January 15, 2003
THE SWINISH NIGHTINGALE:Right and wrong: The elegant errors of conservative thinker James Burnham (Michael Lind, 1/12/2003, Boston Globe)
[U]nfortunately for his reputation, [James] Burnham lived until 1987, to the age of 82 (he was disabled by a stroke in 1978). In the late 1940s, the zealous anticommunism of Trotsky's former lieutenant led to his marginalization by the liberal intellectual establishment. Even the CIA, which employed Burnham briefly as a program consultant, found his views too extreme. Contrary to popular belief, the career officers at the CIA have often been political liberals.) Burnham, along with Willmoore Kendall, a crotchety populist who was paid by Yale to surrender his tenure rights and leave, and the self-described "Tory Bohemian" Russell Kirk, became one of the mentors of the young William F. Buckley Jr. Burnham worked at Buckley's National Review as an editor from its founding in 1955 until his effective retirement in the late 1970s.
The largely unintellectual conservatives who preceded them before the 1950s, and succeeded them in the 1990s, have been surly, demagogic and wrong about everything; in contrast, the mid-century "movement" conservatives around Buckley were wrong about everything in a sprightly and erudite way. They were never for racism, only against desegregation; they did not support apartheid, they merely vilified its victims and critics; they were not in favor of dire poverty, they just objected to any and all government programs that might ameliorate it.
At least Burnham and his fellow conservatives were right about communism--or were they? In 1945, Burnham published an essay in Partisan Review entitled "Lenin's Heir," in which he argued that Stalinism was the necessary outgrowth of Leninism. The thesis, restated in our time by the historian Martin Malia, is correct, even if the truth is still resisted in some college faculties (few doubters can be found in former communist countries). But anticommunism was not a monopoly of the right; for half a century, anticommunist liberals and anticommunist social democrats played leading roles in the campaign by the United States and other liberal democracies to resist Soviet imperialism and communist subversion.
Beginning with the Truman administration, anticommunist liberals and conservative realists like George F. Kennan proposed to "contain" the Soviet empire, until it mellowed and perhaps broke up. Burnham and his conservative allies denounced containment as appeasement. In its place, they called for "rollback" - an offensive war of some sort against the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites. Burnham promoted rollback in "Containment or Liberation?" (1952/53) and other polemics, but in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 he acknowledged that it was impractical. Still, his zeal remained. In "The Suicide of the West" (1964), he portrayed a West rotted by "the liberal syndrome" on the verge of annihilation not only by communism but by what, in an unsigned National Review editorial, he called the "pagan multitudes" of Africa and Asia. Burnham confused the end of the short-lived and parasitic European empires in the Third World - most of which had been founded only a few generations before - with the global collapse of western civilization, which Burnham, a lapsed Catholic, equated with white Christian ethnicity.
The bankruptcy and disintegration of the Soviet Union and the subsequent death of communism, outside of a few tyrannies like China, Vietnam, and Cuba, vindicated Cold War liberalism. The strategy of containment, which the Right said would fail, worked. The liberal democratic welfare-state, which many National Review conservatives had depicted as a doomed compromise between the alternatives of communism and Christian conservatism, was the alternative to which ex-communist nations in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union gratefully turned. The profound religious revival in former communist countries that many conservatives predicted in the early 1990s never took place.
In 1983, when President Reagan awarded Burnham the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the mid-century conservative movement that Burnham helped to found looked more important than it does now. From today's vantage point, it is clear that the anticommunist and libertarian conservatism that Burnham and Buckley fashioned alongside Goldwater and Reagan was a sideshow. The real story of the American Right in the second half of the 20th century was the defection of Southern white conservatives from the Democratic Party and their capture, by the 1990s, of the Republican Party. The important episodes in this story are the revolt against Roosevelt by Southern Democrats, the walkout of the 1948 Democratic National Convention by segregationists, and the mass conversion of hundreds of white Democratic politicians in Southern states, many of them holding office, to the Republican Party following the GOP congressional sweep of 1994. In this story, Richard Nixon with his Southern strategy and George Wallace are more important than Barry Goldwater, and the fundamentalist theology of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson had more effect than scholastic debates in the pages of National Review about "immanentizing the eschaton" (that is, the project attributed to liberals of achieving heaven on earth).
Nor did the circle at National Review have any significant influence on the neoconservatives, the allies of the Southern fundamentalists in national politics and the dominant force today in American conservative publishing and propaganda. Although Burnham was a high-toned WASP, whereas the leading neoconservatives have been upwardly-mobile Jews and Catholics, his political trajectory in many ways resembled theirs. One might think that the neoconservatives - many of them former Trotskyists and New Yorkers by residence or birth - would identify with Burnham. But in working with neoconservatives in the 1980s, as an editor of The National Interest, I never met any under the age of 70 who had read Burnham's books or even knew who he was.
