by Daniel A. Kaufman
It is to be counted as a blessing that two of our most fundamental political terms, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, wear their meanings on their sleeves, if only because, as George Orwell has observed, confusion in language is typically accompanied by a corresponding disarray in thought. (1) We must deem it somewhat of a scandal, then, that in spite of our good fortune in possessing a relatively transparent political terminology, our understanding of these two basic political orientations is hopelessly muddled.
It need hardly be pointed out that at the heart of conservatism is the desire to conserve, but the question immediately arises as to the object of that desired conservation. What, exactly, does the conservative wish to safeguard? If the Republican party is the current manifestation of American conservatism, as is commonly believed, then one might think that what conservatives wish to preserve is the right to unlimited private property and wealth, unregulated commerce, and the lowest possible prices for goods and services. Stripped of its economic focus, what this comes down to is the right to do what one likes, unobstructed by either regulation or law. If we fix our attention on the other great wing of the Republican party, however, we might conclude that conservatism stands for the absolute preservation of the values of the past; that it entails social and cultural rigidity. On this view, the aim of politics is to render history immobile, as if to suspend it in amber; to “…stand athwart history shouting Stop…,” as William F. Buckley, Jr. so memorably put it, on the occasion of the launching of his magazine, National Review, in 1952.
The mutual inconsistency of these versions of Republicanism is obvious, and it is a testament to the effectiveness of the national Republican political machine and its agents in the talking classes, that they have managed to convince the local partisans of each stripe that they share a common conservatism. This carefully crafted aura of sympathy is an illusion. The laissez-faire attitudes of the first wing are hardly conducive to the preservation of the beliefs and practices of the past sought by the second, because the profit-motive, when raised to the level of a fundamental value, is nothing more than hedonism, which assigns no value to permanence, but only to the satisfaction of one’s desires, which, more often than not, are fickle. Conversely, the social and moral conservation sought by the second wing may require the imposition of traditional values on the unwilling, which tramples upon the individualist prerogatives cherished by the first. My aim in contrasting these two species of Republicanism, however, is not to uncover their mutual inconsistency, but to point out that neither is conservative.
The laissez-faire attitudes characteristic of the first wing, far from being conservative, are in fact liberal. More precisely, they represent a deformation of liberalism, sometimes referred to as ‘libertarianism’; a deformation, because it selects just one of the many facets that make up the liberal conception of happiness and raises it to the level of a fundamental, exclusive value. Where a true liberal like John Stuart Mill believes that the pleasures that comprise happiness are many in number and complex in character, the libertarian holds a simplified, reductive conception of value which, when stripped of the kind of ennobling pretensions bestowed upon it by apologists like Ayn Rand, is unappealingly egoistic. (2) The liberal believes that the aim of politics is to protect the individual’s capacity to pursue happiness, where ‘happiness’ is understood in such a way that it has both breadth and depth, but the libertarian stands on the much thinner idea that the purpose of politics is to facilitate his own quest for gratification.
If the libertarian cares too little about the past, the reactionary cares about it too much and in the wrong way. While the conservative certainly looks to history and tradition as important authorities, he does not do so to the exclusion of rational criticism. The conservative is guided by his history and traditions, not ruled by them, and he believes that change is necessary in order to keep civilization not only alive but healthy. Peter Vierick observed that “the conservative conserves discriminately, the reactionary indiscriminately,” but I would take the point a step further: in the reactionary’s universe, there is nothing to conserve, for histories and traditions are organic, living things and must perish, when cut off from the stream of life. (3)
Contempt for novelty is not inherent to the conservative sensibility. In fact, some of the most distinguished conservative thinkers of the last hundred years have been modernists, the most prominent example of which, of course, is T.S. Eliot, who in addition to having been one of the twentieth century’s finest conservative political writers, as evinced in The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), was also its greatest modernist poet and literary critic. In defining ‘culture’, Eliot wrote that it must have “organic (not merely planned, but growing) structure,” which suggests that devotion to the past and to tradition is only healthy when part of an active engagement with the present and future and never when alienated from them. (4) As Roger Scruton put it, “to belong to a tradition is also to make that tradition; to be part of history is to have created history,” and I would argue that this kind of willingness to be an active participant in modern life is an important mark of the true conservative; one that effectively serves to distinguish him from the reactionary, whose disposition is essentially parochial and fogeyish. (5)
When we treat the beliefs and practices of our ancestors as part of a living inheritance — when they are a part of our present and future, as well as our past — they play an essential role in conservative thought and life, as traditions that are crucial to the development of wisdom. This is G.K. Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead,” which is based upon our refusal, as Chesterton put it, “to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” “Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom,” he wrote, but “tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father,” and it is in this capacity as some of our greatest teachers that our history and traditions are rightly venerated. (6) But when we enshrine the past, as the reactionary does, it is left dead, like a tree in a petrified forest, and is thereby rendered useless to contemporary thought and life. In the hands of the reactionary, history is turned from a living thing into a statue, the most terrible consequence of which is that our primary source of wisdom is lost. To experience one’s life as vitally connected to the lives of one’s predecessors is a necessary condition of wisdom, but ancestor-worship is nothing more than an exercise in blind obedience and an act of idolatry, rather than of piety.
