U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Radical Conservatives? Some Thoughts on Paul Murphy’s THE REBUKE OF HISTORY

I finally had the pleasure to read The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought, written by our USIH colleague Paul Murphy. It was the topic of discussion during my graduate seminar last night. My students found the history of the Agrarians fascinating, in no small part due to Paul’s masterful telling of it, but also because, being from Illinois—the “Land of Lincoln”—it was a shock to their system to learn that serious intellectuals found complex ways to defend the antebellum South.

The thing I found most compelling about The Rebuke of History is Paul’s notion of “radical conservatism.” He considers Southern Agrarianism, as originally formulated in its founding 1930 text, I’ll Take My Stand—written by “Twelve Southerners”—both conservative and radical. Its conservatism is obvious in its idealization of a southern past rooted in the hierarchy of slavery. But the radicalism of southern agrarianism is also evident, in its antipathy to industrial capitalism. Paul sets out to understand how this radicalism dissipated, as the postwar conservative movement sopped up aspects of Agrarianism. In his words:

“The burden of this study has been to document the deradicalization of the Agrarian tradition and to identify the ways in which a cultural criticism originally insistent on the interconnection between culture and the economy came to be replaced by a traditionalist conservatism oriented around the image of the South as a synecdoche for Christian orthodoxy and a patriarchal social order.”

My questions for discussion: What makes a radical conservative? Paul clearly defines a radical conservative as someone who understands that the cultural critique of modernism must, logically, extend to an economic critique of capitalism. In his epilogue, he classifies Eugene Genovese and Wendell Berry as radical conservatives. Paul writes: “Genovese’s [prior] radicalism.. was informed by the same hostility toward bourgeois culture and radical individualism that shapes his current conservatism.” Paul describes Berry in similar fashion: “Berry is at once profoundly conservative in his views on marriage, sexuality, and community and radical in his condemnation of modern agribusiness, the military establishment, and global capitalism.”

In these terms, Christopher Lasch clearly qualifies as a radical conservative, as I have argued elsewhere. Who else? Were radical conservatives more common prior to the postwar conservative movement, which fused the libertarian and traditionalist strains of social thought? More common prior to the polarizing effects of the culture wars?

5 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Andrew: First things first, how nice of you and your students to read “The Rebuke of History.” It is, indeed, extraordinary to find complex defenses of antebellum slave society, although not so extraordinary as finding state lawmakers across the country voting for such things as nullification and asserting state over federal sovereignty. (See New York Times today!)

    The weakest section of that book was the chapter on conservatism–mostly derived from the secondary scholarship of the day, and esp. influenced by George Nash’s “Conservative Intellectual Movement in America” with his idea of a braided libertarian-traditionalist-anticommunist postwar conservatism powered above all by ideas. As much as I admire his indispensable book, I see even more now the wrong-headedness of this idea. Consider me a historian of conservatism mugged by reality after 9/11. The sheer belligerent nationalism and American triumphalism resurgent in the nation and among the supporters of both President Bush and his War on Terror after the terrorist attacks made me feel as one must have felt analyzing conservatism in the 1950s and 1960s. At the core of my thinking when studying the Agrarians was the question of how a true “conservative” could be a strident free-market capitalist (thus the “radical conservative” formulation for those folks like Christopher Lasch–in reference to whom I first heard this term [from my friend John Borsos who declared that I, too, was a radical conservative]–and the Southern Agrarians).

    There are radicals (conservative or not–one can be radical in any number of ways) and proponents of order (a Party of Order), and this divide strikes me as the most important. The American Right was and remains fundamentally about order. (In the book, the figure I now see as the most trustworthy guide to modern conservatism is Richard Weaver.) The intellectuals, from Buckley forward, who attempted both to provide leadership and claim some founding role in contemporary conservatism, were on a fool’s errand in trying to elaborate some programmatic creed to apply to the Right. As it is, much of what conservatives like the National Review crowd articulated and believed was a doctrinaire “free-market” liberalism little different than William Graham Sumner in the nineteenth century. And, we are equally foolish to seek consistency, coherence, or historical explanation in such writings.

