One sometimes feels obliged to contextualize a disagreement, because the point in dispute has still not been clearly stated. I have written critically more than once about the works of C. Bradley Thompson, first about his study of neoconservatism, Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea (2010), and more recently, about a book he completed on America’s Founders, America’s Revolutionary Mind (2019), which advances a dubious thesis attributing non-Christian views to the Founding Fathers. In both cases I found myself embroiled in quarrels with this estimable Clemson University professor.
I may have overreacted when I criticized Professor Thompson’s latest work (“Playing Pretend With the Founding Fathers,” September 2020 Chronicles) as I may have singled him out unfairly to underline a larger point. To set matters straight, Professor Thompson’s books are several rungs above the historical studies typically getting passes in The New York Times, The Washington Post, or The New York Review of Books.
They are also of higher quality than the books and articles that Conservative Inc. publications extol through reviews in which their club members stroke each other’s egos. This unseemly favoritism toward club members and their set positions on a multiplicity of topics became second nature, especially after the neoconservatives rose to power in the conservative movement. It shaped the “conservative” interpretations of certain subjects, from the perpetually evil Germans and Southern whites, to Middle Eastern affairs and America’s “moral role in the world.”
Since undesirables were booted out of the movement, partly as admonitory examples, those who could stay in or were subsequently brought in dutifully observed the party lines. Professor Thompson undoubtedly struck agreeable notes in his latest book by stressing the propositional nature of the American Founding and by rejecting the so-called reactionary right; this caused party-line conservatives to lavish panegyrics on his work.
But this does not mean that Professor Thompson has trimmed his sails to win recognition. He has only been of use lately to the establishment for its own ideological or fundraising purposes. Not surprisingly, he elicited less praise from these new fans for his critical study of neoconservatism, in which there is an all-out attack on neoconservative saber-rattling.
All that I wish to establish here is that Conservative Inc. editors and commentators mechanically praise each other’s statements and books, particularly if they are in sync with the party-line. Whatever a full explanation of this tendency may entail, the propensity of Conservative Inc. writers to offer entirely predictable, utterly uninteresting opinions on historical questions is rather noticeable.
Three among literally hundreds of cases I have documented are the responses to Deirdre McCloskey’s book The Bourgeois Virtues (2006), Allen C. Guelzo’s over-the-top glorification of Reconstruction (Reconstruction: A Concise History (2018)), and a piece Victor Davis Hanson wrote for National Review on the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. I am focusing on these cases because they illustrate my point that although certain interpretations of the past are highly questionable, they go unexamined in establishment conservative publications for political or even social reasons.
McCloskey’s work, which the conservative establishment talked up exuberantly when it came out, attributes economic growth from the 19th century down to the present to liberal and democratic ideas. Anyone who has more than a nodding acquaintance with this subject would understand that McCloskey exaggerates the degree of economic stagnation from the Stone Age down to the 1840s. She also largely ignores the cycles of material growth and subsequent decline in premodern times (say from the 13th century down into the 14th) and downplays the accumulation of investment capital, technical developments, and the agricultural breakthroughs that began well before the supposedly illuminated consciousness of the middle of the 19th century.
It is furthermore highly problematic whether “liberal” ideas, in the sense in which McCloskey applies that term, were the primary reason that the West moved from relative poverty into affluence. This seems like a vulgarized restatement of Max Weber’s focus on the relation between the moral implications of Calvinism and the psychology of capitalism. Unfortunately, McCloskey’s restatement is far less convincing and more off-the-wall than that of Germany’s greatest social theorist.
McCloskey’s success may be partly attributable to the fact that she is a prominent simplifier and her simplifications appeal to current leaders of the Conservative Inc. persuasion. Although “liberal ideas” were at work in the evolution of bourgeois capitalism, many other things also went into this process, from changed religious concepts about lending investment capital, which were particularly evident among Calvinists, to the availability of material wealth that allowed further, relatively uninterrupted economic expansion.
