This review appears in the Winter 2020 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, click here.


Walk Away: When the Political Left Turns Right
Edited by Lee Trepanier and Grant Havers
(Lexington Books, 2019)

There’s a conceptual difficulty in this promisingly titled volume. More than half the thinkers discussed by its authors don’t seem to have turned to the right. Walk Away is really something less dramatic, a book about philosophical second thoughts. As we read in the introduction, the featured intellectuals who went furthest in a rightward direction—James Burnham, Willmoore Kendall, and George Grant—probably had been “leftists of the ‘head,’ not of the ‘heart’ . . . mainly impressed with the empirical power of Marxism, as opposed to its utopian promise.” It’s not clear that most of the others abandoned utopian ideals, which is a prerequisite for any true abandonment of the left. The contributors show that they all grew intellectually, but they don’t, in most cases, represent a “walk away.”

The collection opens with sound analyses of Burnham and Kendall. Both were key figures at National Review from its founding in the mid-1950s, both recognized as pioneers of the conservative intellectual movement, both passionate anti-communists. Burnham’s break from the left, despite his having recently served in the leadership of an American Trotskyist party, was evident as early as his 1941 classic The Managerial Revolution. There is “nothing truly leftist about its tone,” contributor Paul Gottfried points out. Burnham “treats ideas about social equality . . . as pie in the sky. He is not merely disappointed by revolutionary socialism. He looks at it with utter contempt.”

This contempt for revolution in all forms (or horrified fear of it) seems to be missing in other figures discussed in Walk Away, whose roster extends from major political theorists to lesser-known intellectuals such as Christian theologian Benedict Ashley and “analytical Marxists” Kai Nielsen and G. A. Cohen. According to coeditor Grant Havers, all of them “relinquished ideas that, in their view, no longer seemed relevant to the task of maintaining a decent political order.” Credit where it’s due for relinquishing those ideas, but Burnham and Kendall did far more—they actually fought the left. No one else in the volume seems to have done so except Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and their associates, who are considered in a good but somewhat crowded chapter by coeditor Lee Trepanier.

One of the essays that readers may find too vague in its depiction of “walking away” or “turning right” is the discussion of George Grant and Charles Taylor, both identified in its title as “Canadian Owls.” The term “owl” has been applied respectfully to foreign policy experts who are neither hawks nor doves, but that is not its significance here. What it does mean, apart from the thinkers’ common nationality, isn’t explained. Taylor, an expert on Hegel and “very much a post­–Vatican II Roman Catholic,” is called, reasonably enough, “one of the finest apologists of the modern liberal enlightenment project,” but only a vague description of his political trajectory is provided.

Unlike Taylor, Grant became something of a conservative. His opposition, or eventual and partial opposition (it’s not clear which, or even whether he had already opposed them), to abortion and euthanasia made him enemies on the left—on a narrow range of issues. Yet Grant also “opposed the market economy, capitalism, multinational corporations,” along with the American military-industrial complex and American “imperialism.” It might be most accurate to say, then, that he was a semi-conservative who remained well toward the left on economic issues while greatly preferring an anti-interventionist, anti-militarist foreign policy.

Marxist Deficiencies

Among the more thorough essays in Walk Away is Kelvin Knight’s on Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre came to believe that Marxism needed a valid moral theory and found “crude utilitarianism,” as he called it, inadequate. He blamed the lack of such principles on Marx himself. According to Knight, MacIntyre became “a full-time philosopher” in order to help fill the gap in Marxism. “Capitalist modernity,” Knight tells us, “would remain the object of MacIntyre’s critique as much as ever. His great difference with the revolutionary Left was that he did not share its belief that the French Revolution . . . or the Russian Revolution . . . provided any model for the successful institutionalization of a liberatory socialism.”

MacIntyre didn’t abandon “hope for some such change” but had no confidence that historical necessity would simply produce it, or that it might be achieved merely by “substituting one group of rulers for another.” Government by a socialist party would not, in Knight’s words, “suffice to actualize socialism’s theoretical ideal.” Building a new state was also wholly inadequate. Marxism had failed “as a tradition of practical as well as theoretical reasoning” and must be abandoned, MacIntyre decided, “because it was concerned only with institutionalized social relations and not with individuals’ goods and desires.”

Knight quotes MacIntyre as saying, nonetheless, that he remains “convinced of the truth and political relevance of Marx’s critique of capitalism.” Remaining a leftist while moving away from Marx, he “had to adopt novel positions regarding Aquinas and Aristotle in order to sustain a challenge to capitalism and liberalism in their names.” Another thinker discussed—more briefly—in Walk Away is the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who eventually concluded that Marxism had failed due in part to “its lack of concern for man as an existential entity.” Like MacIntyre, he now favored the recognition of “some form of metaphysics, whether through religion or the importance of transcendence in human existence.”

