Right Young Things
Right Young Things
The revolution begins on campus—but don’t repeat the last generation’s mistakes
Frank Chodorov was a man with a plan—a 50-year plan, to be exact. He had seen vast changes came to the country during his lifetime (1887-1966). Yet what startled him most was not “the replacement of the horse and buggy by the automobile” but “the transmutation of the American character from individualist to collectivist.” “At the beginning of the century,” he recalled, “the tradition of individualism that had held up since the Revolution was still going strong; by 1950, only the physical composition of the individual remained, for his character had been well washed out by the caustic of socialism.”
How had it happened? “The collectivist seed was implanted in the soft and fertile student mind forty-odd years ago,” Chodorov wrote. “That’s how it all began. Collectivism is, after all, an idea, and the usual way of acquiring an idea is by learning.” From 1905 to 1922, an organization called the Intercollegiate Society of Socialists, founded by novelist Upton Sinclair, preached the gospel of government power in the service of egalitarianism to campuses across the nation. After the demise of ISS, other groups took up its mission.
“Truth to tell,” Chodorov observed, “those who espoused socialism were among the most imaginative, volatile, and articulate students; the fact that they were ignored or derided by their classmates simply added to their ardor.” They carried out an intellectual revolution—which turned into a cultural and political revolution. It was time, Chodorov argued, for the other side to fight back. He proposed a “Fifty-Year Project,” beginning with the creation of a freedom movement on campuses— an intercollegiate society of individualists.
Sixty years after Chodorov made his pitch, the battle for the student soul rages on. Social democrats hold the commanding heights, not just in English faculty lounges—the surest redoubts of Marxism this side of Pyongyang—but even in many economics departments, where John Maynard Keynes remains more honored than Ludwig von Mises. Indiana University, for example, recently refused to host a talk by Mises Institute senior scholar Thomas Woods Jr.—a Columbia University Ph.D. and author of multiple New York Times bestsellers, including the recent Meltdown—after the economics faculty decided he lacked “sufficient academic credibility.” Qualms about scholarly qualifications did not, of course, stop IU from paying former senator John Edwards $35,000 for a campus appearance. At colleges around the country, different standards apply to statists and anti-statists.
Most faculty and administrators do not think of themselves as socialists—but what is telling is that they cannot even conceive of an alternative to the tutelary state. They are collectivists by habit rather than conviction. Most students are too, including those conservatives who have never been taught that moral and economic laws do not stop at the water’s edge. Suckered by militarist propaganda, they believe that the U.S. government can do in Iraq or Afghanistan what they know it cannot do at home.
Since Chodorov’s time collectivism has evolved from a force for revolution into a force of inertia. It has blended into the nation’s psychological backdrop, abandoning the foreign face it wore as the philosophy of Marx and Lenin to take on a more patriotic visage—Abraham Lincoln’s or Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s. Yet the faith in government as an all-powerful force for moral good remains the same.
What ever became of that 50-year project and the intercollegiate society of individualists? They built the conservative movement. But conservatives failed to stop the ideological transformation of America because the best traditionalist and libertarian minds fell to fighting with one another, which cleared the way for their mutual enemies on the social-democratic left and neo-imperial right to claim total power. Today Chodorov’s plan deserves to be rediscovered—as does the history of why it went awry.
Chodorov made his mark in the 1930s as one of the leading exponents of the ideas of Henry George, author of Progress and Poverty. “George is the apostle of liberty,” he wrote in 1941, “he teaches the ethical basis of private property; he stresses the function of capital in an advancing civilization; he emphasizes the greater productivity of voluntary co-operation in a free market economy, the moral degeneration of a people subjected to state direction and socialistic conformity.” Before Austrian economics came to the United States in the 1940s, Georgism—blended with Jeffersonianism—supplied individualists like Chodorov and his friend Albert Jay Nock with a theoretical foundation for their beliefs.
Nock and Chodorov were just two of the many brilliant journalists who battled Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in magazines small and large. But with American entry into World War II, virtually all criticism of Roosevelt ceased. Only in 1944 did important new channels of dissent begin to emerge—the start of the conservative renaissance. Both Human Events and Chodorov’s newsletter, analysis, launched that year. (And in 1951, they merged.)
