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Saturday, September 1, 1984

A Reviewers Notebook: The Rise of the Right

Back in 1950 Frank Chodorov, a libertarian known to Henry Hazlitt as “the Grand Street philosopher,” came into the offices of the Freeman to commend us for our first issue. Chodorov had a prediction to make, based on the history of the socialist Fabian Society in England. The Fa- bians had begun in the Eighties as a debating society committed to preaching what Sidney Webb called “the inevitability of gradualism.” At its inception it could hardly fill a hall. Forty years later it had taken over England. It had also moved in on America in the shape of the New Deal.

What Chodorov had to say was that we were helping to start something that wouldn’t pay off for at least a full generation. But he assured us of our ultimate success. The libertarians and conservatives would have to be content for a while with small victories. But, following a strategy of Fabianism-in-reverse, the movement would eventually displace the collectivists who had filched the name of “liberal” for themselves in what Chodorov termed a semantic swindle.

It is too bad that Chodorov didn’t live to read William A. Rusher’s The Rise of the Right (New York: William Morrow and Co., 336 pages, $15.95). What Rusher, the publisher of William Buckley’s National Review, has to tell us is that everything has turned out exactly as Chodorov had predicted. What was prophecy with Chodorov in 1950 has become history in 1984.

Rusher, in a “personal word,” tells of some books that affected his youthful thinking when he was just out of law school. There were Whittaker Chambers’ Witness, Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, and Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. But a “major episode” in the early Fifties that impressed him most was the “founding of the Freeman,” which he treats as “a sort of journalistic John the Baptist—a precursor of National Review.”

The “protoconservatives” who clustered around the Freeman moved over to the National Review before Rusher became its publisher, but Rusher had already had his initiation into conservative “movement” affairs during seventeen months in Washington, where he served as Bob Morris’s associate counsel at the Eastland Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. Rusher’s work in investigating the “Communist issue” commended him to Bill Buckley, so instead of returning to a Wall Street law firm after his Washington experience he joined National Review.

Ideas Come First

As a historian of the influence of National Review on the “rise of the Right,” Bill Rusher is fully convinced that ideas must come first in promoting social change. But Rusher had been a Young Republican activist before he became a magazine publisher, and his whole impulse was to let ideas move him into action. Ever since 1960 he has been in the movement to elect con servatives to political office, whether as Republicans, or, as in the case of New York State, as nominees of the Conservative Party.

With Clif White, Rusher established a group which, as the “watershed year” of 1964 approached, became the “draft Goldwater” movement. Goldwater, a reluctant candidate, took a bad licking in the electoral college, but his candidacy changed the nature of the Republican Party, shifting its control from Nelson Rockefeller’s East to the West and South. The shift was not without its troubles and disappointments. Rusher has had little use for Richard Nixon, or even for midwest-ern “moderates” such as Jerry Ford or George Romney, and the Republican failure to nominate Ronald Reagan in 1968 or 1976 provoked Bill Rusher into some years of fruitless spadework looking toward the establishment of a third party. Reagan’s refusal to become the candidate of Rusher’s proposed third party was frustrating, but with Reagan’s final presidential victory in 1980 Rusher is satisfied that Republicanism and conservatism have been happily mated at last. The so-called New Majority is here to stay, no matter what the official party label.

Rusher’s larger concern is cultural and spiritual. He hopes to witness a “final victory of Western Judaeo-Christian society over that misbegotten child of the Enlightenment, communism.” Conservatives have demonstrated that they can elect a President, and even a majority of the U.S. Senate, but they have not yet shown they can deal with the Communist formula for promoting new leftist guerrilla takeovers of Third World nations at an alarmingly progressive pace. This is hardly compatible with Rusher’s idea of a “final victory.”

Foreign Policy and Debt

The problem of dissidence among conservatives and libertarians over foreign policy is skirted by Rusher. So, too, is the problem of a national debt of more than a trillion-and-one-half dollars. There will be plenty of fights to come over such questions as social security, and over the problem of “entitlements” in general, but Rusher thinks the conservatives will have the edge in solving them. The “fatal weakness” of the liberals, as he sees it, is that they “have no philosophy.” So “the challenges posed by twentieth century liberalism, which played so long and so dominant a role in American politics, may prove less menacing in the future than its impressive past might lead us to expect.”

Rusher puts an inordinate stress on politics. Libertarians among those whom he classifies as conservatives might object that Rusher has not allowed enough for the possibility that most of our problems might better be settled without bringing government into the picture at all. The experience of Italy is instructive here. With both the political Left and the political Right in Italy unable to run things, a hidden economy has grown up parallel to the officially recognized one. The hidden economy keeps no records. It is a prosperous contributor to the GNP nonetheless.

The political movement whose rise has been so well chronicled by Rusher now has its journals of opinion, its think tanks, its legal foundations, its big spread of political action committees, and its newspaper columnists who dominate the op. ed. pages. But Congressman Jack Kemp might tell Bill Rusher that the movement can still founder if it can’t come up with a solution for our monetary problems. It could be as simple—or as complicated—as that.

John Chamberlain’s book reviews have been a regular feature of The Freeman since 1950. We are doubly grateful to John and to Henry Regnery for now making available John’s autobiography, A Life with the Printed Word. Copies of this remarkable account of a man and his times—our times—are available at $6.00 from The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York 10533.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.