We'll let his fellow apostate, David Horowitz, take the first crack at Mr. Lind, -PROFILE: Michael Lind Perpetrates a Hoax Political Cross-Dresser (David Horowitz, May 15, 1998, FrontPageMagazine.com):
In Up From Conservatism, Michael Lind reveals that unlike us, he actually did experience a Damascus-style revelation on the way to his new career. His epiphany came from the publication, in 1991, of a book called The New World Order by Pat Robertson, which retailed "a conspiracy theory blaming wars and revolutions on a secret cabal of Jewish bankers, Freemasons, Illuminati, atheists, and internationalists." Confronted with this threat from Robertson, who had founded a new and powerful organization called the Christian Coalition, "the leaders of intellectual conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr., Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz, instead of protesting, chose unilateral surrender." Those intrepid souls who criticized Robertson, like Lind himself, were "denounced as 'liberals' and even 'Marxists'." The result, according to Lind, was an "exodus of "the major young intellectuals formerly associated with the right...", himself among them. The overall consequence of these events, in Lind's view, is that "American conservatism is dead.... Today the right is defined by Robertson, Buchanan, and the militia movement." [...]
As though aware of the indefensible nature of his thesis, Lind repeats it endlessly throughout the book: "The 'right' now means the overlapping movements of the 'far right'. . . .[p.7] The only movement on the right in the United States today that has any significant political influence is the far right [same page, same paragraph]. . ." Lind summarizes the philosophy of this right in the following words: "the fact remains that a common worldview animates both the followers of Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan and the far-right extremists who bomb abortion clinics, murder federal marshals and country sheriffs, and blow up buildings and trains. That worldview is summed up by three letters: ZOG. ZOG stands for 'Zionist-occupied government,' the phrase used by far-right white supremacists, anti-Semites, and militia members for the federal government."
Nor is it just hateful philosophy they share. "In the manner of the southern right from the Civil War until the civil rights revolution, which operated both through the Democratic Party and the Ku Klux Klan, or the modern Irish Republican movement, with its party (Sinn Fein) and its terrorist branch (the IRA), the contemporary American far right has both public, political wings (the Christian Coalition and Project Rescue) and its covert, paramilitary, terrorist factions." Naturally, Lind doesn't name any of these "factions" or attempt to link terrorist and paramilitary groups with their alleged "fronts," like the Christian Coalition, which (unlike Sinn Fein) has denounced such violence. For Lind, whose book is an exercise in slander, the accusation is all that matters.
Then the great, but here over-generous, NY Times book critic, Richard Bernstein:
[M]r. Lind is brilliant and disagreeable at the same time, disagreeable especially in his dismissal of a group of distinguished thinkers as little more than the hirelings of an evil system. Of course, if Mr. Lind's former patrons are really morally bankrupt, it would be a sad but necessary task to say so. But Mr. Lind's arguments are made from within a kind of feverishly hot ivory tower, out of which come intermittent streams of moralistic hyperbole.
Several elements come into play here, not least Mr. Lind's refusal to believe that an adversary might actually hold beliefs out of real conviction. For Mr. Lind, the conservatives are a dishonest bunch who decree doctrine irrespective of the evidence, misrepresenting things on the orders of their moneyed patrons.
"It is easy to sound hysterical by exaggerating the power of the far right," Mr. Lind states in his first chapter. But then he does sound hysterical, asserting that for the last decade the United States "has been suffering from wave after wave of right-wing terrorism." Moreover, the terrorists have an ideology "almost indistinguishable from that of the 'legitimate' or political far right that formally disavows their deeds."
In such a way does Mr. Lind transform the sporadic atrocities that have been committed by the American lunatic fringe into an epidemic of proto-fascist terror. Then he incorporates Messrs. Kristol, Buckley et al. into the same circle as those who murder abortion doctors and blow up Federal buildings, which seems a superheated application of the concept of moral responsibility.
Conspiracy lurks everywhere in Mr. Lind's view, even as he, correctly, warns us of the inclination of the fever-swamp right to see conspiracy everywhere. "The modern conservative brain trust originated in a scheme hatched in the 1970's by William E. Simon, Irving Kristol and others," Mr. Lind writes, his use of words like "scheme" and "hatched" giving a sinister cast to the efforts of like-minded people to disseminate their ideas. The idea that the nation is suffering from an "illegitimacy epidemic," especially among blacks, is merely one of "the great conservative hoaxes of our time," he argues. "There is no illegitimacy epidemic in the United States of the sort that conservatives describe," Mr. Lind says in a passage of brilliant sophistry, and this is something "the conservative intellectuals have known all along."
