Ideologue in the Middle
Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals.
by Peter Viereck.
Beacon Press. 320 pp. $4.00.
Mr. Viereck’s indispensable book might also be subtitled: “The Cold War Debater’s Manual,” or “Guide to Correct Thinking on All Fundamental Questions.” It takes its pattern from the polarities, the recurrent contraries of contemporary intellectual debate, wherever this debate is influenced by, or exacerbated by, the all-embracing polarity of West against East. With an enormous and sustained brilliance, Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals puts clichés, abstractions, labels, romanticizations, favorite metaphors, and semantic pieties of all kinds to the hard test of historic fact and historic consequences.
Peter Viereck can do this, because he always seems to know more facts and have a keener sense of relevance than those whose arguments he is examining. How many admirers of Thomas Paine, for instance, know that he got himself involved with Napoleon in such a way that he had not only to approve but even help plan a Napoleonic invasion of the British Islands? Or if they know this do they see its implications? Mr. Viereck keeps returning with brutal emphasis to facts which his opponents seem conveniently able to forget. “Whatever spoils our arguments doesn’t exist . . . witches don’t exist. By definition, all witch-hunts hunt the non-existent. This means Fuchs, Coplon, Greenglass, and Hiss never existed. What does not exist, cannot be guilty, so why all the national hysteria?”
Mr. Viereck suffers no such amnesia. Fuchs and Hiss turn up very often in his book, even oftener than Burke and Metternich. He knows that Communism does not represent individual opinion, but “armed opinion,” in Pitt’s phrase, that Communists in the United States are few in number, but have two hundred divisions behind them. Lives mean something to him, and he thinks constantly of Katyn and Belsen, of all the deviationists in Russia who ended with a bullet through the back of their necks, of all those killed in the Hindu-Moslem riots after the British imperialists voluntarily withdrew from India, and of the numbers killed in Korea—and why. “We dawdled and disarmed, Muniched and Yalta’d, and used our vast steel production for TV sets while the long fuse was sputtering from Moscow.”
Mr. Viereck is very good on European and Asian neutralism and the way in which American intellectuals have contributed to it. He knows that the Chinese Communists killed a million and a half of their own people to put down “reactionary landlord feudalism.” He also knows that the feudal landlord system was much stronger in Japan, and that MacArthur ended it with no bloodshed and almost no notice from Western intellectuals. Such facts are given with complete specificity, the proportion of land in Japan, for instance, now owned by individual farmers, or the areas and populations which the Communists have taken by force since 1939. Men’s opinions are stated in their own most revealing words.
Mr. Viereck, however, defines polarities not so much to argue them as to transcend them. Like Koestler before him in The Yogi and the Commissar, he is fascinated by what the semanticists call two-valued orientations, even though he is determined not to be trapped by them. There are Scyllas and Charybdises, rocks and whirlpools in every direction: relativism versus absolutism, Professor Universalia-post-rem versus Saint Universalia-ante-rem, the Nation-ite mentality versus the McCarthyite mentality, original sin versus the natural goodness of man. We can accept neither T. S. Eliot’s Idea of a Christian Society nor John Dewey’s idea of a progressive society. We must avoid paranoiac exaggerations of Stalinist infiltration and schizophrenic denials of its existence. Loose accusations against liberal teachers are bad, but so are loose exonerations of Communist teachers. A preventive war now against Russia would be insane, but the possibility of peaceful coexistence is an illusion and a heartless one to boot. It is no good rejecting the creeping socialism of blueprint-intoxicated statists simply to fall into the “creeping anarchism of the Old Guard Jacobins of laissez-faire.”
Often these opposites complement each other. “The Nation mentality and the McCarthy mentality need each other, feed on each other, and are both wrong.” “The pragmatist justifies pragmatism spiritually, the religious believer justifies religion pragmatically.” Often these complementary opposites are found to be the components of particular arguments. William Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, for instance, combines “out-group, under-dog” educational ideas, with “in-group, top-dog” economics. American supporters of the Communist united front combined a “transcendentalism” of ends with a “pragmatism” of means. This love of opposites and reversals gives a certain euphuistic cast to the style, as in the observation that the British Labor government “afflicted the comfortable” more than it “comforted the afflicted.” Most of the phrasing is very witty, however. Mr. Viereck follows Nietzsche in believing that Joyful Wisdom, golden laughter, is the highest seriousness.
Because of the dialectic nature of Shame and Glory, ideas are habitually defined by their opposites. The Communists, for example, are now less influential among intellectuals than the “anti-anti-Communists.” And in opposition to the latter it is necessary to be “anti-anti-Catholic.” One must know which baiters to bait.
Mr. Viereck does not debate with Communists or Nazis, with the “bloody-minded professors” attracted by totalitarianism, lusting for power, and using ideas purely instrumentally, cynically, “pragmatically.” He has nearly as much contempt for what he calls the Gaylord Babbitt, Jr., type, whose conversation is an impossible and irresponsible mélange of all the “advanced” clichés, both political and cultural. But he respects any intellectuals who are genuinely concerned with ideas, who sincerely seek the true and good. When they are in opposition, he feels it must be an opposition of partial truths mixed with errors. What is necessary, then, is not to choose one side or the other, but to get the best of both and the worst of neither. It is the method not of the Vital Center but of the Vital Apex.