    Now, a radical Party of Order would be a contradiction in terms, but radical conservatism seems to me completely viable, and I wonder like you who would fit the bill.

  2. Paul. I didn’t find the chapter on conservatism weak. Sometimes it’s necessary to bridge gaps with synthesis, which is what I took you to be doing. And although it’s impossible to find consistency in the National Review celebration of capitalism and order, I think one of the most important tasks of the historian of US conservatism is to explain the extirpation of anticapitalist conservatism, more common in Europe but also more common prior to WW2 in the US, as you make clear in your study of the Agrarians. This is something Leo Ribuffo achieves in a recent article he wrote on family politics (“Family Policy Past as Prologue: Jimmy Carter, the White House Conference on Families, and the Mobilization of the New Christian Right.” Review of Policy Research 23, no. 2 [March 2006]: 311-38). He demonstrates that early 20th century proponents of family values, drawn in by populism and other critiques of corporate capitalism, saw capitalism as the gravest threat to the family. But by the time of the Carter White House Conference on Families, conservative defenders of the family saw the liberal welfare state as the threat. This seems part of the same trajectory you detail in The Rebuke of History. Cheers. AH

    P.S. I agree with you re: Richard Weaver, who’s critique of progressive education in Ideas Have Consequences was hugely influential to cold war conservatives, as I argue in my book.

  3. I was wondering about the distinction between radical = critique of capitalism and radical = a certain set of behaviors that challenge authority before I read the comments. Paul’s statement about the Party of Order makes sense to me.

    I think of radical conservatives in a very different vein than those gathered around economic issues–moral issues. It seems to me that the pro-life/anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage crowd are radical conservatives because they act in a radical way to protect conservative (i.e. traditional or the way things were previously) values. Does this work?

  4. This is something I hope Paul addresses more at length: his use of the term “radical” to set apart the conservatism of the I’ll Take My Stand conservatives from the later National Review conservatives. I take Paul as equating radical with anticapitalist. But this, of course, is a very different use of the term than by the consensus/pluralist thinkers, who conceptualized a “radical right” as being, in effect, aggressively reactionary. It seems Lauren wants to use the term “radical” in the latter sense. I don’t like that use of the term. It’s sloppy. Maybe the term radical should be ditched in favor of something more specific, like anticapitalist.

  5. This is an interesting set of questions. I thought of radical (and guess I still do) in the sense of cutting to the root, or advocating a structural change in the system. In this sense, “radical conservative” might better mean true conservative–following along Andrew’s line of reasoning (that is, anti-capitalists are the true radicals — and what happened to anti-capitalists on the Right?). How can a true conservative be in favor of capitalism, one of the most dynamic and profound sources of change (“creative destruction” and all that) that humans have managed to dream up? From the eighteenth century, and certainly from the nineteenth, defenders of the established order, the ancien regime, or any notion of a hierarchical society have seen the radical implications of capitalism and abhorred it.

    Even a postwar traditionalist such as Russell Kirk could see this — he could write around the problem of capitalist enterprise and would bewail its uglifying effects on his treasured native and Old World architectural monuments, etc. And yet Kirk was feckless when it came down to actually opposing big business or capitalism in any serious way. Put simply, he treasured the order of power as it was arranged in his time and was profoundly loyal to it. Some historians and theorists in the 1950s and 1960s spent a fair amount of time trying to talk about a dispositional or temperamental conservatism, but that type of labeling was simply a way to characterize a kind of political positioning utterly devoid of any serious political or theoretical reflection (an omen of the kind of contentless politics that dominates our own media discourse).

    So, I think, was the hot-button label of “radical” in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a term of art favored by conservative liberals (that is, centrists committed to defending the gains made by the liberal state) who wanted to inflame opinion regarding anyone who would question the status quo. In their view, the views of the hard-core laissez-faire and anti-communist and Bircher-style Right were simply so reactionary as to be radical. I can understand their frustration but it really was used as an exercise in mystification.

    By the way, with regard to the Populists: Just finished Charles Postel’s somewhat recent and award-winning book on the Populists entitled “The Populist Vision.” It really is an excellent intellectual history of these folks — and I would like to compose a blog post about it. Read this and you will no longer see them as anti-capitalist!

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