Spanish Jesuits in 16th-century Salamanca constructed a concept of a free market economy quite independently of liberal political views. And during the economic boom in 13th-century Italy, theologians came up with ways of getting around then-existing laws against usury. All McCloskey’s talk about “egalitarian dignity” and “bourgeois equality” breaking through in the 18th century with the Enlightenment does not suffice to explain the dynamic of capitalism, which reaches back much earlier in Western history. What McCloskey describes as “the Great Enrichment” has older material and cultural roots than the ones she stresses.
Democracy, as in the mantra “democratic capitalism,” had little to do with this development. Most of the foundations for capitalist growth were laid before the advent of our current concepts of democratic government; and modern democracies have typically siphoned off earnings to satisfy popular redistributionist demands and moved toward state control of larger and larger parts of the economy.
Today’s liberal democracy has certainly not been kind to “bourgeois virtues,” if we wish to include under that category the bourgeois family with well-defined gender roles. I’ve no idea how governments that generously subsidize and even drive the abortion industry and celebrate LGBT rights have anything to do with the traditional bourgeoisie.
I would also question the tributes from Conservative Inc. conferred on Guelzo’s hymns to the Radical Republicans, who inflicted Reconstruction on a devastated post-Civil War South. Gone are the ghoulish capitalist plunderers and the vindictive treatment of Confederate veterans that are found in earlier Reconstruction histories, most famously in William A. Dunning’s monumental 1907 work, Reconstruction, Political and Economic: 1865–1877.
This may be Conservative Inc.’s answer to the present left’s reconstructions of history, which is producing its own version of the same. Marxist historians who noticed capitalists pillaging the defeated South were supposedly apologists for slavery and segregation. Historians who airbrush such details out of their accounts, like Guelzo and Eric Foner, stand for an updated right.
Writing the article “Defending Reconstruction” in Claremont Review of Books (Spring 2017), Guelzo can’t say enough about “the mildness,” indeed the touching indulgence, with which the victorious Union carried out its occupation of the South. In this “bourgeois revolution that was crushed by the resurgent political power of a bloodied but unbowed aristocracy,” an attempt was made to “restore the foundations of freedom to a wayward South,” he writes.
But this effort failed, and:
Instead, the same Romantic feudalism that had created the old Southern order reasserted its hegemony, and postwar Southern aristocrats appealed to a set of cultural and racial biases which safely defused the importance of property, and sharply restricted access to it. This might have been averted had the victorious Union been willing to pour the resources into Reconstruction it had devoted to winning the war. But Reconstruction became a symbol of how quickly political fatigue afflicts liberal democracies.
One may infer from this lament that Guelzo would have preferred a Union occupation that went on and on, at tremendous economic cost and growing civil unrest throughout the country. This might have ended at whatever time the U.S. reached interracial relations of the kind that Guelzo could sign off on.
No doubt, at least one person has benefited from this narrative. It is Allen Guelzo, who has gone from professing at Gettysburg College to holding a professorship at Princeton. He has also hit it big with a conservative establishment that never stops signaling its virtue on certain sensitive issues.
Therefore, one cannot be surprised that mentioning the pillaging and bullying that accompanied Reconstruction (See e.g., Ludwell Johnson’s The American Iliad, 1848-1877) is no longer permissible in authorized Conservative Inc. publications. Despite the forbidden nature of such thoughts, I’m still trying to figure out how the actions of the Union occupation forces in suppressing white votes while elevating former black slaves to high places advanced interracial harmony in a region already laid low by devastation.
Last but not least, Hanson celebrated the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II in politically useful fashion, by declaiming against “revisionist histories.” Writing in National Review in 2009, Hanson is particularly upset by those who “blame Germany’s aggressions on the supposedly harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles.” This complaint fully reflects the Germanophobe as well as anti-Southern mindset generously conferred on Conservative Inc. by its neoconservative gatekeepers.
