One point often raised against what I will broadly refer to as the “anti-liberal tradition” is that it lacks intellectual, if not moral, seriousness. There is a whiff of truth in that claim, just as there is an element of truth embedded in observations that liberalism—and those who champion that ideology—are intellectually timid, complacent, and devoid of any horizon which stretches beyond their individualistic self-satisfaction. Anti-liberalism, which comes in many different forms and encompasses persons and movements with greater-or-lesser degrees of antipathy toward liberalism, has shifted courses many times over the past three centuries. With the last vestiges of the old regime now swept away, anti-liberal movements are compelled to either start anew, looking to the past while fixing their sights on the future, or—as is too often the case—desirous of taking up the mantle of socio-political movements which were not so much lacking in seriousness as they were overflowing with evil. Some today, understandably disillusioned with contemporary political realities, flee to whatever they can find. If they happen to be Christian—Catholic or Orthodox—they might seek refuge in an integralist position that is either principled or escapist. If they happen to harbor a distrust of religion, specifically the Christian religion, then there is always the so-called “New Right,” along with any number of unsavory racialist and nationalist organizations. Why people make the choices that they do cannot, in my estimation, be reduced to a handful of causal factors, though certainly these types of orientations, which are “fringe” by their very nature, have a tendency to draw in socially marginalized individuals. At the same time, these movements can also attract bright, well-educated young people who, out of boredom more than principle, find the anti-liberal posture congenial even if their daily lives reflect very little of the sacrifice which such a posture should entail if it were serious.
Superficially speaking, a comparison could be drawn between contemporary anti-liberals and those angry young German men of the Weimar Republic—the men who, wittingly or unwittingly, set the stage for National Socialism. On this topic Leo Strauss dedicated an erudite, though at points highly obscure, lecture which was posthumously published under the title “German Nihilism” in the journal Interpretation. The failure of liberalism in interwar Germany inspired the promise of communism, that is, “a rising of the proletariat and of the proletarianized strata of society which would usher in the withering away of the State, the classless society, the abolition of all exploitation and injustice, the era of final peace.” This heaven on earth in the eyes of angry young Germans vested with “a love of morality” and “a sense of responsibility for endangered morality” looked like hell. Strauss continues:
It was this prospect at least as much as the desperate present, which led to nihilism. The prospect of a pacified planet, without rulers and ruled, of a planetary society devoted to production and consumption only, to the production and consumption of spiritual as well as material merchandise, was positively horrifying to quite a few very intelligent and very decent, if very young, Germans.
As Strauss explains, these young Germans, these German nihilists, did not wage war on the prospect of communism because they feared for their social position; they did it because
[w]hat they hated, was the very prospect of a world in which everyone would be happy and satisfied, in which everyone would have his little pleasure by day and his little pleasure by night, a world in which no great heart could beat and no great soul could breathe, a world without real, unmetaphoric, sacrifice, i.e., a world without blood, sweat, and tears. What to the communists appeared to be the fulfillment of the dream of mankind, appeared to those young Germans as the greatest debasement of humanity, as the coming of the end of humanity, as the arrival of the latest man.
Strauss stressed the youth of this movement to indicate its immaturity—an immaturity which ultimately betrayed it. In their quest to upset the pending pacification of their people while retaining their principled rejection of Weimar-style liberalism, the German nihilists failed to propose anything fresh; they had nothing positive to inform. According to Strauss, “Their Yes was inarticulate—they were unable to say more than: No! This No proved however sufficient as the preface to action, to the action of destruction. This is the phenomenon which occurs to me first whenever I hear the expression German nihilism.”
Some, though hardly all, of today’s anti-liberals contrast sharply with the German nihilists of Strauss’s days on the matter of “Yes.” For instance, Catholic integralism—which I have discussed in depth in various places (see, e.g., here, here, and here)—offers an unqualified “Yes” to the common good as illumined by Christian revelation and natural reason. When this form of integralism says “No” to liberalism, socialism, and communism, it is not out of a naïve revulsion toward any utopian political possibility, for all Catholics know—or should know—the intramundane impossibility of a political paradise. The Catholic “No” is rooted in the genuine knowledge that the road to utopianism is invariably paved with millions of skulls and the destination, should it ever be reached, represents a rebellion against the supernatural order.
This much cannot be said for all anti-liberals, including some who profess the Catholic Faith. For a few, there will always be an attractiveness to “No” for the sake of “No.” Unlike the German nihilists of yesteryear, however, these proponents of the “No” are not concerned for the practical consequences of that “No.” They see their “No” as a chance to flaunt a bit of intellectualism and inject a little scandal into some social circle or another. A seed of nihilism has been planted inside, though everyone can take comfort that the sprout won’t survive being overtaken by the vines of worldly ambition, comfort, and entertainment. As for those anti-liberals whose journey is unlikely to yield what contemporary society thinks of as a “good life,” there will be bitterness and tears, but no action. Their ideals will fade and the present order will continue on, undisturbed by those who are so deeply disturbed by it. Strauss’s words about the German nihilists—the anti-liberals of the Weirmar era—may all be true, but they were not prophetic. Such a ghastly manifestation of principled rage and practical destruction is unlikely to appear in our time — the time of smart phones, hashtags, and The Daily Show.