A Few Loose Ends

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by Paul Gottfried by Paul Gottfried

Numerous responses have come to my attention concerning my last two comments on this website, and it may be necessary for me to clarify exactly what I was trying to say. For the record, I did not mean to suggest that National Review, Weekly Standard, and the rest of the neocon press should be forced to publish my scribbling or that of my friends. I could not even imagine how this would happen, by any means short of a divine revelation to Mr. Buckley and his buds. In any case I’m not sure that I’d want to appear in their agitprop publications, beside people whom I would not care to be associated with. But there is a difference between not publishing individuals who do not represent one’s changing party line and going out of one’s way to run down their reputations. And I was in fact accusing the Washington Post’s and E.J. Dionne’s as well as Jonah Goldberg’s favorite octogenarian "conservative" of doing the second. "Pushing them off the bus" involved something more than refusing to print those who were not congenial to National Review. It typically meant vilifying nonconformists or, as the late M.E. Bradford explained when the neoconservatives and (unbeknownst to him) Buckley went after him, "trying to take away your livelihood and reputation." Such behavior goes well beyond not giving a forum to the views of someone whom the publisher disagrees with.

It also behooves me to make clear to two of my disciples that I was not linking American "conservatism" to the cause of big business. I was remarking on the inappropriate use of "conservative" to describe what, outside of the planter class in the antebellum South and a few other notable exceptions, signifies "bourgeois liberalism and more recently, and more catastrophically, social democrats, leftwing militarists (the term is Bob Higgs’s) and graying Trots. Since in any case I was not referring to classical conservatives, there was no way that I could be designating American businessmen as members of that group. Bourgeois liberal in my last three books, moreover, refers specifically to the "idea" of the Euro-American bourgeoisie, as they existed and conceived of themselves in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Such an "idea" is pre- and even antidemocratic and while such liberals were not antithetical to the state, as the political form of self-conscious nations, they insisted on strict constitutional limits being placed on state power. Never would bourgeois liberalism permit "public administration" (which is a primarily twentieth-century mass democratic phenomenon) to interfere in family structure or to carry out income redistribution as a social project. What is inherent in welfare state democracy could only have developed because bourgeois liberals gave way to another dominant class, the current political one whose cheering gallery includes today’s pseudo-conservative movement.

Finally, it may be useful to stress that I am writing a book on value conservatism not to settle scores but as a continuation of my study of late modern political persuasions. American conservatism closely resembles the Postmarxist Left, the theme of my latest book, in its showcasing of a globalist, egalitarian ideology. Both are post-liberal and heavily influenced by the rhetoric and vision of the revolutionary Left. Each pursues a politics of guilt toward recognized victims, although obviously some victim groups that rate high on the European Left, like Muslims, are less beloved to American "conservative" leaders. Both devote considerable energy to fighting "fascist" phantoms in a way that is reminiscent of the European Left of the 1930s.

But beside German nationalists, insufficiently contrite Southern whites, who have still not come to terms with their racist past, and Christians who supposedly refuse to face up to their anti-Semitic legacy, the neoconservative guides of the American conservative movement have created an Islamo-fascist demon. This reprises opposition to the current version of liberal democracy, as defined by the neoconservatives, which is also conveniently linked to strong anti-Zionist attitudes. One does not have to like the objects of these neoconservative attacks, who are indeed repulsive, to perceive in this practice a questionable application of "fascist." Anti-Israeli Third World troublemakers are depicted as anti-Semitic European look-alikes, albeit with different costumes, in a thinly veiled attempt to fit anti-Zionism into the demonology of the Postmarxist European Left. But it may also reflect the continuing fixation of those who brandish this concept on a rightwing enemy that never vanishes.

Even more significant, American "conservatism," like the European Left, is a movement that cannibalizes its members, as soon as they depart from the announced new direction. Neither has the substance or the firm belief system that characterized European Marxism, and both drift opportunistically from one dogmatically held position to another, each of which is upheld indignantly and inflexibly against dissenters. In Europe the Postmarxist Left has turned ferociously against former leftist politicians who have challenged the merits of further Third World immigration, arguing that it is harmful for the working class and that the incoming Muslims treat women badly. In the US those on the right who have questioned the neoconservative war against Iraq, the pro-immigration views of the World Street Journal, or the neoconservative interpretation of the civil rights movement have been read out of the respectable Right as "extremists" or as those who "flirt with fascism."

Characteristic of the neoconservative-controlled Right and the Postmarxist Left is the lack of a vital center, outside of the personalities of powerful journalists, and the tendency to demonize those who resist party lines. And on the American "Right," like the Postmarxist Left, there is nothing identifiably "rightwing" about most of their signature positions in recent years; for example, the military pursuit of global democracy, crusades against Islamo-fascism, support for the civil rights and feminist movements, insofar as they show themselves to be "moderate," in terms of the other goals being simultaneously pursued by the conservative movement and by Republicans. The reformed conservative movement does pay at least lip service to the "moral issues" raised by the Evangelicals, but that gesture may be little enough reward for those who wait at their beck and call. The Religious Right, after all, provides the compliant foot soldiers for Republican campaigns and for a certain kind of Middle Eastern politics, things the movement is interested in, without usually getting more than insincere rhetoric in return. Since, however, the Religious Right and the neoconservatives agree about the use of American military force, having the wars they desire, as Larry Vance has correctly pointed out, may be all the Religious Right should expect — in an alliance of unequals.

But even more than the current Postmarxist Left in Europe, the conservative movement has thrown people off the bus, if those believed to be in charge of the movement decide that the expellees don’t fit. Since the purge victims have made the media Left feel uncomfortable, this "house-cleaning," celebrated by E.J. Dionne in his most recent remarks about Buckley, has won predictable media applause. But while the commended purges may have targeted some unpleasant eccentrics, praising Buckley for inquisitorial zeal is a dishonest reaction to character assassination. It is a bit like extolling the American Communist Party for criticizing Hitler and the excesses of the Red Scare without bringing up the rest of the story. The seamy side of both of the aforementioned objects of praise is thereby placed beyond consideration.

In the case of the conservative movement, it is precisely that shadow side that dominates its history. The appearance of continuity is no more than that, a deliberately fostered illusion that allows the gullible to believe in a steady, natural progression of ideas and in the long-term peaceful interaction of their exponents. Nothing of this kind has happened. Despite the window dressing that has come from well-intentioned intellectuals, the conservative movement that arose in the fifties has been a series of purges, and those kicked off the bus have been reviled and in some cases professionally ruined, with the help of mainstream leftists. Overlooking this fact, in the manner of recent historians of the conservative movement, is to ignore the glaringly obvious.

November 1, 2005

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt and The Strange Death of Marxism.

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