy years ago are still read, not least by ISI students. The work of rebuilding the moral and intellectual foundations of civilization is not easy, nor quick. What the revolution has vandalized is not, however, irretrievably lost, if good men and women, in the rising generation especially, devote themselves to the task of restoration.

Daniel McCarthy is the editor in chief of Modern Age.

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