John Judis
John Judis

Fellowship Title:

The Godfather of American Conservatism

John Judis
November 11, 1985

Fellowship Year

Today, whether the issue is arms control, school prayer, or tax reform, the most heated political battles are being waged among conservatives rather than between conservatives and liberals. There are as many factions of conservatives–new right, old right, neo-conservative, movement conservative, moderate conservative–as there used to be factions on the left. But beneath these divisions does there lurk a common set of assumptions which is conservatism?

The most concerted attempt to discover these assumptions was made by Frank Meyer, an ex-Communist who from 1957 until his death in 1972 was a senior editor of and columnist for National Review. Meyer was the ideological godfather of the conservative organizations and politicians who got their start in the late ’50s and the ’60s, from the Young Americans for Freedom to Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.

Meyer communicated many of his ideas through countless phone calls emanating at all hours of the night from his Woodstock, New York home. But he also tried to create a philosophical synthesis of American conservatism in his writings. Meyer set out, he explained in his book, In Defense of Freedom, to “vindicate on theoretical grounds the native belief of American conservatives.”

Frank Meyer
Frank Meyer

In the minds of many conservatives today, Meyer succeeded admirably. Conservative columnist M. Stanton Evans said of his work, “In the perspective of time, we shall rank his libertarian-conservative writing among the principal achievements, not only of modern conservatism, but of political thought in general.”

David Keene, now the chairman of the American Conservative Union and in 1969 the chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), said “YAF and the young conservative movement really looked to Frank Meyer of National Review as their philosophical leader.”

Yet neither Meyer nor his philosophy is known outside the conservative movement.

Meyer was a small, pale, gaunt man with high cheekbones, a long thin nose and protruding lips. Former New Republic editor Michael Straight, who knew Meyer as a Communist in London, described him as looking like “an Aztec priest.” He paid little attention to what he wore, except for his red suspenders, which are now fashionable on the right. He was passionate and excitable: an avid conversationalist and stirring orator. He was also a notable eccentric.

For the last twenty-five years of his life, Meyer lived in Woodstock, in a house dominated by books. Distrustful of the public schools, he and his wife educated their children themselves. Meyer was a night person. He went to sleep at seven in the morning and awoke at two. He would volunteer to perform wakeup calls for his unfortunate friends who had to keep normal hours.

Through the telephone, he kept very close track of national conservative politics. For instance, when Robert Bauman was the head of Young Americans for Freedom in the early ’60s, he recalled hearing from Meyer as many as four or five times a night on the eve of an important board meeting. He also extended coveted invitations to young conservatives to visit him in Woodstock.

Like many prominent right wing intellectuals, Meyer began on the political left. Meyer joined the British Communist Party in 1931 as a student at Oxford, to which he had transferred from Princeton. In 1932, he went to London School of Economics for graduate work and ran successfully for student president as a known Communist. After a blowup with the school’s president in 1934, he was expelled from LSE and deported from England.

Back in the United States, he rose quickly to become Educational Director of the party in the Indiana-Illinois region. Known in party circles as a “Marxist theoretician,” Meyer was responsible for educating party cadre in the latest directives from the leadership and in the most recent interpretation of the Marxist classics. “He was always able to quote what the latest line was,” William Sennett, a party comrade, recalled.

Meyer became an enthusiastic proponent of the party’s pro-New Deal Popular Front policies, epitomized in the slogan “Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism.” Unlike many other Communist intellectuals, he stuck with the party through the Moscow purge trials of the mid 30s and the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939. It was only in 1945, when Moscow replaced Communist leader and popular front proponent Earl Browder with hardliner William Z. Foster that Meyer began to draw away from the party.

Meyer never formally resigned from the Communist party, but by 1950, he had become both an ardent anti-Communist and a proponent of free market economics. In the early ’50s, he was an expert government witness at Smith Act trials in New York and Chicago; and he was writing articles condemning the Soviet Union and praising the free market for the American Mercury and The Freeman, the two right-wing journals of the time.

