by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
On the 60th anniversary of William F. Buckley’s National Review, Yuval Levin explores the continuing relevance of the magazine’s founding motto.
When he launched National Review 60 years ago, William F. Buckley Jr. famously declared an intention not to make history but to halt it. The magazine, he asserted, “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” We conservatives know this old quip so well that we rarely stop to take it seriously. And we know, too, that simply stopping the Left was never the sum of Buckley’s ambitions, and could never be enough for us. But although it was not all that modern conservatism was born to do, defying the notion that the arc of history bends left has always been an important part of our mission on the right, and it matters today as much as ever.
In the era of NR’s birth, conservatives confronted a liberalism that was insufferably arrogant in a particular way: It took itself to be in confident possession of the only reliable vision of the future and so to be working merely to hasten its inevitable victory. In 1955, this conceit still carried the unmistakable stench of its Marxist origins, and so still hinted, if vaguely, at a belief in Historical forces (with a capital “H”) that possessed their own independent trajectory. An immense array of ponderous pseudo-philosophical paraphernalia was still employed in the effort to make the case for such forces seem profound. And serious conservatives at mid century devoted much energy to combating that lingering belief in determinism and the disdain it evinced for human liberty.
Six decades later, conservatives might be forgiven for imagining that at least that particular battle has been won. Communism is essentially extinguished, and almost no one outside the senior leadership of the British Labour party now admits to looking back upon it fondly. Precocious teenagers don’t impress one another by opining on false consciousness. Even in the most liberal precincts of the academy, earnest determinism has mostly been replaced by technocratic swagger or an easygoing decadence — serious but lesser vices. Frenchmen prophesying class conflict are still adored without being read, but surely “History” is no longer our nemesis.
And yet perhaps we shouldn’t be so sure. In America, where outright socialism (let alone Communism) never fully took root, the Left has long been essentially welfare-statist in practice, which means its confidence in history has not been about class struggle, exactly, but about a sense of where the relationship between the state and the people was headed. American liberals have long been guided, at least implicitly, by what we might now call the ideal of social democracy.