To rebel, as Mao Zedong once put it, is justified. Some of Mr. Lind's arguments are on target. Yet reading his book, one wishes that his formidable brain power could be harnessed to something more temperate, more precise, even more generous toward those he has made his adversaries, less prone to the kinds of mental gestures he criticizes in others.
Last, a fellow of whom I've never heard, -REVIEW: of The Next American Nation (Thaddeus Russell, New Politics):
MICHAEL LIND IS A STRANGE MAN. He advocates miscegenation but calls for the abolition of affirmative action. He argues that the United States is less free and democratic than the rest of the industrialized West yet presents himself as an unabashed American nationalist. He maintains that the three greatest heroes in American history are Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He claims to present no less than "the most detailed description that has appeared in print" of the present American "third republic" run by an oligarchic "white overclass" and a culturally hegemonic "multicultural left." And, then, how many former protegŽs of William F. Buckley have become darlings of the American left? Yet what is strangest of all about Lind's young career is that the message of his books isn't strange at all. His political program include
little more than economic protectionism, campaign finance reform, and a welfare state. Underneath all the eccentricities and self-aggrandizing bluster Lind is nothing more than a nationalist social democrat. This is why the Michael Lind phenomenon of the past two years is so puzzling. Perhaps his rapid rise to fame was due in large part to his timing. Having established himself as an up-and-coming reactionary under Buckley's tutelage and as a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, Lind experienced a change of heart sometime around the 1994 elections.
In the winter of 1995 he published an article in Dissent in which he declared his break from the right and denounced the hijacking of the Republican Party by the likes of Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan. Perhaps the left, including the editors of Dissent, should have thought twice about rushing to embrace Lind, since the article (and his later book, Up from Conservatism) argues that American conservatism lost its way after the golden years of the 1950s and 1960s. But it appears that following the ascendancy of the Gingrichites, Lind was simply too attractive for the Dissenters to pass up. From there Lind set out to build a new career as the leading American apostate intellectual.
Personally, the one thing I've never forgiven Mr. Lind for is the utter hash he made of National Review's Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century, on which he included such nitwits as Wittgenstein, Keynes, Freud and Rachel Carson. But one barely knows where to begin disassembling this hysterical screed. I've previously addressed both the notions, which I believe to be canards, that the Cold War was a good thing and that the New Deal should have been maintained and expanded after the Great Depression. But it really seems that after Derek Leebaert's book, The Fifty Year Wound: The True Price of America's Cold War Victory, anyone writing as Mr. Lind does is obligated to justify the view that containment was a success for the U.S.. Whatever else one may wish to argue, it seems impossible to believe that more lives would have been lost had the U.S. attacked Russia than were ultimately lost as a result of the Cold War, dead who stretch from the gulag, to the Middle East (where the USSR created and funded terrorist groups), to Ireland (where the IRA received Soviet assistance) to Cuba and Central America and so on around the globe. 1.6 million would have had to die in the attack just to match the dead of Cambodia.
But all of this really seems secondary to what I think Mr. Russell nails in the review cited above: Michael Lind seems to be a "national socialist democrat" whose only real difference with Pat Buchanan is that where he accuses Mr Buchanan and others on the religious Right, like Pat Robertson, of being anti-Semitic, Mr. Lind is instead anti-Christian, and a conspiracy theorist too boot. In fact, the reason he espouses nationalism would seem to be the same reason that Hitler did: to replace Christianity with a new statist "religion". This is not to say that Mr. Lind would embrace the same kind of eliminationist solutions that the Nazis eventually turned to, but his hatred of Mexicans, which extends even to penning an apparently risible epic poem about the Alamo, and the kind of pathological hatred of the religious that he displays above, combined with his desire to aggrandize all power in society to the state alone, which is at the root of his opposition to everything from free trade to school vouchers to welfare reform, would seem to at least lay the groundwork for a massive bureaucratic state with the power and the will to dispose of those who don't fit its nationalist vision.
When Mr. Russell calls him a "strange man", Mr. Bernstein calls him "disagreeable", and Mr. Horowitz calls him a "rogue", I fear they don't go far enough. We've been most fortunate to have a very few national politicians who were genuine haters--Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Richard Nixon, George Wallace, Ross Perot, and Bill Clinton being the notable exceptions--but Mr. Lind's politics are seemingly based almost exclusively on hatred--of the rich, of the poor, of foreigners, of Christians, of Zionists, etc. He's one of the very few mainstream writers in America whose ideas actually seem dangerous.
Here are some links to stuff by and about the frightening Mr. Lind.