Why are there no great thinkers on the right today?

Franz Neumann famously wrote, “No greater disservice has ever been rendered by political science than the statement that the liberal state was a ‘weak’ state. It was precisely as strong as it needed to be in the circumstances.” An analogous point could be made, I think, about the relationship between ideas and conservatism. While it’s fashionable to bemoan the lack of great thinkers and deep thinking on the right today—the passing from the scene of a Friedman or a Hayek, a Kristol or a Buckley, and their replacement by whatever it is that passes for conservative thinking and writing today—the truth is that conservative ideas are precisely as strong, its thinkers always as deep, as the movement needs them to be in the circumstances.


  1. halginsberg1963 March 18, 2017 at 2:58 pm | #

    I disagree with the underlying premise of both the question and the answer. They presuppose that there were once great thinkers on the right. While Professor Robin may laud the supposed greatness of an Edmund Burke, a John Calhoun, or a William Buckley. In truth, these men – like all conservative “intellectuals” – were small-minded men who used cleverness, sophistry, and appeals to self-interest, rather than brilliance, to influence politics.

    • Evan Neely March 18, 2017 at 4:16 pm | #

      I agree with you on this one, with the partial exception of Burke, whose aesthetic writings and general prose style are marks of serious genius. What, exactly, was Calhoun’s contribution to thought? Nullification? There were plenty of people who were making the argument as well as he was, and it’s a mediocre argument that’s also parochial in its application. I’m also not sure what, precisely, was Buckley’s great idea; as far as I can tell he’s entirely affectation, even if he was smart enough to maneuver in the early days of TV. I just don’t see much in conservatism besides its craftiness. Conservatives of transparently genius stature like Quine or Oakeshott rarely contribute much when they’re speaking as conservatives. Oakeshott’s “Rationalism in Politics” is a case in point: compared to Experience and Its Modes, this is just sophistry in the service of reaction.

      • LFC March 18, 2017 at 8:32 pm | #

        Conservatives of transparently genius stature like Quine

        Quine wasn’t a political philosopher and his political views aren’t what he’s known for, as far as I’m aware.

        • LFC March 18, 2017 at 8:34 pm | #

          p.s. which I guess in a sense is your point, except that Oakeshott was a political philosopher and is remembered for his conservatism in a way Quine isn’t.

        • Evan Neely March 19, 2017 at 5:52 am | #

          I’m getting a lot of pushback for my overgeneralization, but at least I can take comfort in noticing that everyone here seems to think Buckley was a hack.

          • Lichanos March 26, 2017 at 5:44 pm | #

            Amen, a real phony.

    • s.wallerstein March 18, 2017 at 6:25 pm | #

      Hobbes is a great thinker and certainly on the right.

      • Evan Neely March 19, 2017 at 5:45 am | #

        I didn’t want to go back that far because I’m somewhat skeptical of the idea that conservatism in a modern form goes back prior to the French revolution, but if I were, of course Hobbes would count. It’s just that Hobbes’s justification for the absolute authority of the sovereign is very different from Burke’s reasoning – not only does Hobbes not make a claim like the idea that our conclusions about authority are the products of a long habituation, and therefore presumably right in a way that rational deductions about it can’t be, but he actually suggests (in both Leviathan and Behemoth) that mental dispositions, particularly religious enthusiasm, can prevent us from knowing the truth about where and when we should be obedient.

      • Evan Neely March 19, 2017 at 5:47 am | #

        (sorry for two replies but for some reason this site blocks me from clicking “post” if the comments get too long) … That methodological difference from conservatives like Burke (yes, this presumes Burke is paradigmatic, but that’s what I’m going with – not married to it!) coupled with the fact that there is little evidence that the ideas of historicity found amongst the English revolutionaries he was debating were holistic and progressive in the way that French revolutionary thought could be, and against which Burke was railing, make me not want to treat Hobbes as “right wing” in the contemporary sense. But if I were, point granted.

    • Roquentin March 19, 2017 at 2:34 am | #

      Reading Heidegger’s Being and Time was a life altering experience for me. I don’t know how to say so without it sounding corny, but its effect on me was that profound. It was with that book that I really understood what philosophy was capable of, why it was a worthwhile thing to study. I don’t want to undersell it, it was that book, probably more than any other that made me want to put down novels and start reading theory. To deny it would be dishonest. It’s impossible to tell what people will be saying 50 years from now, but I don’t think it is a stretch to say he’ll be remembered as one of the definitive philosophers of the 20th century. Love him or hate him, everyone had to deal with his work at some point.

