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Classic Literature of Twentieth-Century Conservatism* (Updated)

Tyler Cowen poses the question, "Which 20th century classic of American conservative political thought has held up best?" Cowen's inquiry is circumscribed so as to exclude works of economic theory, the treatises of foreign conservatives (albeit not those who emigrated to the United States), and, of course, works which preceded the Twentieth Century. Additionally, Ross Douthat provides his selections and observations. These conditions seem eminently reasonable, though I would, as a reactionary, quibble with the qualifying "has held up best", inasmuch as this condition places the accent on factual, as opposed to normative, criteria. It is at least conceivable that, owing to the vicissitudes of history, those works which will exert an enduring influence on American conservatism ought not exert that influence. Would we want to reflect back upon our epoch fifty years hence, only to realize that some screed penned by Ann Coulter proved more consequential for actually-existing-conservatism than some magisterial disquisition? I think not.

What follows, therefore, is my non-exhaustive list of ten twelve authors, and those works from their respective oeuvres that ought to shape conservatism going forward, which is not to argue that the contents of these books, in their respective totalities, would receive my approbation. In no particular, programmatic order:

1. Whittaker Chambers - Witness
2. Eric Voegelin - History of Political Ideas/Order and History
3. Leo Strauss - Natural Right and History
4. Thomas Fleming - The Morality of Everyday Life
5. Christopher Lasch - The True and Only Heaven/Revolt of the Elites
6. Twelve Southerners - I'll Take My Stand
7. Alasdair MacIntyre - After Virtue/Whose Justice? Whose Rationality?
8. Richard Weaver - Ideas Have Consequences/Ethics of Rhetoric
9. Paul Gottfried - After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State/Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Toward a Secular Theocracy
10. Tie - Samuel Huntington - Who Are We?, Peter Brimelow - Alien Nation
11. Russell Kirk - The Conservative Mind/The Roots of American Order
12. Tie - Roger Scruton - The Meaning of Conservatism, John Kekes - Against Liberalism

Alternative lists and selections are invited, of course.

*Time-span arbitrarily expanded to encompass the early years of the Twenty-First Century.

Comments (26)

I realize that this doesn't rise to anything like the level of Witness, but I might suggest Balint Vaszonyi, America's Thirty Years' War.

Fine list, but...

Please substitute Strauss with Nisbet's "Quest for Community" and add Molnar's "Utopia the Perenial Heresy" somewhere. Philip Reiff's "The Triumph of the Therapeutic" is a must and Daniel Bell deserves a place too.

But, no true reactionary can settle for a canon without; the literature of Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn , Lewis, Percy, or the essays of Wendell Berry & Dorothy Day, or the histories of Lukacs & Foote, and as a late entry, Bill Kaufman's "Look Homeward America"?.

In fact, I feel like a conformist wimp for agreeing to the chronological chauvinism of
"20th century classic"

It is at least conceivable that, owing to the vicissitudes of history, those works which will exert an enduring influence on American conservatism ought not exert that influence.

A fine insight.

The Intercollegiate Review, put's CSL's The Abolition Of Man at #2 on its "50 Best Books Of The 20th Century." You can say that again. Clearly, not enough folks have read it and taken its message to heart.

Lydia, what's that thing you recommended and what's it about?

Some of those 12 Southerners were Andrew Lytle, John Gould Fletcher, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and John Crowe Ransom.

Looks like a pretty good list, Jeff. I'd be interested in Paul's reaction.

Two under-known books by Russell Kirk:
Beyond the Dreams of Avarice and The Conservative Constitution

Forgot to include; Muggeridge's "Chronicles of Wasted Time", Leo XIII's "Rerum Novarum" and Belloc's "The Servile State".

Bill, here's the Amazon link to the Vaszonyi book:


I very much appreciated his distinction between "Anglo-American" and "Franco-Prussian" values and approaches. There's even a stoplight near my house that we call "Franco-Prussian." :-)

Shameless plug for E. Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience. If your children haven't read it, do yourself a favor. If you need more, try God and Some Philosophers wherein he gives Kant and others a workover--a hundred dollars in your mind is not a hundred dollars in your pocket. And what's political science without metaphysics? Gilson gives the metaphysics that Jeffrey Hart once dreamed of.