Speaking of the reactionism of what was then a new political Right, Viereck observed that “[t]he main defect of the new conservatism…is its rootless nostalgia for roots…” It is a philosophy of yearning, “…based on roots either never existent or no longer existent,” and in this sense, political reactionism is very much a sibling to religious fundamentalism, which looks back to an original ur-faith that is ahistorical and therefore, lifeless, but which is nonetheless supposed to be total in its authority. (7) And though this sort of nostalgia may have, as Viereck indicates, a “high literary value,” expressing itself, as it tends to do, in the form of fiery polemics and heartfelt regrets, it engenders an ugly authoritarianism in politics, for while traditions and customs govern over those who inherit them in a way that is largely habitual and unconscious, the beliefs and practices of a disconnected, enshrined past can only govern when explicitly embraced or forcibly imposed.
One of the reasons that we are confused about conservatism is that we tend to think of it as a mirror-image of liberalism. Since liberalism has a creed — one that can be formulated with some precision — it is tempting to think that conservatism must have a creed too, if only so that it may serve as a counterpart to liberalism. To think this, however, is a mistake, for while liberalism and conservatism are similar, in the sense that they are both political orientations, they are fundamentally dissimilar, in at least one respect: there is such a thing as a liberal doctrine, but no such thing as a conservative one. To possess a doctrine means to be loyal to and to advocate principles, which mean the same thing to every adherent. A truly conservative politics, however, is always bound to the particular context of the adherent and thus, must resist formulation in terms of general principles or doctrines.
The real counterparts to conservatism are progressivism and reactionism, for unlike liberalism, conservatism, progressivism, and reactionism are political modes rather than ideologies. After all, what counts as progress or intransigence is always going to be particular to one’s circumstances and never will transcend them. Indeed, one can arrange these political modes along a spectrum, in which the central point of contention is the merit of establishment versus that of newness. The reactionary believes that all established things are good and that anything new is bad. The progressive, conversely, is of the opinion that everything new is good and anything that is established is bad. The conservative, who stands between these two poles, thinks that while the fact of establishment provides a presumption in favor of a particular belief or practice, it is not conclusive evidence that a belief or practice should be retained. The conservative thinks that the burden of proof lies with the advocate of change, but he also recognizes that there will be times when that burden is successfully met. If one constructs a parallel spectrum describing substantive political ideologies rather than modes, it will consist of liberalism on one side and collectivism on the other, the relevant point of contention being the extent to which the individual or the social group is taken to be axiologically and politically fundamental, with all that follows from this, with respect to the merits or demerits of limited government and statism.
An indication that conservatism and liberalism occupy different political spectra is that the political ideology that the conservative seeks to safeguard may be, in fact, liberal. Examples of this kind of conservative liberalism can be found in the political philosophies of, among others, David Hume, Edmund Burke, the already-mentioned Peter Viereck, and Michael Oakeshott. The widespread sympathy for a number of liberal values that one finds amongst conservatives today, especially those values having to do with the sovereignty of the individual, vis à vis the state, began in earnest in the middle of the nineteenth century, which saw the start of what would be an increasing domination of the political Left by collectivist ideas. (8)
Another indication that conservatism is a political mode, while liberalism is a political ideology, is that liberalism means the same thing, wherever and whenever one finds oneself, but what it means to be conservative changes entirely, when one turns one’s attention from one place to another or from one point in history to another. The liberal, Chinese university student shares with the average liberal Englishman a common value system concerning the individual and his happiness, as well as a commitment to a common set of principles, doctrines, and institutional arrangements, all of which, when taken together, constitute political liberalism. What’s more, neither the Englishman nor the Chinese would find that his liberalism differs substantively from that of his predecessors. Indeed, one of the things that is so remarkable about liberalism, is the extent to which its founding documents, though centuries old, retain their pertinence; how (style aside) works like John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government and “A Letter Concerning Toleration” and John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” read as if they were written not only for a contemporary audience, but for an international one. But, while it is perfectly coherent to speak of conservatism in China and conservatism in England, one would be hard-pressed to articulate any substantial political doctrines or commitments that these conservatisms hold in common. To talk about the conservative member of the Chinese government and the conservative English MP is to talk about entirely different sorts of people, and unlike the founding documents of classical liberalism, the political works of Edmund Burke, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Benjamin Disraeli — the English-speaking world’s most important modern conservative thinkers — are not easily conveyed, beyond the confines of Western culture and even perhaps, Anglophone culture.
- George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” in George Orwell: Essays, John Carey, ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002 ), p. 954.
- Mill, in responding to his critics, says that his is an Epicurean version of hedonism, one that maintains that a plurality of higher pleasures — those associated with the intellect, taste, and the higher sentiments — are constitutive of human happiness. See John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1979), pp. 7-8.
- Peter Viereck, Conservatism Revisited, Revised Edition (New York: The Free Press, 1962), p. 32.
- T.S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), reprinted in Christianity and Culture (New York: Harcourt Inc., 1976), p. 87.
- Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism (London: Penguin Books, 1980), p.41.
- G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Saint Ignatius Press, 1908), p. 53.
- Viereck, Conservatism Revisited, p. 124.
- For more on the wholesale adoption by conservatives of many of the ideas of classical liberalism, see Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (1953), 7th Revised Edition (Washington: D.C., Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1986), pp. 298-303.