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Back to the Stone Age: a Primer for Palaeoconservatives 1

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By:Thomas Fleming | September 26, 2012

 

Chapter One: Some Basic Concepts, Part One

I have never been very good with dates, but it was some time in the mid 1980's.  Paul Gottfried, who was teaching at Rockford College, had come to my office, and we were discussing, as was our wont, the sad state of conservatism.  (I do not recall if it was before or after we began collaborating on The Conservative Movement).

 

My view was that Reagan's victory had insured the elimination of every argument or policy based on conservative principle.  Out of power, conservatives had mounted an effective, albeit limited critique of the New Deal regime that had been in place since the 1930's, but once in power they had joined the ranks of the enemy.  Their defection was in part an illustration of Stan Evans' Law, that whenever one of our guys gets into a position where he can do some good, he becomes one of theirs, though Stan's law implied some measure of principled resistance, whereas all Paul and I could see was a joyful surrender, on the part of Washington conservatives, to the least little temptation.

Paul's typical conversation gambit in those days was to begin every paragraph with, "I am more conservative than you are because…"  I occasionally played along, though, in truth, I never cared much for the subject, partly because it was never clear to me what people meant when they used the word conservative.  Back in the 1930's and 1940's, "Conservative" had been used as a term of abuse for people who supported the status quo, generally regarded as the rule of the wealthy and powerful.  It was also used occasionally as an insulting synonym for the timid or over-cautious.  Bill Buckley and his friends had cobbled together a pragmatic ideology they called "fusionism"—equal parts classical liberalism and respect for order and tradition--but I have run into very few people (Donald Devine, most prominently) who believed in it.

The main problem with fusionism was that it is based on a fundamental incoherence that reflects the disparate origins and sources of American (and English) conservatism.  The adjective "conservative" implies an attachment to the existing status quo and an antipathy to change.  That is why one could speak, in the Brezhnev years, of the conservative hard-liners in the Kremlin.  Buckley and his friends were certainly conservative in this sense, opposing, as they certainly did, both revolutionary communism and democratic socialism.  Buckley declared that the mission of his magazine was to stand "athwart history yelling stop."  In every generation, then, conservatives have tried to slow the pace of revolutionary change without necessarily mounting a principled opposition to the Revolution itself.

In the late 18th and early 19th century, English Tories were primarily eager to stop the progress of the political and social movements spawned by the French Revolution.  These movements were aimed at eliminating or at least emasculating monarchy, aristocracy, and the entrenched interests of established churches.

Liberals were progressive, almost by definition, and thus they had to be "modern."  It is often forgotten that the word modern, derived from Latin modus, means basically fashionable.  Liberals and leftists had always be rushing to keep in fashion, while a conservative, by contrast, was defined as a defender of the old regime.  He was a lover of the feudal order and antiquated cultural traditions.  He was the pillar of the old social order and of all that Edmund Burke referred to as "the unbought grace of life" and what T.S. Eliot meant, a hundred years later, when he celebrated "the permanent things."

In the course of the 19th century, however, another revolutionary movement, not unrelated to the French Revolution, did succeed, and that was Classical Liberalism.  Classical Liberals were not necessarily opposed to monarchy, aristocracy, and the Church per se, but in their drive to liberate individuals they inevitably tended to undermine any institution that impeded an individual's progress.

By the dawning of the 20th century, the old liberalism had done its work all too well:  Kings were impotent, aristocrats were marginalized, the Church was reduced to window dressing, and even the heads of families were losing some of their authority over wives and children.  The big winners were the business classes, the bourgeoisie, the capitalists.  The reaction of the working classes had been predicted from the beginning.  Liberated from their attachment to the land, the king, and the church, they demanded political equality with the rich, whom they regarded as the new aristocracy.  By the end of World War I, liberalism was in a shambles, in the process of being replaced by one or another form of socialism.

National Review's historical conservatism, then, was really a defense of the revolution that had transformed the world by breaking down the old order and clearing the way for socialist revolution, violent in the case of Russia, democratic and gradualist in most of Europe and the United States.  By the end of World War II, socialism was so in vogue that it could now be called liberalism, which is why conservatives attack the leaders of the Democratic Party as "liberals" when they are in fact socialists.  Buckley knew this very well, and many times in his career he declared that he and his friends were true liberals.

Buckley was sincerely conservative in more conventional senses.  He loved classical music and learned to play the music of Bach on the harpsichord.  He respected, without necessarily obeying, the Catholic Church, and he often expressed his admiration of traditional literature, especially in its contemporary manifestations.  He loved the novels of Evelyn Waugh, admired T.S. Eliot's social and cultural criticism, and promoted conservative novelists like James Gould Cozzens.  Unfortunately, at the very center of Buckley's mind and National Review's editorial policy, the conflict raged between his conservative instincts and the revolutionary spirit of liberalism and individualism that now animates conservative talk radio.

Paul was more or less a fusionist and, strange to say, an admirer of Mr. Buckley, at least in his pre-1980's incarnation: He celebrated bourgeois liberalism but, as a Germanophile, he also thought a good deal of social stability and its foundations—authority, hierarchy, and tradition.  There was nothing wrong in anything he admired, though I did rather feel it fell short of a coherent point of view.

I always enjoyed our chats about the failure of the conservative movement.  Paul's bête noire—one he shared with our friend Peter Stanlis—was the perfidious neoconservatives.  I shared his distaste for most of them, but my view came closer to contempt than hostility.  Of the movement's two most prominent leaders, one was a bright man and clever operator, whose education was at best rudimentary and range of intellectual interests pedestrian if not primitive, while the other was a student of 20th century literature, a subject that is not exactly a solid intellectual formation.  The lesser lights of the movement were, for the most part, not worth the effort it takes to hate someone.

There were, nonetheless, sound intellectuals and writers associated with or admired by the neocons.  I came to know their hero Edward Shils, a deeply learned man of sound wisdom.  His friend Joseph Epstein was and is one of the best essayists in America.  Irving Louis Horowitz, who published my first book, was a widely read social and political analyst who did a great deal of good for traditional conservatives.  So, "neoconservative," while useful as a term of abuse for the schemers who seduced the all-too seducible conservatives, is inappropriate as an ideological label.  Ed Shils, though no ideologue, was deeply conservative in many of his instincts and more or less loathed the whole gang including his students. I know that because he told me so at dinner, in a series of scathing responses to my queries about this or that leading light of the movement.

To be continued

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