Where in the World Are We Going?
President, Intercollegiate Studies Institute
“Where in the
World Are We Going?”
April 2, 2006
The Sheraton Society Hill
Instead of looking forward as enjoined, I will be looking
backward. I want to talk about the
apparently contradictory presuppositions of the modern Conservative movement.
This meeting has intentionally highlighted our differences.
The best sessions of the Philadelphia Society always do precisely that.
The Philadelphia Society was the brainchild of that
remarkable man, Don Lipsett–who was also a longtime Midwestern director of ISI.
In some ways, the Philadelphia Society was conceived as a home for ISI students
who had the misfortune to have become grown ups. Don Lipsett and the other
founders of the Society–Richard Weaver, Frank Meyer, Gerhart Niemeyer, Fr.
Stanley Parry, and M. Stanton Evans among them–set down before the first
meeting a mission statement that has stood the test of time:
ìThe purposes of this Society shall be: To sponsor
the interchange of ideas through discussion and writing, in the interest of
deepening the intellectual foundations of a free and ordered society and of
broadening the understanding of its basic principles and traditions. We shall
seek understanding, not conformity.î
As we have seen this weekend, we have certainly been
successful at avoiding conformity. I mean that seriously. The Philadelphia
Society has flourished best when–as any conservative
institution must–it has kept faith with its founding vision, and with its
tradition. And the same is true, I believe, of our movement, the conservative
Reflect for a moment on a fact that is too often
overlooked: which is that our movement is known as ìthe conservative
movement.î It might not have been so. ISI itself was originally the
Intercollegiate Society of Individualists,
and the New Individualist Review at
the University of Chicago was an early intellectual fruit of the awakening
conservative movement. But we will not be known to history as ìthe
individualist movement.î Similarly, ìtraditionalismî was a strong current
throughout the past fifty years of conservative thought and activism: yet we are
not the traditionalist movement. Nor indeed are we the ìclassical liberalî
or ìlibertarianî movement, though those elements have from the first been
pillars of what it means to be an American conservative.
No, as a movement, we are not Strausian or Vogelinian, Paleo or Neo,
European Reactionary or American Exceptionalist.
We are the
conservative movement: our identity as a
whole is broader, more capacious–and in a certain sense truer–than any of our hyphenated sub-identities. I think that means
something; it captures a truth about what conservatism really is.
It is historical fact that as a political movement conservatism has been
non-ideological. The man who gave modern American conservatism its name would
go farther. Russell Kirk, described
conservatism as the ìnegation of ideologyî–or, as he told me once while we
were walking the hills of Scotland together, as the disposition of ìopenness
Because conservatism is the politics of reality, it
treats with general truths about human persons, human society, and the common
good–truths known from experience.
The procrustean bed of ideological reductionism and the exacting purity of
litmus tests is the very opposite of the conservative disposition. In being open
to the whole rambling totality of experienced
reality, conservatism is open, as well, to new
experience. There is thus a kind of ìaggregationî intrinsic to genuine
conservatism–or, dare we say it, a kind of ìfusionism.î Each tendency
within the conservative movement, taken on its own, may be in peril of falling
into ideology–mistaking partial truths for the whole truth. But taken together,
conservatism captures more of the whole
truth about politics and the common good.
There is also a quite practical advantage to
conservatismís habitual appeal to broad, general truths. By proceeding in such
a non-ideological way, conservatism, politically, naturally attracts to itself a
wide array of men and women of good will who can recognize within conservatism
something genuinely relevant to their own various teleological concerns. It is a
paradox, but it is true: we are true believers in a conservatism that has room
for far more than only the true believers. In this time of often quite intense
debate among conservatives, it is well to remember this.
In The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, George
Nash identified three main tendencies within the movement: libertarians,
anti-communists, and traditionalists. Consider for a moment how acute the
disagreements among these elements of the movement were:
From the point of view of the Libertarians:
- Traditionalists were nothing but coercive
collectivists, intent on legislating morality;
- while Anti-Communists were calling America to a
worldwide crusade which could only lead to the aggrandizement of state
power: for was not war ìthe health of the stateî?
From the point of view of the Anti-Communists
- the Libertarian devotion to individualism in point of
fact hastened the appearance of the Mass Man–for the vast majority of men
were simply not equipped to flourish when freed from traditional authorities
and social bonds: the disoriented Mass Man, in turn, became easy prey for
the totalitarian temptation;
- Traditionalists on the other hand were so parochial
and inward-looking that they were insufficiently alarmed at the threat of
Communism; they were too given to an isolationism that would cede the globe
to Communist oppression.
From the point of view of the Traditionalists
- the Cold War that the Anti-Communists proffered was
sure to ìmobilizeî society,
and a mobilized society is quite the opposite of a traditional society;
- and the Libertarians seemed little more than libertine
immoralists–and ideologues to boot.
Whenever we despair of the
conservative movement on account of its intramural factiousness, it behooves us
to recall just how intense were the earlier disputes through which our movement
was forged. Was the conservative movement then nothing but a ìshotgun
marriageî in the face of the Communist threat? Was ìfusionismî just a word
to paper over irreconcilable differences? No. For consider also the subtle and
intricate connections and areas of agreement
among the same three groups:
their central thinker was Albert Jay Nock: and he insisted that
true liberty is something demanding, hard, in fact it is only really possible
for those who have undergone an intense cultivation in high culture and Great
Books: in other words, they shared something very important with the
Moreover, the Libertarians could certainly affirm that the
Anti-Communists were exactly right that Communism represented an extreme
violation of the liberty of the individual and so must be resisted.
For the Anti-Communists,
the Libertarians were
certainly correct in their fear that ìit can happen hereî: domestic
communism was indeed a genuine threat, not a chimera, and we might well be on
the ìroad to serfdom.î
Whatís more, the Traditionalists were right in their critique of
Mass Society, for the emergence of the Mass Man was indeed the enabling
condition for totalitarianism; the Traditionalists were also right when they
contended that a flourishing civil society, richly settled in tradition, was the
best possible domestic defense against the totalitarian temptation.
For the Traditionalists,
the Libertarians were right that freedom was, if not The,
than at least A key element of the Western tradition; the free society is a
Western achievement to be celebrated–and defended.
And the Anti-Communists were right in their distinction between
ideological totalitarianism and traditional authority; they were also right (at
least, Whittaker Chambers was) that Communismís deepest error lay in its atheism.
This, then, is our history as
conservatives–and as members of the Philadelphia Society. In our commitment to
a common conversation among the strands of conservatism, we have opened
ourselves to be challenged by the insights of each other. In doing so, I think
we have all grown in understanding in ways that we could not have foretold. And
think what we have accomplished together: we have faced down the bloodiest
tyranny the world has ever known; we have transformed a nation suffering from
Jimmy Carterís malaise and stagnation into one of the most dynamic economies
on earth; we have so routed the Left at the level of ideas that it can no longer
speak in the language of socialism but must mask its aims with euphemisms; and
we have encouraged and profited from a Great Awakening that has burnished
Americaís reputation as the most religious society in the advanced industrial
There is no reason why the new disagreements we
encounter today must lead to a conservative ìcrack-up.î Surely
our work is not done. We must secure our country from the threat of Islamist
terrorism; we must repulse the vulgarian assault on high culture; we must arrest
and reverse the decline of morals; and–alas–we conservatives must relearn our
own lessons about the imperative need for limited government. My answer to the
question, then, of “Where in the World Are We Going?” is merely this: we
must make that journey together–as we always have.