In practice this highest truth is determined by the world situation, by the necessities of the struggle against Communism. Which will help us most, logical positivism or a belief in absolute values? Since the situation is the same for everyone except a Communist, so far as ultimate interests are concerned, the correct line is necessarily the same for everyone. Wrong metaphysics can lose us the battle as readily as wrong military decisions, in a continuing crisis “where every slightest political act may become an unshirkable responsibility of infinite moral significance.” This Higher Pragmatism is not really so very different from the official Russian Communist “reflection-of-reality” concept of truth. “Now listen carefully, you logical positivists, you progressive educators,” Mr. Viereck exclaims at one point, “this is the Katyn-Belsen decade; it matters to us deeper than tears whether our civilization lives or dies.” Such warnings could have totalitarian implications if Mr. Viereck were not himself so ardent a libertarian, and did not understand so thoroughly in most specific instances that we cannot defeat totalitarianism by adopting the methods of totalitarianism. Nevertheless, Mr. Viereck uses very frequently such phrases as “you must believe” and “you must prefer.”
If the urgencies of the present situation seem, in Shame and Glory, to play a disproportionate part in determining the rightness even of fundamental religious and philosophical ideas, it is because the brilliant dialectics and perceptive wisdom of Shame and Glory are not very firmly grounded religiously or philosophically. Mr. Viereck is troubled about the relation of moral absolutes and decent values to Platonic ideas and what he calls “innate universals.” He is very candid about his unfamiliarity with technical philosophic distinctions and his own open-mindedness on the most cardinal religious questions. He gives the impression, however, that these questions could be solved logically as he solves the other polar problems in his book, if only he had the technical training.
In other words, Mr. Viereck’s response to the problem is ideological, whereas his own great talents as a poet and his sympathy with the great conservative tradition should send him in quite another direction. On the tide page of his Grammar of Assent, which is a study of the nature of affirmation, Cardinal Newman put a quotation from Saint Ambrose pointing out that it was “non in dialectica” that God was pleased to save us. Those values to whose rediscovery Shame and Glory is devoted are not rationally determined, though logic is important in appreciating and reconciling them. As Mr. Viereck uses the term “values,” it refers to those moral, loving identifications with persons, families, places, institutions, traditions, and rituals which unite the individual and the group, the present and past, the conscious and unconscious, and make up most of our selfhood. They are not innate, but since they can be experienced, one does not have to be a Platonist or scholastic realist in order to believe in them. These identifications or commitments or assents in which the imagination, intelligence, and emotions all play a part have been better understood by conservatives like Burke, Coleridge, and Newman, than by reformers and progressives like Bentham and Dewey. Since they are relations of particulars to particulars, they cannot be captured by logical formulae, which is why conservatives have always been impatient with ideologues. The values in such identifications are best discovered or revealed by historians and poets. Mr. Viereck is both, but in the present book he prefers the guise of ideologue and dialectician, though it is far less suitable to the conservative who is rediscovering values.
Since the persons and institutions with which we identify ourselves are concrete and real, they contain inseparable mixtures of good and evil. And since as concrete individuals we have complex relations with the world outside, conflicts of loyalty are bound to arise, conflicts at once inner and outer, which require tragic choices. These tragic choices cannot be obviated by abstracting out what is right on both sides and making a new synthesis from it dialectically. Nor simply by invoking, as Mr. Viereck so frequently does, the whole of the Greek-Jewish-Christian tradition, with its welter of contradictory values and imperatives.
The individual defines himself as a person by the choices he makes in morally contradictory situations. As soon as we think in these existential terms, we realize that Mr. Viereck’s book is about intellectuals, but contains no persons, even though it talks a good deal in general terms about dignity of souls and the integrity of the individual. Because there are no persons, ideas are given a disproportionate role but at the same time put in too simple a relationship to the encompassing political circumstances. There are innumerable names, but they are named as carriers of ideas which can be considered apart from those who carry them. Those named most often, like Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Hiss, are those whose ethical personalities are subordinated completely to their ideologies or historic ambitions. Gaylord Babbitt, Jr., the most fully described character in the book, does not exist at all, but is simply a pastiche of everything Mr. Viereck dislikes. On the other hand, the whole Christian existentialist tradition of Kierkegaard, Berdyaev, Tillich, and the rest, is completely ignored.
If Mr. Viereck were simply a brilliant intellectual with a keen, urgent sense of the present historical situation, there would be no point in raising these philosophical questions or objecting to his dialectical simplifications. But Mr. Viereck shows in his poetry that he has imagination, that he is a person with a profound sense of the depths and contradictions of living experience. There is no reason, therefore, why he should not discover values instead of arguing the necessity of them, and why he should not stop presenting his new conservatism as an ideology in imitation of what it opposes, and make it a genuine conservatism by rooting it in the rich soil of love and understanding which his poetry shows is already prepared for it.