Kuehnelt-Leddihn and American Conservatism

Let us begin with what is most excellent and lasting in the work of the late Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn—his profound understanding of, and unyielding opposition to, the Left.  According to the Austrian-born polymath, the Left has its roots planted firmly in democracy.  In its modern form, that object of near worship owed its birth to the French Revolution, but once loosed upon the world it soon transformed itself into socialism—international and national.  Contrary to received opinion, that is, Kuehnelt-Leddihn regarded communism, fascism, and nazism as rivals rather than enemies, brothers under the skin; like their progenitor, democracy, they were all ideologies of the Left.  That is why the Hitler-Stalin Pact should have occasioned no surprise.

The Left, then, comprises a number of ideologies, all of them, in Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s view, toxic.  But although he insisted that the French Revolution was a primal act of rebellion not only against monarchical order, but against God, he failed to draw the logical conclusion—that ideologies are substitute (or secular) religions.  Man, Edmund Burke wrote, “is a religious animal,” and he warned that if Christianity be suppressed or rejected “some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take place of it.”

In contemporary America, the reigning superstition goes by the name of Political Correctness (PC).  This ideology possesses neither the intellectual sophistication nor the internal order one finds in at least some varieties of Marxism.  It is a coalition of mini-ideologies that often appear to be contradictory:  feminism, “gay rights,” “civil rights” (preferential treatment of Black Americans), unrestricted abortion, open immigration for those from south of the border, and environmentalism.  It shows sympathy for Islam and a relentless hostility to Christianity.  It combines secularism (sometimes extending to atheism) with egalitarianism.

Kuehnelt-Leddihn died in 1999 and therefore did not live to witness the full flowering, if that is the word, of the PC ideology.  We know, however, that he would have fought against it.  He was, he insisted, a “man of the Right,” “conservative” being too foggy a label.  In fact, he styled himself a “liberal” in the tradition of Tocqueville, Montalembert, and Lord Acton.  Born in 1909 in what was then the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, he maintained a lifelong preference for monarchical, Catholic, and multi-ethnic societies.  (He himself spoke eight languages fluently and had a reading knowledge of 11 others.)  Never could he forgive Woodrow Wilson for the pivotal role the American president played in the Great War victors’ decision to break up the Habsburg Monarchy.

 

What political form a postwar European Right should take he did not, for some time, specify in detail, though he always insisted that it should base itself on an ideology that could mount a challenge to leftist ideologies.  That “ideology” was a misleading choice of words becomes obvious when one considers his definition of it:  “It is a coherent set of ideas about God, Man and the world without inner contradictions and well-rooted in eternal principles.”  This is a Weltanschauung, not an ideology.

Whether or not political parties should base themselves upon a Weltanschauung depends largely upon circumstances.  One thing is certain however: Rightist governments are never of the masses.  They are elitist and authoritarian, but not ideological (in the sense of a secular religion) or tyrannical.  “All free nations,” Kuehnelt-Leddihn wrote, “are by definition ‘authoritarian’ in their political as well as in their social and even in their family life.  We obey out of love, out of respect (for the greater knowledge and wisdom of those to whom we owe obedience), or because we realize that obedience is in the interest of the Common Good, which…includes our own interest.”

Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s mind was European through and through, and as a result he criticized what he called the Anglo-American mind because of its belief that “a genuine conservative contemplates nature, favors age-old traditions, time-honored institutions, the wisdom of his forbearers, and so on.”  The trouble with Burke was that he stood for common sense, which “creates no dynamism whatsoever,” and that he eschewed political ideologies.  Did he not, in his classic Reflections on the Revolution in France, write that he reprobated “no form of government merely upon abstract principles?”

No one would deny that, their common hostility to the French Revolution notwithstanding, there is an immediately recognizable difference between the Anglo-Irish Burke and, say, the French-Savoyard Joseph de Maistre.  American conservatism, however, is not Burkean, Russell Kirk being a somewhat isolated figure.  Nevertheless, Kuehnelt-Leddihn believed that America was in dire need of an ideology if it were to have any chance of winning the struggle for men’s minds.  In a 1990 letter to me (in Hungarian, one of the languages he mastered), he wrote that “among my writings the Portland Declaration is very important.”  That declaration constituted his proposal for an American “ideology.”

The Portland Declaration (1981) grew out of a conference held in Portland, Oregon, and sponsored by the Western Humanities Institute.  Kuehnelt-Leddihn “compiled” the 26 principles it proclaimed, and they breathe his spirit.  The final paragraph of his brief introduction to the published text of the proposal is worthy of note.  “We must have before us a guiding vision of what our state and society could be like, to prevent us from becoming victims of false gods.  The answer to false gods is not godlessness but the Living God.  Hence our ideology must be based on the Living God, but it should appeal also to men of good will who, while not believers, derive their concepts of a well-ordered life, whether they realize it or not, ultimately from the same sources we do.”

