(The following is an excerpt from the review “Right Angles,” by Modern Age editor Daniel McCarthy, published in the Claremont Review of Books.)
The Library of America’s anthology of conservative writing shares the idiosyncrasies of its editor. Andrew Bacevich is a citizen-soldier-scholar with a long history of publishing in conservative periodicals. He is also, by his own lights, a conservative. But he is a conservative in opposition to other conservatives, and the chief influences on his mature thought have been the progressive historians Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams, along with the liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Bacevich is trenchantly critical of U.S. foreign policy, but he is neither a libertarian non-interventionist nor a paleoconservative America Firster. He is rather a modern exemplar of anti-war progressivism.
He has assembled an excellent collection in American Conservatism. But it is in effect a progressive’s selection of the best of the American Right, fortified with several items from out-and-out socialists or Left liberals who make arguments with which the editor sympathizes. These items are, for the most part, invigorating reading in their own right. They are also, however, an admission of defeat: Bacevich has failed to find within the conservative tradition itself, even as broadly defined as it is in these pages, sufficient material to support his own principles.
The book contains selections from 44 authors plus an introduction by Bacevich himself. There is great diversity here, although the editor laments the preponderance of white men among the contributors: only two women and three African Americans have made the cut. Libertarians aplenty have been counted as conservatives for purposes of this collection, including Frank Chodorov (who once threatened to “punch in the nose” anyone who called him a conservative), the Chicago School economist Milton Friedman, and the anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard. Among the socialists, progressives, and center-Left thinkers featured herein, Christopher Lasch and Wendell Berry offer critiques of liberalism and capitalism which are indeed touchstones for certain kinds of conservatism today. The Marxist historian Eugene Genovese likewise finds many admirers on the Right for his work on the Southern intellectual tradition. Randolph Bourne, Charles Beard, Reinhold Niebuhr, and William Pfaff, on the other hand, seem to be here chiefly to reinforce the editor’s own preference for a less interventionist foreign policy—the provocative selection from Beard even argues against U.S. participation in World War II.
Yet the great names from the pantheon of 20th-century conservatism are mostly accounted for, with certain conspicuous exceptions. Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Frank S. Meyer provide the book’s first three selections; they attempt to define conservatism with respect to its 19th-century history and the legacy of Edmund Burke (Kirk), the coalition embodied by National Review (Buckley), and the theme of freedom in the Western moral and political tradition (Meyer). The 21 items in the book’s second and longest section—“The Fundamentals: Tradition, Religion, Morality, and the Individual”—range from Henry Adams’s The Education of Henry Adams (1900) to Antonin Scalia ’s Obergefell v. Hodges dissent (2015), with contributors ranging from Herbert Hoover and Zora Neale Hurston to Harry V. Jaffa and Andrew Sullivan in between.
The section on “Liberty and Power: The State and the Free Market ” has fewer authors (eight) and greater focus. Likewise the penultimate section, “The Ties that Bind: The Local and Familiar,” contains just four items: one each from John Crowe Ransom, Robert Nisbet, Eugene Genovese, and Wendell Berry. The final part of the book, “The Exceptional Nation: America and the World,” is also of modest length, featuring eight authors, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge and ending with Ronald Reagan and William Pfaff.
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