Academic journal article Policy Review

Modern Tomes

Academic journal article Policy Review

Modern Tomes

Article excerpt

A number of years ago, the writers Malcolm Cowley and Bernard Smith invited a group of American intellectuals to identify the nonfiction books of recent decades that had most impressed them and had to some extent influenced their thinking. The result was an intriguing volume entitled Books That Changed Our Minds. In it, 11 contributors analyzed such classics as The Education of Henry Adams and Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West.

The Cowley-Smith anthology came to mind recently when the editors of Policy Review asked me to compile a list of the most important and influential works advancing conservative ideas in the past 20 years. At first the task seemed simple, as obvious candidates sprang quickly to consciousness. Then it became more daunting, as the sheer scope of conservative literature since 1977 came into view. How to extract from this vast and specialized cornucopia a mere 10 or 15 titles? Moreover, many conservative books of the last two decades have been intellectually important and richly deserving of recognition but not, alas, as influential as they ought to be. Many other conservative writings in this period have been primarily of intramural significance-applauded inside the movement but unfortunately little noticed outside it.

How, then, should we navigate the rapids? It is here that the Cowley-Smith volume of years ago suggests a decisive criterion: Which writings of a con- servative character in the past 20 years can be said to have changed minds? Which have discernably altered America's public conversation and (in some cases) its public policy?

What follows, then, is neither an exhaustive canon of recent conservative "great books" nor a mechanical compendium of bestsellers. It is, rather, a chronological list of 12 books, two articles, and two speeches that, at least as much as many others, have given the intellectual climate of our time a con- servative cast.

"A World Split Apart"

Commencement address, Harvard University

(June 8, 1978)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974, the acclaimed author and dissident came to the West a hero of the resistance to communist tyranny. The message he brought with him, however, was profoundly discomfiting to liberal and "prag- matic" Americans in the post-Vietnam era of detente. In an astonishing com- mencement address at Harvard, Solzhenitsyn decried the moral cowardice, flac- cidity, materialistic self-indulgence, and misuses of freedom in the West and accused its ruling elites of a loss of "civic courage" in the face of com- munist evil.

How had this predicament come to pass? For Solzhenitsyn, it was nothing less than a civilizational catastrophe literally centuries in the making. At Har- vard-the academic capital of secular, liberal modernity-he unabashedly traced the West's "present debility" to a defective worldview "born in the Renais- sance" and unleashed politically by the Enlightenment: "the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness." Liberating "imperfect man" from "the moral heritage of Christian centuries," and proclaiming man's autonomy "from any higher force above him," "rationalistic humanism" had eventually produced, in the 20th century, a world scarred by materialistic decadence, "moral poverty," and spiritual deprivation. "Humanism that has lost its Christian heritage," he added, could not prevail against materialistic communism.

In his searing indictment of atheistic humanism, and in his call for fundamen- tal spiritual renewal transcending the "ossified formulas of the Enlighten- ment," Solzhenitsyn expressed with remarkable force themes espoused by American conservatives from Whittaker Chambers to the Religious Right of today.

The Way the World Works (1978)

Jude Wanniski

Hailed by Irving Kristol as the "best economic primer since Adam Smith," this book introduced the world to the intellectual counterrevolution of the 1970s known as supply-side economics. …

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