Among other things, the Portland Declaration took its stand on diversity (the Left had not yet hijacked the word) rather than uniformity, the spiritual equality (but distinct social roles) of men and women, opposition to the centralization of power, minimal government of the highest quality, an independent supreme court, the teaching of religion in schools, and patriotism rather than nationalism.

Whether or not these principles, taken together, constitute an ideology may be doubted.  And so may Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s belief that the Portland Declaration is a “utopia,” a possible definition of which, he argued, was a state/society “that can reasonably be established by sober reflection and honest effort.”  This was another choice of words that muddied the waters of understanding.  “Utopia” (“no place”) is rightly understood to be some idea of a perfect society, but one that the less starry-eyed know to be unrealizable, and probably undesirable.  To be sure, Karl Mannheim, in his influential Ideologie und Utopie (1929), maintained that utopias, even if unrealizable, are necessary because they give direction to historical change.  Kuehnelt-Leddihn knew Mannheim’s book well and was undoubtedly influenced by it.  He once maintained that “a cure for cancer” was a “utopian” directive, even though it is neither unrealizable in principle nor a re-imagination of an entire society.

As Kuehnelt-Leddihn recognized, his notion of an ideology—if not as a “utopia”—would be welcomed by America’s neoconservatives.  In the excerpt from Leftism Revisited here presented, he pointed out that Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of neoconservatism, had once stated “that the Right needed an ideology if it hoped to win the battle against the Left.”  In that spirit, neoconservatives have insisted that America is a “propositional,” or “creedal,” nation.  That, they claim, is what makes the country “exceptional”—that, and the assumption “that the United   States is somehow exempt from the past and present fate, as well as from many of the necessities, of other nations.  Ours is a special creation, endowed with special immunities” (Richard M. Weaver).

Very well, but what is the proposition or creed?  The answer seems to be that which is proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life,Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  To Kuehnelt-Leddihn these “truths” were anything but “self evident.”  He did not believe that all men were equal—not even, as he once told me, before God.  “We are all granted sufficient grace,” he said, “but remember, Christ Himself had a favorite disciple.”  Nor would he have accepted the notion of God-given rights, as opposed to responsibilities.  As for the “pursuit of Happiness,” only an American could imagine this to be an “unalienable right.”

The so-called paleoconservatives reject the notion of an ideological nation.  For the best of them, America is, or once was, bound together not by a “proposition,” but by “the bonds of history and memory, tradition and custom, language and literature, birth and faith, blood and soil” (Patrick J. Buchanan).  On the other hand, they share Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s aversion to reckless foreign interventions—unlike neoconservatives, they oppose crusades for “global democracy.”  We know that the Austrian admired George F. Kennan, the political “realist” who warned against an interventionist foreign policy and identified himself as a “European conservative,” one who was to the right of the paleoconservatives.   For his part, Kennan regarded Kuehnelt-Leddihn as “a kindred spirit in political philosophy.”

While most paleoconservatives are “realists” in their approach to foreign policy, they are not all traditionalists with respect to domestic affairs; some, especially the young, sympathize with libertarianism—a sympathy that Kuehnelt-Leddihn sometimes seemed to share, witness his insistence that he was a rightist and an anarchist.  The French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s “numerous books are,” he wrote in Leftism Revisited, “full of notions and ideas that any true lover of liberty or any true conservative could underwrite, concepts that are part and parcel of the ‘arsenal’ of rightist thought.”

It is true that Proudhon detested democracy, but the doctrine of anarchism must ignore man’s fallen nature and assume that we are capable of living together without an authority outside of ourselves.  To be sure, libertarianism is not quite anarchism, but neither is it the disciplined liberty defended by Tocqueville.  John Stuart Mill’s libertarianism, as set forth in On Liberty, would, as James Fitzjames Stephen pointed out, undermine the world’s great moral traditions, all of which expect far more of men than that they not harm another.

Perhaps, after all, Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s writings could have its most salutary influence on contemporary cultural, rather than political, thought.  As the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued persuasively, the real war between Left and Right is waged at the level of culture.  Those who establish “cultural hegemony” will ultimately control political life because they are able to form public opinion.  That is precisely what PC propagandists have succeeded in doing, thanks to their takeover of the media, universities, popular culture, and many churches.  It is in the realm of culture, too, that Weltanschauung matters most.  Not all rightists are Christians or believing Jews, but if they do not look to the Judeo-Christian moral tradition for guidance, one wonders where they will find it.  That tradition and the culture it informed have been dealt what appear to be mortal blows in recent years.  If the culture war has indeed been lost, America will never again be the land some still remember.

 

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Lee Congdon is the author, most recently, of George Kennan: A Writing Life and Baseball and Memory: Winning, Losing, and the Remembrance of Things Past. He is currently writing a book on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

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