“One question I am often asked by engaged leftists is what texts are most helpful for understanding the political right.”
he last several years have witnessed progressives taking a deeper interest in their political opponents. Important books such as Ronald Beiner’s Dangerous Minds, ongoing engagement by pundits like Nathan J. Robinson of Current Affairs, YouTubers like Contrapoints, and podcasts such as Know Your Enemy have all found receptive audiences for their critical—but refined—takes about the Right. One question I am often asked by engaged leftists is what texts are most helpful for understanding the political right. With that in mind, I have prepared a short list of some of the most important texts progressives can turn to. In line with the Millsian principle that one should “hear [arguments] from persons who actually believe them” in their most “plausible and persuasive form,” most of the recommendations will be from important conservative and libertarian authors whose positions any thoughtful progressive must rebut. Saying that, some of these books (such as God and Man at Yale) are included because of their influence or novelty, rather than their inherent virtues. These books are arranged in no particular order, and I include some comments on each one situating it in context.
10: The Nicomachean Ethics (c. 350 B.C.) by Aristotle
Aristotle’s philosophy has sometimes been called “organized common sense” for its role in justifying settled convictions at a higher level of sophistication. Of course, his convictions are not ours, and there is plenty to his work that is indelibly stamped by its time. The main influence of his ideas on the political right concerns his essentialism and his defense of virtue as essential to living a good life. The two go hand-in-hand and have often been used to justify conservative approaches to sexuality and personal behavior—sometimes in eminently reactionary fashion such as with John Finnis’ conflation of homosexuality with bestiality. Given that Aristotle’s essentialism also led him to talk about “natural slaves,” a virtuous person might bother to be more critical of his thinking; however, there is no denying The Nicomachean Ethics’ influence.
9: Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) by Edmund Burke
Often called the godfather of modern conservatism, Burke’s most famous work is actually rather unusual for not laying out a platform or any systematic principles. Indeed, it often proudly resists such inclinations to rationalistic systematicity. What is important in Burke is the attitude or disposition, looking skeptically at grandiose plans by out of touch philosophes to remake the world whole cloth. Instead, Burke goes out of his way to stress the continuity of human life and the historical and moral restrictions this should place on our ambitions. One way to criticize Burke is by pointing out that plenty of people might regard the venerable traditions he praises as a form of domineering ideology. But there is no doubting his intelligence and down to earth convictions, meaning progressives will need to think hard about how to counter his points.
8: Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820) by Georg Hegel
Whether Hegel should be considered a conservative thinker is a matter of fierce debate; plenty have made a plausible case for his being a revolutionary thinker. What is not up for debate is that many commentators have interpreted Hegel as a conservative, meaning his work has had a tremendous impact on the political right. The primary reason for this is his deep analysis of how we, humans, are socially embedded creatures, who rely on family, the nation, and religion to provide us with a sense of identity and meaning. Saying that, this conservative reading also downplays Hegel’s emphasis on reason, freedom, and the ultimate transience of all that we try to conserve.
7: The Devils (1871) by Fyodor Dostoevsky
If radicals get Leo Tolstoy, the political right has Dostoevsky. Originally a staunch progressive in his youth, producing Dickensian works like Poor Folk, Dostoevsky later recanted and wrote a number of majestic novels deeply critical of the modern world and its nihilism. In The Devils, his most political novel, he mockingly portrays a series of far-left intellectuals determined to blow up society in the name of freedom, which they accept will only be achievable through despotism. By contrast, Dostoevsky has an abiding nostalgia for the goodness and religiosity of rural Russians, whose life is gradually being corroded by encroaching modernity and its demons. As Tolstoy points out in his magnificent 1894 work The Kingdom of God is Within You, this nostalgia is very much misplaced, given the horrors of Russian autocracy and the hypocrisy of the all too worldly Orthodox church of the era.
6: Beyond Good and Evil (1886) by Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche was a strange man and is a difficult thinker to situate. His atheism, relativism, and epistemological skepticism have been an inspiration to legions of post-modern progressives. But the anti-Christ’s elitist disdain for the masses and his glorification of hierarchy and violence have been immensely influential on the political right. Libertarians like Ayn Rand decided to interpret his heroic stratification as support for romantic capitalism. The far-right took a much more sinister approach in its interpretations of Nietzsche, often melding his theories with pseudo-scientific racism and pessimistic narratives of decline and fall.
