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.



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.

  • Vishal Mehra

    “he insisted that the French Revolution was a primal act of rebellion not only against monarchical order, but against God”

    Interestingly, Belloc insisted that the French Revolution was not essentially anti-God. That is, republican sentiments and fervor for Equality and Liberty is not anti-Christian per se and the American Declaration of  Independence is just a restatement of Rousseau’s Social Contract. (Belloc’s French Revolution, chap 1 and 2-The Political Theory of Revolution).

  • Aa

    “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

    Not so!   Anarchism means only the absence of a legal monopoly which enforces via coercion (i.e., the state), NOT the absence of all laws or authority (cf., _Chaos Theory_ by Robert P. Murphy).

  • hombre111

    The author got through a whole long article without mentioning that his hero was a monarchist. 

    • Alecto

      “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.”

      Au contraire! 

      • hombre111

        A lifelong preference for monarchial societies sounds like a monarchist to me.  Must have graveled the old boy when the whole world turned toward democracy. 

  • hombre111

    Oops!  I see what you mean.  I take your rebuke.  I did not notice. 

  • Brian A. Cook

    If Nazism and Communism are related, how do you explain the fact that Nazism constantly railed against liberalism and promoted the exact opposite agendas of Communism?   Furthermore, how do you do explain “PC” ideals of freedom, justice, peace, allowing human beings to live, and allowing human beings to speak?  How do you explain the existence of Christian absolute monarchs throughout history?  How do you explain the traditionalism of the Taliban? 

    • The two ideologies are certainly not the same, but they are alike in many ways.  Nazism and Communism are both progressive modernist ideologies.  They saw the world in material terms and wished enslave the bodies and souls of men in order to attain their goals.  The greatest difference between the two is that Communism is internationalist while National Socialism is nationalist. 

      • Brian A. Cook

        Doesn’t fascism a militant reaction to democracy and liberalism?  Doesn’t fascism attack the very notion of equality?  Haven’t fascist regimes appealed to traditionalism and authoritarianism and uniformity? 

        • First of all, there are important differences between Nazism and Fascism.  Nazism was a race based ideology that was significantly more evil than Italian Fascism.  Neither the Nazis nor the Fascists were especially fond of traditions, with the exception of the military tradition.  The closest thing to the sort of traditionalist fascist regime that you describe is Franco’s government and most scholars say that Franco’s regime was not truly fascist.

          • Brian A. Cook

            How do you explain Nazi propaganda boasting of defending traditional culture from Cultural Bolshevism?  How do you explain the Nazis’ attacks on the liberalism of the Wiemar Republic? 

            • RufusChoate

              The National Socialists were allied with the Internationalist Socialists for the Invasion of Poland, the Balkans and the Baltic States. Joint military invasions against enemy in the most integrated and uniform of alliances. The ideology that you cite is window dressing when the real purpose and goal of every movement of the Left is the acquisition of power and wealth.

              For a contemporary example and object lesson, the Left consistently advocates for government programs to fight poverty while simultaneously being parsimonious in their own personal charitable contributions to the same poor.

    • Olave d’Estienne

      Communists and Nazis both constantly railed against liberalism.  Both had the same agenda – control of every aspect of human life by pseudo-scientific bureaucrats.  Neither of them were quite PC in modern terms, but both were afraid of dissent just as modern leftists are.  

  • Wolfgang Grassl

    My compatriot Kuehnelt-Leddihn was one of the most remarkable personalities I have ever met. And I only met him on one occasion, and in 1986 have received one letter from him. His political thinking, which followed from his faith and a comprehensive knowledge of world literature (in about ten languages including Japanese) cannot be couched into present-day American categories of liberal vs. conservative. Kuehnelt described himself as “conservative arch-liberal” and saw the weakness of American culture in its rejection of monarchy and aristocracy (“Liberty or Equality”, ch. IV, sect. 2). None among the many “-isms” that he ridiculed he detested as much as nationalism, in which he saw the quintessential form of “leftism”. And he vehemently rejected the epithet “reactionary”, because he thought that conscientious Catholics ought not to react to the world but be its “salt.” Kuehnelt’s observations on Catholic culture in “Liberty or Equality” are a gem. In many regards, he was closer to Lord Acton or Baron von Hügel, both “liberal” Catholics in today’s silly parlance, than to the “reactionaries” like De Bonald or De Maistre. Everyone who can read German is invited to savor his delectable autobiography “Weltweite Kirche” (2000), in which he tells stories from his encounters (since the 1920s) around the world with personalities inside and outside the Church. One of his few regrets after a life of 90 years —  the autobiography was finished just before his death and appeared posthumously —  was never to have met Nicolás Gómez Dávila. He wrote that he now had to wait to meet him in Heaven. 

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The mention of Tocqueville surprises me.  He was anything but a conservative and a firm supporter of the French Revolution.

    “And finally, gentlemen, liberty.  There is one thing which strikes me above all.  It is that
    the Old Regime, which doubtless differed in many respects from that system of government which the socialists call for (and we must realize this) was, in its political philosophy, far less distant from socialism than we had believed.  It is far closer to that system than we.  The Old Regime, in fact, held that wisdom lay only in the State and that the citizens were weak and feeble beings who must forever be guided by the hand, for fear they harm themselves.  It held that it was necessary to obstruct, thwart, restrain individual freedom, that to secure an abundance of material goods it was imperative to regiment industry and impede free competition.  The Old Regime believed, on this point, exactly as the socialists of today do.  It was the French Revolution which denied this.

    Gentlemen, what is it that has broken the fetters which, from all sides, had arrested the free
    movement of men, goods and ideas?  What has restored to man his individuality, which is his real greatness?  The French Revolution!”

  • kirthigdon

    Thanks for this essay on Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn as well as for publishing one of his essays.  I’ve read most of his books and met him on several occasions and attended several of his lectures.  I’d say he has had more influence on me than any other writer.  I would agree that his idea of what constitutes an ideology is a little too broad, but this amounts to just a disagreement concerning semantics.  His critique of all the leftist tendencies flowing from the Enlightenment and French Revolution, including and especially the cult of democracy is greatly needed now more than ever and nowhere so much as in the US where “conservatism” is just another brand of leftism, just liberalism (in the American sense) which has been on the shelf a little longer.

  • Olave d’Estienne

    A fine article.  You pointed out many things I had noticed and not quite been able to put my finger on.  I hadn’t made your distinction between ideology and worldview, so oddly enough your article has helped reveal anti-ideology Kirk as much as pro-“ideology” Kuehnelt-Leddihn.  


  • Brent

    Mr. Condon, I beg to differ about EKL’s acknowledgement of surrogate religions found on the Left, which he always capitalized. He mentions, for example, “the childish rejection of group differences,” something egalitarianism evinces which, when faced with contrary evidence, becomes a belief system. The secular Left, because it denies life after death, has to bring the goods to this life. He is clear that it’s a religious impulse transmogrified. I heard EKL in a recorded lecture at Hillsdale College sometime in the mid1980s say this on a VHS that I watched and re-watched many times.