Chodorov had a great deal in common with Human Events founders Henry Regnery, Frank Hanighen, and Felix Morley—all had opposed the war and the president’s power-grabs. He contributed frequently to their journal, which in September 1950 reprinted his analysis essay “A Fifty-Year Project”—retitled “For Our Children’s Children”—to bring it to a wider readership.
The plan would begin with a lecture bureau—speakers “would have to be acquainted with socialistic theory as well as with the literature of individualism” to better “uproot the trend of thought”—which would be followed up with the organization of Individualistic Clubs and an intercollegiate affiliation. Prizes for essays on individualism would do much to stimulate thought; and a publication offering an outlet for articles would be a necessity. Out of these activities would come an esprit de corps based upon conviction and enthusiasm for a “new” idea. The individual list would become the campus radical, just as the socialist was forty years ago…
Is the effort worthwhile? To which one offers as answer another question: What in life is more worthwhile than the pursuit of an ideal?
J. Howard Pew of the Sun Oil Company liked what he read. He wrote Chodorov a check for $1,000—about $9,000 in today’s money. Chodorov had no intention of cashing it; he was a journalist, not a campus organizer. But Frank Hanighen convinced him not to send the money back and instead try to make his vision a reality. In 1952, Chodorov and Hanighen (and Hanighen’s secretary, Patricia Lutz) incorporated the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists—ISI—with a 26-year-old writer named William. F. Buckley Jr. as its president.
Chodorov, 65, was almost the last of the great old-right libertarians. Buckley, who had published the bestseller God and Man at Yale in 1951, was the rising star of a new right. The young man favored a far more activist U.S. foreign policy against the Soviet Union than did Chodorov, who remained a staunch noninterventionist. (The older man’s answer to McCarthy-era fears about subversives in government jobs, meanwhile, was elegantly conservative of civil liberties: “just abolish the jobs.”)
In other respects, however, Buckley was heir to the tradition of Chodorov and Nock (who had been a friend of WFB’s father). Indeed, Chodorov was something of a mentor, providing editorial guidance on God and Man at Yale. In the book, Buckley consistently referred to his philosophy as individualism. “Conservatism” would come later; it was a word that Chodorov never warmed to. “I will punch anyone who calls me a conservative in the nose,” he insisted in 1956, “I am a radical.”
Buckley and Chodorov hit the lecture circuit, in keeping with the 50-year plan. But neither of them wished serve as a full-time campus organizer or run a national membership program. Chodorov could rely on the Foundation for Economic Education, the first great libertarian think tank, to supply free-market literature to students on ISI’s mailing list. But Chodorov needed someone young and intrepid—and willing to work cheap—to oversee recruitment, manage programs, and raise funds for the group. He quickly found his man: 29-year-old Victor Milione, an intensely faithful Roman Catholic and astonishingly well read for his age—or any other.
“In a single conversation,” conservative historian Lee Edwards relates in Educating for Liberty, a history of ISI, “Milione would quote in extenso John Henry Newman, Alexis de Tocqueville, Seneca, Jacob Burckhardt, Ortega y Gasset, James Bryce, and Richard Weaver, his favorite modern conservative writer.” This was no exaggeration, as anyone who worked for ISI before Milione’s death in 2008 could attest. He exemplified the faith and erudition that represented the best in postwar traditionalist conservatism.
Milione’s intellectual roots—in religion and history rather than politics and economics—were very different from those of the lifelong agnostic Frank Chodorov. Yet the traditionalist Milione and libertarian Chodorov had more in common than not in the struggle to keep liberal learning alive and constrain the Leviathan state Franklin Roosevelt and succeeding presidents had built.
The Intercollegiate Society of Individualists flourished. As Chodorov had planned, the society seeded young minds with anti-collectivist knowledge, and alumni in turn led new political and journalistic endeavors. Philosophically energized conservative students pushed to draft Sen. Barry Goldwater for vice president at the 1960 Republican convention. When that failed, they formed a new activist student group, Young Americans for Freedom, to battle left-wingers on campus and force the Republican Party to the right. Four years later, Goldwate r was the GOP’s presidential nominee.