5: Political Theology (1922) by Carl Schmitt
The most important Nazi jurist, Carl Schmitt, has been enjoying something of a renaissance these days in the work of writers such as Adrian Vermeule. Unlike most German authors, Schmitt’s bracingly clear prose displays a frightening sense of purpose. He laughs off liberalism’s claims to establish a tolerant and secular polity, insisting that all politics is about friends and enemies asserting incompatible political theologies. When the chips are down, the state will always enforce one set of principles over another, with the sovereign ultimately being the one who decides. Schmitt’s often apocalyptic sense of the world—as governed by power and antagonism—is brutally direct. In Habermas’ words, it is very clear that Schmitt was convinced that he knew better than his all too naïve humanist opponents. It turns out that Schmitt was wrong in backing the Nazi party, and this carried both his country and his own reputation very close the abyss.
4: God and Man at Yale (1951) by William F. Buckley
Unlike many of the other authors here, Buckley is a relative intellectual lightweight. His best writings do not come close to approaching the depth of Russell Kirk’s or even Frank Meyer’s from the same period. So why is he on the list? The reason is God and Man at Yale was the first in a now tired screed: “left-wing academics are ruining the Western world.” From Buckley through to Allan Bloom and down to Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson, more commentators than were ever necessary would take a crack at this genre. Buckley’s book itself is middling, but he was instrumental in developing the “conservatives as victims of nasty victim culture” trope that carries on to this day. If one wants to know why many American conservatives spend an awful lot of time feeling sorry for themselves, God and Man at Yale is one of the main culprits.
3: The Road to Serfdom (1944) by F.A Hayek and Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) by Robert Nozick
This one is cheating a bit, but the two books belong together as they present different arguments for similar conclusions. Hayek and Nozick are both scathing critics of economic redistribution, the former because it will lead to bad consequences and the latter as a matter of principle. Between the two, Hayek’s book has aged more poorly. All but the most dogmatic of his interpreters will admit that his anxieties that the welfare state would inexorably lead to totalitarianism did not bear out. However, the criticisms of economic planning are still important and need to be engaged with. On the other hand, Nozick’s book is still bracingly fresh and clever, offering argument after argument for why economic redistribution is a threat to freedom. Anarchy, State and Utopia is very vulnerable to criticism for being mono-principled—and also for asserting claims about the existence of rights that actually need to be argued for. However, it is a very compelling book: the most substantial moral defense of capitalism on hand.
2: Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition (2017) by Roger Scruton
The recently deceased Roger Scruton was the most talented expositor of the conservative tradition. If one’s ambition is to understand this tradition on its own terms, Scruton’s last work in that regard is his best. It softballs a lot of the so-called “great tradition’s” darker sides. Whenever someone on the political right supported slavery, racism, or violence, Scruton’s usual reply is some version of “that was unfortunate, but…” To this, one might reply: “Don’t you spend an awful lot of time getting angry at Marxists who say, ‘Yes Stalinism was unfortunate, but…?’” All the while, it is a very readable and concise book.
1: Slouching Towards Gomorrah (1966) by Robert Bork
Robert Bork is primarily known for being a failed Reagan appointee to the Supreme Court and a defender of a now defunct form of originalism. Intellectually, he was all over the place. His significance—as was pointed out quite early—is pioneering many of the ideas and features that would later become post-modern conservatism. Particularly significant is the appeal to identity (and its stabilizing influence) as a basis of moral and epistemological authority. Bork may not have been a towering intellect, but his style of politics anticipated the future we now inhabit.
Bonus: The Reactionary Mind (2011) by Corey Robin
Robin’s book is the best left-wing analysis of the right-wing tradition available today, basically offering a rejoinder to Scruton’s hagiographic take on the conservative tradition. It is very readable, informative, and a pleasure to go through.
Matt McManus is a professor of politics at Whitman College and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, among other books. He can be added on Twitter via @mattpolprof.