You are here

Lewis Corey to Peter Viereck, 1951

Good luck pinning down Lewis Corey (1992-1953), former Professor of Political Economy and possibly the most interesting person ever to work at Antioch College. When he joined the faculty in the 1940s, he had already founded three magazines, published ten books, and had assumed at least four pseudonyms. As a founder of the American Communist Party, he knew John Reed, worked with Lenin and Trotsky, became the nation’s leading Marxist theoretician and then its leading critic. Alternatively liberal and conservative (and a radical all the while), he might appear on paper as monumentally inconsistent and perhaps even a poseur (to borrow from his letter reprinted below), but lay the facts of his life out together and it all seems to make a certain evolutionary sense, and his becomes a genuinely American story of self-discovery and self-reliance. To learn more about this profoundly fascinating figure, A Dreamer's Paradise Lost: Louis C. Fraina/Lewis Corey (1892-1953) and the Decline of Radicalism in the United States by Paul Buhle is about as good as it gets.

Though known primarily for works on economics, politics, and public policy, Corey’s greatest interests were art, culture and literature. One of his early successes as a writer came as editor of Modern Dance, a magazine published by dance legend Isadora Duncan, a collaboration he may have considered as his proudest achievement. Here he corresponds on all these subjects and much more with another pioneering American intellectual, poetand historian Peter Viereck (1916-2006). Then a professor at Mount Holyoke College, Viereck is often described as “the first conservative,” though the term has come to mean something dramatically different than it did as he saw it. In his landmark book The Unadjusted Man from 1949, Viereck said, “The conservative sees the inner unremovable nature of man as the ultimate source of evil; sees man's social task as coming to terms with a world in which evil is perpetual and in which justice and compassion will both be perpetually necessary. His tools for this task are the maintenance of ethical restraints inside the individual and the maintenance of unbroken, continuous social patterns inside the given culture as a whole." Based on this statement alone, Viereck’s outlook hardly resembles conservatism as we know it in the 21st century.

Antiochiana has three of Corey’s letters to Viereck, all written after he had left Antioch College to take a new position as a writer for the Amalgamated Meat Cutters union. This, the earliest of the three, reveals most clearly the way Corey’s mind worked, which is to say at breakneck speed as evidenced by the many typographical errors that accompany even more topics discussed. “Megapolitcs,” for instance, a concept discussed early on, is actually “metapolitcs,” the title of one of Viereck’s more important books, and one of ten by him on the shelves of Olive Kettering Library. Corey seems to see enemies and provocateurs behind every corner, understandable given his background in radical political circles and his direct experiences of harassment by agents foreign and domestic and with the factions of the Socialist Party in general and Bolshevik leadership in particular.

 

4980 Marine Drive

Chicago 40, Ill

 

August 3, 1951

Dear Peter Vierick:

                  Many thanks for writing me. I was delighted to hear from you. My answer is late because I’ve been moving to Chicago and breaking in a new job.

                  Before going on to your Metternich-conservative thesis, let me say that I’ve been reading your poems and your articles about poetry. I was thrilled by your “third force” idea of poetry, which you define as a return to ethical responsibility, the communication of emotions and ideas, of the good, the true, the beautiful. I was in agreement of your criticism of giving the Bollingen prize to Ezra Pound, not because of his “politics” but because of his violation and rejection of the moral heritage of human civilization.

                  I first became interested in your writings because of the ideas in Megapolitics, especially the chapters on Wagner and Wagnerism as a fountainhead of Hitlerism. I’m now working on an article on the significance of the humanist Verdi and the totalitarian Wagner in the struggle for the soul of man.)

                  Your poems have interested me particularly because I think their temper expresses the spirit of revolts now growing among writers against the artistic elites, the esthetes and poseurs, the men and women who degrade humanity as they poject into art their own frustrations and limitations, their obscurely dark but evil impulses and totalitarian strivings. (It’s significant that virtually all of the “new critics” people are totalitarian in varying ways.) It is one thing for the artist to say, I have a right to express myself, and they do have the right, but we also have the right to disagree, Moreover, when these anti-humanist writers become a coterie and then try to use influence, intrigue and power to create a movement to fashion the arts in their distorted images – and to become a factor in developing the horrors of fascism, or communism, then they must be fought uncompromisingly to save the soul of man.

                  And so, this spirit of revolt against the dark ones by newer writers, of which you are becoming a symbol, overjoys me. It appears not only in your poems and others, but also in the short story. I was impressed by the fact that, just before I got your reprints, I read Martha Foley’s preface to her 1951 anthology of stories, in which she writes of a trend in the short story toward a return to moral values, to integrity, human striving and achievement, to man overcoming adversity instead of being overcome by it and whining over it. I think she calls the new mood “Victorian.” (I wholly disagree with your jibes about Victorianism. What is need here is, I think the approach you make to Metternich, and the results I suspect would be much richer. Has the revolt against Victorianism produced any writer of the stature of, say, Dickens and Hardy, and, yes, of Swinburne? I think we are experiencing a “Victorian revival,” not its stuffiness but its assertion of human dignity and striving, of moral values on a higher level, with no prudery or hypocrisy and greater freedom.)

