A Life in the Right
Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and TeachersPaul Gottfried, ISI Books, 275 pages
By: Karen De Coster
Professor Paul Gottfried, who calls himself a “historically centered traditionalist who admires the bourgeois civilization that had dominated the West in the nineteenth century,” has written a first-rate memoir of some of his most cherished encounters with prominent politicians and intellectuals.
Gottfried shrewdly avoided taking the conventional autobiographical route through his life and has instead produced a series of narratives relating to his scores of fascinating friendships with those he calls professional nonconformists or “figures who have represented the true dissenting academy.” Thus, Gottfried’s latest book gives us a series of revelations of his spirited engagements with some of the intellectual community’s most engaging minds.
The author is a “conventionally observant” Jew whose father left Central Europe to escape the competing tyrannies that had begun to emerge prior to the Second World War. His flawed but courageous and rebellious father, born in Budapest, is a focus of the book early on. The elder Gottfried profoundly influenced his son’s perspective and opinionated demeanor, both of which have led Paul to resist the conformist pressures of chosen career as historian and teacher. That resistance has cost him friends.
But Gottfried’s lack of popularity among his colleagues in academia has not prevented him from leading a life that, he says, “has gone nowhere in particular but has nonetheless been packed with fascinating encounters.” During his graduate stint at Yale, he met the German-Jewish scholar Herbert Marcuse, a theorist of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School. Marcuse’s Old World carriage and extraordinary lectures attracted the young Gottfried, who became enthralled with European intellectual history and German philosophy. (Marcuse, in fact, was admired by a diverse group of young scholars—the conservative philosopher and economist Hans-Herman Hoppe also studied under Marcuse at Goethe University in Frankfurt.) The significance of Marcuse as a scholarly influence in Gottfried’s life is summed up when the author concedes that he “learned true liberal intellectual exchange from a declared Marxist-Leninist.”
Perhaps the principal lesson contained within Encounters is that Gottfried’s enviable intellectual life has not been without its pitfalls. Early on, his frequent dissent on issues that were critical to the ambassadors of multiculturalism led to his marginalization by the liberal academic establishment.
Not surprisingly, Gottfried is among the most candid and gifted of the conservative historians who have challenged the notion that neoconservatives are a part of the Right. He condemns them as “paradigmatic leftists who are counterfactually identified as ‘conservatives.’” Three main problems that Gottfried sees with the neocon-dominated establishment conservatives is their desire to enforce democracy all over the world, their support of gender politics, and their politically correct position on immigration. His historic battles with neoconservative ringleaders ultimately led to him being denied a professorship at Catholic University, as well as the defeat of his potential chairmanship at the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1986. Hence his assertion, “The refusal to call neoconservatives what we are supposed to call them may be politically and professionally imprudent.” Still, he challenges the neoconservatives when they resort to employing the “conservative” moniker in their quest for social progress through an extensive welfare state and egalitarian agenda. He writes:
Both their enthusiasm for Third World immigration and their opposition to immigration restrictionists flow from their view that populations are interchangeable. All people are ‘individuals’ who can be socialized in the same way, providing they are molded by a suitable public administration and by a steady diet of human-rights talk. Because, like the earlier progressives, the neoconservatives associate public education with ‘democratic patriotism,’ and because they link morality to ‘democratic values,’ they have been allowed to appropriate for themselves the ‘conservative’ mantle. This, in my opinion, is a case of mistaken identity.
Furthermore, his scholarly work has outlined the proper distinctions between the post-war, socially progressive, neoconservative Right and their critics who are genuinely on the Right. Gottfried calls this the “airing of dirty linen.”
In his life, Gottfried has been inspired by a host of eccentrics who cannot easily be typecast along ideological lines, including the Communist-turned-religious-conservative Will Herberg, a Jewish theologian who once noted that “anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of secular Jewish intellectuals.” There was also Christopher Lasch, a social critic and communitarian who cast aspersions on the narcissistic culture of consumer capitalism and bemoaned much of contemporary political thought in America, infuriating intellectuals on both the Left and Right. Gottfried at first became an adversary of Lasch—lost out on a professorship at the University of Rochester due to “Lasch’s politicking” and Gottfried’s own reputation as a Nixon Republican. Twenty years later, however, the two were friends, though it’s not clear what transpired in the years in between.
