Joseph R.


March 13, 2001

Empire and Reaction


During the High Cold War, the topic of empire was seldom on the table in New Right circles. It was the New Right's1 commitment to winning the anti-Communist crusade – at any conceivable cost – that made it necessary not to inquire too closely whether or not creation of a colossal bureaucratic machinery on our shores and forward military positions, everywhere in the world, gave the putatively "temporary" emergency program a character which might, objectively, been seen as imperial. It is interesting that political scientist Howard J. Wiarda, who believes that America experienced only "creeping corporatism" in the first decades of the late 20th century, nevertheless writes that the Cold War system brought "galloping corporatism" into being.2

Corporatism involves negotiations between powerful business combinations – and sometimes labor unions – mediated by the state, which enforces the results of such parleys by bureaucratic and legal means. The array of economic interventions made necessary, or possible, by the Cold War made it somewhat awkward for the New Right to pose as great defenders of free enterprise capitalism. They did so, all the same.


There was, however, a moment when empire and its classical analogues briefly dogged the New Right's steps. The occasion was the publication of Amaury de Riencourt's neo-Spenglerian book, The Coming Caesars (New York: Coward-McCann, 1957), with a paperback edition appearing some years later. De Riencourt fleshed out the analogy between recent and classical history: Europe, like the ancient Greeks, had worn itself out with endless warfare. Power, therefore, shifted from the cultured creators of civilization to rising states whose less cultured, but more practical societies conserved the civilization while imposing centralized rule on it. These high-achieving pragmatists were the Romans and, now, the Americans.

The libertarian conservative Frank Meyer rejected De Riencourt's thesis out of hand.3 Richard M. Weaver, whom I discussed in my last column, faulted the book for failure to "isolate with some degree of clarity the cause of Caesarism," noting in passing that Garet Garrett's little book The People's Pottage had actually done a better job of describing the imperial process.4


The De Riencourt discussion sputtered out. Things went back to normal. Scary maps showing new Soviet "conquests" were in, and no amount of "defense" spending could ever possibly suffice.

But in 1966, philosopher Thomas Molnar, more a European reactionary than an American-style conservative, returned to the topic. Now, I should say that, as far as I am concerned, "reactionary" is a morally neutral term. I believe we can learn from renegade liberals, libertarians, conservatives, and Marxists, when it comes to studying the phenomenon of empire. So why not learn from reactionaries? There's so much to react against lately, we may all end up reactionaries. Anyway, that conservative old fellow, Karl Marx himself, once wrote that "in any period, reactionaries are good barometers for its intellectual condition, just as dogs are good for scenting things out."5 Not necessarily a compliment, particularly in context, but with old Karl, one doesn't always know.

Americans, wrote Molnar, eagerly sought power but regarded it as an evil, which they tried to exorcise by holding "that democracy as a method and a faith will save them from the temptation of gigantism, of power and pride." But the Romans had likewise believed that their republicanism would work as "a guarantee against power, ambition and hubris…." At Rome, territorial expansion made for a politicized economy in which "it was impossible to tell a bureaucrat from a business tycoon."6

Growing democratization in America, from Jackson down to FDR, paralleled the course of Roman republicanism. The post-World War II Pax Americana had been "thrust upon Washington" – a claim with which one might well disagree – but, in any case, had the result that "Caesar emerged, a combination of popular dictator, powerful centralizer, trusted man of the army." Rome's system of allies and protectorates had set in train institutional changes at home, such as "increasing centralization" and reduction of elected bodies to "instruments of manipulation and rubber stamps."7

In words which bring to mind Wiarda's claim that "galloping corporatism" came with the Cold War, Molnar writes: "Businessmen, the potentates among them, today are interchangeable with high-ranking government-bureaucrats, they switch back and forth between their public and (semi-) private functions." Caesar-like Presidents sat atop the new system. "Caesar is the charismatic figure who promises and partly delivers: he sets the mechanism into motion by creating new ways and institutions and by weakening and demoralizing the old ones."8 This last point is even more interesting today. Trust the reactionary dog to follow that scent.


Empire – once in being – demands enhanced executive authority. The crown offered to Julius Caesar and the four presidential terms of FDR are, for Molnar, good examples. To damp down discontent which might disrupt foreign policy - the imperial rulers' primary concern - "Laws must be passed (like free distribution of Egyptian grain or anti-poverty funds) with only a semblance of debate, with congressional approval as a foregone conclusion."9 In both empires, the Senate abdicated and a new class of Court intellectuals arose to advise and defend the monarch.

