The Conservative Affirmation
By Willmoore Kendall
Regnery, 2022 (Originally published in 1963)
lxix + 362 pp.
Willmoore Kendall was the most important political theorist of the brand of conservatism associated with William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review during the 1950s and 1960s. To some of us, this will be not altogether a positive recommendation, but as Daniel McCarthy suggests in his excellent foreword to this reissue of Kendall’s book, Kendall had a powerful intellect, and the “populism” that he championed makes it likely that he will become an intellectual voice for the revolt against elite dominance which has characterized the American right wing in recent years. In his criticism of the elites and emphasis on the political wisdom of the American people, Kendall shows interesting parallels and differences with the thought of Murray Rothbard, and that is what I shall concentrate on in this review.
According to Kendall, the elitist intellectuals of the Left favor a revolution in support of a principle that “looks to the overthrow of an established social order. The principle in question is the egalitarian principle—not the equality principle of the Declaration of Independence which ‘holds’ merely that all men are created equal…. The egalitarian principle says that men are not merely created equal, are indeed not created equal at all, but rather ought, that is have a right, to be made equal. That is to say equalized, and equalized precisely by governmental action, so that if they end up other than actually equal—in political power, in wealth, in income, in education, in living conditions—no one shall ever be able to say that government has spared any effort that might conceivably have made them equal” (emphasis in original).
Kendall sees Abraham Lincoln as a source of this destructive egalitarianism. In a review of Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided, Kendall says, “As for the status of Abraham Lincoln vis-à-vis the Signers [of the Declaration] and Framers, Jaffa’s Lincoln sees the great task of the nineteenth century as that of affirming the cherished accomplishment of the Fathers by transcending it. Concretely, this means to construe the equality clause as having an allegedly unavoidable meaning with which it was always pregnant but which the Fathers apprehended only dimly” (emphasis in original). Kendall fears that Jaffa’s reading of the equality clause might lead to “a political future the very thought of which is hair-raising: a future made up of an endless series of Abraham Lincolns, each persuaded that he is superior in wisdom and virtue to the Fathers.” Perhaps in reaction to Kendall’s review, Jaffa in his later work changed his interpretation of the equality clause so that Lincoln became the faithful expositor of the Fathers.
It is at this point in Kendall’s argument that populism enters the scene. The American people do not want the radical egalitarianism of the elites, and, Kendall argues, this is shown particularly in congressional resistance to the egalitarian proposals of the executive branch, which is often dominated by leftist elites entrenched in bureaucratic agencies. The conflicts between the branches “all involve matters of policy which … bear very nearly indeed upon the central destiny of the United States—on the kind of society it is going to become (‘open’ or relatively ‘closed,’ egalitarian and redistributive or shot through and through with great differences in reward and privilege, a ‘welfare state’ society or a ‘capitalist’ society); on the form of government the United States is to have (much the same as that intended by the Framers or one tailored to the specifications of egalitarian ideology).”
This is a decisive point of contact with Rothbard, who also takes the side of “populism” against the leftist elites. In an article published in the Rothbard-Rockwell Report in January 1992, he says, “The reality of the current system is that it constitutes an unholy alliance of ‘corporate liberal’ Big Business and media elites, who, through big government, have privileged and caused to rise up a parasitic underclass, who, among them all, are looting and oppressing the bulk of the middle and working classes in America. Therefore, the proper strategy of libertarians and paleos is a strategy of ‘right-wing populism,’ that is: to expose and denounce this unholy alliance, and to call for getting this preppie-underclass- liberal media alliance off the backs of the rest of us: the middle and working classes.”
There is an objection that supporters of populism need to confront, and Rothbard has a better answer to it than Kendall. The objection is that the fact the majority of the population supports a political position does not by itself show that the position is morally justifiable, and this remains so even if the majority reflects what Kendall calls “the deliberate sense of the community.” Kendall’s response would be to deny that he equates political morality with majority support. He supports natural law and regards the American people, historically shaped by the traditions of the Christian West, as in their wisdom the best judges of how to apply the precepts of natural law, which are, after all, not self-executing, to the concrete circumstances of the day.