      The connection between Heidegger’s philosophy and his politics is a controversial subject, full of a lot of heated debates. A lot of people want to portray the two as completely separate. I think there is at least some connection between the two. There’s at least some affinity between certain aspects of his ideas and National Socialism, in a very abstract way. That said, to take the text as some kind of endorsement of Nazism is crude, almost absurd.

      • Evan Neely March 19, 2017 at 5:50 am | #

        Maybe I shouldn’t have painted with such a broad brush! I agree about Being and Time, but I’ve never really been that convinced that Heidegger’s thought in that book was inseparable from his politics. It’s just a hunch, though: his politics during the 30s was just too asinine for a thinker of the caliber that could write Being and Time for me to believe there’s a connection! But if there is, I guess Heidegger is on the list of brilliant conservatives. Of course, now that “list” is just a piece of paper with “Martin Heidegger” written on it, but I’ll probably have to write “Carl Schmitt” as well. To expand beyond that, I’d argue we’d have to go to the literary world (Junger, Malaparte, Celine, etc.), but then the concept gets hazy.

        • s.wallerstein March 19, 2017 at 9:04 am | #

          Pierre Bourdieu has a book, The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger, where he analizes Being and Times and attempts to show that many of Heidegger’s supposedly apolitical concepts, say, resolution, have a rightwing political meaning in the context of 1920’s Germany.

      • Glenn March 19, 2017 at 10:39 pm | #

        My response to Heidegger’s “Being and Time” is comparable to yours, Roquentin.

        I’ve read it two times in each of two different translations, and have begun learning to read German in the hope that I may be able to read it soon in the original German.

        As for Heidegger’s politics, Giorgio Agamben’s “Homo Sacer” makes a worthy argument for the radical divergence of Nazism and Heidegger’s thought.

        As for Heidegger’s failure to speak out politically and sufficiently against the brewing storm he was thrown into by his time and place of birth, I challenge his critics among American academics to throw themselves into the political (practically nonexistent, but potential) firestorm of American war crimes, and the continuing genocide that they, for the most part, choose to be blind to for the sake of career. I see no superabundance of heroes or martyrs among them.

    • Roquentin March 19, 2017 at 9:20 am | #

      Yeah, Heidegger’s sort of an usual case. I’ll try and condense my personal view on the relation between his politics and philosophy into a couple of sentences. After all, Heidegger himself thought he saw this affinity between his ideas and National Socialism at the time, even if it was very short-lived.

      For me it hinges on his notion of “authenticity.” That’s the closest thing you’ll find to an ethical suggestion in Being and Time, so if you want to base a politics around this, it’s not a very big leap to go to the political sphere and start looking for something authentically German, racial or otherwise. I really think that’s what it was about for him. He was from the same part of Germany as Hitler and insisted on dressing traditionally and preferred living in a rustic cabin. If being authentically German meant getting involved with sinister political movements and ultimately, the deaths of millions, so be it.

      If you want to make that case, it has some other somewhat unsettling conclusions, first and foremost that the concept of “authenticity” on some level feeds fascism.

      • Evan Neely March 20, 2017 at 9:21 am | #

        Yeah, this is a hard one. If we’re just talking about Heidegger’s personal predilections and the discursive context in which he was writing, this clearly speaks to his own conservatism. But there’s also the question of the extricability of these concepts from that context, in which “authenticity” and anticipatory resolution are going to be read as “be true to your German soul” and “there’s a lot of killing in our future so buck up.” Sartre clearly saw something in authenticity and his more explicitly moralistic interpretation of how we project our ideals, and embedded these in a system that wasn’t that different from Heidegger’s in the grand scheme of things, so I think we can at least say that Being and Time isn’t functioning as an overtly right wing document, and so Heidegger’s major contribution is like Oakeshott’s in “Experience and its Modes,” not in “Rationalism in Politics.”

  2. ronp March 18, 2017 at 3:15 pm | #

    The self interested rich and powerful will always have the resources to battle against any threats from the less powerful, including think tanks, media outlets, scholarship. It doesn’t matter whether if the mouthpieces are “good” or “bad” they will be effective.

  3. Tom March 18, 2017 at 3:26 pm | #

    Why are there no polar bears in the Amazon basin?

  4. Rui Santos March 18, 2017 at 5:55 pm | #

    interesting note. altough I consider the contributions of Scuton and Kekes.

  5. Daniel March 18, 2017 at 10:32 pm | #

    If this post is meant as a bit of snarky fun, then okay. But if meant to be serious, I find it somewhat questionable. For a few reasons:

    1) The notion that individual right thinkers have, throughout history, molded the depth and strength of their ideas to the needs of the conservative movement at any given time is pure bullshit, as is the converse. I think at most we could say the conservative movement has dumbed-down and cherry-picked ideas from right thinkers.

