Ronald Reagan is the first American president of the twentieth century whose political origins do not lie in the broad consensual centre of American politics. Only time will tell whether Reagan will remain true to his oft-expressed conservative beliefs or whether, for the sake of political peace, his administration will soften its revanchiste instincts. But whatever the course adopted after 1980, the fact that a man so recently defined as an ‘extremist’ could win the presidency—especially after the defeats of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972 seemed to confirm those who argued that only a ‘moderate’ could be elected president—compels a re-examination of what was once called ‘the radical right’. Reagan’s ability to make a popular case for conservative themes, combined with the visible role played in both his campaign and his administration by right-wing activists, does not lend much credence to the view expressed by Richard Rovere in 1962 that radical right organizations symbolize ‘frantic efforts to prevent ultra-conservatism from dying out’footnote1 or S. M. Lipset’s prediction that ‘it is extremely doubtful that the radical right will grow beyond the peak of 1953–54.’footnote2

There can be little question that groups and individuals generally identified as being on the right—from the tax revolt stimulated by Howard Jarvis to the cold war scare tactics of the American Security Council to the backlash against abortion—are setting the agenda for political discourse in America at the present time. Agenda-setting being one of the crucial sources of power, it behoves us to understand more about the nature of right-wing movements in the United States. Yet serious scholarly and theoretical interest in the subject has declined as the influence of the right has increased. In the 1950s and 1960s, when an ideology like Ronald Reagan’s seemed outside the pale of proper political discourse, there were published a series of books and essays, to be discussed shortly, which, whatever their flaws, were the best sociological thinking on the subject that has been produced. In the 1980s, when Reagan’s ideas occupy the White House, little in the way of understanding the American right has been forthcoming from American social science.

This essay seeks to rekindle interest in the right as an object of sociological speculation and political theory. What does the success of the right tell us about the political dynamics of American society? Is the American right a significant new force, different from conservative coalitions in other advanced capitalist societies? Which theories of social change best account for the current conservative hegemony? What, in short, does the ascendency of right-wing ideas mean? The crisis that produced the victory of the right is also a crisis in our understanding of it.

Since the French Revolution, at least, the dominant political direction of Western society has been to the left. Social movements arose in protest against an existing order, and, in the process of shattering that order, moved history forward, in the sense that the forces unleashed by each revolutionary transformation incorporated into political consciousness groups that were once excluded from the public realm. Such transformations inevitably aroused opposition, giving birth to modern conservatism. But the point needs to be emphasized that without the emergence of the left, there can be no right. If social change had been frozen at the high point of feudalism, there would not be much of a basis for conservative protest in the modern world.

Western conservatism, as a distinctly modern expression, was forged in the aftermath of the French Revolution, in England with the writings of Burke and in France with the speculations of de Maistre and Bonald. Since the French Revolution was overwhelmingly a bourgeois revolution, the right, at first, was significantly anti-bourgeois. One can read in Burke expressions of disdain for the ‘dealers in stocks and funds’ that rival Marx in their condemnation of the social and ethical emptiness of bourgeois society.footnote3 Indeed, Marx was heavily influenced by English conservatism, for example by Carlyle, whose strictures against the ‘cash nexus’ found their way into the footnotes of Capital.footnote4 French conservatism, more openly monarchical and theocratic, had less direct appeal to an aspiring socialist critic, but there was a relationship in French thought between the anti-individualistic opponents of the Revolution and the equally anti-atomistic utopian socialists who would follow. Henri de Saint-Simon, for example, appealed to both socialist and conservative critics of capitalism; to this day his thought escapes attempts to categorize it as either left or right.

The anti-capitalist character of the first wave of modern conservatism is often something of an embarrasment to contemporary conservatives, who have lost touch with their pre-capitalist origins and have adapted themselves, often rather well, to the rise of the bourgeoisie. Yet even in a period of relative stagnation, capitalism is still a dynamic economic force and conservatism a frozen political doctrine, creating a host of problems for modern conservatives. Defending business freedom on the one hand and tradition on the other is an impossible task, as anyone who has watched what capital accumulation does to neighbourhoods and families can testify. One can see echos of the early origins of conservatism in the thought of a man like Robert Nisbet, who gives community a higher value than profit.footnote5 One sees little of it in Irving Kristol, who defends business freedom, even while recognizing its faults, a characteristic that would make him a liberal as understood outside the United States.footnote6

Fortunately for American conservatives, the bourgeois revolution was not the only one in the modern world. As socialism became a force in the world, a new target for conservative anger was presented. If nineteenth-century conservatism was inherently anti-capitalist, the twentieth-century variety was instinctively anti-socialist. Once liberty had been the bête noir; now it became equality. Bourgeois democracy, so recently the enemy of reason and civility, was transformed into a bulwark against the dictatorship of the proletariat. Capitalism, ignoble in the recent past, was the best one could hope for in a world in which men were not angels. Modern conservatism, in a word, made peace with capitalism in order to wage war against socialism. Progress advances many things, including the enemies of progress. As socialist revolutions expanded the classes and nations that found political expression, they also expanded the range of targets against which conservatives could organize themselves.