Does Hanson believe the Treaty of Versailles, which divested Germany of a third of its territories and placed millions of its citizens under hostile regimes, has been unfairly characterized as “harsh”? According to Hanson, “Versailles was far more lenient than what the Germans had planned for Britain and France should they have won in 1918.” Moreover, he wrote that the terms imposed on defeated Russia in early 1918 were far harsher than what the Germans lost in the treaty imposed on them in Versailles.
A few details that Hanson skims over may be relevant. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which the German Empire concluded with Russia’s Bolshevik government in March 1918, was intended primarily to supply food and war matériel. The negotiation of this treaty furnished a Kriegsmittel (means of waging a struggle), not a Kriegziel (war aim). The Germans tried to control the Western part of European Russia, because of a war in the West they would in any case lose. They desperately needed the foodstuffs that were available in the East to offset the effects of a British blockade that killed hundreds of thousands of Germans, mostly the elderly and children.
It is impossible to infer an eventual peace concluded on terms favorable to Germany from this war measure. The victorious Allies, not incidentally, did nothing to return territory that had fallen under German control to Lenin’s government. They divided this land among their client states, which were created or expanded as a counterweight to Germany.
By the way, what evidence does Hanson have that if the Central Powers won, they would have imposed harsher peace terms than the Allies? If we are looking at war aims, neither side showed restraint in formulating their pie-in-the-sky demands.
But here the Germans didn’t stand out. According to Georges-Henri Soutu in La Grande Illusion (2015) the French were at least as reckless as the Germans in the territorial additions they planned to make once victorious. At one point the French government planned to incorporate Luxemburg and to turn Belgium into a semi-autonomous client state, besides taking back Alsace-Lorraine from the Germans and splitting off the Rhineland from what was left of their defeated enemy. Even more significant, however, both sides were willing to work on a negotiated peace before American troops arrived in Europe to determine the outcome of the struggle.
Although it is not even imaginable that a Conservative Inc. publication today would publish my revisions, all of them would have been unexceptional among my professors when I was a graduate student at Yale in the mid-1960s. Guelzo’s views on Reconstruction were then largely found on the eccentric left; and I first encountered them in the 1960s when reading the historian John Hope Franklin, who never pretended to be a conservative. Even my professors critical of Germany would have criticized the Treaty of Versailles for its harshness, and noticed the effects of the British blockade on German military decisions in the East.
McCloskey’s celebration of liberal democracy would not have been acclaimed as holding the key to economic progress in modern times. The quasi-Marxist, medieval economic historian, Roberto Lopez, with whom I studied at Yale, would have pointed to the “13th-century Renaissance” and to the high level of economic growth that occurred in the 13th century.
Until the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Europe witnessed periods of economic boom as well as those of economic waning. The standard of living hardly stayed the same since ancient times, but rose for some substantially and fluctuated a great deal, particularly in the late Middle Ages. Lopez would have probably shrugged his shoulders if he had been told about how modern democratic consciousness was the one indispensable cause for modern economic development.
Of course, things used to be different on the American right as well. In the 1960s and 1970s furious debates about history took place in National Review and Modern Age. Unlike the clumsily contrived “disagreements” that Conservative Inc. stages between its docile dependents, these real debates went on for months and even years; and while they left scars (like permanent enmity between Frank Meyer and his National Review colleagues Russell Kirk and James Burnham), they also produced animated exchanges for a later generation starved for open discussion.
As has been observed on our pages, nothing like the 1975 Bradford-Jaffa debate about the legacy of Abraham Lincoln could now take place on the authorized right. Writing in The American Conservative, David Azerrad gave a compelling reason as to why this is the case. The conservative movement has become the party of “cowardice and accommodation…the court eunuchs and other members of the controlled opposition who offer an echo but never a choice,” Azerrad wrote. “It’s faux grandstanding while living in the fear of being called a racist.”