Meyer later credited F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom with turning him to the right, but Hayek’s book cannot account for the speed, intensity, and extent of Meyer’s transformation. Most other former Communists or Trotskyists became liberals. Most of those who became conservatives took their time in doing so and retained, even on the right, elements of their former belief. For instance, James Burnham took almost 15 years to journey from Trotskyism to conservatism. And Wilmoore Kendall and Freda Utley both remained Keynesians.

Meyer’s commitment to communism had been philosophical rather than organizational. He did not seek the security of the party cell, but the metaphysical security of a total system of ideas. When he abandoned communism, he sought certainty in a new American conservatism. “He was the ultimate ideologue,” said John Leonard, who worked with Meyer on National Review.

Meyer’s quest for metaphysical security was borne out by his deathbed conversion from secular Judaism to Catholicism. According to his son Eugene Meyer, his father’s conversion to Catholicism did not reflect an experience of Jesus’ divinity but rather the conviction that the evil of communism had to be balanced by the goodness of Christianity. Like Whittaker Chambers, Meyer had come to identify Christianity with civilization.

As Meyer was dying of lung cancer in 1972, he consumed his last hours feverishly debating whether the Catholic prohibition on suicide and the phrase the “communion of Saints” violated his libertarian ethic. His final conversion to Catholicism consummated his journey from Communism to conservatism.

In 1955, journalist Ralph de Toledano, who had known Meyer on the left, introduced him to William F. Buckley Jr., who was then starting a new magazine. Meyer began writing regularly for National Review, and in 1957 became a senior editor. In his column, “Principles and Heresies,” Meyer began to develop a “correct line” for the conservative movement just as he had once done for Midwestern Communists.

In 1957, however, there was no conservative movement as such, but rather diverse and often fractious movements and organizations, loosely identified with the right by their common opposition to the New Deal, Communism, and federally-imposed racial integration. Nor was there a common intellectual approach associated with the right; instead, there were two principal intellectual currents, individualism and traditionalism, neither of which, in their pure form, had any embodiment in the political realm.

The individualists or libertarians, led by a young economist Murray Rothbard, hearkened back to Albert Jay Nock, the editor of the original Freeman, and to his disciple Frank Chodorov. They were right-wing anarchists who identified freedom with the free market and rejected any government intrusion upon individual rights, whether in the form of antitrust law, social security, or military spending. Many had been isolationists; and after World War II, they became vigorous critics of the America’s burgeoning military budget and Cold War policies.

The traditionalists or conservatives, typified by Richard Weaver, Eric Voegelin, and Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, viewed society as an organic whole the health of which was more important than the health of its individual parts; they regarded the inculcation of virtue rather than freedom as the supreme goal of politics; and in the name of Christianity, Tory England, or the Plantation South, they upheld tradition and prescription over ideology and reason. They abhorred socialism, communism, and liberalism not because they destroyed freedom, but because they encouraged an unnatural egalitarianism. While preferring capitalism to its rivals, they blamed it for the commercialism and materialism rampant in society.

The proponents of individualism and traditionalism had little patience or even respect for each other. Kirk once confessed to historian George Nash that “he, felt closer to socialist Norman Thomas than to anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard.” But Frank Meyer set out in the ’50s to incorporate elements of each philosophy into a new conservative politics that would be not only valid, but also relevant to the emerging movement of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Because Meyer’s new philosophy fused elements of both individualism and traditionalism, it was called “fusionism.”

Meyer shared the individualists’ identification of freedom with the free market. He viewed liberalism, socialism, and communism as steps on a ladder leading to the extinction of any freedom. But Meyer was also a militant anti-Communist who thought nothing should be spared in fighting the international Communist conspiracy, and a man of straight-laced morality who thought virtue rather than happiness or pleasure should be the end of existence. According to Meyer, individualism threatened to sap “the foundations of belief in an organic moral order.”