Twentieth Century Conservatism ought not to forget some others of those who carried the flame in the first half of the century.

Greats like Paul Elmore More, Irving Babbitt, Frank Chodorov, Henry Adams, and one of the most superb stylists of all, Albert Jay Nock, should and I hope still are read somewhere.

I would place Russell Kirk very high on my list. The Conservative Mind was a mighty shot in the arm for a nascent and struggling movement and it's truths are timeless. As for economists, one at least should be included, Milton Friedman, whose influence was extensive in defending economic liberty.

Excellent comments and submissions, all.

I would like to proffer my tepid, diffident defense of the inclusion of Strauss' Natural Right and History. First, the Straussian corpus, particularly through the (mis?)interpretive labours of his disciples, acolytes, epigones, and conservators, has exerted a tremendous influence upon the formation of a generation (or two) of intellectual conservatives - whether via trivializations and vulgarizations, that is the question. It is a matter for disputation whether the neoconservatives are truly faithful disciples of Strauss; certain elements of his philosophy, particularly the intensive, lapidary study of antique texts, and a concomitant preference for the philosophy of the ancients, sit uneasily with neoconservatism; others, particularly the overblown and propositionalist assault upon all forms of historicism - which Claes Ryn and Paul Gottfried have critiqued, and that quite incisively - fit neoconservatism like the proverbial glove. And this is not to touch upon the 'noble lie' criticism, which always hovers over discussions of Strauss. Stanley Rosen, in the conclusion of his essay, Leo Strauss and the Possibility of Philosophy, wrote that

Our study of Strauss's texts has terminated in an impasse or aporia. The quarrel between Athens and Jerusalem is formulated in terms of an equivocation on the nature of philosophy as fluctuating between Socrates and Descartes. The Socratic conception of philosophy is weakened to the point that it accepts at least part of the fundamental premise of Jerusalem. Philosophy remains within the camp of poetry; the quarrel between the two, if it occurs at all, is internecine or political rather than cosmic or philosophical. There is good reason to infer from Strauss's texts that the truly secret teaching is the impossibility of philosophy, an impossibility that must be concealed from the human race for its own salvation. That is to say, philosophy, understood as the quest for universal knowledge, for the replacement of opinions by knowledge, for knowledge of the whole, is impossible. We are left with knowledge of ignorance. No wonder that philosophy, as Strauss conceives it, is incapable of refuting revelation.

In other words, philosophy is grounded in an act of will; one first wills to utilize reason, understood as opposed somehow to revelation, and only then actually engages in actual ratiocination. The philosophers, in a sense marked from birth as an elite caste, practice their craft, not because philosophy offers a surer path to truth, but because religion is so terrifying, clthonic, tending to exceed 'proper measures', and so must be kept at bay.

I agree with Rosen, which raises all manner of interesting questions concerning Strauss' relationship with various strains of modernity.

Why Strauss, then? Well, second, despite all that, and despite the grotesqueries to which Straussian esotericism often leads (Strauss is so wrong on Plato it is pitiful, for example....), his analyses are often trenchant and penetrating. His interpretation of Locke, for example, is utterly devastating. And I'm just a sucker for withering critiques of the godfather of philosophical whiggery.

I wished to limit my list to American conservatives, though I freely acknowledge that no conservative can cut himself off from the best that has been thought and said by those of other nationalities; any conservatism worthy of the name seeks to manifest universality in the particularity of a given society. A conservatism bereft of Belloc, Chesterton, de Maistre, the social thought of the Church, Solzhenitsyn, and a legion of others, would be a beggarly thing, indeed.

Two more for the pile, both greatly underrated as defenses of the legislation of moral norms: Robert George's Making Men Moral and Harry Clor's Public Morality and Liberal Society: Essays on Decency, Law, and Pornography.

Locke's basing his political theory on Christianity was and remains a problem for Christendom. Does Strauss make his criticism from that direction? His inclusion seems gratuitous since Whiggery won't survive the canon made up of your other entries, nor it's own logical conclusion. Strauss is a dark canopy over a verdant, sun-lit garden. Let's add Vladimir Soloviev instead!

