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IPFS News Link • Political Theory

The Making of a Warmonger

• Lew Rockwell

Lee Edwards has written a very useful book. He is a longstanding conservative activist and intends to celebrate William F. Buckley as the founder of the political movement to which he adheres. For Edwards, Buckley’s "vision of ordered liberty shaped and molded and guided American conservatism from its infancy to its maturity, from a cramped suite of offices on Manhattan’s East Side to the Oval Office of the White House, from a set of ‘irritable mental gestures’ to a political force that transformed American politics." (p.191) But this book discloses a great deal that supports Lew Rockwell’s verdict that the "‘conservatism created by William Buckley . . . gave us the most raw and stupid form of imperial big government one can imagine.’" (p.175) Edwards, by the way, calls Rockwell an "ultralibertarian," in the same way leftists used to call those on the Right "ultraconservatives."

Buckley, Edwards tells us, began as a follower of the libertarian Albert Jay Nock; and Nock’s disciple, Frank Chodorov, guided his early writing. (To Edwards, Nock is an "archlibertarian." Whether there is a difference between "arch" and "ultra," Edwards does not disclose.) Edwards mentions Nock’s "radical antistatism" but he tells us next to nothing about the views of Nock and his great follower. From Edwards’s account, one might imagine that Nock wished merely to curtail the New Deal. In fact, of course, Nock condemned the "political means," i.e., the State, as of its nature predatory. Edwards also ignores completely Nock’s views on foreign policy. Nock opposed militarism and interventionism and his Myth of a Guilty Nation was an early revisionist classic.

Despite Buckley’s early exposure to Nock, his fundamental premise thrust libertarianism aside. Buckley stated this premise early in his career: "[I]n his January 1952 essay in Commonweal Buckley wrote that given the ‘thus-far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union. . .we have got to accept Big Government for the duration.’" (p.53) Buckley here expressed no mere passing thought. Putting into action his belief in a crusade against Communism, he had after graduation from Yale joined the CIA for a brief period from 1950–51. Though he ostensibly left that agency, ex-CIA agents, as we shall soon see, played a major role in National Review.

Edwards mentions three other writers, besides Nock, as "seminal" influences on Buckley’s political thinking. Each of these was a determined enemy of Nock’s libertarianism. The first of these, Willmoore Kendall, taught Buckley political science at Yale. (Edwards, by the way, is probably wrong that "Kendall taught the young conservative [Buckley] to read with the close attention to the text that the political philosopher Leo Strauss advocated." [pp.34–5]. Kendall’s Straussian period came later than Buckley’s time at Yale.) Kendall rejected with scorn natural rights. Instead, he followed Rousseau: for him, the general will was the "deliberate sense of the community," in America best incarnated in Congress. He attacked John Stuart Mill on freedom of opinion and called for the imposition of a public orthodoxy. His position would have justified the Athenians in executing Socrates, an implication he readily acknowledged. It will come as no surprise that he too had been a CIA agent.

James Burnham, the major influence on Buckley’s approach to foreign policy, managed the difficult feat of being worse than Kendall. Edwards tells us that Burnham, after his break with Leon Trotsky, "published [in 1941] The Managerial Revolution, which described the emergence of a new and unelected ruling elite, the managerial class, and its profound implications for Western society. In subsequent books, Burnham argued that the Soviet Union was the most advanced managerial regime and sought global power through subversion, aggression, and intimidation – an argument that Buckley fully endorsed." (p.42)