Meyer maintained that the individualists were correct in positing freedom as the “primary end” of politics, but he rejected the view that freedom was an “absolute end.” “In the moral realm freedom is only a means whereby men can pursue their proper end, which is virtue,” Meyer wrote.

But Meyer was equally, if not more, critical of the traditionalists. In reviewing Russell Kirk’s highly acclaimed The Conservative Mind in 1955, Meyer charged that Kirk, by preferring tradition to reason, had enshrined “the maxim, ‘Whatever is, is right,’ as the first principle of thought about politics and society.” According to Meyer, Kirk’s society that stressed “authority and order” over “freedom” and “status” over “contract” “would only move inevitably toward totalitarianism.”

Meyer maintained that virtue was not possible without freedom. “The simulacrum of virtuous acts brought about by the coercion of superior power, is not virtue, the meaning of which resides in the free choice of good over evil,” Meyer wrote.

But if the state could not impose virtue, how could a free society hope to inculcate it? Meyer rested his hope for virtue on a model of society quaintly similar to what the Soviet Communists initially claimed to be their ideal. “A good society is possible only,” Meyer wrote, “when the social and political order guarantees a state of affairs in which men can freely choose, when the intellectual and moral leaders, the ‘creative minority,’ have the understanding and imagination to maintain the prestige of tradition and reason and thus to sustain the intellectual and moral order throughout society.”

Meyer claimed that his ideas not only replicated everyday conservatism, but also the historic beliefs of Americans. Just as Meyer’s political economy dated from Andrew Jackson’s affirmation of the frontier’s free market, his morals reflected Puritan America’s solitary quest for a virtuous polity. The two conceptions belonged, of course, to different eras–the Puritans’ views of government was far closer to that of Kirk than Meyer–but they had co-existed in the American psyche since the early 1800s. Meyer elevated their co-existence from homily to philosophy. And in doing so, he sought not merely to ground conservatism in philosophy, but to ground conservatism in the peculiar philosophy of Americans.

Meyer did succeed in providing at least the appearance of a theoretical underpinning for the conservative movement of his time. Meyer himself wrote or helped write the founding statements of both the American Conservative Union and the New York Conservative Party, and the authors of the Young Americans for Freedom’s founding “Sharon Statement” credited him with that statement’s attempt to combine individualism and traditionalism.

Meyer used fusionism to justify the political stances of the emerging strands of the conservative movement. Meyer invoked his concept of freedom from government interference on behalf of Southern segregation, as well as Northern resistance to the enlargement of the welfare state. And Meyer’s insistence on virtue as the moral end of existence dovetailed with popular dismay at the drug counterculture and ghetto violence of the ’60s. When Barry Goldwater ran for President in 1964, or when Ronald Reagan ran for governor of California in 1966, it was substantially on Meyer’s fusionist platform. The first book of neo-conservative politics, Irving Kristol’s On the Democratic Idea in America, was virtually a gloss on Meyer’s fusionism.

Once he had worked out the central idea of fusionism in the mid-1950s, Meyer himself never budged from it. It occupied the same place in his thought as Stalin’s version of Marxism once had. It became the basis for denouncing suspected deviations from the correct line, from Rothbard’s anti-war stand to the pro-marijuana stance of the Libertarian faction of the Young Americans for Freedom.

Young conservatives found Meyer looking over their shoulder as they plied their trade. “Frank Meyer really was the conscience of the right wing,” recalled David Keene. “If you were a movement conservative, and were in a position somewhere, and were doing something that you knew you shouldn’t be doing, Frank Meyer would know about it, and he would call you on the carpet for it.”

Like Stalin’s Marxism, fusionism also became for Meyer on overarching theory in which even seemingly contradictory facts were fitted. Thus Meyer could defend Southern segregation and become an outspoken apologist for South Africa’s “apartheid” system, praising it as an attempt to develop “the black nations within South Africa to an eventual equal status with the white nation.”