Voegelin's criticism is advanced in that vein: Locke sought to veil with the trappings and accoutrements of Christianity the unlovely, grubbing acquisitiveness of the modern, passionally-motivated man. This, Voegelin terms the unlovely residue of Puritanism, which seems about right. Strauss' critique of Locke is similar, though without the religious overtones, and, as would be expected, more intricate.

We could simply render explicit what is everywhere present in the more political writings of Chesterton and Belloc, namely, that Locke did nothing more in his Treatises of Government than perform a philosophical effusion upon the improvers, enclosers, primitive accumulators, speculators, moneychangers, and traitors who were the Whigs. A collection of plutocrats who literally bought the government they desired for themselves - and Locke just sprinkled a few drops of philosophy over them, and pronounced them defenders of natural rights. An obscenity!

Let us indeed take Soloviev, and add Dostoevsky while we're at it, for The Brothers Karamazov is - in my estimation, at least - the greatest novel in the canon, as well as the most spiritually profound and discerning, notwithstanding the bits about the Grand Inquisitor and the Catholic Church.

I'll have to think some more about this, but my first thought is that Willmoore Kendall deserves a place, for two reasons: (1) He was the greatest student of American political philosophy we had in the Conservative years; and (2) he absorbed Strauss's teachings, adapting and using them without descending into the interpretative abyss that swallowed up so many Straussians.

I'll also second Shelby Foote, mentioned by someone above. Great history is almost always Conservative. And more and more I think Foote's is, because of his subject-matter, our greatest historian.

Kendall should not be omitted. The Conservative Affirmation in America, Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, and other works are really essential.

What is obvious is that one cannot limit one's lists to small numbers of volumes; conservatism must appreciate the proliferating variety of intellectual undertakings.

And we must, must, have Lukacs and Foote. And all of the 'forgotten men' of pre-war conservatism, Nock, Chodorov, et. al., and More and Babbitt. While Nock, Chodorov, and others from the same general span of time are generally claimed mainly by paleolibertarians (ie., not the Dupont Circle, Cato folks, about whom the less is said, the better, in my opinion), their message is perhaps more relevant in some respects now than it has been for a while, what with crusades for democracy having come back into vogue.

Dostoevsky is a must. Sorry fo rthe slight. I'm trading my old YAF button in to secure Romano Guardini's place. His "End of the Modern World" and "Letter from Lake Como", to say nothing of "The Lord" are found in only the best of catacombs.

Great takedown of Locke.

Has anyone mentioned von Kuenelt-Leddihn, spelling optional?

Has anyone mentioned von Kuenelt-Leddihn, spelling optional?

If not, we should, since Leftism Revisited is an excellent, occasionally idiosyncratic book.

A. J. Nock has a great essay on the fine art of snoring, first appearing in 1938 in Atlantic Monthly. He describes a type of person that might be little more than a useless conservative: one who understands a possible outcome, and doesn't act on it--a snorer. My guess is that Nock was a snorer. Short of that Nock was an exceptional essayist who never wrote that killer book on political thought.

Nock's quintessential snorer is Field Marshal Prince Mihail Ilarionovitch Kutusov-Smolensky. The sagacious Kutusov is described as perceiving Napoleon's every move. And then Nock quotes Tolstoy (the Agrarians loved Tolstoy).

Count Tolstoy says that young Prince Bolkonsky went away from an interview with Kutusov feeling greatly assured about the old general's conduct of the campaign, because 'he will put nothing of himself into it. He will contrive nothing, will undertake nothing. . . . He knows that there is something stronger and more important than his will; that is, the inevitable march of events; and he can see them and grasp their significance; and seeing their significance, he can abstain from meddling, from following his own will and aiming at something else."

That is unacceptable political science, for the most part. It's the science played by the blind seer, who is but one of the players in the political struggle for the supremacy of a particular kind of conservatism. Definition demands a supremacy, it seems. Yet supremacy is so unlike harmony.

