Commentary Magazine


Conservatism and Freedom

To the Editor:

In the New York Herald Tribune of October 9, Professor Crane Brinton notes that an ignorance of the Srbik documentation has resulted in “the standard American textbook notion of Prince Metternich” as “the tyrant who tried to turn the clock back in 1814. . . . The defense of Metternich has long been needed.” This “standard textbook notion of Metternich” is nowhere better illustrated than in Gertrude Himmelfarb’s analysis in the January COMMENTARY [“The Prophets of the New Conservatism”] of my recent Scribners book Conservatism Revisited. Liberalism is an optimistic, unhistorical doctrine of half-truths which I infinitely prefer to the whole-lies of the Hitler-style or Stalin-style fascists, against whom liberals and conservatives must today unite to survive; and the liberal ideal is an open mind, ever eager to let new evidence revise “standard notions.” Here Miss Himmelfarb is not liberal enough. A liberal open mind toward my Metternich documentation (much of it available in English for the first time) would require her either to disprove the evidence as forgeries—in which case she would strike a brilliant blow against conservatism—or accept the logic of this evidence and change her mind about Metternichian conservatism. She does neither.

Writing on Metternich as if the secret Hapsburg archives had never been opened after 1918, she ignores his far-sighted projects—vetoed by a reactionary emperor—to “reconcile the monarchist principle and the democratic” and to reform the Hapsburg Empire by a freer constitution, an embryonic representative parliament, and a solution of the nationalities problem through greater home rule (especially in Italy) and greater education. Though Metternich made inexcusable errors, which my book stresses rather than whitewashes, he was preferable to his main opponents, the German nationalists like Jahn and Jordan, from whose “Germanic mission” to conquer “inferior” races the Hitler movement descended.

Again, she fails to refute my documentation on 1848, Jordan, and the Jahn youth movement and instead repeats the old myth that Metternich’s main opponents were Western-style liberals, opposing him for freedom’s sake. His main opponents opposed him because he was not “tyrannic” enough, because he stood for peace instead of nationalist war, for tolerant cosmopolitan Europeanism instead of the dictatorship, anti-Semitism, and bloodthirsty territorial conquests advocated by Jahn, of whom Hans Kohn (leading historian of that period) says in the October Review of Politics: “. . . none had a stronger influence on the practical manifestations of German nationalism.” In contrast, she dismisses Hitler’s influential ancestor Jahn as merely “an aberration of the time.” Heine, though just as ardently liberal as Miss Himmelfarb, knew better. Of the anti-Metternichian rebels, he said in 1823: “Although I am a Radical in England and a Carbonarist in Italy, I am no Demagogue in Germany for the entirely accidental reason that, with the triumph of the latter, several thousand Jewish heads, and precisely the best ones, would fall.”

And did fall; which is why Conservatism Revisited is as much a book on the origins of Nazism as on Metternich. While your 1950 reviewer stresses the democratic element (doubtless present, too) in the German rebels, Heine in 1834 saw in them “demoniac energies, that brutal German joy in battle, the insane Berserker rage, Thor leaping to life with his giant hammer.” . . . “I have a feeling of tenderness,” wrote Heine, “for Metternich.”

She is right in contrasting with Metternich her culture-hero, the “Presumptuous Man,” but wrong in identifying him with democracy. Presumptuous Man, through whom the liberals unintentionally prepare the fascism they sincerely detest, demolishes society’s ethical dikes against fascism by his nihilistic relativism. If, as most liberals do, you accept Rousseau’s un-Freudian natural-goodness-of-man, then only good can come from Presumption’s mockery of all established restraints. But if, as conservatives do, you see politics as the secularization of the “Id” or of Original Sin, then the perfect Presumptuous Man is—Jack the Ripper, who was undoubtedly “emancipated from old-fashioned conventions,” a courageous “defier of traditional restraints.” Against her Presumptuous Man, I suggest coining the phrase “the Reverent Man,” whose “bigoted” reverence for the laws of mutual tolerance, self-restraint, and Christian-Judaic ethics makes a better basis for a free democracy than the shallow economic determinism and the “Anything Goes” relativism of our Progressive Presumers. Humanist conservatism means that freedom-building reverence of which Herman Melville wrote:

Not magnitude, not lavishness,
But Form—the site;
Not innovating wilfulness,
But reverence for the Archetype.

Peter Viereck
Northampton, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

Your kind suggestion that I comment on Miss Himmelfarb’s review of my book Power came as a surprise. The critics’ task is to correct authors, and authors have no business correcting critics—least of all when they display as much learning and courtesy as Miss Himmelfarb. Should the author feel that his position has been misunderstood, the conclusion he must draw is that he did not make it clear enough, and he should write another book rather than reply.

Since, however, you invite my comments, I offer them here as a token of my interest in Miss Himmelfarb’s thinking. I am grateful to Miss Himmelfarb for defining her terms, a precaution too often overlooked. To her a conservative wants to preserve an actual historical situation which he judges to be good (page 82); he distrusts free inquiry and tries to limit man’s reason (page 86); above all he is shocked by the man who professes to be the sole judge of his own actions, and seeks to curb him (page 78).

If that is indeed what a conservative is, I do not understand why Miss Himmelfarb includes me among the “prophets” of a New Conservatism. I hold that coercion is inherently unclean and taints those who perform it. I hold that power (i.e., the means to coerce) is inherently dangerous, and tempts those who wield it. I admit that power and coercion are necessary in human society. But they should be kept within the strict bounds of bare necessity. And those who exercise power or act coercively should be in perpetual fear of misusing their damning weapons. I distrust the pretexts invoked to extend power beyond necessity, such as the delusion of mission or the fiction of mandate.

I believe that man, guided by prayer and by reason, should be the chooser of his own actions; that he may trust to his reason because it is warranted by faith; that the light of reason comes from God who could not wish to mislead us. Tom from its roots, however, reason becomes a mere instrument of the desires it was meant to rule over.

I recognize that social man—and man cannot help being social—must submit to many and great restraints of his freedom. This is to be accepted but not disguised. I will bow to any well-grounded restrictions on liberty, but will not have them called new freedoms. . . .

When the monstrous growth of public power is defended on the grounds that the monstrous growth of social concentrations of power calls for an ever stronger control, I reply: “Give ordinary men the tools and they will do the work.” Give them credit, an honest currency, less taxation, free judicial assistance, and free access to the courts, so that they may use the might of justice in their own name. Create conditions that make it easier for them to stand up by themselves and for themselves—instead of inducing them to hide behind the skirts of the state. . . .

We have turned our backs upon liberty. But I am not such a pessimist as Miss Himmelfarb takes me to be: the spirit of liberty will arise.

Bertrand De Jouvenel
Anserville par Bornel
France

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