Since Meyer’s death, no alternative philosophy has supplanted fusionism among conservatives. The only attempt to provide an alternative was made by columnist George Will, who in Statecraft and Soulcraft tried to revive Kirk’s traditionalist approach to the state. But Will’s book was rudely received by both National Review and Human Events. Fusionism is still the unofficial philosophy of American conservatives.

The acceptance of fusionism among the great body of conservatives does not, however, validate its theory. Viewed according to the canons of logic rather than according to the requirements of politics, fusionism does not really amount to much as political philosophy.

The most telling critique of fusionism was made two decades ago by traditionalists. In a 1962 essay, Brent Bozell, Meyer’s close friend who later became the editor of the right wing Catholic journal Triumph, challenged Meyer’s root assumptions. Meyer’s argument rested on the premise that freedom was a precondition of virtue, but Bozell demolished this premise simply by noting that a Soviet political prisoner, severely restrained by his government, was as capable of leading a virtuous life as an American businessman. “The freedom necessary to virtue is presumably a freedom no man will ever be without,” Bozell concluded. Meyer’s argument unraveled from there.

For Bozell, who was already moving toward a Franco-inspired authoritarianism, the point was that freedom is not merely irrelevant to virtue, but perhaps even detrimental to its realization. But regardless of his motives, Bozell succeeded in showing that Meyer had not theoretically reconciled freedom and virtue, but merely placed them side-by-side in the same theory. If virtue–and particularly Christian rather than Classical virtue–is the proper goal of humanity, then other justifications for freedom must be sought.

Bozell also objected to Meyer’s contention that economic freedom was a condition of political freedom. Noting the case of Great Britain, which remained a political democracy while nationalizing part of its industry, Bozell argued that its citizens could “exercise their political freedom against their economic freedom.” Meyer could only respond by circularly defining the problem out of existence. Political freedom, Meyer wrote, was “the limitation of the power of the state to the function of preserving a free order.”

Russell Kirk’s objections to Meyer were more down to earth but no less telling. Kirk pointed out that the free market whose preservation Meyer had made the goal of political society could itself encourage vice rather than virtue: whether in the form of suburban shopping malls, prostitution, television advertising, or the hunger for material success. Kirk accused Meyer of simply replacing an uncritical anti-capitalism with an equally uncritical pro-capitalism. “There was a tendency among the ex-Communists and ex-Trotskyists to go from one extreme to the other,” Kirk recalled. “Frank Meyer is the clearest example of that. Having been turned away from ideology they seek another ideology which becomes a kind of ideology of capitalism.”

Bozell’s and Kirk’s objections undercut the philosophical validity of fusionism, but in politics, as James Burnham pointed out in The Machiavellians, the usefulness of a philosophy is not necessarily related to its theoretical soundness. Rather, it is related to the degree to which the philosophy resonates with popular mythologies. Meyer’s philosophy did precisely that: invoking both the frontier free market and John Winthrop’s City on a Hill and reconciling the Chamber of Commerce’s economics with the Sunday sermon against the evils of pornography.

Political movements rarely possess coherent unified world views; instead, they are concatenations of conflicting Weltanschaungs, whose unity is predicated on common but sometimes fleeting fears and interests. Thus, both urban blacks and rural Southern whites were integral to the old Democratic majority; while “country club Republicans,” the “born again Falwellites,” and disillusioned ethnic Democrats conspired to provide Reagan with his two landslides.

The practical unity among these groups is fleeting. For instance, a serious recession under Republican rule could send the disillusioned Democrats in the North and South scurrying back to the fold. But in the absence of long-term practical unity, Meyer’s philosophy provides the appearance of long-term philosophical unity.

Meyer’s fusionism was more rationalization than theory. It is not likely to stand with the works of Jefferson, Calhoun, or Croly in the anthologies of American political thought. Nor is it likely to survive the political coalition that it helped to sustain. But for the moment it does provide a banner in which those interested primarily in school prayer or segregation and those interested in lower taxes and less regulation of their businesses can march together.

©1986 John B. Judis

John B. Judis, senior editor on leave from In These Times, is exploring the development of American conservative politics.