Huizinga to Conservative Intellectuals: Get Back in the Game!

On his radio show of October 22nd, 2020, Rush Limbaugh admitted that he had been shocked by the overt Marxism of so many Obama supporters. He had always assumed such ideas were marginalized, but the 2016 election showed him that, like pop culture, academia is saturated with them. Many more conservatives need to experience Rush’s epiphany about the political danger posed by education.

I’ll go further: the violently factious nature of contemporary American politics is not entirely the fault of the left; it owes also to the right’s abstention from intellectual life and its inattention to the nature of the opposition’s modus operandi. There are exceptions, but conservatives usually follow a more pragmatic trajectory that takes them away from education. After high school or college, they tend to proceed by getting real jobs, starting businesses, and raising children. This is good, but it has two perilous consequences: (1) it makes for a blind spot in the conservative worldview, and (2) it means that the left controls education.

When I hear my friends on the right express surprise at the radicalism of their opponents, I always point out that this development has been visible everywhere on college campuses for the last five decades. A primary reason that Marxism refuses to go away is that the material success of the free market both requires and promotes inattention to the ways in which future generations are taught such politically malleable subjects as history, literature, and sociology. And when the shopkeeper’s away, the intellectuals will play. Ergo political correctness, cancel culture, and opportunistic resentment that promotes problems not solutions.

During the twentieth century in the United States, as it had in nineteenth-century Europe (see Dostoevsky’s Devils, 1870–71), the left did what political movements always do: it found its way into those social spaces available to it, especially academia. At the same time, tarred by the Great Depression, the Civil Rights movement, and protests against the Vietnam War, and frustrated by being driven into the corners of a growing number of universities, the right withdrew. The marker of this shift was the rise of think-tanks. When founding the Mont Pèlerin Society in 1947, Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman had decided that the best way to defend the virtues of classical liberalism was from a mountainous retreat in the Swiss Alps. But this reflected a tactically dire situation. In retrospect, Where Eagles Dare (1968) remains a great action movie, but we shouldn’t confuse it with a long-term strategy against totalitarian thinking.

Classical liberalism thrives and spreads according to its own principles, one of which is the free exchange of ideas. But the emphasis must be on exchange. The private circulation of agreed-upon truths among like-minded ideologues cannot be its own end. It only lays the groundwork for an open and public contest between ideas honestly opposed. Furthermore, nobody learns the value of good ideas without contrasting them with bad ones, and ideas are not improved, nor do they gain much traction, without being tested by some opposing force.

Joseph Schumpeter saw the ways in which the creative destruction of free markets distributes wealth unequally, leading bitter academics to embrace the political opposition. Raymond Aron sarcastically referred to Marxism as the “opium of the intellectuals.” And it’s not as if the Marxist intellectuals themselves have ever disguised their goal. Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, and Noam Chomsky all noted the advantages of dominating a nation’s intelligentsia. On this score at least, their logic is quite sound, and it should expand our perspective on Ben Franklin’s famous quip that American citizens have been granted a republic so long as we can keep it. There are many factors to consider when trying to keep a republic, but one of these must be the work needed to maintain the necessary ideological conditions of that republic.

Conservative liberal intellectuals have an enormous advantage in that one of our fundamental principles is dialogue. By definition, our work cannot entail censorship; we can leave that self-defeating practice to the radical left. We do not seek to prohibit ideas but to study them and engage with their advocates. Make no mistake; to engage in ideological combat at universities does not mean that we expect to win but, rather, that we hope to maintain a presence and offer an option that will endure long after students emerge from the fog of campus life.

A number of American intellectuals have put forth admirable responses to the persistence of academic opioids. Founded by Pierre Goodrich in 1960, Liberty Fund hosts hundreds of seminars annually for more or less professional intellectuals, many of them college professors. The goal is to promote thought about the ideas that underwrite freedom. Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind (1987) warned that openness and relativism for their own sake erode the purpose of discovering values and virtues worth defending. Recognizing that college can be a waste of time for many, tech investor Peter Thiel’s fellowship program encourages them to do something better with their time. Thiel also founded in 1987 a contrarian student newspaper, The Stanford Review, so he appears to have thought college redeemable to the degree that it pushes back against intellectual conformity. Perhaps the most aggressive approach has been that of John Allison of BB&T Bank, which between 2002 and 2012 made a series of grants to colleges and universities designed to promote the study of the ethics of capitalism with emphasis on the writings of Ayn Rand. A handful of institutions like Hillsdale College, St. John’s College, the University of Chicago, and Purdue University still attempt self-conscious defenses of free speech and respect for traditional ideas. Such institutions, however, remain exceptions that prove the general rule of a conservative vacuum in academia. It also remains to be seen if these bases of operation can be leveraged to take back more terrain.