The intellectual historian Christopher Lasch, also featured in the collection, took a great interest in the experience of modern capitalism. He eventually advocated a culturally conservative populism that “emphasized the need to nurture the institutions and practices associated with traditional communities and, especially, the need to acknowledge human limits.” Modern society, Lasch wrote, suffered from an “illusion of mastery” over nature that had grown especially powerful among our cosmopolitan elites, who lacked true loyalty to specific communities. He opposed “the modern, progressive conception of the good life” in which, for example, thrift and self-denial were positive dangers because they stifled the economic growth that moderns crave. “Furthermore,” as the essay’s author Jeremy Beer channels Lasch, “this progressive ideology, by proposing a world continually improving . . . necessarily entails the institutionalization of a sense of impermanence, the sense ‘that nothing is certain except the imminent obsolescence of all our certainties.’ ”

Beer admits, though, that “Lasch did not so much repudiate his mentors on the Left as combine their insights with those of others . . . to create a very original and potent critical brew.” In contrast to cosmopolitan elitism, he advocated “a respect for limits, localism, a work ethic as opposed to a consumerist ethic, a rejection of unlimited economic growth, and a certain skepticism about the ideology of progress.” He wanted “to take cultural conservatism back from the capitalists.” At the same time, he continued to favor economic leveling and took what seems to me the highly questionable position that cultural conservatism was, in his words, “quite compatible . . . with a commitment to radical democracy.” Readers may wonder: Did Lasch seriously consider the possibility that economic leveling and radical democracy might themselves be modernist, consumerist, and disrespectful of natural limits? Another question: Lasch blamed the state’s increased power, in addition to that of corporations, for what he viewed as the century-long decline of the family. But how would redistribution and more extensive democracy counteract statism? In addition, working-class communities and the family itself would seem to need more, not less, economic growth if they are to be restored.

Faith in Faith?

The extent of Lasch’s rightward turn—again, not a switch to the right—would be clearer if Beer had expanded on the point that he “began to incorporate a consideration of religion and theological insights in highly suggestive ways.” In direct contradiction to Freud, Lasch eventually argued that psychoanalysis would support the conclusion that people of genuine faith were more, not less, psychologically mature than others. The essay ends with an anecdote, footnoted but not backed with other evidence, which suggests that Lasch might himself have been a believer, although it seems he never claimed so publicly. Interesting as this would be to know, it would be more important to know the degree to which he emphasized or came to emphasize organized religion as crucial to the good society.

Still, even Beer’s brief point that it’s “impossible to miss” the “spiritual depth and sincerity” in one of Lasch’s last books is a welcome addition. The volume would have been enriched by more such personalizing of its subjects. The best essays in this respect are Christopher Owen’s on Kendall and Christopher Morrissey’s on Ashley. It is worth knowing, for example, that the later Kendall—best known, as Owen writes, “for his distinctive and original political theory”—had a messy and nomadic personal life, shortened by a fatal heart attack at fifty-eight, that included “two broken marriages, alcoholism . . . testy relations with friends and colleagues,” and movement among a variety of teaching jobs. Ashley, in contrast, lived to be nearly one hundred (dying in 2013) and focused on a concern quite remote from Kendall’s: the need to provide a scientific foundation for metaphysics to better understand God. He remained a Trotskyist when he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1938. A decade later, Ashley was ordained a Dominican priest.

Careful readers of any collection will ask themselves who else might properly have been included, maybe in preference to a few who were. Due to his brilliant analyses of twentieth-century liberal modernity, his grasp of its alienating progressivism, and its troubling distance from the more socially conservative “bourgeois” capitalism condemned by the Old Left, Lasch was a particularly good choice. Another good choice, especially for the sharpness of his opposition to the New Left and his eventual Catholicism, would have been Eugene Genovese, with whom Lasch overlapped for more than a decade in a notably strong history department at the University of Rochester. Genovese, who died in 2012, lived much longer than Lasch, who died in 1994. He therefore witnessed significantly more of America’s and the West’s recent history, including certain trends they both lamented. Others who might have fit well into the volume are the Jewish theologian and social philosopher Will Herberg and the Communist Party activist turned libertarian theorist Frank Meyer.

Walk Away merits praise for illustrating so many different modifications of youthful leftism. It reminds us by its ambiguities, however, that walking away from the left does not necessarily mean turning to the right.

David B. Frisk, a resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, is the author of If Not Us, Who? William Rusher, National Review, and the Conservative Movement (ISI Books). He is writing a biography of Willmoore Kendall.

Founded in 1957 by the great Russell Kirk, Modern Age is the forum for stimulating debate and discussion of the most important ideas of concern to conservatives of all stripes. It plays a vital role in these contentious, confusing times by applying timeless principles to the specific conditions and crises of our age—to what Kirk, in the inaugural issue, called “the great moral and social and political and economic and literary questions of the hour.” Subscribe to Modern Age »