    2) You can throw a pebble and easily hit a right thinker the caliber of Kristol or Buckley. For the most part, neither of these writers made lasting contributions that will be studied for years to come by anyone other than right fanboys. They are not ‘great’ in the way Friedman and Hayek are, which is to say they are not taken seriously by readers or scholars more generally. But if by ‘great’ we simply mean journalists who are widely read and like to borrow from philosophy when making their arguments, then there are contemporary right thinkers who are great.

    3) It’s difficult to tell if the post is meant to disparage the depth and strength of right thinking throughout history, or confine itself to right thinking today. I doubt it’s the former, yet the last sentence makes a seemingly sweeping claim. Ironically, many left political theorists writing today are consumed by Carl Schmitt, or at any rate attempting to mine the depth of his thinking for ideas applicable to the left.

    The underlying insinuation of this post is that there are great thinkers on the left today. I sometimes wonder if that’s the case. I think left ideas are often, unfortunately, more deep than the movement needs them to be given the circumstances.

    Corey, who do you put in the class of great left thinkers writing today?

  6. relstprof March 19, 2017 at 5:29 am | #

    Why not today? Because the language of freedom, family, and business still have power to command votes. That, and a suspicion of bureaucracy and governmental overreach. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel.

    The conservative thinkers who still really matter are Chesterton, Weaver, and Lasch. We can add Foucault, I think, given Mirowski’s analysis of Foucault as one largely convinced by a neoliberal argument for global human exuberance unbound by the heavy chains of discipline.

    These thinkers acknowledge forms of community, but fail to make them work for liberation, Agamben and Zizek try to throw ropes. But I’m not certain anything is really happening here.

  7. J. Otto Pohl March 19, 2017 at 5:58 am | #

    Maybe it should be turned around? What great thinkers on the left are there today? The last significant one I can think of was Murray Bookchin and he died over ten years ago. So I think a better question might be why there are no great thinkers at all today.

    • David March 19, 2017 at 5:10 pm | #

      Fredric Jameson.

  8. halginsberg1963 March 19, 2017 at 9:46 am | #

    Thomas Frank is a great thinker. Don’t scoff. “What’s the Matter with Kansas” brilliantly explains why our country is so f’d up. Noam Chomsky certainly fits the definition of a great thinker on the left. Professor Adolph Reed is a great progressive thinker as is Professor Robin.

    • Michael Fiorillo March 20, 2017 at 6:30 am | #

      I’d place Mike Davis, David Harvey, Doug Henwood and Mark Blyth on any A list of lefty writers, along with Chomsky and Frank.

      • s.wallerstein March 20, 2017 at 5:36 pm | #

        There’s a lot of bright and knowledgeable people writing on the left today. I might add Raymond Geuss and Perry Anderson to those already mentioned. However, are there any great thinkers writing on the left today? People who will be read 50 or more years after their major works appear as Marcuse and Adorno are? People who will be read 80 years after their death as Gramsci is?

        I take a measure of greatness to be if the relevance of the person’s thought transcends their generation and their specific political situation and becomes in some sense a classic.

  9. Jonnybutter March 19, 2017 at 10:51 am | #

    I’m not a Lasch scholar, but is it really fair to call him a great *conservative* thinker? I don’t think so. And he certainly was not, and clearly did not mean to be, in service of any movement.

    +1 for opinion that Buckley was a hack. Maybe the movement didn’t need anyyone more brilliant than him at the time. Maybe they needed only a prolix hack

  10. mark March 19, 2017 at 11:11 am | #

    “The life of nations no less than that of men is lived largely in the imagination.”

    (Enoch Powell, 1946).

    Let us hope that Conservatism is no longer the stuff that dreams are made of.

    Isn’t it a shame that Modern English has decided that ‘scandal’ is no longer to be used as a verb?

  11. Howard B March 19, 2017 at 12:34 pm | #

    True, no great conservative political theorist; maybe intellectuals in a broader sense, such as authors, historians and social scientists. Might these outline a philosophy of some kind?

  12. Tom DUmm March 20, 2017 at 1:45 pm | #

    Leo Strauss, anyone? I know, I know, but there it is.

    • Corey Robin March 20, 2017 at 5:00 pm | #

      He died in 1973, Tom! Long before Hayek and before Friedman.

  13. UNKNOWN March 20, 2017 at 3:58 pm | #

    N I C K

    L A N D

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