One of the most curious associations described by Gottfried is his friendship with the 37th president, a friendship that started in the late 1980s when Nixon, a man who was more cerebral than his public persona revealed, read a copy of Gottfried’s 1986 book, The Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar American Right, a volume Nixon regarded as a major influence in his later years. Over time, Gottfried and Nixon maintained a series of correspondences and personal visits. Gottfried presents Nixon as an intriguing conversationalist and contends that he was “remarkably knowledgeable about political theory” because he studied the great thinkers, such as Hegel and Hobbes, while at Duke University. That Gottfried was a confidant of historic men such as Nixon reveals his importance to the intellectual and critical world.
Pat Buchanan also entered the scene as the other half of what Gottfried terms “two pugnacious Republicans.” By the end of the 1980s, Buchanan, a former Nixon staffer, had become an unswerving opponent of neoconservative policymaking and military crusades. What Gottfried finds most remarkable about Buchanan is his principled departure from the surrender to neoconservatism that plagued most conservatives who were concerned about career advancement and acceptance in the 1980s. In that respect, Gottfried and Buchanan share maverick roots, and various cheerleaders for the establishment have continued to smear both of them over the years.
Gottfried also celebrates the fellowship he enjoyed with Austrian monarchist Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, a Catholic aristocrat who was, for many years, prominent within the American conservative movement. Kuehnult-Leddhin argued against representative democracy because he believed its majority-rule mechanism inexorably gave way to totalitarian rule. Instead he championed monarchism, which, he believed, was more suitable for sustaining a Christian society founded on individual liberties. Gottfried credits Kuehnult-Leddihn with challenging the prevailing notion that equality is the nucleus of a free country and therefore equality must be procured through the powers of the state. Gottfried explains that “democratic equality is an Aristotelian excess writ large over an entire society, and it keeps spilling over into social relations until it has infected everything.”
Gottfried also recalls his association with three men who, though they were ideologically diverse, often shared similar worldviews—traditionalist conservative Russell Kirk, paleoconservative Sam Francis, and libertarian anarchist Murray Rothbard. Sam Francis, a controversial thinker who described himself as a man of the Far Right, was an influential figure who, Gottfried reveals, became “the contemporary on the American Right who shaped my thinking most decisively.” Gottfried describes Rothbard as an enduring optimist who believed that Americans would someday realize their destiny and choose liberty over tyranny and uproot the big government that had long betrayed them. This is in stark contrast to the view, shared by Kirk and Gottfried, which does not absolve the masses of blame for their political illiteracy and lack of ability to control their own destinies. Gottfried, in fact, claims that, “the government is far better than the one that the masses actually merit.”
This book is full of delightful, opinionated passages, which is something that readers have come to expect from Paul Gottfried. He, as a traditionalist conservative, often drifts into priceless utterances admonishing modern cultural phenomena, such as his “Nietzschean reaction to the girly men and virago women that populate university settings.” He admits his rage, at a meeting of the American Political Science Association, “at the sight of the mannish women and mincing feminized males, all of who were dressed with the sartorial gracelessness of a televangelist.”
Gottfried’s book, in fact, is rife with swipes at the more repulsive facets of contemporary culture. In his introduction, he sets the stage when discussing many of the students he encounters, who
… represent the West not at all. They are merely consumers who occupy the space of what used to be the Western world, and they fall over themselves trying to repudiate the “sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic” culture that preceded them.
Gottfried, with his decades of battles against political correctness, anti-Westernism, the multicultural theocracy, and managerial-state bureaucracies, has been a pivotal figure in the world of ideas. His contributions to intellectual history and political theory can be difficult to classify according to an abstract profile, but for this reason his vast body of work offers an abundance of value for young conservatives, libertarians, Western traditionalists, and other independent intellectuals. When I first met Paul in the late 1990s and began to pore over his writings, I realized that I would agree with him far more often than I would disagree, and even then I understood that he advances significant interpretations of historical and modern events that are crucial to understanding American conservatism.
Gottfried’s work documenting the evolution of the American conservative movement has been indispensable. Aside from his many books and scholarly articles, he has become a tireless popular essayist, with articles appearing on websites accessible to the educated layman. Gottfried is one of a dying breed, a man who is still committed to substance over symbolism and who has put the unpopular truth before his career.
While the establishment’s defenders of received opinion may have derailed Gottfried’s academic career, I suspect that he was rescued from the halls of pedagogical obscurity and placed into his present role to defend traditionalist principles from the charlatans who have usurped them. The result has been a life of fascinating encounters and considerable achievement.
Karen De Coster is a libertarian accounting/finance professional and writer. Her website is www.karendescoster.com.