Unfortunately, Kendall has what from a Rothbardian perspective is a defective understanding of natural law. Following Leo Strauss, whom he calls his greatest teacher, Kendall understands ancient natural right, with its stress on the city-state, as a principal instrument in promoting virtue among citizens, and contrasts it with individualism, conventionalism, and relativism, which deny natural law. He locates John Locke firmly in the latter camp, thus failing to consider the position that Lockean self-ownership and property rights provide an objective basis for natural law as applied to politics. Locke’s individualism, far from being a corruption of classic natural law, is an improvement on it, so far as politics is concerned.
Had Kendall accepted this, he could have avoided what seems to me a serious mistake in his thought. He rightly says that a society need not, and ought not to, regard all questions as unsettled. If, for example, radicals today propose to abolish what they call the “hierarchical” family and to bring into question the distinction between men and women, we are not required to respond to them on their own terms but can ignore them. As Kendall finely says, criticizing the view he opposes, “Whatever the private convictions of the society’s individual members concerning what Plato teaches us to call the important things—that is, the things with which truth is primarily concerned—the society itself is now by definition educated to a national religion of skepticism, to the idea that all questions are open questions, to the suspension of judgment as the exercise of judgment par excellence.… It can, to be sure, tolerate all expression of opinion that is predicated upon its own view of truth; but what is it to do with the man who steps forward to urge an opinion, to conduct an inquiry, not predicated on that view? What is it to do with a man who with every syllable he utters challenges the very foundations of society? What can it say to him except, ‘Sir, you cannot enter into our discussion, because you and we have no common premises from which discussion between us can be initiated’?” Kendall is here describing how the Left viewed Joseph McCarthy, but though Kendall of course rejects their position, he accepts their view of how people should respond to a challenge to society’s public orthodoxy.
Unfortunately, reflecting what I take to be his statist view of natural law, Kendall argues that dissenters may not just be ignored but may be forcibly suppressed. Rothbard’s resolution of free speech issues into questions of property rights avoids the extreme to which Kendall is driven: you are free to say what you want on your own property but not, lacking the permission of the owners, on that of others.
In his relentless campaign against the “open society,” Kendall misunderstands John Stuart Mill, whom he takes to be the foremost proponent of the position he wishes to combat in what I can only call a fantastic way. He says that “Mill’s freedom of speech doctrine has its very roots in dogmatic skepticism—in, that is to say, denial of the existence, at any particular place and at any moment in time, not only of a public truth but of any truth whatever unless it be the truth of denial itself.” If I may be “dogmatic,” Mill definitely did not deny the existence of objective truth, and I suspect that Kendall’s failure to understand this is an example of a besetting sin among political theorists. Kendall was a pupil of the great philosopher R.G. Collingwood at Oxford, and Kendall’s references to F.H. Bradley and José Ortega y Gasset suggest that he was widely read in philosophy, but like many of his fellow political theorists, he appears unaware of most work by analytic philosophers. Had he studied Mill in the context of analytic philosophy, he would have quickly discovered that the position he foists on Mill is a travesty.
It is also necessary to say that as with a number of his colleagues at National Review, Kendall’s apocalyptic calls for a global crusade—involving the use of nuclear weapons if needed—against world communism have not aged well. Though he was right in his uncompromising condemnation of the evils of communist totalitarianism, it does not follow from this condemnation, as Kendall wrongly thought it did, that a noninterventionist foreign policy needed to be abandoned. And though he is again right that there are situations in which one ought to risk death to avert conquest by a tyrannical regime, one gets the impression that this CIA operative relished the prospect of ending his life in such sacrifice a little too much.
Despite his mistakes, Kendall is usually insightful and provocative.