Frederick Wilhemsen's Belloc: No Alienated Man introduced me to Belloc's harmony in The Four Men:

Grizzlebeard is symbolic of the wise man of the folk, full of ancient lore, singing dirges of the race and of the passing of youth. He is the custodian of the household gods, and philosophy is not unknown to him. He stands for order, historical continuity, and he views exitence with a realism born of age and wisdom. Grizzlebeard is the tribal count, the feudal baron, the landed squire: he is Tradition incarnate. The Sailor represents man's communion with the physical universe: he is the eternal adventurer, the spirit of romance. Although attached to Sussex, his eyes are in love with sudden landfalls and distant hills. He is the wanderer in all men. The Poet, lean in body and ragged in appearance, is a man whose visions trip him up; he is not at home in this world, but he belongs to that company of Eternal Poets, the Seers of Western Tradition, that reach back to Plato.

Now, where to put the snorer? A poet, no doubt. But I reckon it could be any of the three. In fact, Belloc finds all three harmonized into one--hence his title. Belloc is doing something akin to what Ortega Y Gasset's gave as a definition of biography: "a system in which the contradictions of human life are unified."

The unification of the disparate parts is what characterizes the true hope of humankind. It isn't the supremacy of one part over another, but an orientation toward a totality of order. What are the parts? Strauss once gave them in the form of two fundamental questions: quid sit deus? and quid sit homo? The fine art of Strauss is his amazing ability to eclipse--an impossible act without something to eclipse. So he begins with the wonderful questions--those perennial inquiries that impressed Bloom--and then winds down, not with a harmony, but a calculated end strategy to castle an opponent. Strauss is good because Plato taught him. But Strauss comes short because he couldn't harmonize the fundamental contradiction. Isn't that what should characterize the classic literature of conservatism?

That is a remarkable comment, KW. Somewhat obscure at times, but impressive and thought-provoking.

Thank you, Paul.

Myles Connolly's spiritual masterpiece, "'Mr. Blue", "Quo Vadis by Henryk K Sienkiewicz and Henri de Lubac's "The Drama of Atheist Humanism"

T.S. Eliot:

The Wasteland

The Hollow Men

Ash Wednesday

Murder in the Cathedral

The Family Reunion

The Cocktail Party

W.B. Yeats:

Where can I begin?

T.H. White:

The Once and Future King

Everything J.R.R. Tolkien ever wrote.


I think it's a mistake to search for the great classics of conservatism in the writings of political theorists.

Steve, why didn't I think of that? Tolkien, of course. And while we're talking Eliot--"The Four Quartets."

"I think it's a mistake to search for the great classics of conservatism in the writings of political theorists."

Victor Hugo - Les Miserables
Georges Bernanos - Diary of a Country Priest
Graham Greene - The Power and The Glory
Baroness Emmuska Orczy - The Scarlet Pimpernel
Josef Pieper - Leisure, The Basis of Culture
Evelyn Waugh - Scoop

I warmly recommend C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength. This novel note only skewers the right targets, but presents an attractive picture of the alternative. You can find my lengthy series "Bright Lights Under the Shadow of the Hideous Strength" in the archives of The Western Confucian, back around May or June of last year, I think. A great book, admittedly with flaws (see Michael Ward's Planet Narnia on that). If I had a blog, I might call it Notes from St. Anne's. The good community is St. Anne's. If you enjoyed That Hideous Strength, you might well appreciate this modern "fairy tale for grown-ups."

I like, though much less than THS, Ursula Le Guin's tale The Lathe of Heaven, as a satire against the technocratic itch to meddle.

What about Michael Polanyi?
Conservative defences of liberty, tradition and free trade in:
Knowing and Being (London, Routledge; Chicago, University of Chicago Press; 1969)
The Logic of Liberty (London, Routledge; Chicago, University of Chicago Press; 1951)
Personal Knowledge (London, Routledge; Chicago, University of Chicago Press; 1958)
Science, Faith and Society (London, OUP, 1946; 2nd ed. U. of Chicago Press, 1964)
The Study of Man (London, Routledge; Chicago, University of Chicago Press; 1959)
The Tacit Dimension (London, Routledge; New York, Doubleday; 1966; reprinted Gloucester, Mass., Peter Smith, 1983)
Society, Economics and Philosophy: Selected articles by Michael Polanyi, ed. R.T. Allen (New Brunswick, NJ, Transaction Publishers, 1997).

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