A by-now common comparison that began to be made in the eighties is between the fate of the pre-World War Two Right and that of the current paleos. For neocons and the conservative establishment they have taken over, it is comforting to think that the “moderates” on the Right have ultimately won. There was supposedly an older American Right going back to the interwar years that Bill Buckley and the National Review circle had helped to marginalize. This process foreshadowed the neocons’ later successful struggle against the rightwing extremists who were left in the conservative camp. By the eighties, Norman Podhoretz, James Nuechterlein, and other neocon authors were praising Buckley as someone who pulled himself away from youthful fascistoid associates to begin the necessary purge of the far Right. Buckley’s attacks on anti-New Deal isolationists were the preliminary step for what the neocons and their liberal journalistic allies were now continuing – a war against rightwing bigotry linked to whatever stood to the right of their own group.
Several problems are attached to this special pleading that my book The Conservative Movement addresses at length. The primary targets of the National Review‘s tirades against the Right were neither obsessive racists nor raging anti-Semites. They were isolationists who opposed Buckley’s anti-Communist crusading. Among the purged were libertarian Jews Murray Rothbard and Ron Hamowy and the John Birch Society, which NR targeted in July 1964 for objecting to the Vietnam War. The principal reason Buckley and his associates, James Burnham and Frank Meyer, went after the Birchers was not their generic extremism, but their temerity in criticizing the extent of American foreign entanglements.
It is also doubtful that the Buckley faction obliterated the isolationists Right entirely. As soon as the Cold War ended, that side came back in force and seems to be riotously alive at this time.
Most importantly, the conservative wars of the fifties belonged to a struggle waged among conservatives over the future of their movement. Like Communist splits of the twenties and thirties, it was a conflict among those who agreed for more than they disagreed. Despite their noisy recrimination, the differences were minimal on a wide range of issues: viewing the welfare state as an intrinsically bad thing; entertaining deep suspicions about the direction of the civil rights movement, even before it acquired its present nasty contours; and being generally sympathetic to rightwing, anti-Communist regimes abroad and to the McCarthyites domestically. As much as Bill Buckley and Murray Rothbard may have wrangled over foreign policy, they shared the same effusive admiration for Franco in Spain and for McCarthyism in American politics. They were also both highly critical of the 1965 Immigration Act and feared that it would engender disruptive cultural and political effects.
Mentioning this broad conservative consensus in the fifties and sixties is not to glorify a particular program. It is rather to understand how the past was different from the present. While conservative confrontations fifty years ago rarely took place in a courteous fashion, they were part of a civil war in which both sides claimed a common legacy. Until about thirty years ago, when Buckley began dragging his magazine and camp followers in the direction of Abe Rosenthal and the Commentarycrowd, his own professed positions on domestic questions differed little from those of his rightwing isolationist adversaries.
By now the polarization among “conservatives” is something of a different order. The two sides have nothing in common but mutual animosity. One side is not even conservative in any recognizable sense, save for its defense of the American global democratic regime and its kind words for multinationals. The other side, a loose grouping of traditionalists, maverick libertarians, and anti-war activists, is carrying on a low-cost but sustained war against the neocon-liberal establishment. NR cannot even plausibly claim to be playing a mediating role, having sided conspicuously and repeatedly with the Left in its attempt to marginalize the paleos.
By no means is any of this a return to older conservative wars in which the Right was divided against itself. What has now emerged is a consolidated Left, part of which pretends to be “moderately” conservative. Although this consolidated Left has what looks like inexhaustible journalistic and financial power, it also has a problem that is not likely to go away. It cannot go on credibly representing the Right while taking patently leftist positions and expressing clearly non-conservative sentiments. It will not do indefinitely to treat serious criticism of immigration as a fascist rather than conservative stance, particularly when, as observed by Austrian Jewish conservative commentator Peter Sichrovsky, it is the immigration issue more than any other one that distinguishes right from left throughout the Western world. In Der Antifa-Komplex (Munich:Universitas, 1999), Sichrowsky makes this observation not as an advocacy statement but as an attempt to focus on reality. Conservative movements that try too hard to avoid being called “fascistic,” for example, by calling those on the Right “nativists,” land up losing ideological credibility. It is unlikely that an alleged conservative movement that devotes its energies to praising Martin Luther King, blaming Western Christian civilization for the Holocaust, and preaching cultural diversity will fare very well as a popular conservative force.
Having oneself invited to Katherine Graham’s funeral or to a luncheon party for Lewis Lapham is one thing. Developing a mass-base conservative movement, as Sam Francis perpetually reminds us, is a different goal that is entirely incompatible with the other.