Lately there has been much talk of “the end of the college experience.” I think this premature, and I doubt college will disappear anytime soon. Admittedly, college should not be for everyone, and, with any luck, downsizing is upon us and public funding will be conceded more thoughtfully in the near future. Particularly encouraging here are Secretary DeVos’s actions against elite institutions like Princeton and Yale that have siphoned off millions of taxpayer dollars to fund the racialized pipe dreams of hyper-virtuous administrations.

At a more tangible level, just as the Wuhan virus has accelerated the effects of the internet on most economic sectors, pulling forward, for example, the value of “stay at home” stocks, it also seems that education has been changed forever and far sooner than most of us thought. Nevertheless, the crisis has also revealed the harsh limitations of online instruction; face-to-face contact is fundamental for effective learning. Moreover, providing fields and fans for college football, addressing the awkwardness of early adulthood, and fulfilling the desire of parents to remove high-school graduates from their homes are economic and cultural imperatives that mitigate against the demise of college. Giancarlo Ibargüen, a former colleague of mine at Universidad Francisco Marroquín, used to say that, in time, the internet would make it possible to reduce the idyllic in situ academic experience from four years to two. I personally think it’s quite plausible to use great books to teach the essence of the humanities in two summers. Whatever the outcome, as we near the high tide of radical leftism in education, perhaps we have a chance to renovate a more balanced arena by filling some of the vacuum with more productive thinking.

But free-thinking patriots must not counter indoctrination with indoctrination. We should fight openly for ways to publicly examine and highlight the contrasts among authors like Rousseau, Burke, Madison, Wollstonecraft, Tocqueville, Poe, Marx, Douglass, Freud, Kelsen, Schmitt, Orwell, Beauvoir, Lévi-Strauss, Girard, and Foucault. This ought to be done while teaching analytical writing on college campuses, that is, in the company of college students and within earshot of other college professors. Think-tanks, business schools, talk radio, and churches made sense as ideological incubators during the Cold War, but the destruction of private property and the assault on freedom of conscience currently advocated by so many professors and students evidently does not find sufficient antidotes in fields like accounting, journalism, and theology. Moreover, the experience of exploring big ideas is exciting enough such that only fools would leave the liberal arts to the radical left.

When the natural commercial pragmatism of the political right rejects the need for participation in and maintenance of higher education, it betrays its responsibility to protect essential American institutions and makes future attempts to do so more difficult. This puts at risk the atmosphere conducive to the creation of wealth and the preservation of liberty. Pardon the quixotic metaphor, but for human reason to win out over unreason on occasion—which is all we should really hope for—it must be allowed to engage its rivals directly on a popular field of battle. This struggle must be understood not as a fight to the death but as a game, a serious game, but nonetheless a game, a game with rules.

Johan Huizinga’s nostalgia for the social integration of playful competitions in Homo Ludens (1938) can ring naive next to the horrors of WWI and WWII, but his point was that—in politics as in adolescence—when spoil-sports take their balls and go home, they contribute to both the dissolution of the social fabric and the carnage that often follows. Those who dismiss the utility of engaging in serious play ignore something mysterious and vital that might seem frivolous but is not: “As a sacred activity play naturally contributes to the well-being of the group, but in quite another way and by other means than the acquisition of the necessities of life.” Huizinga had in mind the ominous threat posed by the advocates of nihilism, fascism, and total war in the 1930s, but his advice is equally applicable to those on the modern right who always withdraw to their own private “safe zones” located near ski resorts or volcanos.

P.S.—If you are an academic of any stripe and you agree with me, you might consider signing “An Open Letter on Campus Culture” recently published by The American Mind.

Image: Muyuan Ma, Public Domain


  • Eric-Clifford Graf

    Eric-Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is ANATOMY OF LIBERTY IN DON QUIJOTE DE LA MANCHA (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here:

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