But something was lost in the transition from philosophy to politics. Too often the activist campus merely opposed the campus left—which was also burgeoning in the 1960s—and lost sight of original principles. YAF showed little understanding of economics, pouring its energy into boycotting Polish hams and protesting American companies that traded with the Soviet bloc. Young intellectual s, meanwhile, perhaps inspired by the long-running feud between traditionalist guru Russell Kirk (author of The Conservative Mind) and the liberty-minded cold warrior Frank Meyer (National Review’s literary editor), indulged in internecine squabbles, preferring fraction to synthesis. (Ironically, Meyer himself tried to be a conciliatory figure—his philosophy, combining cold war conservatism with classical liberalism, came to be called “fusionism.”)
A crackup was coming, and it arrived at YAF’s 1969 convention in St. Louis. The Vietnam War and cultural upheavals of the 1960s sharply divided libertarians from traditionalists and national-security conservatives. Drug legalization, draft resistance, and the war itself were flashpoints, and as a libertarian YAFer burned a facsimile draft card on the convention floor, jeering—“lazy fairies!” was the anticommunists’ comeback to libertarian chants of “laissez faire!”—turned to brawling.
Radical libertarians split from YAF, and just as ISI’s alumni had done before, these young people would build a movement of their own. Soon libertarian think tanks, magazines, even a political party sprang up. Yet it was all on a far smaller scale than what had been attempted by the conservative movement and gained no political traction at all. In 1980, while conservative rallied to Ronald Reagan, the Libertarian Party fielded a presidential candidate who described his philosophy as “low-tax liberalism.” Nobody cared, least of all the young.
Yet traditionalist conservatives —as opposed to young Republican careerists—fared no better than the libertarians. All along, traditionalists like Russell Kirk had quietly dissented from militarism and the excesses of anti-communism: as historian George H. Nash has noted, “In 1944, Kirk predicted that New Dealers would prolong the state of war after the Axis powers’ defeat in order to maintain prosperity. They would justify keeping men in arms (and off the job market) by creating an enemy: Russia.”
Young libertarians had been more willing than young traditionalists to voice their doubts—or outright opposition—to the Vietnam War and other Cold War crusades. Together, the best minds of both camps could have put up stiff resistance to the political careerists, militarists, and neoconservatives who overtook movement conservatism in the Nixon years. On their own, however, traditionalists had little choice but to become passive partners of the Nixon right or drop out of politics altogether.
Milione steered ISI, which had become predominantly traditionalist, away from political entanglements, refusing contributions from donors who wanted the group to engage in partisan activities. Symbolizing both the break with Chodorov’s individualism and a refusal to be swallowed wholesale by political conservatism, ISI changed its name in 1966 to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
Cut loose from its philosophical moorings, YAF came to resemble more and more the College Republicans, who assumed steadily greater importance within the increasingly partisan and professionalized conservative movement. Henceforth the main stream of the young right would be symbolized not by people like Milione or the early Buckley, but by the likes of Karl Rove—who got his start in national politics as executive director of the College Republican National Committee.
In some respects, Chodorov’s 50-year plan succeeded all too well. The intellectual cadres nurtured by ISI in turn spawned a popular movement that change the language of American politics. By 1996—46 years after “For Our Children’s Children”—even a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, felt compelled to say that the era of big government was over. But rhetoric, political reality, and philosophical substance had come apart, so that the Republican president who succeeded Clinton, George W. Bush, could pose a conservative while increasing the federal government’s role in education, expanding entitlements, and launching nation-building wars in Iraq and Central Asia.
Collectivists on both sides of the political spectrum now use the rhetoric of individualism when it suits them—which is usually whenever their party doesn’t hold occupy the White House. Antiwar liberals, so vociferous during the Bush administration, are muted now. And while tea party protesters now demand smaller government, their real test will come during the next Republican administration—will they protest the Patriot Act, or the next incarnation of Real ID?
To fix this mess of philosophical confusion and bipartisan statism will require new leadership, of the sort only young Americans—particularly Young Americans for Liberty—can offer. Chodorov’s blueprint, updated to meet today’s needs, works. And students now have the advantage of looking to history to see what went wrong the last time. If an effective movement against the welfare-warfare state is to be built, it will need libertarians who can understand the language and values of the great number of religiously-minded and conservative voters in this country, and traditionalists who understand that the centralized power is deadly to the civilization they cherish. Chodorov’s 50-year plan can succeed—with wiser leadership from today’s students.
Daniel McCarthy [firstname.lastname@example.org] is editorial director of Young American Revolution and senior editor of The American Conservative.