The empire "is a political thing increasingly socialized within and imperialistic abroad." At home, "it moves to the left, in foreign policy it keeps to the right, and seeks the alliance of conservative forces." There is a limit to how far the imperial rulers can move to the Left, and that limit is the upkeep of the military. Thus a "Deal" exists: "popular demands are satisfied, the poor and the proletariat are cared for by free grain and circuses; but the military budget is also approved, the foreign bases and allies are well supplied, the foreign potentates are flattered and kept in power, the legions and divisions splendidly equipped. The price is ever-climbing budgets, higher taxes, and built-in inflation."10


Here one must pick a quarrel with Molnar. Thirty-four years later, we can see the emergence of a different pattern. The Left, or most of it, now loves the empire and expects it to do their work abroad – including global democracy at the point of a cruise missile and implementation of imposed cultural brotherhood and sensitivity through money, manipulation, and military force. It may well be, as Murray Rothbard noted, that for much of the Left the only thing wrong with the U.S. Empire was its opposition to the Soviet Union and communist movements in the Third World.

Only the extreme ideological confusion brought about by two world wars and the Cold War could have made it seem "natural" for conservatives and libertarians to support state-strengthening wars and for the Left, or part of it, to oppose them. The Left's program has triumphed over the last nine or so decades because it has been parasitic on war-making, even if other un-indicted persons, not of the Left, began those wars. The Left-Wilsonian editors of the New Republic supported World War I precisely because they understood its domestic "reform" opportunities.

US war "socialism" under Wilson became the working model for the corporatist theorists who cluttered up the early New Deal, just as many socialists – in Russia in particular – saw the Imperial German war economy, the Zwangwirtschaft, as a working model of state socialism. In this light, Sidney Hook, unrepentant socialist, Cold Warrior, and member in good standing of National Review's "unprincipled coalition" (to steal a phrase from James Burnham), can be seen as someone who knew what he was doing, and who was, therefore, part of the problem. Hook just had the bad luck to live before social militarism and social imperialism got back on center stage.

The true fault-line here is that sketched out by Ludwig von Mises: free markets and peace, or controlled markets and war.

Anyway, absent the Soviet Union, the pragmatic managers of the empire need no longer lean rightward, however much they may have done before. Now the full force of chiliasm and world improvement by force can be unleashed. This theme dates from the American Revolution but it was seldom the basis of US policy until the advent of Woodrow Wilson. Having transcended its military and presidentialist origins, the managerial state rides on autopilot and, like HAL the Computer (this is his year), frowns on grumbling from the former citizens.11


As to the kind of world the managerial humanitarians wish to build, I shall let Karl Marx have the next-to-final words. Writing in 1843 on the proposed Prussian censorship statute, he said: "Laws that make the sentiment of the acting person the main criterion, and not the act as such, are nothing but positive sanctions of lawlessness. It would be better to act like the czar of Russia who had everybody's beard shaved off by Cossacks rather than like the person who makes the idea of wearing a beard the criterion of shaving it off."12

It is surprising that Marx should sound more conservative than the contemporary Politically Correct crowd, but there it is. He, or they, should be embarrassed. But, then again, it is the young Marx who wrote those words.


  1. In this column, I contrast the Old Right (1932-1955) and New Right (from 1955). The "Newer" Right, which arose in the late 1970s and appealed to Wallace voters who later became "Reagan Democrats" is another matter. Predominance of "neo-conservatives" in the Cold War (New) Right from the mid-1970s on, created further complications. For useful distinctions, see Paul Gottfried, The Conservative Movement: Revised Edition (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993).
  2. Howard J. Wiarda, Corporatism and Comparative Politics (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1997), ch. 6, "Creeping Corporatism in the United States," pp. 128-151.
  3. Frank Meyer, "America: No Imperial Rome," National Review, September 14, 1957.
  4. Richard M. Weaver, "Review of Amaury de Riencourt, The Coming Caesars," The Freeman, 7 (October 1957), pp. 61-63, reprinted in Ted J. Smith III, In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Essays of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), pp. 605-607.
  5. Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, eds., Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat (New York: Anchor Books, 1967), p. 107.
  6. Thomas Molnar, "Imperial America," National Review, May 3, 1966, p. 409 (my emphasis).
  7. Ibid., p. 410.
  8. Ibid., p. 411 (my emphasis).
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. See generally, Paul Gottfried, After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).
  12. Writings of the Young Marx, pp. 79-80.

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