Some Themes in Palaeoconservative Thought
In subsequent chapters I will take up, one by one, some of the main principles and arguments of palaeoconservatism, but in concluding this preface I should, if only to entice readers to continue, sketch out some of the principle themes to be found in palaeoconservative writers.
1) Objective Anthropology.
Any genuine palaeoconservative has a keen eye and a hard head. He is an observer of human nature, whether he has studied the subject scientifically or not. He knows that man is a big-brained ape, and, if he is a Christian or a Platonist, he believes that man, however improbable it seems from his history, also has a soul with a knowledge of good and evil and a capacity for eternal life. He begins with the way things are and have always been, not with the way things ought to be, and when he reads Rousseau's famous sentence, "Let us begin by setting aside the facts," he is ready to throw the book away—as he ought to unless he is a student of intellectual pathology.
Don't try to tell a palaeoconservative that man is by nature good or peaceful or that he lacks an appetite for power, and don't try to convince him that men and women have identical aptitudes. His response will be Sergeant Joe Friday's signature phrase on Dragnet, "Just the facts, ma'am." He may be a pious Christian or a mystical philosopher, but the palaeoconservative takes the facts of human nature as he finds them. I spent two decades at least studying genetics, anthropology, neurophysiology, and sociobiology in order to provide scientific corroboration of what everyone knew, once upon a time, if only from proverbs and fairly tales. Molnar, reading the early chapters of my first book, grew impatient. Do you really have to have all these footnotes to prove that men and women are different? Thomas did not need such evidence, but most people today require at least the veneer of scientific evidence.
Some palaeoconservatives may fall occasionally into the trap of scientific materialism or the simplistic thinking that reduces every human phenomenon to some biological trait we share with baboons, but that is far rarer than the tendency to fall back on a traditional understanding of sex roles, human society, and the fallibilities of human nature. In general then, palaeoconservatives, faced with revolutionary claims about reinventing marriage and the family or eliminating distinctions of class and wealth, will be extremely skeptical. Whether their skepticism is derived from scientific study or from religious tradition, they are not easily taken in by the ideological rhetoric of Marxists, feminists, or Jingoists.
2 The Machiavellian Approach. One of the greatest contributions to American conservative thought was James Burnham's book The Machiavellians. It had a profound influence on Burnhams's most important student, Samuel T. Francis. Machiavelli, particularly in his Commentaries on the Decades of Titus Livius, offered significant insights into the nature of power and the difficulty of acquiring or maintaining political liberty. This method of analysis was extended and deepened by Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, the German-turned-Italian Roberto Michels, and the French Syndicalist Georges Sore--among others, including Sam Francis and Burnham himself.
What the Machiavellians have taught us to see is the significance of elite classes. According to Michels' "Iron Law of Oligarchy," there is only one form of government, namely, oligarchy. A monarch depends on an aristocracy to carry out his will and support his authority, while so-called democracies cannot be governed in any practical sense either by the people as a whole or by their elected representatives, unless the representative body is fairly small, coherent, and empowered for decades, in which case it forms an oligarchy.
Machiavellians are not necessarily cynical power-seekers; on the contrary, they typically believe in republican government and cherish political liberty, but they refuse to be taken in by surface illusions or rhetoric about democracy, equality, and human rights. While on the surface, political debates may seem like conflicts between angels and demons or an argument between two sorts of idealists, the reality is generally more sordid. Advocates of women's rights may really want to make them sexual slaves or ill-paid laborers; champions of democracy and liberty may be scheming to acquire a totalitarian power that they will claim to be based on the will of the people.
When James Henry Hammond was defending slavery in the US Senate a northern opponent boasted that in the North they had eliminated slavery. "Yes," retorted Hammond, "the name but not the thing." Hammond was, obviously, defending an economic system on which he had grown very rich, but my point is not to defend or excuse slavery but to point to a reality that my friend Eugene Genovese so brilliantly revealed in books like Roll, Jordan Roll: the World the Slaves Made, and in his subsequent investigations into the mind of antebellum slave-holders. Genovese was, in those days, a Machiavellian Marxist who viewed both sets of arguments, for and against slavery, as so much ideological posturing to defend two sets of regional class interests, those of Southern slaveholders and those of Northern capitalists and industrialists.
Inevitably, those who have looked with jaundiced eyes at the reality of minority rights movements, as Sam Francis did, have been condemned as bigots. Perhaps some of them were or are, but that is hardly the point. What is most deeply offensive in palaeoconservative thought is not the failure to celebrate the empowerment of minorities but the refusal to admire the emperor's new clothes and the insistence that while leftist politicians may have changed the names, political power still rests on the pursuit of power and the exploitation of the weak. They have learned from the ancients, from Herodotus and Aristotle, that it is the mark of a tyrant to elevate the poor and the weak as part of their project of disempowering their only real rivals, people of high social status, ability, or integrity.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.