Both ISI and Christopher Olaf Blum, who edited this anthology, deserve our thanks for making available in English the six 19th-century French conservative thinkers whose writings are herein presented. Although these men—François René de Chateaubriand, Louis de Bonald, Joseph de Maistre, Fredéric Le Play, Émile Keller, and René de La Tour du Pin—do not display an equal degree of analytic depth, each should be read for what he had to say about a changing European society that would eventually move toward sexual equality, a centralized administrative state, and consumer capitalism. In The Sociological Tradition and The Social Group in French Thought, Robert Nisbet acknowledges the debt of modern social theorists, including Karl Marx, to those who have been labeled “counterrevolutionaries”—in particular, Maistre, Bonald, La Tour de Pin, and Le Play. Without their essentially Aristotelian emphasis on the social bond and their defense of the inequality rooted in the family and community as natural to the human condition, it would be impossible to understand how real—as opposed to constructivist—societies function. The French protosociologists, in their critical rejection of the Enlightenment, made possible an accurate examination of the preconditions for social life. The chatter manufactured by intellectuals about “human rights” did not faze such traditionalists. Rights, for them, came out of specific traditions and tested social arrangements. At the same time, however, these thinkers considered moral authority to be anchored in the Catholic Church, which they viewed as a source of social order and theological truth.
In his introductory essay, Blum attempts to distinguish what is still relevant about his subjects from what he finds deficient or archaic. Although such an exercise may strike some readers as presumptuous, it may also be necessary to permit a long-dead figure to cast his light on the present age. One draws lessons from Aristotle or from Hobbes not primarily to reconstruct a fourth-century-B.C. polis or a 17th-century European sovereign state but to understand human nature and structures of authority. While these writers’ frame of reference may be focused on their own time, what makes them great is their ability to transcend their age by addressing problems that belong to the human condition. What makes classical conservatives worth studying is their capacity to grasp human weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the context of upholding social authority. Their concern with Original Sin may have less to do with Catholic orthodoxy or Augustinian theology than with their empirical observations about the collapse of long-established authorities. And pointing to revolutionary France or incipient urban capitalism may be less effective as illustrations than what can be found in the urban sewers and alternative lifestyles of late modernity. On such varied subjects as Jacobin politics, intermediate institutions (the defense of which caused the French aristocrat La Tour de Pin to call for a “corporate regime”), and sexual equality, the critical thought of Blum’s subjects seem as relevant today as when it was first penned.
Where Blum goes astray is in moralizing (in his Foreword) about the need for a middle ground between his subjects’ “complete rejection of the modern world” and the impulse to “reject all of counterrevolutionary thought.” We are supposed to embrace simultaneously “what is good in modernity and what is good in counterrevolutionary thought”; “the rejection of unconditional traditionalism and radical constructivism”; “adherence to modern liberty” but reservations about “indeterminate liberty”; “the rejection of the sovereignty of the individual” together with the denial that “human communities have the right to be oppressive.” How this “conservative liberalism,” once put into practice, would operate is not made clear, though two observations may be in order. We live with the historical hand that we are dealt. No matter which conservative and modern ideas we include in our personalized value-package, we do not act as autonomous individuals. We belong to historical processes that will not likely be changed by our efforts to mix Maistre with John Stuart Mill, or Bonald with “compassionate conservatism.” Indeed, this mixing that Blum prescribes is characteristic of what used to pass for American “conservatism,” before the neoconservatives closed down the show by imposing democratic centralism. We are placed before an ideological smorgasbord, into which individuals in search of “values” can dig their imaginations. A perception I owe to Tom Fleming is that the postwar conservative movement has been, for the most part, an unconservative enterprise that appeals to posturing individuals. These postwar American “conservatives” could not persuasively defend, even if they wanted to, an ordered society: Not only did they arrive too late, but, assuming that they got what they thought they wanted, they might be horrified by the result.
Note that I am not claiming that classical conservatism, and its unqualified hatred of the French Revolution, is the only sound political tradition. Bourgeois liberalism seems equally worthy of defense. What I am trying to explain is why American conservatism has come to such a pass that Jonah Goldberg, writing in National Review, can tell us, with a straight face, that Maistre was a leftist because, unlike American conservatives, he did not believe in human rights. Such a misunderstanding can only have occurred because our misnamed “conservative movement” has not, for decades, had much to do with conservatism. It has not defended, except indirectly or as an individual choice, the kind of authoritarian, sexist, and kin-based society that European traditionalists had associated with a sound communal life.
What the counterrevolutionaries teach better than most other critics is the process into which we have been thrust. Their attacks on rationalism in politics, the legitimating of equality between the sexes, and democratic centralism were prescient, even if the solutions they offered were either impractical or worked badly. While Blum complains about the “moral defects” of the Franco regime’s attempt to apply Catholic counterrevolutionary principles, the real question is whether such principles have any further utility. General Franco did bring several decades of peace to his country; he also, however, helped lead it toward the yuppie, socialist, postbourgeois society that it became after his death in 1973. Perhaps he had no choice—but that, too, proves my point. Blum’s subjects can show us about how we got to where we are. They cannot, how-ever, assist us in bringing back lost powers and dominations.
[Critics of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolutionary Tradition, edited by Christopher Olaf Blum (Wilmington: ISI Books) 409 pp., $18.00]
Paul Gottfried is editor in chief of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is also the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years, a Guggenheim recipient, and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.