                  As I write this idea just popped up in my skull: Why shouldn’t you and a number of people who think like you start a little magazine to express the new mood, both in poetry and fiction and in articles against the demoniac totalitarian savagery of our times, and what to do about it? Only material expressing the new mood should be printed, hence the magazine need not be large – say, 64 pages Harpers size. It might develop great significance. I’d be willing to make a financial contribution and help in any other way.

                  Well, now, to come to your Metternich-conservative thesis. You were not altogether right in your inscription, “something to disagree with perhaps.” For I find myself in agreement with your philosophy; the disagreements are on nuances of approach and emphasis.

                  As I understand you, your basic argument is against violent precipitate social change; you insist that “conservatism” has an important social, cultural, and moral function to perform. I agree. But I can’t altogether go along with you because I find your approach a bit too abstractly historical. Moreover, I’m inclined to disagree with your emphasis on the word “conservative” (maybe – I’m playing with words, but I doubt it). For conservatism is always, in varying degrees, depending on time and place, a mixture of good and bad values. And the values which you and I defend arose, primarily, arose out of “radical” struggles against “conservatism” – including the values that came from Jesus.

                  Yet your essential point impresses me as sound and important. I prefer to formulate it, as I have in some of my writings, as a need for unity of the conservative and the radical approach to social change (including the cultural and moral). For the radical who wants change for humanity’s good, not for his own ego and power, must build upon the values (and institutions) that are worth cherishing in our civilization; hence the radical must want to conserve these values while he builds anew. The conservative who wants to defend those values for humanity’s good, not to protect vested interests of his position and power, must understand that those values are imperfectly realized in our civilization, whithin which are dark forces that work against them; so that, to conserve the values that should be conserved, the conservative must be a radical and work for change that will broaden, deepen, and strengthen those values.

                  To achieve this radical-and-conservative unity – to rally men of good will for action across class lines – we need to express your attitude (which, if I understand you, is mine also) in a social philosophy and a program of action for social, cultural and moral change against totalitarian barbarism from “right” and “left” – especially, at this moment, against Soviet communism. The philosophy and program must appeal to all men of good will in whatever class-functional group they are – from farmers and workers to businessmen, technical-managerial employes and professionals, the new middle class. This is what I call “liberal socialism.” (the fullest development of these ideas is in my book , “The Unfinished Task,” published in 1942.

                  I agree with you about where the 19th century went wrong. But while I agree in general with your interpretation of Metternich (why, however, tie up your thesis with him? – it tends to begt arguments about M and history, and I think, opens your philosophy and attitude up to misunderstanding) I don’t believe that Metternich’s policy would have “saved” Europe, solved the problems whose lack of solution brought totalitarianism. For Metternich, despite his “liberalism,” was one of the feudal-monarchical elements which were primarily responsible for Europe’s undoing. At best M’s policy would have realized itself as benevolent feudal-aristocratic-monarchical-despotism – which was neither desirable nor feasible.

                  It seems to me that the basic reason why 19th century Europe went wrong was the failure of the democratic revolution. In Frnce the “great revolution” ended in Napoleon I, then in monarchical restoration, then in Napoleon III and the Paris Commune. In Austria and Germany the democratic revolution never fully got going, it was easily crushed in 1848; German national unity was achieved by Prussia’s “blood and iron” under an imperial government whose semi-absolutism and mercantilism-for-power allied themselves with capitalist imperialism. The Balkns (except Greece) were held down by the Turks; feudal aristocracy, with a thin admixture of capitalism and a still thinner formal democracy, prevailed in Eastern Europe and, especially, in Russia. Communist and Nazi totalitarianism arose in those countries which never experienced democratic revolutions, where feudal hangovers (plus, of course, especially in Germany, factors developed by capitalist industrialism) still persisted.

                  Your “conservative” thesis finds, I think, is best expression in practice in England. But observe that England had a liberal revolution in the 1640’s at a time when absolute monarchy and mercantilism were being consolidated in Europe (except Scandinavia and Holland), and, to be more specific, with Russian Czarism clinging a feudal __ slave nature made it worse than the European variety, and with German progress being thrown back by the thirty years’ war (which ended in the 1640’s) and Prussian military ascendancy; after Cromwell came the compromise of 1688 and then another series of compromises from the Reform of 1832 to Laborism today.

                  As a result of the failure of democratic revolution in Europe the struggle for democracy was taken up by Marxist socialism, which ended in socialist futility and in Bolshevik-communist totalitarianism. But if democratic revolution had done its job in Europe, as it did in England (and the USA) Marxist socialism would never have taken over.

                  It is important that virtually all the critics of capitalism in the 19th century and after, whether “right” or “left”, were totalitarian – from de Maistre and Carlyle to the Utopian socialists (one exception) who had the spirit of totalitarian Plato, to Blanqui, Marx, and Bakunin, to Gobineau, Rodbertus (who speaks of the need for “Caesarism”) to Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler, we need a criticism of the critics of capitalis, most of whom were also critics of liberal democracy.

                  Enough! This letter is already too long. I hope you will read as simply hurried notes. Are you ever in New York? I get there frequently, perhaps we might meet for a get-together and talk.

                  With all best wishes, I am

Sincerely yours,

Lewis Corey

P.S. I was interested in your reference to Martinetti’s futurism. It reminds me that back in 1914 I published an article, in the New Review, in which I identified furturism with the glorification of machinery (“things”) and with Italian nationalism-imperialism and its yearning for a “Terza Roma that shall hold the world in awe.”