Indeed, it’s always amusing to listen to people of a certain conspiratorial bent caterwaul about the perfidiously “Trotskyist” roots of the “neocons” while extolling the red-blooded Americanism of the old National Review. Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz were amateur dabblers in Communist politics compared to many of NR’s early editors and contributors: James Burnham (a Trotsky confidante, former editor, with Max Shactman, of The New International, and co-founder with Sidney Hook of both the American Workers Party and Marxist Quarterly), Frank Meyer (Communist apparatchik), Max Eastman (former editor of The Masses, Trotsky’s friend, translator, and unofficial American literary agent), and, of course, Whittaker Chambers (a spy for Stalin’s Russia). The list of former leftists hardly ends there. Will Herberg, Ralph De Toledano, Willmoore Kendall—former leftists all. Like men with much to atone for assuming new names in the French Foreign Legion, these warriors—some happy, some not—leapt into the breach of post-war ideological battle in no small part because they believed the fate of the world, or in Chambers’s gloomy case, his soul, depended on it.
The point here is not to cast aspersions on so many heroes or to question the authenticity of their convictions. Rather, it is simply to note that necessity is the mother of invention, and the conservative alloy that Buckley and his allies forged from so many disparate components was a necessary product of the times they lived in. When the ship is going down, you grab what floats—regardless of whether it is an “approved” flotation device. And those who saw Western Civilization imperiled by Leftism, broadly understood, grabbed what worked.
* * *
It is perhaps with this in mind that CRB editor Charles Kesler writes in the splendid introduction to this anthology:
Some conservatives start, as it were, from Edmund Burke; others from Friedrich Hayek. While we respect both thinkers and their schools of thought, we begin instead from America, the American political tradition in all its genius and profundity, and the relation of our tradition to revealed wisdom and to what the elderly Jefferson once called, rather insouciantly, “the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.” We think conservatism should take its bearings from the founders’ statesmanship, our citizens’ loyalty to the Declaration and Constitution, and the scenes, both tender and proud, of our national history.
What Kesler is getting at here is something not merely deeply profound, but to a certain extent politically (though not philosophically) heretical. Although there was a great deal that was brilliant and vital about the conservative movement started by Buckley, it was nonetheless embroiled in the wrong arguments.